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Behind-the-scenes blogging at the Brooklyn Museum
Updated: 3 years 14 weeks ago

The Description de l’Egypte in the Wilbour Library of Egyptology

Fri, 09/05/2008 - 09:07

If you have been following the numerous blogs on this website you are aware that the Brooklyn Museum has organized an exhibition of Egyptian objects entitled To Live Forever which is now on tour. Among the objects in the show is a very special treasure from the Wilbour Library of Egyptology, a volume from the series entitled the “Description de l’Egypte”. Published in the early 19th century, these volumes are the product of Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to Egypt (1798-1801). The purpose of this monumental work, published between 1809 and 1822, was to describe and illustrate antiquities, plants, animals and contemporary life found in Egypt and the resulting volumes are an exquisite snapshot of life in Egypt in the nineteenth century. Here are two images from volume 2 of the folios focused on antiquities which illustrate specific objects as well as sites:

Thebes, Hypogees plate 56

Thebes, Qournah plate 43

It is fitting that a volume of the “Description” is part of an exhibition that reflects the eternal aspect of Egyptian life and certainly the ongoing interest in Egyptology. Throughout the text Egypt is repeatedly described as the birthplace of art and science. In the eyes of the French, successive periods of foreign domination had robbed Egyptian society of its former glory. Napoleon feared that soon nothing would be left and the “Description” was seen as a way of preserving, at least on paper, what could be found in Egypt when he and his troops were there. Although some monuments so beautifully described in the “Description” have not survived, many more have been preserved and restored no small part due to the interest in Egypt generated by the “Description” and similar publications that followed it.

Wikipedia has a good account of the “Description de l’Egypte” or the entire contents may be found here.

Q&A about the Conservation of objects for “To Live Forever”

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 18:20

To Live Forever” is finally up at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and they have done an amazing job posting a wealth of information on their website. The latest bit to go up is a Q&A session about the conservation of objects for the show. A big thanks to Richard McCoy, IMA objects conservator and his interns who came up with some great questions, put my garbled answers into legible form, and added fantastic links to illustrate what I was talking about. Also, thanks to everyone at the IMA who worked so hard to make this show a reality. One venue down, ten to go.

Conservation Treatment of Demetrios Continues

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 14:05

To recap previous blogs, the mummy of Demetrios is wrapped in linen, then the entire surface of the linen is painted with red lead. On top of that are areas of gilded decoration. The next step in preparing Demetrios for exhibition was to check the stability of the surface paint and gilding. Where necessary, this was consolidated using an appropriate adhesive. Next, surface dust was removed with a soft brush into a vacuum on very low suction. Then the surface was cleaned with an appropriate solvent. A small area is cleaned at a time, using cotton swabs. We constantly check the swabs to make sure we are only removing surface dust and grime, and not any of the original material. When necessary, we work with the aid of a microscope, so we can see the effect of our cleaning in greater detail.

during treatment. the area to the right has been cleaned revealing the read lead paint and gilding

For the most part, the linens on Demetrios are in relatively good condition; however, the linens around the feet are unstable. There are large holes on the bottom and proper left side.

the condition of the linens at the feet before treatment


The BM does not have a textile conservator on staff, so we hired a specialist in this area to work with us. (Learn more about hiring a conservator through the American Institute for Conservation.) Kathy first patched the area with a piece of linen held in place with a piece of sheer material called Tetex (an open weave polyester material). While the linen material is very noticeable, it was needed to contain all of the powdering fragments of ancient linen. The Tetex material is very sheer - so you don’t really see it - but also very strong. By using Tetex to secure the linen (she sewed this to the new linen, then wrapped it around the feet and sewed the Tetex to itself) she did not have to sew through the ancient linen material which would cause further damage. Next, she covered the whole foot area with another piece of Tetex, also sewed to itself. Again, this material is strong enough to hold all of the loose linens in place, but sheer enough that you can see the underlying material. When you look at this object on display, it will not be that noticeable unless you are specifically looking for it.

the foot, after treatment

The next step was to create a display board that he could also travel on so that handling would be minimal. How objects are handled plays a huge role in their long-term preservation. A bed of polystyrene balls and polyester batting was sealed within a giant bag, and covered with display fabric. Demetrios was then placed on this. The polystyrene balls conformed to his shape, fully supporting him and helping to absorb any vibration as he travels. The installers can handle Demetrios by the support board rather than having to lift his actual body at each venue. This drastically reduces the possibility of damage to Demetrios. That’s it for the conservation treatment! Demetrios will then get crated by a special art packing company, and head to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Look for him there beginning July 13.

the support board

Demetrios on his support board

Who Was Demetrios and How Old Was He When He Died?

