JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 167 to 192)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 167 to 192)



ABSTRACT—The article provides a brief overview of the Egyptian Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and its excavations. The conservation history of the collection is established through reviews of excavation records, early photodocumentation, and curatorial and conservation files. Previous approaches to stabilization in the field and other pertinent information, such as packing methods, are discussed in the context of published accounts of conservation methods from the early 20th century. Specific information is provided in sections devoted to metals, ceramics, stone, wood, and organic materials. Part 2 of this article discusses subsequent conservation issues and treatment of the objects at the MFA.

TITRE—La collection d'antiquit�s �gyptiennes au mus�e des beaux-arts (Museum of Fine Arts) de Boston. 1�re partie, une �tude des traitements faits sur le chantier et de leurs cons�quences. R�SUM�— L'article fournit une br�ve vue d'ensemble de la collection �gyptienne du mus�e des beaux-arts (Museum of Fine Arts) de Boston, et de ses fouilles. L'historique de la conservation de la collection est retrac� � partir de l'examen des archives des fouilles, de la documentation photographique, et des dossiers de conservation et de restauration. Les techniques de stabilisation utilis�es auparavant sur le chantier et toute autre information pertinente, telle que les m�thodes d'emballage, sont discut�es dans le contexte des comptes rendus qui ont �t� publi�s sur les m�thodes de conservation au d�but du 20�me si�cle. Des informations sp�cifiques sont fournies dans les sections consacr�es aux m�taux, � la c�ramique, � la pierre, au bois, et aux mat�riaux organiques. La deuxi�me partie de cet article discute des probl�mes actuels de conservation et du traitement des objets au mus�e.

TITULO—La colecci�n de arte egipcio antiguo del Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Museo de bellas artes de Boston). Parte I, Evaluaci�n de los tratamientos llevados a cabo en el campo y sus consecuencias. RESUMEN—El art�culo proporciona una breve idea general de la colecci�n de arte egipcio del Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—MFA (Museo de bellas artes de Boston) y de sus excavaciones. Se establece la historia de la colecci�n a trav�s de una evaluaci�n de los informes de las excavaciones, la documentaci�n fotogr�fica inicial y los archivos de los curadores y conservadores. La forma en que se abord� previamente la estabilizaci�n en el campo y dem�s informaci�n pertinente, como por ejemplo los m�todos de embalaje, se discuten en el contexto de las publicaciones sobre m�todos de conservaci�n de principios del siglo XX. Se proporciona informaci�n espec�fica en secciones dedicadas a metales, cer�mica, piedra, madera, y materiales org�nicos. En la Parte II de este art�culo se discuten cuestiones posteriores de de conservaci�n y los tratamientos de los objetos en el MFA.

TITULO—A cole��o de antig�idades eg�pcias do Museum of Fine Arts (Museu de Belas Artes) de Boston. Parte 1, revis�o de tratamentos nesta �rea e suas conseq��ncias. RESUMO—O artigo apresenta uma breve vis�o da cole��o eg�pcia do Museum of Fine Arts—MFA (Museu de Belas Artes) de Boston, e suas escava��es. A hist�ria da conserva��o desta cole��o est� fundamentada na revis�o dos registros de escava��o, em documenta��o fotogr�fica anterior e arquivos de curadores e conservadores. Tentativas anteriores de estabiliza��o neste campo e outras informa��es pertinentes, tais como, m�todos de embalagem, s�o discutidas dentro do contexto de publica��es sobre m�todos de conserva��o do in�cio do s�culo XX. As sess�es que tratam de metal, cer�mica, pedra, madeira e materiais org�nicos cont�m informa��es espec�ficas. A parte 2 deste artigo discute aspectos posteriores de conserva��o e tratamentos dos objetos no MFA.


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), houses an extensive collection of more than 60,000 ancient Egyptian and Sudanese artifacts, most of which were excavated by the Harvard University–Museum of Fine Arts Expedition from 1905 to 1942. Only a small percentage of this material is on view. Much of the collection remains in storage and is only now being unpacked, surveyed, and accessioned.

This article (Part 1), written in conjunction with a second part (Part 2, G�nsicke et al. 2003), covers the formation of the Egyptian Collection and its early conservation history in the field. Part 2 discusses subsequent conservation at the MFA. Both articles are divided into subsections that address separately metals, ceramics, stone, wood, and organic materials. In writing these articles, an extensive search was conducted to create a database of previous treatments by surveying all existing hard copies of conservation reports as well as dig diaries, excavation publications, early issues of the Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA Bulletin), photographs, and unpublished internal documents and letters. We should note, however, that the documentation for field treatments and for treatments carried out at the museum before around 1970 is not very thorough, producing gaps in our knowledge about exactly what was done to specific artifacts. For Part 1 we have also drawn on published information that could well include treatment procedures utilized on some of the collection, although these publications do not specifically refer to the MFA collections. Often, only analytical work allowed us to identify treatment materials and techniques and, thus, has advanced our understanding of some of the early (undocumented or incompletely documented) treatments. The collected data for this specific collection are intended as a “conservation catalog” rather than as a commentary on the development of conservation methods and materials. Appendix 1 in Part 2 summarizes the materials mentioned in both articles and lists approximate dates for their use.


