Wendy Doyon, Heather White, Chantal Stein, Nadia Fawzy / Field Diary 2019.2 © Abydos Archaeology
Thousands of burials lie beneath the desert landscape at Abydos, many in subterranean tombs, others in plain wooden coffins placed in pits in the sand. Once in a while, an elaborate burial comes to light and takes your breath away — like the one we found last week just outside the east corner gateway of the Shunet el-Zebib (Fig. 1). This example is exceptional for the quality of its painted decoration, but even more for having survived at all — the wood of the original coffin has been completely devoured by insects, leaving behind only the extremely fragile painted surface of a once extraordinarily fine coffin of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1075-715 BCE) to be documented, studied, and preserved (Fig. 2). But how, you ask? Read on for an in-depth, conservator’s-eye-view of this exciting find.
So Your In Situ Artifact Needs First Aid STAT — Who Ya Gonna Call?
When archaeologist Mohamed Abul-Yazid discovered the painted coffin at the Shunet el-Zebib as part of this season’s excavations at the monument’s east corner gateway, his first call was to the archaeological conservation team back at the field house. Archaeological conservators are often called “doctors” in the field because of the specialized expertise needed to assess the condition of and to treat excavated objects, and for the similarities in their toolkits, which are full of bandages, syringes, scalpels, and strange concoctions. A century or so ago, when professional archaeology was still coming into its own and excavations everywhere were faster and looser than they are now, painted coffins like this one, once excavated, were unlikely to survive. Their extreme fragility and a lack of methods for in situ stabilization made them more likely to turn to dust and then perish with the memory of the last archaeologist to set eyes on their once colorful presence (Fig. 3). Today, archaeologists are fortunate to rely on advanced conservation practices that make excavation less destructive than in the past. At Abydos, we are especially fortunate to have some of the best archaeological conservators in the field on the team each year, working under the supervision of senior conservator Hiroko Kariya. Three of them — Heather White, an objects conservator specializing in the preservation of archaeological and ethnographic material at LYLC Studio in St. Louis, Missouri; Chantal Stein, a dual MA and MS candidate in Art History and the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; and Nadia Fawzy, an archaeological conservator with the Ministry of Antiquities based in Sohag, Egypt — have spent the past week doctoring the fascinating painted coffin at the Shunet el-Zebib (Figs. 4,5). Let’s walk through the treatment process with them step-by-step.
The conservation team decided that this particular coffin was too fragile to “block lift” out in one piece for later excavation in the lab, as half of the original surface was eaten away by insects, leaving only the painted skin that once covered the now completely missing wood. The next step was deciding how to stabilize the painted walls, while at the same time revealing the maximum amount of painted surface for documentation and photogrammetry (Fig. 6). At this point, a process not unlike “mummifying” the coffin began by applying materials to the exposed surface of the paint to hold it together without fragmenting, while continuing to reveal more of the remaining surface bit-by-bit (Figs. 7-11). Here this process, known as facing, involved two passes of a dilute consolidant (3% Paraloid B72 in acetone), which rendered cohesion to the friable painted surface (i.e., made the pigment particles stick together). Next, two or three layers of facing material were added using a higher concentration of the same consolidant, starting with a layer of fine Japanese tissue paper, followed by a second and sturdier layer of Hollytex, and for larger fragments, a third layer of gauze. These layers provide the object, which lacks internal structure, with a physical form that is stable enough to be lifted out and moved, piece-by-piece, to the field house lab for registration, storage, and future reconstruction.
The workload tripled suddenly when the lid of the coffin was found, caved in on top of the burial, along with — surprise! — a painted surface on the inside of the coffin, too (Figs. 12,13). Working on a timeframe set by the excavators, which requires quick, on-the-spot decisions, the conservation team had to decide where to cut and remove each fragment of the lid to get underneath and define the burial (Figs. 14-17). The cleaning, stabilization, and removal of the whole coffin in fragments was like designing a puzzle, in which each piece had to be mapped onto a labeled diagram (Fig. 18). During treatment and stabilization, the coffin fragments also had to be measured and photographed with precise dimensions for 3D modeling and later reconstruction. In this case, taking the coffin out in pieces was the only way to save the painted surface for future study and possible reconstruction. The purpose of facing the fragments was to give the paint physical support and preserve it underneath the bandages. Block lifting, or removing the coffin whole, would have been possible by covering the entire exterior with rigid support, however, without a means of rendering structure to the interior, the supports could never be removed to study the surface. By cleaning, stabilizing, and documenting the fragments in situ, the conservation team has provided the appropriate treatment to ensure that, in the future, the structure can be reconstructed, the facings removed, and the paint underneath analyzed and studied in detail. After an intense week of on-site first-aid, the backs of all of the fragments are ready for consolidation back in the lab, where the whole coffin can be prepped and housed for safe storage in the collections (Fig. 19).
Archaeological conservation, like medicine, works on a case-by-case basis. Every excavated object is an individual with a unique story to tell, but because artifacts can’t talk, it’s up to the conservators to bring their knowledge and experience from other contexts into dialogue with each other and with the object in situ. Sharing ideas and techniques from their combined experiences in object conservation all over the world, “coffin doctors” Hiroko, Heather, Chantal, and Nadia have saved this coffin’s skin — in more ways than one. From clues in the decorative program of the coffin itself and the young woman laid to rest inside around three thousand years ago, we know already that this burial has an important story to tell about the people of ancient Abydos. And thanks to the excavation and on-site conservation teams, both coffin and bones will live to tell their story another day (Figs. 20-22).