Wed, 06/18/2008 - 11:56

The mummy of Demetrios raises a large number of questions that can only be answered with the help of a team of scholars. Each of the team members brings a particular kind of knowledge to answer these questions. Their specialties include medicine, culture, language, and materials. I want to try to tie together some of the contributions made by all of the team members here.

I chose the mummy of Demetrios to include in the exhibition “To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum” from Brooklyn’s nine human mummies. Demetrios was one of two mummies never unwrapped in modern times, a prime consideration for presenting him to the public in a respectful way. His wrappings were also in better condition than the wrappings of the other candidate, a woman named Thothirdes who is on view in the galleries in Brooklyn. So Demetrios’ mummy could travel more safely than Thothirdes. But Demetrios posed certain problems for me in explaining to visitors who he was.

Demetrios most likely died in the first century of this era (called both A.D. and C.E.) Carbon-14 testing suggests he died in the year 39. He was an Egyptian, but perhaps he had a Greek ethnic background. He lived in the time when Greek was the language of government in Egypt, following Alexander the Great’s conquest about 300 years earlier. He probably was born during the time of Cleopatra the Great and thus witnessed the change of Egypt from an independent Hellenistic kingdom to the property of the Roman Emperor.

Demetrios’ mummy was prepared in the manner called a “red shroud portrait mummy.” This means that over his mummy bandages priests wrapped a linen shroud painted red. In addition he had a portrait in the Greek style placed over his face rather than an Egyptian-style mummy mask. Also, the inscription on the shroud was in Greek rather than Egyptian hieroglyphs as was typical for most of Egyptian history.

The CT scan performed by Dr. Larry Boxt’s team at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York in 2007 revealed some of Demetrios’ medical history. Dr. David Minenberg recognized the gall stone preserved in Demetrios’ gall bladder, a feature of the scan I initially thought was a scarab! Dr. Boxt was the first to suggest that Demetrios had to have died in his 50’s rather than living to the age of 89 as scholars had first suggested in 1911 based on a reading of the inscription. Dr. Boxt based his estimate on the condition of Demetrios’ spine.

Inscription from the Mummy of Demetrius reading

Dr. Boxt’s observation led me to ask Dr. Paul O’Rourke, an expert in both the ancient Egyptian and the ancient Greek languages, to look again at the inscription on Demetrios’ shroud. He explained that the inscription recorded Demetrios’ name followed by a sign that resembles the letter “L.” The “L”-like sign indicated that the following letters should be read as numbers. In this case the first sign intended to represent a number was partially erased. The inscription showed two parallel lines that look like this: ІІ. Originally scholars interpreted these lines as the letter Π meaning “8” with the top missing. The following letter, Θ is complete and slightly raised from the line and means “9.” Together, scholars read his age as 89. But, Dr. O’Rourke pointed out, if the two parallel lines were understood to be the remains of Ν with the diagonal line missing, it would be the Greek writing of “5.” Thus Demetrios’ age could correctly be understood as 59, bringing it into line with Dr. Boxt’s observations of the spine. Knowledge of the aging of the spine helped determine how to restore the Greek inscription properly!

If you want to see Demetrios’ spine and his other bones for yourself, look at:

These web pages were prepared by Ed Bachta at the Indianapolis Museum of Art as part of the “To Live Forever” website. You can see Demetrios himself in Indianapolis beginning Saturday, July 12, 2008. Check with the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the details.

Conservation Treatment of Demetrios Begins

Tue, 06/10/2008 - 14:37

I’m back from leave, and during the last several months we’ve been busily getting all of the objects ready for the “To Live Forever, Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum“exhibition. In this post, I’ll talk about the conservation of Demetrios to prepare him for this show. Let’s start with a brief history of his past treatment. As I wrote in a previous blog, Demetrios was excavated from a Roman cemetery in Hawara, Egypt in 1911, and is believed to date between 30 B.C. and 395 A.D. After his excavation, he came directly to the Brooklyn Museum. It’s unclear if he went on view in the galleries in these early days of the museum or if he was placed in storage. In April of 1939, conservators noticed that a vertical crack had developed in the portrait. The portrait is painted with encaustic on a cypress wood panel. Wood is very susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, which fluctuate with the changing seasons, and this causes the wood to expand and contract. The conservators at the time decided the best way to treat the portrait would be to remove it from the mummy. They did this, and stabilized the panel so that no further cracks would occur. A decision was then made to place the mummy back into storage, and just exhibit the portrait. When you see these so called “Fayum Portraits” at other museums, they are often no longer associated with mummies either. There may be numerous explanations for why this was done. While this is a larger topic for discussion than I want to address here, it may have been the convention in the early 20th century to view these solely as beautiful portraits, rather than to think about them in a larger context and being associated with a mummified body. In addition, a small portrait is much easier to transport than the whole body. Whatever the reason, our portrait of Demetrios was then exhibited almost non-stop from this time forward, while the body of Demetrios remained in storage.