The MFA was established in 1870 and, two years later, acquired the core of its Egyptian Collection from Bostonian banker C. Granville Way. Mostly of funerary nature, the material had been assembled by the Scottish art collector Robert Hay during expeditions in Egypt from 1824 to 1838. In 1875 the museum received important sculptures purchased by the successful businessman and passionate traveler John Lowell Jr., whose collection also encompassed many diaries and illustrated images of Egypt. By supporting the British Egyptian Exploration Fund, founded in 1882, the museum received “shares” from 1885 to 1909, primarily from excavations by Egyptologists William Flinders Petrie and Henri Edouard Naville. In 1902 the MFA's Egyptian Department was established with its first curator, Albert M. Lythgoe, who moved on to become the curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, four years later. During his short tenure in Boston, Lythgoe excavated with Egyptologist George A. Reisner, who was working in Egypt with the support of Phoebe A. Hearst for the University of California. By 1905, the MFA, in conjunction with Harvard University, took over sponsorship of Reisner's excavations. Reisner directed more than 20 excavations in Egypt and Sudan over the next 40 years (fig. 1). After Reisner's death in 1942, the MFA continued to enrich its collection through purchases, gifts, and exchanges.

Reisner pioneered the use of photographic documentation during his excavations and established an extensive system of record keeping, which later became a model for other excavations (D'Auria et al. 1988; Manuelian 1992). Glass plate negatives were an important means of documentation for sites, excavation trenches, and objects. Meticulously annotated albumen prints were created from these. All of Reisner's documentation—including more than 60,000 glass plate negatives, hundreds of object registers, and diaries of daily activities—remain a vital source of information in the Egyptian division of the Department of Art of the Ancient World today. A grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation currently supports a four-year project to provide integrated, online access to the Giza Archives—the documentation of the museum's excavations from 1905 through 1942 at the ancient Egyptian site of the Giza pyramids. When completed, this project will provide access to the excavation diaries, historic glass plate expedition photographic negatives, object register books, maps, plans, and sketches.

Fig. 1. Map of sites excavated by the MFA Expedition. CAIRO = modern city; Giza = site excavated by the MFA Expedition; Port Said = other places mentioned. Courtesy of Peter Der Manuelian, 2002

At the period when the MFA was assembling its collection, a small group of excavators, scientists, and restorers played a significant role in the early conservation history of Egyptian antiquities. They worked together and influenced each other as rivals and colleagues.

The eminent British archaeologist and Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie excavated numerous sites in Egypt, from which (as mentioned above) the MFA received “shares” until 1909, as well as in Palestine. Petrie's influential Methods and Aims in Archaeology, published in 1904, discussed in great detail the need for record keeping and recording sites as well as ethics and the preservation of objects (Petrie 1904; Drower 1985). Petrie had an enlightened view of archaeology: “The preservation of the objects that are found is a necessary duty of the finder. To disclose things only to destroy them, when a more skillful or patient worker might have added them to the world's treasures, is a hideous fault” (Petrie 1904, 85). Reisner followed Petrie's methods and improved on them by creating an elaborate recording system (Drower 1985).

Friedrich Rathgen, director of the Chemical Laboratory at the Royal Museums of Berlin, has been referred to as the “father of modern archaeological conservation” (Gilberg 1987). His book The Conservation of Antiquities: A Handbook for Curators, published in 1905, was based in large part on his experience with Egyptian antiquities at the Royal Museums of Berlin (Rathgen 1905). Although Rathgen was not directly involved in any of the MFA excavations or with its collection, his book is an invaluable resource for understanding early conservation in museums, and many of the methods he employed are still used in the treatment of archaeological artifacts today.

Alfred Lucas, a British chemist, moved to Egypt in 1897, where he worked for the Antiquities Service in varying roles beginning in 1923 (Gilberg 1997). Lucas offered assistance to the many archaeologists excavating in Egypt, and he is most famous for his involvement with the preservation of the objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen. In 1926–27, he advised on the removal and treatment of objects at Reisner's most important discovery, the intact 4th Dynasty tomb of Queen Hetepheres, mother of Cheops (Khufu) (Reisner 1927). Lucas used information gathered at this site in his publication Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (Lucas 1934). His earlier book, Antiquities: Their Restoration and Preservation, originally published in 1924, was based on his work in the field and at the Cairo Museum. It covers earlier methods laid out by Petrie and Rathgen, among others (Lucas 1932).


