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Conserving the coffin of Userhet

The inner coffin of Userhet, a warrior from the 12th Dynasty, is one of the earliest surviving examples of an Egyptian anthropoid coffin. An anthropoid coffin is shaped in the form of a person as opposed to a typical box coffin. It was excavated at Beni Hasan and presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1903. The photo on the right shows the coffin on display in the old Egyptian galleries.

The face is black while the rest of the body is white to resemble a wrapped body prepared for burial and wearing a funeral mask. The ears and beard are modelled separately.

This coffin was conserved by Nichole Doub, a conservation intern from the MSc Conservation course at the Institute of Archaeology in UCL.

The Middle Kingdom coffin of Userhet on display in the old galleries
   

Roman mummy being prepared for CT-scanning at Addenbrookes Hospital

Each half of the coffin is carved from a single piece of wood. This is unusual for an Egyptian coffin as large pieces of wood are very valuable due to the relative scarcity of large trees.

The high value placed on the wood of Userhet’s coffin means that it was cheaper to repair damaged pieces, rather than replace them. Some of the wood had become badly cracked while it was curing or drying out, and instead of starting over again, the craftsmen stitched the crack together using leather stitches and filled the gap with plaster. These repairs can only be seen on the interior of the object. On the outside, the repair was smoothed down and covered with linen before the entire exterior surface of the coffin was covered in a layer of plaster and then painted.

The picture on the left shows the ancient repair on the inside of the coffin. The pale area is the plaster used to fill the gap where the wood had cracked; this has now cracked along the line marked in blue. The area circled in red is one of the leather stitches.

   

When the condition of the coffin was being assessed as part of the Egyptian Gallery Conservation Project, it was found that the surface of the coffin had been heavily restored at some point in the past. Nichole used visible ultraviolet (UV) photography and x-radiography to determine the extent of these repairs. X-rays showed cracking in the ancient Egyptian plaster which had been concealed by a layer of modern plaster. While X-rays provided information about the internal structure of the object, UV photography was able to show the level of restoration on the surface of the coffin. Large areas of over-plastering and over-painting were revealed which extended far beyond the damaged areas.

The photographs on the right show the same area of the coffin in normal light (top) and under ultraviolet light (bottom). The ultraviolet light shows that some of the white paint on the necklace and the body is a modern restoration (the reddish areas), even though this is not visible in normal light.

  Part of Userhet's coffin shown in plain light

  The same part of Userhet's coffin shown under ultraviolet light
   

Nichole removes modern plaster from Userhet's coffin using an operating theatre microscope

Nichole decided to try to remove this restoration plaster and paint while causing as little disruption to the object as possible. The removal of the modern plaster was slow and tedious and in several areas, especially along the edges of the two halves, the plaster could not be removed without damaging the object. During this process the areas of restoration were extensively recorded and photographed.

The picture on the right shows Nichole using an operating theatre microscope to work on Userhet's coffin.

   

The last part of Nichole's treatment was the removal of the modern over-painting. This was very time-consuming, as it was important to remove only the modern pigments and leave the ancient pigments in place. But before any of this could begin, it was necessary to identify exactly what all these pigments were. We were able to do this with the help of a Raman Laser Spectroscopy Unit, lent to us by Anglia Ruskin University. Raman Laser Spectroscopy is a sometimes time consuming and difficult means of analysis, but in the case of Userhet’s coffin it produced some very good results. Click here for more information about Raman Spectroscopy.

Once the pigments had been identified, Nichole carefully removed the restoration paints under a microscope. It was then necessary to conceal any areas of modern plaster which were still visible. This was done using earth pigments in an acrylic medium.

The pictures on the right show part of Userhet's wig before and after painting. The top picture shows the old restoration paint before Nichole removed it and the bottom picture shows the finished wig after it has been repainted. It's certainly an improvement!

  Part of Userhet's coffin shown in plain light
  The same part of Userhet's coffin shown under ultraviolet light
   

Now that the conservation has been finished, the next exciting step will be to stand the object upright again and rejoin the two halves in order to create a mount for its installation in the new cases...