Today, there is a greater appreciation for the importance of these portraits in their original context so for this current exhibition we have decided to reunite the portrait with the body. In order to do this, objects and paintings conservators worked together. A silicone support was cast to conform to the shape of the back of the portrait panel. This provides a rigid support for the portrait that can help absorb any vibration that may occur while traveling and is easily reversible in the future. The portrait, on its new support, was placed back onto the mummy of Demetrios. Using the old photograph as a guide, some new linen fabric, toned with paints to match, was added to recreate how the portrait originally appeared on the mummy. As with any conservation treatment, we carefully documented this process and used appropriate materials so that future generations of conservators and scholars will be able to distinguish between the original ancient Egyptian materials and our modern additions, and be able to remove our additions if necessary. In the next blog, I’ll talk about the next phase of the conservation treatment - how Demetrios was cleaned and areas of torn linen repaired.

the portrait associated with the mummy, as it appeared in the 1930’s

the mummy with portrait removed

the portrait exhibited on its own Lisa and Carolyn hard at work

the portrait and mummy reuinted


Indianapolis prepares for “To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum”

Tue, 12/11/2007 - 12:18

A team from the Indianapolis Museum of Art including curator Theodore Celenko, designer Tim Hilldebrand, director of new media Daniel Incandela, and new media project administrator Despi Mayes, Gregory Smith, Technical Designer, and Naeema Jackson, formerly in the Education Department visited me in Brooklyn last week to prepare for the opening of the exhibition, To Live Forever on July 13, 2008 at their museum. At lunch we talked about progress on preparing the labels, the layout of the exhibition, and details of mounts and casework. Then we went to the Egyptian galleries where Daniel and Despi (pictured above) filmed me talking about the exhibition for the web site they are preparing.

Daniel and Despi were also able to film Brooklyn conservators Lisa Bruno and Carolyn Tomkiewicz as they worked on preparing the mummy of Demetris and the painted shroud of Neferhotep for the exhibition. These two objects show two options for portraits that Egyptians had during the period when the Romans ruled the country. A panel painting on wood could be wrapped in the mummy wrappings as in the case of Demetrius’ mummy. Or the portrait could be painted directly on to the linen shroud that covers the mummy as Neferhotep did, eliminating the expense of the wood panel. The exhibition looks at the choices Egyptians had in planning their funerals. The visit was a great success.

Demetrios gets CT scanned

Fri, 10/26/2007 - 16:41

Photo by Adam Husted

Sorry for the delay in this post, but it was a long process organizing the CT scans. When we unpacked Demetrios, we were happy to find that the packing supported him well, and he had survived the trip on the LIE. We had a great time at North Shore Hospital with Dr. Boxt and his colleagues.

Photo by Adam Husted

First of all, we were able to confirm that Demetrios is an adult male. Next, we were able to tell that he was in very good physical condition when he died, indicating that he was probably a lot younger than we had previously thought. Dr. Boxt could find no indication of foul play involved in his death, and remarked that his bones showed no signs of degenerative disease. So for now, how old he was when he died and what he died from continues to be a mystery.

When you look at the cross section of Demetrios above, you can see some of the things we did find out. Two of his ribs were broken during the mummification process (#5). There is an unidentifiable bundle in his chest, and it is possible that the ribs were broken to place this bundle (#8). This could be anything from more linen to soft tissue of the body, to papyrus. And finally, he was buried on a wooden plank wrapped within the linens (#6). Within the next few months, we plan to work with other physicians and Egyptologists who can help us further decipher the CT scans. In the meantime, we also have to prepare Demetrios for loan. The next few blogs will discuss and track the conservation treatment of Demetrios. I’ll be on leave for several months, so my colleague Lisa will be taking over the blogs -enjoy!

Demetrios goes for a ride

Wed, 08/22/2007 - 19:02

While Marc was visiting us from the Getty to carry out XRF on our mummy Demetrios, we decided to give Marc a sample of the linen used to wrap him, to perform radiocarbon dating (C14). A small sample (2-5mg) of the linen was taken near the feet, where there was already previous damage.

A sample of linen near the feet was taken for C14 dating.