Although Reisner has been praised for his extensive documentation, field treatment records from excavations he oversaw are virtually nonexistent. That objects were cleaned, strengthened, and joined becomes evident from comparisons of photographs taken at various stages in the field, but exactly when, where, and how remains obscure. The lack of documentation of treatments was not uncommon for excavations or museum practice of the time.

Ceramics, faience and small stone artifacts were typically reconstructed in the field so that their profiles and measurements could be recorded in the excavation logbooks, although Reisner never discussed what adhesives were used in these reconstructions. Polychromed wood was routinely stabilized with wax or varnish in the field to minimize loss of painted surfaces. There seems to have been minimal restoration of metal artifacts. Some largescale stone sculptures were reconstructed in Egypt, as was furniture from the tomb of Hetepheres. Choices of restoration materials were undoubtedly based on availability and on what was propagated by contemporaneous excavators.


Artifacts from Egypt were shipped to the United States from Alexandria or Port Said, typically routed through Hamburg. Most of the finds from Sudan, where major sites were located within reach of the railway line to Egypt, were transported north, often photographed at Harvard Camp in Giza, and combined there along with the Giza finds.

Given the vast number of artifacts that were shipped from Egypt to Boston, it is not surprising that damages occurred during transit. Two of the largest pieces in the collection, the colossal granite (or granitic gneiss) statue of Aspelta (MFA 23.730; fig. 2; Dunham 1970) and the limestone false door of Khufuankh (MFA 21.3081) that stands more than 3.05 meters, were both severely fractured in transit. Insurance claims note that both pieces were valued at

Fig. 2. Colossal statue of King Aspelta, assembled in the field. Napatan Period, late 6th century B.C., granite gneiss, height 332.1 cm. MFA 23.730. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, 1920, neg. A2990
$5,000 and damages were claimed for 10–20% of the value. One of the most serious incidents of damage took place in 1913, when a fire broke out in a shipment of artifacts on the SS Preussen while in transit from Egypt to Hamburg. The fire was extinguished before it reached the cargo area, but substantial water damage was noted. Of particular consequence was the loss of pigment from the relief walls of the mastaba chapel of Akhmeretnetsut and his family (MFA 13.4352; Fisher 1913), which was deemed partially unexhibitable, and the water damage to the wooden statue Senedjem-ib Mehi (MFA 13.3466).

Insurance claims from a later fire on the SS Clan Murdoch in 1920 have provided some insights into packing methods:

[The shipment was] extremely well packed in triple cases, and in addition the more delicate objects were packed in small paste-board boxes. All the objects were first wrapped in cheese cloth, (the stone in burlap) and were then packed in cotton wool. The spaces between the inner and outer boxes were filled with excelsior, straw and wood wool. In the case of the large coffin … the corner, two sides and two ends were covered with tin cases, inside the heavy wood and in the cases. (Anon 1920)

Over several decades, substantial shipments of artifacts arrived in Boston, where a new museum building was constructed in 1908, in part customdesigned to accommodate some of the massive stone objects, such as two mastabas from Saqqara that had been in storage since their arrival in 1904 (MFA Bulletin 1905). One can only imagine the logistical complexities, with the excavators spending most of their time in the field and insufficient personnel in Boston. Exhibition and storage exposed the freshly unearthed materials to the substantial environmental variations of New England, as the building was not climate-controlled.



The Egyptian Collection includes nearly 1,500 copper and bronze objects as well as nearly 1,000 gold, 330 silver, 101 electrum, 40 lead, and 209 iron objects. Among these are some of the earliest examples of iron and bronze from ancient Egypt. The types of objects are primarily jewelry, vessels, weapons, tomb equipment, and sculpture. Of particular interest or importance are copper weapons and utensils from Kerma (ca. 2000–1550 B.C.; Reisner 1923a), a large amount of Nubian silver (Dunham 1955; G�nsicke and Newman 2000), intact sets of jewelry from Mero� (Dunham 1924), and copper vessels (Dunham 1941; Maddin et al. 1984) and gold jewelry from the 6th Dynasty tomb of Impy (Reisner and Smith 1955; Newman 2002).


The earliest evidence we have of treatment of metals in the Egyptian collection of the MFA is a group of copper tomb models from the 6th Dynasty tomb of Impy, excavated at Giza in 1912 (figs. 3, 4). These were on display in Boston by 1914, and contemporaneous gallery photographs show the pieces already cleaned (fig. 5). Their current condition—with exposed metallic surfaces, uneven remains of corrosion products, and scratches— suggests that they were cleaned electrolytically or chemically as well as mechanically, but it is not clear if this cleaning was done in Egypt or in Boston.

Early publications described the methods in use at the time, both in museums (Rathgen 1905; Lucas 1932) and in the field (Petrie 1904). Mechanical, chemical, and electrolytic methods of cleaning and stabilizing metals were discussed. Historical treatments for copper and bronzes are more thoroughly reviewed in recent conservation literature (Drayman-Weisser 1994; Beale 1996), although less has been written about historical treatments of precious or other metals.

