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The IMA in Egypt, Part 2: Have Gun – Will Travel

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in a new exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

Figure 1. A Bruker Tracer III-V portable XRF spectrometer positioned vertically in a bench top stand alongside a Bruker Alpha FTIR spectrometer. Dr. Smith uses the FTIR to analyze the organic binder in small fragments of paint.

An X-ray gun that is! In a previous post, I described a collaborative project with the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the American Research Center in Egypt that sought to find a better means of excavating, stabilizing, and preserving beautifully-decorated, but incredibly fragile painted funerary artifacts. My role in the 2013 field season was to identify the materials of these coffins, statues, and wooden objects in order to better inform the approaches to their conservation. To do this, I needed to transport several scientific instruments to our field site in Abydos, Egypt. The IMA’s X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer, a.k.a. the X-ray gun, was one of those analytical tools, ideal for determining the elemental composition of the objects’ inorganic components (metals, minerals, stone) and small enough to be easily transported to a dig site lab (see Figure 1).

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

Figure 2. The Abydos dig house wet chemistry laboratory was used to test for proteins and polysaccharides in the paints used to decorate wooden funerary objects.

For the organic components (paint binders, wood, resins, waxes, textiles, glues), a Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer loaned by Bruker Instruments complemented wet chemical tests conducted in our makeshift field lab, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Figure 3. Blue tape solves the persistent problem of loose electrical adapters while a tea kettle and insulated thermos replace a lab hotplate for warming reaction test tubes.

Operating a field lab in the desert requires a good deal of patience and creativity. Daily power outages, loss of the internet, and an omnipresent layer of dust can complicate analyses that would be quick and routine in the IMA’s state-of-the-art laboratories (see Figure 3).  Stay tuned for the final installment describing the results of our research and some future research directions.

Filed under: African Art, Art, Conservation, IMA Staff

 

The IMA in Egypt, Part 1: Science in the Sand

Today’s blogger is Dr. Gregory Dale Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the IMA. Dr. Smith is reporting through a series of blog posts on the IMA’s involvement in a new exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

This spring I was part of a multi-disciplinary team tackling tricky archaeology in Egypt. The University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, under the direction of Egyptologist Dr. Janet Richards, excavates a famous cemetery site there, the Abydos Middle Cemetery (AMC). Abydos, positioned mid-way up the Nile River, was the burial site of Egypt’s earliest kings. Archaeologists commonly encounter beautifully-decorated funerary materials at the site, like the painted wood coffin shown below.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Figure 1. A painted coffin being unearthed at the Abydos Middle Cemetery excavation. Photo, S. Davis, courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Although these artifacts look well preserved, they are anything but! The wood has been attacked by fungi and termites to the point that only a brittle web of debris, insect frass (a.k.a. bug poop), and mud is holding it together. On top of this delicate matrix is an eggshell-thin layer of gesso and paint. How does one excavate and lift these fragile objects without crushing them? Archaeologists and conservators currently use a variety of methods to preserve these artifacts, but none work very well. The goal of this project was to find better approaches that could be used in the harsh desert conditions.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

Figure 2. Dr. Smith descending into a cistern at Sepphoris, Israel.

So why me? To develop new conservation methods, the AMC conservators needed to understand the paints, pigments, and other materials present on the artifacts. Any new conservation treatment they designed would have to be sympathetic to these materials and not cause unexpected harm. Since no artifacts, or even samples of artifacts, are allowed to leave Egypt, the scientist and the necessary equipment would have to travel to Egypt with the project team. As it happens, I have a background in both chemistry and archaeology. While a chemistry graduate student at Duke University, I spent my summers excavating at Sepphoris in Israel’s Galilee region (Figure 2). With my conservation science expertise, the necessary portable instruments, and previous experience in archaeology, I was a natural fit.

ima_egypt_fig3_101513The project team would spend several days in Cairo consulting with local conservators and visiting museums with artifacts similar to those at the field site. Then we were off to Abydos for a week of analysis and conservation trials. Our group, pictured below in front of the modern-day Abydos village, consisted of:

  • AMC/Kelsey Museum conservators Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello
  • Smithsonian Institution conservator Rae Beaubien, a specialist in the excavation of fragile archaeological materials
  • The MFA Boston’s Pamela Hatchfield, who has considerable expertise in the conservation of Egyptian antiquities
  • Dr. Robert Blanchette, professor of plant pathology and specialist in archaeological wood at the University of Minnesota
  • Mycologist Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Azeem, from Egypt’s University of Suez Canal, who has studied the fungi of North Africa

Stay tuned for part two of the story as I discuss working in the field!

 

Filed under: African Art, Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Travel

 

The Importance of the Superficial: Surfaces of Wooden Sculpture from Africa

As part of my work preparing for the reinstallation of the African galleries, I recently finished dusting the objects which are currently on view.  Removing accumulated dust from artworks is essential, and not just because it looks bad.  With time, dust can bond with, and encourage the deterioration of the surface of an artwork.

Dusting provided an opportunity to become acquainted with the wide range of surfaces that can be found on wooden sculpture from Africa. Given all the information one can get from these surfaces, this part of the project has been a visual and art historical education.

Under the dust, the surface observed can be one that the artist created.  Yoruba sculptor Lamidi O. Fakeye, for example, highlighted the wood itself by leaving the surface of his mounted horseman unpainted and unvarnished.

Detail of Mounted Horseman by Lamidi O. Fakeye, which features a bare wooden surface.

This is just one of a wide variety of possible surface finishes the artist could have chosen.  In contrast, this 20th century helmet mask for Bonu Amuen masker features a thick, slightly textured paint layer.

Detail of the painted surface of a 20th century helmet for Bonu Amuen masker.

The forehead of the Deangle mask is covered with layers of ritually applied materials.

For many works, however, the observed surface is the result of the combination of the artist’s activity and the use of the object after it was created.  Substances are often applied to painted wooden sculpture in Africa, however the material used and the reason for its application varies with the culture of origin of the piece.  Because of this variety, materials on the surface of African sculpture can provide information that is valuable for understanding the ways in which people have interacted with it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: African Art, Conservation

 

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