Marc will send this sample to the NSF Arizona AMS Facility at The University of Arizona. This will give us a ballpark date of how old the linens are, and by association, how old the mummy may be. While we know stylistically it is between 30 B.C. and 395 A.D., we may be able to get a narrower date with C14 dating. We also wanted to find out more about the mummy itself. Is Demetrios really a man? Across the linens, in gilding just under his name is written 89 years. Does that mean he was 89 years old when he died? What did he die of? Is there anything else wrapped up with him in the linens? In order to answer some of these questions, we decided to have Demetrios CT scanned. CT scanning, or computed tomography, is another non-destructive technique that allows us to see beyond the linen wrappings, without having to un-wrap Demetrios. A three-dimensional image is generated using X-rays. This was carried out at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset New York.

Lisa, a BM objects conservator, makes sure Demetrios is securely packed before his big trip. Photo by Adam Husted.

Before Demetrios could travel to Long Island, we needed to make sure he was stable enough to withstand the truck ride. One of our art handlers, Jason, constructed a custom made box with foam padding so that Demetrios wouldn’t shift in transit. We used a special art packing and shipping company, Marshall Fine Arts, to transport Demetrios to the hospital. Their tucks are climate controlled and have “air ride” suspension to give the mummy a nice, smooth, cool ride. This was also an opportunity for us to give Demetrios a “trial run” to see if any damage will occur during transit. While we take every possible precaution to avoid damage to our objects, sometimes there are unforeseen problems. Demetrios hasn’t left the BM since he arrived in 1911, and while he was only going to Long Island for this trip, he will be traveling to 11 different museums across the US as part of the exhibition To Live Forever, Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum. If any problems occur during this quick trip, we can address them before he goes out on the road for over 3 years of travel. Check back next week to read about our adventures in CT scanning!

Lisa and the guys from Marshall Fine Arts load Demetrios into the truck. Photo by Adam Husted.

The Getty Visits Demetrios

Wed, 08/15/2007 - 12:52

On July 5, Marc Walton, a scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute came to examine one of our mummies, knows as Demetrios. He brought a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine with him. With this non-destructive technique, he can take readings of different inorganic materials on the surface of our mummy, which will tell us the chemical make-up. Marc wanted to compare both the red lead and gilding found on our mummy, Demetrios, to the red lead found on the Getty mummy, Herakleides. It turns out that the red lead and gold are very similar – they have similar trace elements. The Getty is continuing their research to find out what that all means, but it is possible that these all came from the same workshop. There is also evidence to suggest that the lead used to make the red lead pigment may have come from a silver mine in Spain. When silver is smelted from the ore, lead is a common by-product. The lead would have been used to make the red lead paint. The Getty is also researching this further to determine whether the red lead pigment was made in Spain then traded to Egypt, or if the raw lead was traded to Egypt and the pigment made there. It is also unclear why the color red was chosen. Perhaps it was because the color red was thought to ward off danger. Sometimes, the more we find out, the more questions we have - there is still a lot to learn about our mummies! Check back next week to find out what other techniques we are using to learn more about Demetrios.

Meet our mummy, Demetrios

Tue, 08/07/2007 - 09:26


 I would like to introduce you to Demetrios. Demetrios is a mummy in the Brooklyn Museum collection that will be traveling across the country starting summer 2008 along with over 100 Egyptian artifacts from our collection in an exhibition entitled “To Live Forever, Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum“. Demetrios was excavated from a Roman cemetery in Hawara, Egypt in 1911, and is believed to date between 30 B.C. and 395 A.D. After its excavation, it came directly to the Brooklyn Museum. We know the mummy is that of a man named Demetrios, due to the style of the wrapping, and that his name is gilded across the linen wrappings. Also, Demetrios’ portrait was painted on a wooden panel, and inserted into the linens over his face. This is very typical of these Roman Period mummies. What is not very typical of the Roman Period mummies is that the surface of Demetrios’ linens has been covered with red lead paint. There are less than a dozen of these so-called “red shroud mummies” known to exist in the world. The J. Paul Getty Museum in California also has one of these red-shroud mummies, named Herakleides.

The Getty has started to research these mummies, and is visiting collections all over the world to have a closer look. Check back next week to learn about the Getty’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum to look at Demetrios.

Above is an image of a virtual reconstruction of the portrait where it was originally, within the linens of the mummy, as well as a close up of the portrait. The portrait was actually removed from the linens in the 1930’s because the wood was starting to crack and conservators needed better access to treat it. It was then decided to put the portrait on display - and put the mummy back into storage. I’ll discuss our efforts to reunite the two in subsequent blogs.


Demetrios in the Times

Mon, 08/06/2007 - 00:29

“While mummies have been subjected to CT scans for more than two decades, it was a first for the museum and for North Shore. The goal was to gain insights into who Demetrios was, how he died and what his mummified remains might tell them about Egyptian funerary practices.”

Our mummy, Demetrios, is featured in today’s New York Times with a full article by Carol Vogel and a multimedia slideshow. Conservator Tina March will be blogging about Demetrios in the coming weeks.