It was generally agreed that a stable patina on copper or bronze objects should not be removed, although any tarnish or corrosion on silver was deemed unsightly (Lucas 1932). Whiting (calcium carbonate) in a cream with soap and water was used to polish silver (Lucas 1932). When corrosion was removed, simple methods such as soap and water, brushing, and mechanical means were sometimes used. Mechanical cleaning or scaling was sometimes aided by the use of heat:“heat the bronze over a fire or in melted lead, and then plunge in cold water, which loosens the scale from it” (Petrie 1904, 101), or with an application of glue to the surface, which was allowed to contract and pull up the corrosion (Rathgen 1905).

Fig. 3. Copper vessels from the tomb of Impy, as found at Giza (G2381). Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty, 2350–2170 B.C. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, December 1912, neg. B1612
Fig. 4. Copper vessels from the tomb of Impy in Giza (G2381). Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty, 2350–2170 B.C. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, January 1913, neg. B1695
Fig. 5. Copper vessels from the tomb of Impy, on view at the MFA. Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty, 2350–2170 B.C. Courtesy of � Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, July 1914, neg. C758
Mechanical cleaning, especially brushing, was likely to follow any further cleaning as well.

Chemical methods that were commonly cited for use with metals include acid cleaning (from soaking an object in vinegar for several days, to the application of more concentrated acetic, hydrochloric, sulfuric, or formic acids) to remove copper oxides and burial incrustations; ammonia to remove silver chloride; and potassium cyanide to remove silver chloride and silver or copper sulfide. Often, these chemicals were used with heat and in combination with each other. Lucas (1932) advocated the use of alkaline Rochelle salts (sodium potassium tartarate) for the removal of corrosion from bronzes.

Electrochemical treatment using iron or zinc with a weak electrolyte of salt, vinegar, or lemon juice was used on silver (Petrie 1904; Rathgen 1905). Other variations included aluminum with sodium carbonate for cleaning tarnished silver, and zinc with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) for silver, copper, or bronze (Lucas 1932).

Electrolytic reduction was recommended by Rathgen and was seen as a method of preservation, especially for the treatment of bronze disease on Egyptian bronzes:

The efflorescences upon bronze known as creeping or malignant patina which may in time cause the complete destruction of the metal are due to the action of sodium chloride. It is found upon all Egyptian bronzes. … In the reduction processes an attempt is made to reduce these compounds again to metal, while the chlorine thus liberated forms chemical compounds, which may be subsequently washed out with water. (Rathgen 1905, 125)

The specific procedure preferred by Rathgen was based on the work of German chemist Adolf Finkener and was used on silver and bronze. The object, as cathode, was attached to platinum wire anodes in a solution of 2% caustic soda, and a direct current was applied. Many variations of this method have been published and are described by Gilberg (1988). Lucas felt that electrolytic methods were useful only in large museum laboratories and instead recommended soaking objects in a solution of sodium sesquicarbonate as a more accessible method for the treatment of bronze disease and one that would not destroy the patina (Lucas 1932).

Petrie (1904, 98) wrote, “Metals do not require much treatment in the field.” Perhaps not, but we know that at least some metal objects were treated in Egypt. For example, a silver mirror inscribed for King Amani Nataki Lebte and inset with gold and glass was found in 1917 at Nuri (MFA 21.338a–d; Dunham 1955). Excavation photographs show the piece with warty corrosion when found and extensively cleaned to bright metal at Giza Camp in 1919 (figs. 6, 7). There are no treatment records, and it is not clear who may have been doing such treatment at Giza at the time. Alfred Lucas is a likely candidate, but there is no evidence of his association with the Harvard Camp until later.

Lucas's treatment of one group of metal objects is documented in a typed page describing the analysis and treatment of a group of silver bracelets excavated from the 4th Dynasty tomb of Queen Hetepheres in 1926 (Lucas 1927; Reisner 1927). In describing his treatment, carried out in February and March 1927, Lucas wrote:“After cleaning, the silver was strengthened and protected by coating it repeatedly with a dilute solution of celluloid in amyl acetate. … The cleaning was done by means of formic acid (25 percent solution) followed by ammonia and washing in water” (Lucas 1927).

Fig. 6. Mirror of King Amani Nataki Lebte, as found at Nuri (Tomb Nu. 10). Nubian, Napatan Period, late 6th century B.C., silver, gold, and glass paste, 14 � 17.8 cm. MFA 21.338a–d. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, January 1917, neg. B2886

Most of these bracelets ended up in Cairo, with only some fragments coming to the MFA (MFA 47.1699–47.1701). Comparison of the MFA fragments with recent photographs of the pieces in Cairo shows a similar unevenly blackened and slightly pitted surface. Recent Fourier transform infrared reflectometry (FTIR) analysis of the MFA bracelets has confirmed the presence of celluloid. However, the analysis also found evidence of numerous other treatment materials, including rubber cement, a natural resin varnish (e.g., damar), and shellac, suggesting several campaigns of treatment over the years.

