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painted wooden coffin lid on display

Conserving Ancient Egypt (The Project)

Coffins and mummy cases


Objects great and small

Preventive conservation

Painted wood coffins and cartonnage mummy cases

These have formed the main challenge of the project. In addition to the cleaning and conservation, we have been examining and identifying all the materials used in their construction and decoration.

With X-radiography it is possible to see inside Nakhtefmut's plaster and linen (cartonnage) mummy case. The body was removed in 1896 and the case sealed and restored.

painted wood coffins X-ray details

a) The X-ray shows the twists of original lacing holding the foot board in place.

b) Also showing up clearly are the screws and metal staples used in the old restoration.

painted wood coffins wood details painted wood coffins wood details

A scientist from the British Museum is identifying all the woods. A tiny fragment is removed, prepared as a section on a slide and examined at high magnification.

This is a transverse section of sycomore fig (a tree native to Egypt) from which the coffins of Userhet and Khety are made.
PHOTO: Caroline Cartwright,
British Museum

Common deterioration problems are splitting and cracking of wood, delamination of the layers of plaster and paint, insect damage, staining, ingrained dirt and many other accretions from several thousand years of burial

ND with Khety Pa-Kepu clamped

The lid of Khety’s coffin is cleaned with a soft, dry crumbling sponge

After localised humidification to relax the lifting plaster on the coffin of Pakepu, an adhesive is applied behind the layer and the pieces eased back into position with the help of a little gentle pressure.

overall, before

The painted front surface of this panel fragment from the so-called Mourning Women coffin, (seen here before conservation) appears to be in fairly good condition

SR with MW back

But the back of the panel has been badly eaten by termites. When the coffin was excavated in 1900, strips of canvas were stuck to it with lashings of glue in an attempt to hold the highly degraded fragments together. These old repairs, shown in the photo, have distorted and shrunk, pulling the wood apart. They have now been removed and have been replaced with small, cast supports that replicate the contours of the back of the panel and provide complete support without any adhesive attachment.