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The IMA in Egypt, Part 3: ‘Wrapping up’ our Mummy Coffin Research

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 an exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World.

Fig. 1.  A portion of a painted headdress from a Late Period wooden coffin. The annotations provide the unique data label, the chemical elements identified by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and the most likely pigment inferred from the elements found.

Fig. 1. A portion of a painted headdress from a Late Period wooden coffin. The annotations provide the unique data label, the chemical elements identified by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and the most likely pigment inferred from the elements found.

A year ago this week, I boarded a plane for Egypt carrying a small “mobile lab” to take part in a collaborative fieldwork project studying ancient wooden funerary objects. As I reported earlier, the goal was to determine better conservation methods for stabilizing these beautiful, but fragile painted artifacts, which include decorated sarcophagi and statues. As the group’s chemist, my job was to use portable analytical instruments to identify the pigments, adhesives, and binding media used in the surface decoration of these deteriorated objects. On this one year anniversary, I wanted to wrap up my blog series by presenting some of our results from this exploratory season in the field at Abydos.

Our analyses showed that the ancient Egyptian artists used natural materials to decorate the tombs of their dead (Fig. 1). The binding agents for their paints included glue made from boiled animal skins and resinous gums exuded from plants. The colorants were also largely natural minerals including white chalk, yellow and red earths, soot black, and the poisonous arsenic containing yellow mineral orpiment. The primary blue pigment, however, was synthetic; Egyptian blue, a copper-containing glass frit was first made in Egypt as early as the 4th Dynasty around 3000 BC. Armed with this information about the paint composition, conservators are able to choose the most appropriate consolidants to stabilize these often disintegrating artifacts.

Fig. 2. A composite “eye” from a Ka statue composed of copper sheet, marble, and obsidian. The left eye is shown in pieces while the right one has been reassembled by conservators.

Fig. 2. A composite “eye” from a Ka statue composed of copper sheet, marble, and obsidian. The left eye is shown in pieces while the right one has been reassembled by conservators.

We also encountered other decorative elements including the inlaid eyes (Fig. 2) from wooden Ka sculptures found in the chapels associated with royal tombs. These are composite structures that include metal eyelids identified as pure copper sheet soldered together with lead and limestone whites of the eyes carved around a central black pupil of imported volcanic obsidian. The black gemstone was held in place with a plug of beeswax. Future work might include using chemical analysis to trace the foreign source of these luxury trade items.

Fig. 3. A display panel from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World showing the Abydos wood project team onsite.

Fig. 3. A display panel from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World showing the Abydos wood project team onsite.

One further outcome of this highly successful exploratory field season is the exhibit Discovery! Excavating the Ancient World at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan.  The work of the conservation team was included in the exhibition’s didactics to show the diversity of disciplines that contribute to our understanding and preservation of archaeological materials (Fig. 3). All of those who were part of this field season are extremely grateful to our home institutions for the latitude to come together to participate in this exciting project, and to the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) who along with the University of Michigan funded the expedition. Aside from being a fascinating study with components of ancient technology, complex biodeterioration, and delicate preservation interventions, our work in Egypt was a lot of fun (Fig.4)!

Fig. 4. Team leader and Kelsey Museum conservator Suzanne Davis shows off the Ka statue inlaid eyes after reassembling the excavated pieces.

Fig. 4. Team leader and Kelsey Museum conservator Suzanne Davis shows off the Ka statue inlaid eyes after reassembling the excavated pieces.

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

 

Getting “To The Point”

What do Brussels and Indianapolis have in common? Belgium spawned several artists who fell under the spell of Georges Seurat, the French artist who invented the technique of Pointillism (also known as Neo-Impressionism) upon seeing the ground-breaking painting “Sunday on the Grande Jatte” (The Art Institute of Chicago) at an exhibition in Brussels in 1886. These artists carried on Seurat’s innovative style, and the IMA is proud to have masterpieces in its collection by several of these Belgian masters as well as our own painting by Seurat and his French and Dutch followers.

Photo by David Miller.

Photo by David Miller.

However, our finest pointillist portraits are not on display now because they have made a trip to Brussels to be included in the IMA organized exhibition To The Point – The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904. Angie Day, Associate Registrar for Exhibitions, and David Miller, Chief Conservator and Senior Conservator of Paintings, also made the trip to Brussels to accompany the IMA paintings and install the exhibition at the ING Cultural Center.

Angie was responsible for managing the arrival of the paintings and works on paper that had been lent to the exhibition from prestigious collections in the US and Europe: including transport, unpacking, safe handling, and installation according to the lenders’ requirements and international

ING lighting designer with IMA’s "Portrait of Père Biart" by Henry van de Velde, 79.320. Photo by David Miller.