Lucas used celluloid both as an adhesive and as a coating. Other materials that were used in the coating of metals were paraffin wax, gumdamar, and poppy-seed oil (Rathgen 1905), as well as mastic resin and shellac (Lucas 1932).

Fig. 7. Mirror of King Amani Nataki Lebte (fig. 6), at Harvard Camp, Giza, after cleaning. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, Summer 1919, neg. B3737



The ceramic, faience, and glass collection at the MFA consists of approximately 13,000 ceramics (most of which have not, as of this time, been accessioned and are unpublished), more than 21,000 faience, and approximately 700 glass pieces. This count includes ceremonial and domestic material, as well as thousands of unbaked mud seals from the Second Cataract Forts in Nubia, often still in their original packing. The ceramics from Egypt and Sudan are considered the most comprehensive collection outside the Nile Valley. The faience collection, mostly from Nubia, represents a unique group, as does the glass, which is the largest collection outside of the Mediterranean.


One of the primary issues related to the preservation of ceramics and faience in the field was the presence of salts. This problem has been documented at all Egyptian excavations, and as a result, standard procedures were developed to deal with it in the field: desalination and/or consolidation. Reisner's field notes document that “deteriorating and rotted” faience artifacts were buried in clean sand in order to slowly dry them out (Reisner 1923b). This insightful measure probably allowed the salts to migrate out of the objects into the sand and could have prevented entire layers of glaze from lifting off due to rapid drying. We cannot determine how effective this procedure was since the particular objects treated in this manner were not recorded. This is the only treatment method specifically described by Reisner.

Petrie wrote in his field notes that the pieces were desalinated for weeks and dried in intervals to encourage the salts to rise to the surface so that they could be brushed off (Petrie 1904). Rathgen soaked objects to remove salts and kept detailed records of the process and methods of measuring the levels of chloride extraction, as did Lucas (Rathgen 1905; Lucas 1932). Salty, fragile objects were also coated with molten wax (Jaeschke and Jaeschke 1988) or 1% celluloid prior to desalination (Lucas 1932).

Prior to the desalination of fragile objects, such as painted pottery that could not be first immersed in water, Lucas recommended cleaning in petroleum spirits followed by a coating of celluloid. This procedure was also used for the removal of fatty deposits from the interior of vessels (Lucas 1932).

Unfired ceramics were routinely baked to enable salt extraction. Unfired clay objects that could not be baked were consolidated with celluloid (Lucas 1932) or with a benzine-varnish mixture (Rathgen 1905). Soaking in solutions of hydrochloric acid was recommended for removing calcareous accretions from baked, unfired, and fired artifacts, followed by thorough washing (Lucas 1932; Rathgen 1905).

Although no documentation exists for the materials used to repair breaks on ceramic and faience objects at Reisner's excavations, MFA object records suggest that mucilage was very commonly used (this was the case, for example, with all the ceramics excavated at Giza in the 1920s). However, a wide range of materials was known to be used during this period. Lucas (1932) frequently repaired breaks in ceramics and faience with celluloid cement. Plaster of paris was also used for breaks in addition to filling large gaps (Lucas 1932). Ceramic artifacts from Petrie's excavations were typically repaired with animal glue and shellac (Jaeschke and Jaeschke 1988; Norman 2002). For broken earthenware artifacts, Rathgen also recommended animal glues, such as warm Cologne glue or Syndeticon thinned with vinegar; for fills, chalk, plaster, brick dust, or fire-clay dust mixed with fish glue, while larger gaps were filled with “stone cement” (Rathgen 1905). A few objects excavated in 1911 are documented in the treatment records as having been repaired with an adhesive that contained barium sulfate (commonly identified in more recent MFA examination/condition reports as the “intractable adhesive”).

More novel approaches published by Rathgen include consolidation of clay objects with Belmontyl oil, which would have given them a lacquered appearance. Surfaces of glazed vessels were restored by impregnating them several times with a mixture of poppy-seed oil and benzine, whereas friable clay objects were treated with egg white, fish glue, dilute solutions of warm size, or shellac (Rathgen 1905).

Both Lucas and Petrie suggested removing degraded glazes from faience by washing and then rubbing or abrading the surface with fine emery paper, followed by coating with molten wax (Lucas 1932; Petrie 1904). Also recommended, but not as effective for saturation as wax, was coating with olive and poppy-seed oil (Lucas 1932). Flaking and broken faience was repaired with celluloid cement, and it was noted that should the flakes no longer fit, they could be shaped using a file or emery paper (Lucas 1932). Faience objects were treated with a wide variety of materials. However, records from one particular site document a group of shawabtis as being treated with sealing wax mixed with shellac. These were all repaired around 1903, probably using the only material available at the time.

