Melissa Holt, project conservator at the Australian Museum, tells us about the conservation treatment of four Ancient Egyptian Cartonnage coverings, including three masks! Read part one, in this special AM blog series.
I think it is safe to say that most people know what a mummy is – most of us envisage a colourful sarcophagus from Ancient Egypt. Centuries after mummies started to be excavated, Ancient Egyptian mummies still hold great intrigue and wonder around the world. What may be less well-known is that many mummies had coverings on them, and that the Australian Museum is lucky enough to have four pieces of these coverings in their collection. In this special AM series of blogs, I will take you through this project on how the Collection Care and Conservation (CC&C) team will assess and treat these cartonnage coverings to enable them to go on display in the future. As a Conservator here at the Australian Museum, I will be sharing my journey with you as I begin the conservation treatment of these four Ancient Egyptian cartonnage coverings.
When I mention a funerary mask or a mummy covering, your mind may go to ancient shiny masks covered in gold leaf like the mask of Tutankhamun or the mask of King Agamemnon. However, many mummified individuals had masks or body coverings made of cartonnage. Cartonnage is a material that was used to decorate and assist in preserving the body. Usually it was made up of linen or papyrus layers which were bound together with a glue-like mixture called gesso; similar to a kind of ancient form of papier-mâché.
Since the end of the Old Kingdom period (2700–2200 BCE), cartonnage was used in the mummification process. These coverings included a range of images of important icons and symbols, including images of gods, fashions of the day, and importantly an idealised image of the deceased. These masks are incredibly special; they are essential in studying and understanding the funerary practices of the day, and they allow us to glimpse into ancient societies. The masks also provide us with a unique insight as to how the individual and the society may have viewed death.
The AM has four pieces of cartonnage from three different mummies. Two pieces (numbered E021583-005 and E021583-006) are attributed to the same mummy and includes both a mask and foot covering. They are from Abydos in Upper Egypt, date to the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BCE) and were acquired by the Museum in 1912. The other coverings are masks from different individual mummies (numbered E019000 and E019001). Both are from Sedment in Upper Egypt and are most likely dated to the Roman period of Egyptian rule, after 30CE. Both coverings were acquired by the Museum in 1910.
This project aims to conserve the coverings so that they may be stable enough to go on display, and also provides the Museum teams with a unique opportunity to research the material. Our collection team, Vanessa Finney and Stan Florek, are completing a deeper analysis of the cartonnage, including radiocarbon dating of the material, in the hopes of establishing more accurate dates for these masks.
It may be assumed that the goal for this project is to restore the masks to their original condition – but that isn’t exactly what conservation is. Yes, one reason for undertaking this project was because of the poor condition of two of the masks but as a conservator, my role is not to completely repair the masks to their original state. My job is to conserve the object in its current state and to preserve what is left. This means stabilising the object so that it won’t continue to degrade. As we progress through the blogs, I will explain more in depth about why certain decisions are made.
The first step in any conservation treatment is close assessment. I began my reports for each covering; I took multiple photos, which included ‘normal’ or standard photos, photos under a microscope and photos that I could draw overlays over to indicate areas of deterioration. After my assessments, it was clear that mask E021583-005 was the most stable, and mask E019001 had the highest levels of deterioration. As you can see in the image of E019001, the mask is very fragile, this being evident by the loose fibres of linen and flakes of pigment having fallen down onto the handling board while imaging. These flakes are collected to be reattached where possible or can be useful samples for materials identification.
My examination also revealed some intriguing new information – previous attempts to stabilise both mask E019000 and E019001 had been undertaken. Inside the masks, there are squares of paper that have been glued in place with a very glossy adhesive. We have no records of a treatment being done to these objects, but it is fascinating to discover evidence of the previous treatments, even if they used methods we would not use now.
In my next blog I will delve into the treatments of the masks, starting with the masks in the worst conditions, and moving to the best. I hope you will continue to join me as I work on these four incredible objects.
Melissa Holt, Project Conservator, Collection Care and Conservation, Australian Museum.
I would like to acknowledge Heather Bleechmore for her support and guidance through this treatment, as well as Stan Florek and Vanessa Finney. I would also like to acknowledge Mimi Leveque for providing me with her personal notes and expertise on cartonnage. I would also like to acknowledge Meagan Warwick for her guidance in writing my first blog and Sheldon Teare for his advice.
The conservation and research of the Egyptian Mummy Cartonnage was funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.
- Alawneh, F., Elserogy, A. R. and Almasri, E. (2018) “Using Interdisciplinary Studies and Analyses in the Conservation of Greco-Roman Cartonnage”, Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 18(1), pp. 219–238. doi: 10.6092/issn.1973-9494/9236.
- Brown, J.P., Leveque, M. and Nau, M. (2017) “Treatment of Two Badly Damaged Egyptian Mummies and Associated Coffins”, Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Vol. 24, pp. 293-318. http://29aqcgc1xnh17fykn459grmc-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/osg-postprints/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2020/03/osg024-016.pdf
- Leveque, M. 2021, Part 1 Cartonnage Historic and Technical Notes.
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