ING lighting designer with IMA’s “Portrait of Père Biart” by Henry van de Velde, 79.320. Photo by David Miller.

exhibition standards. David performed detailed condition reporting of each artwork to ensure that they had travelled safely and were stable for exhibition, and monitored that light levels, temperature and humidity settings, and security of the artworks were correct. The IMA team worked with Belgian customs brokers, contract art handlers and conservators, lenders’ couriers, and the ING co-curators over six long days to prepare the exhibition for its gala opening on February 17.

Angie and David will return to Brussels to bring the exhibition to the IMA, where it will open on June 15 as Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904.

Here it will include some fantastic artworks not shown in Belgium, including a Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh – not to be missed!

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions, Guest Bloggers, IMA Staff, Travel

 

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

 

Hotlanta?

Well, here I am in Atlanta at the Perennial Plant Symposium, on the bus waiting to start today’s tours of gardens, growers, and retail establishments. It’s actually been hotter in Indianapolis. The Hort folks left behind have been working like firemen to keep the plants alive.

It’s been a good week. Lots of good lectures. Lots of good gardens.  Lots of good plants. Lots of good people. I will be reporting on some of that later. I ran out of time to do it properly today.

I will mention the world of Echinaceas continues to expand – more sizes, more colors, more trials. These will continue to improve.  Amazing plants are on the way.

The new “it” perennial is probably going to be Kniphofia, the red hot pokers. More colors coming, longer blooming, shorter (not too short please!!!).

A bit of personal news, yours truly is the new Great Lakes Regional Director for the Perennial Plant Association. It was an honor just being nominated. I will try my best.

That’s it for now. Here’s hoping for cooler temps and some rain.

Filed under: Horticulture, Travel

 

A Visit to the Kröller-Müller

On the last day of my two-month experiment in Dutch living, I squeezed in a visit to the vaunted Kröller-Müller Museum and Sculpture Garden near Otterlo, the Netherlands. It had always been on my to-see list because of Claes Oldenburg’s Trowel I (1971-76)—one of his earliest large-scale projects—but I was also curious to think about the sculpture garden in relation to our very own 100 Acres.

The Kröller-Müller is located on about 60 acres, set within De Hoge Veluwe National Park, and visitors can either park their cars nearby and take a brief walk to the museum, or leave their cars in several locations along the park border and pick up a free bike to cycle to the museum. Taking the latter option, I started to think about the art-viewing pilgrimage—whether it’s climbing the steps of a neoclassical art temple, riding in a van across the New Mexico countryside to reach The Lightning Field, or wending your way through the IMA’s formal gardens and crossing the canal into 100 Acres.  Before the art viewing, there is the preparing for the art viewing.  Not a walk for the sake of a walk, but a palate cleanser in anticipation of a specific, intentional sensory experience.

Along this same vein, I recently enjoyed encountering several empty galleries at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. As part of its temporary program during the construction of its new wing, the Stedelijk has reopened its renovated original building with a changing installation of works from their permanent collection. Interspersed between galleries that for the most part contain single artworks, are unlit vacant spaces that are at first curious, and, upon further consideration, revelatory. These spaces were designed in part as a creative solution to the fact that the museum is still under construction—insufficient climate control, the need for light blocks for new media works—but they also provide a fascinating pause between artworks: a breath in the often-overwhelming bam-bam-bam of artworks presented in quick succession. The rooms draw your attention to the building itself—its architecture, its history, its key role in the framing of each work on display.

 

Dan Graham, "Two Adjacent Pavilions," first version 1978, second version 2001.

Most important about the darkened rooms is that they do a fine job of affirming one’s place in the world/city/building/room, urging you to consider your presence as a body in space (phenomenology, if you will). Also very successful at accomplishing this is Dan Graham’s Two Adjacent Pavilions (first version 1978, second version 2001), which is sited near the entrance of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Made of glass and steel, Two Adjacent Pavilions is part architecture, part sculpture, and its reflective surfaces frame and mirror the lush grounds, the more traditional sculpture nearby (Mark Di Suvero’s K-piece, 1972), and also your own encounter with the structure.  Entering the glass cubes (the doors were propped open), I was immediately hurtled into an unstable ground between experiencing the work and being the work. The subject/object relationship was upended marvelously, and I was made acutely aware of my own presence, the proximity of others, and Graham’s expert insistence upon his art’s integration with its context. His art is the context.

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Filed under: Art, Art and Nature Park, Contemporary, IMA Staff, Travel

 

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