At the MFA, many faience figurines were noted in their condition reports as exhibiting heavily worn or abraded surfaces. These may possibly indicate aggressive surface cleaning to remove degraded and disfiguring glazes, a common practice at all excavations, as mentioned earlier.

Early conservation records on glass are virtually nonexistent.

Loose beadwork, faience, or glass, was carefully washed in soap and water (Lucas 1932). However, if the beads were strung and the threads were deteriorated, melted paraffin was typically poured over the surface to retain their positions and enable lifting (Lucas 1932; Petrie 1904). Examples of this technique, as performed in the field, can still be found in the MFA's collection. The application of mud, accidental or intentional, has also enabled the preservation of original beadwork, bead order, and stringing methods, as seen with the MFA's broad collar of Ptahshepses Impy (MFA 13.3086), which Reisner's wife, Mary, was able to accurately reconstruct due to its remarkable state of preservation (Markowitz and Shear 2002–03). Field notes have shown that in addition to the broad collar, Mary Reisner was actively involved in the reconstruction of beadwork objects at other sites.

To remove soil and other accretions, glass was washed in warm soap and water (Lucas 1932). Rathgen recommended treating the glass with olive or poppy-seed oil, to resaturate the colors (Rathgen 1905). Weeping glass in some instances was washed in dilute sulfuric acid, followed by a coating of melted paraffin wax or celluloid or varnish (Lucas 1932), or washed, dried, and coated with Zapon (Rathgen 1905). Also used for repairing glass was celluloid cement and a mixture of glue (gelatin or isinglass), gum ammoniacum, and mastic in alcohol (Lucas 1932).

Through various documents we know of Lucas's involvement with MFA artifacts, principally with the material recovered from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres, although the nature of his involvement with the ceramics found there is uncertain. Many ceramics, both functional and ceremonial, discovered in the tomb, were damaged by the collapse of wooden supports on which they stood or by thieves who plundered the tombs or after excavation (Reisner 1927). The MFA Bulletin describes how, over a 10-year period, the Hetepheres ceramics were reassembled by qualified Egyptian workmen in the field (Reisner 1938). In addition, an archived image from 1917 documents Mary Reisner mending faience at Nuri Camp (fig. 8).

Based on the amount of correspondence that exists between excavations and colleagues, it can be assumed that many of the techniques practiced in the field by Reisner's contemporaries were probably adopted by him. For example, a bead net pot (MFA 20.1569a–c) excavated in 1914 and still in its original container is covered with a thick application of wax. As previously mentioned, this procedure was commonly used for salvaging beadwork at other contemporaneous sites. The various techniques and materials described in the early literature for treatment of ceramics, such as animal glue, shellac, and plaster mixed with hide glue fills, are very commonly found on artifacts at the MFA.

Fig. 8. Mary Reisner mending faience at Nuri Camp, 1917, Sudan. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, 1917, neg. D290



Nearly 4,000 alabaster vessels primarily from funerary contexts constitute more than half the stone collection. Limestone artifacts, in the form of architectural elements, sculpture, funerary equipment, vessels, and tools, make up approximately one-quarter of the stone collection. Granite (or other intrusive igneous rocks), sandstone, marble, and graywacke are other predominant materials used for stone sculpture. Carnelian, steatite, and flint are common in smaller, portable objects, such as tools, funerary equipment, and jewelry.

Stone sculpture has proven to be a significant source of knowledge of ancient Egyptian civilization. Temple and tomb reliefs record dated events, battles, foundation ceremonies, names, titles, and genealogies, all of which are fundamental to re-creating the social and political history of ancient Egypt. The collection also includes masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture, which stand both as valuable historic documents and as testaments to the superb craftsmanship of the ancient Egyptians.


Although Reisner's excavation diaries do not record any stone treatments, evidence of cleaning and reconstruction can be seen in excavation photographs (fig. 9). On occasion, treatment practices were discussed in written correspondence between Reisner and other excavation members.

Fig. 9. Courtyard of Harvard Camp, with fragments of the colossal statue of King Menkaure (Mycerinus) under reconstruction. 4th Dynasty, 2532–2510 B.C., Egyptian alabaster (calcite, travertine). MFA 09.204. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, 1907, neg. C462

Thick burial encrustations were mechanically removed from sculpture, and in the case of at least one limestone reserve head, dark staining, presumably from iron oxides in the soil, was reduced, possibly by soaking. Vessels were cleaned of their organic contents, most likely according to Lucas's published recommendations:

If the object is a vase it may contain organic matter, that, unless removed, may detract very much from the appearance, as the walls of the vases are frequently sufficiently thin and translucent for a dark material to show through. As much of the contents as possible should be scraped out with a piece of wood and, unless the material is definitely fatty in nature, the vessel should be filled with warm (not hot) water and left to soak, and afterwards washed out repeatedly with warm water. … If the contents of the vase are of fatty nature, or if water will not remove them, petroleum spirit, alcohol, acetone and benzol should be tried. (Lucas 1932, 199)

Cellulose nitrate was primarily used in the field as a consolidant, again most likely as advised by Lucas:“Celluloid is employed in dilute solution in a mixture of equal parts of acetone and amyl acetate, which is sprayed on the object or applied with small soft brush and is especially useful for bone, ivory, painted surfaces and stone” (Lucas 1932, 42).

