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Subject: Egyptian coffins

Egyptian coffins

From: Susanne Gansicke <sgansicke>
Date: Thursday, June 21, 2001
Carolyn Collins <ccollins_us [at] yahoo__com> writes

>I am researching the manufacture and conservation of an ancient
>Egyptian coffin coated in a black substance. Analysis of it has not
>come back yet but it is  likely a resin, pitch, or possibly bitumen.

Wooden or polychrome artifacts from ancient Egypt, such as
sculptures, shawabtis, coffins, cartonnages and mummy trappings
quite often show black or blackened substances.  Such material may
be burial related contamination, could have been applied as an
intentional black surface coating, or it may have had a different
original appearance and turned black/ opaque with age. Very often
such black material is referred to as "bitumen", but in reality not
many analyses and identifications have been carried out.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston owns three cartonnages dating to the
Third Intermediate Period, which are covered to varying extend with
an opaque black material applied during the burial ritual (f. ex.
Sue D'Auria et al, Mummies and Magic (Museum of Fine Arts: Boston,
1988), 220.   Richard Newman analyzed samples from two of them and
identified a mixture of oily and fatty materials, likely applied

For recent analysis of organic varnishes and coatings see:

    Margaret Serpico.
    "Resins, Amber and Bitumen,"
    Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology" Paul T. Nicholsen and
    Ian Shaw, eds., (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 430-475.

Treatment issues have ranged from surface dusting/ cleaning, to
consolidation and discussions about possible removal of the black
layer with curators, who were interested in exposing the often
extensive painted decoration that lies hidden underneath.   Test
with infrared reflectography showed that the coating could be
penetrated and designs underneath it could, thus, be retrieved and

Susanne Gansicke
Associate Conservator of Objects
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115
Fax: 617-369-3702

                  Conservation DistList Instance 15:5
                  Distributed: Thursday, June 21, 2001
                        Message Id: cdl-15-5-007
Received on Thursday, 21 June, 2001

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