Adhesives commonly used to reconstruct pottery were also used to mend small stone vessels and sculpture. Mucilage and animal proteins were used at Giza and Gebel Barkal, and an opaque white adhesive that contained barium sulfate and was insoluble in acids, water, and organic acids has been identified on stone vessels excavated at Giza from 1911 to 1916. Some large-scale and colossal sculptures from Giza and Gebel Barkal (fig. 10; see also fig. 2) were reconstructed in the field, but pieces of lesser importance appear to have been assembled in Boston. Weightbearing mends were pinned with metal dowels, in some cases brass, and plaster and calcium carbonate mixed with oil and an organic resin were chosen as structural adhesives. It is unclear if stone artifacts were desalinated in the field, and to what extent losses were filled, if at all.

Fig. 10. In situ fragments of colossal statue of King Aspelta (fig. 2), excavated at Gebel Barkal, Sudan. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, 1920, neg. B2680



The typology of wooden objects in the MFA collection generally reflects the manner in which wood was used in ancient Egypt. Wood was the most commonly found material for the fabrication of coffins, but was also used for the manufacture of sculpture, tomb models, furniture, tools, weapons, and domestic objects. Although indigenous sources of wood were relatively scarce, the ancient Egyptians' creativity and economy in the use of wood, coupled with environmental conditions favorable to its preservation, left a rich legacy of highly sophisticated wooden artifacts. Most of the species available to them were of relatively small dimensions, so joinery techniques were quite sophisticated, and methods were developed for the patching or reuse of otherwise unsuitable wood.

The collection of approximately 1,323 wooden objects includes 26 mummy cases and coffin panels and more than 120 polychromed wood tomb models from Bersha (Terrace 1967). Seventy-five of these are model boats, and there are examples depicting daily life such as bakeries, the activities of weavers, carpenters, beer brewing, granaries, and models of people, animals, and food.

The ancient Egyptians themselves attempted to compensate for the inherent instability of the multilayered structure of polychromed wood, sometimes adding a layer of finely woven fabric between the wood and gesso layer to mitigate damage from movement of the wood. This layer can be seen in the skirt of the statue of Wepwawetemhat (fig. 11; MFA 04.1780), which was also consolidated with a thick layer of wax after excavation. While the paint remains tented, it has been well immobilized by this process.

It is truly remarkable that so many wood artifacts survived thousands of years in Egyptian burials. Nevertheless, they have sustained a number of different types of deterioration, including soft rot, brown rot, fungal decay, and nonbiological forms of deterioration. Much Egyptian wood has been subjected to alkaline conditions, either through contact with limestone in tombs or by having been covered with gesso as a preparatory layer for polychromy or gilding. Even under low concentrations of alkalinity, exposure for long periods of time may cause significant damage (Blanchette et al. 1994). The presence of salts may also contribute to the deterioration of wood objects: under unstable environmental conditions salts take up and give off moisture, causing swelling and shrinkage that lead to mechanical damage to the wood (Blanchette et al. 1994).

Fig. 11. Standing figure of Wepwawetemhat, Asyut, 1st Intermediate Period, 10th or 11th Dynasty, painted wood, 112 � 23.1 cm, diam. 71.1 cm. MFA 04.1780. Excavation photograph, as discovered in 1903 by Chassinat and Palanque in an unplundered rock-cut tomb, Emily Esther Sears Fund, 1904. Courtesy of Une campagne du fouilles dans la n�cropole d'Assiout, by � Chassiant et Ch. Palanque, 1911, Cairo


Although the stable climate in Egyptian tombs has made possible the survival of a remarkable number of objects, many excavated objects suffered some damage and deterioration. Lucas wrote:“Many of the objects are in such a condition that before they are photographed, recorded, packed, or transported to Cairo they must be cleaned, strengthened and repaired” (quoted in Gilberg 1997, 38–39).

Rathgen observed that,“as a general rule absence of moisture in the earth is essential for the preservation of organic substances, and is the cause of the splendid condition in which objects of organic material are found in Egypt. … If organic substances such as wood … have lain in the immediate neighbourhood of oxidized bronze, and are thereby saturated with copper compounds, they show a very good state of preservation, which continues after they have been placed in a collection” (Rathgen 1905, 55). Petrie noted that wood could be damaged by rot and white ants and, to a lesser degree, the presence of salts. He further noted that even if stucco seemed firmly attached to wood, the gradual contraction of the wood would cause it to fall away unless it was secured with wax (Petrie 1904).

Tomb robbers were responsible for tremendous damage in tombs such as that of Djehutynakht at Deir el-Bersha, where some of the most spectacular wooden objects in the collection were found, including the Bersha coffins (MFA 20.1822; fig. 12) and the Bersha Procession (MFA 21.326; fig. 13). Difficult working conditions in the field sometimes resulted in damage to objects, in spite of the best efforts of excavators. The need to protect already fragile polychromy was of great concern. Regarding the excavation of the superb coffins from the tomb of Djehutynakht, A. Lyman Story, the MFA's registrar who oversaw the excavations at Bersha for Reisner, wrote:

The cover and outside of large coffin No. 4 was brought up today. Unfortunately, in bringing out the cover from under the massive debris, after it had left the pit, the men did not lower it enough and the inscribed part struck the gebel [Arabic for “mountain”] above making the small scars, one in the funerary text (which is the worst), and the other two in the border of large painted inscription, one in the top and one in the bottom line. The remainder of the coffin should be boxed before leaving the chamber. Said [Said Ahmed Said, Reisner's assistant] is in tears, and has been showering curses on the men. Everyone feels very badly about the accident to the cover. The cover was very heavy and took 20 men to carry it, and you know how small the space is between the mouth of the pit and the open. I was in the cave when it was brought in and saw at once what had happened, and I went at once and told Said. The rest of the coffin will be boxed before being taken from the chamber—which may be another case of locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen. (Story 1915, 79)

Rathgen noted that wood, often found moist, should be prevented from drying by wrapping in moist cloth and gutta-percha or moist moss. He stated that cracks could often be closed up by laying them in lukewarm water. Alternatively, a plaster cast could be taken and the original object then allowed to shrink (Rathgen 1905).

Lucas (1932) recommended the use of small bellows or soft camel-hair or similar small soft brushes for removing surface dust and dirt. More adherent dirt was removed with water, petroleum spirit, or alcohol with a soft brush. Wood should not be wetted unless it was hard and in good condition. If unpainted, it could be cleaned with a damp sponge. Lucas also stated that plaster should never be wetted (Lucas 1932). The water solubility of Egyptian colors was recognized, so the application of benzine with soft cloths or brushes was recommended for cleaning. Resinous or pitchlike substances were removed with turpentine mixed with benzine or ether. With reference to polychromed European sculpture, Rathgen (1905) mentioned other methods of cleaning, such as the use of copaiba balsam and ammonia, or mild soap. Such methods could have been utilized on ancient Egyptian painted wood as well.

Desalination of wood that was in good condition was carried out by soaking. If fragile, immersion in a very stiff jelly (presumably gelatin) for one or two weeks was recommended, followed by heating and removal of the wood, leaving the salt in the jelly. It was further noted that the gelatin would strengthen the wood (Petrie 1904).

Fig. 12. Outer coffin of Prince Djehutynakht: offering scene, late 11th or early 12th Dynasty, 2008–1836 B.C., painted cedar wood, 115 � 263 cm. MFA 20.1822. Courtesy of �Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2002, neg. SC29799

Fig. 13. Bersha Procession, after excavation from Tomb 10 A (Djehutynakht), early Middle Kingdom, late 11th or early 12th Dynasty, 2008–1836 B.C., Polychromed wood. MFA 21.326. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, summer 1919, neg. B3763

Objects too fragile to be lifted during excavation were coated with “superheated” wax, almost at the boiling point, which would thoroughly penetrate the wood. For dry but rotted wood, coating or immersion in beeswax or paraffin was recommended, as it was for wood with stucco in order to prevent the stucco and polychromy from falling off as the wood shrank. Petrie noted that “however firm the stucco may seem at first, the gradual contraction of the wood will make it fall away; but when once saturated with paraffin wax, this movement is stopped, and the stucco is held on to the basis” (Petrie 1904, 96).

Wax was also used as a stabilizing treatment intended to protect objects from the rigors of travel. Lucas recommended that the wax be very hot and the object completely dry, and that the operation be carried out in a warm area. Small objects could be gradually immersed, prewarmed if possible, but wax could also be applied with a pipette or brush or, for large objects, poured from a can or teapot (Lucas 1932). Excesses were removed by wiping surfaces with a soft rag while the wax was still liquid, or the object was warmed by placing it near a source of heat or with a hot spatula or soldering iron. If applied over varnished surfaces excess wax was removed with petroleum spirit and soft cloth to avoid harming the varnish (Lucas 1932). Lucas pointed out that paraffin has a melting range from about 105�F to 160�F, so it softened well before it melted; therefore he recommended prior removal of lower melting point fractions to avoid later softening under conditions of high heat. However, beeswax was preferred except where light-colored objects were concerned, because it had a much more definite melting point (140–49�F). Lucas also recognized that, unlike paraffin, the surface of beeswax tended to deteriorate through oxidation or mold.

Lucas described the treatment of the painted casket from the tomb of Tutankhamen, with a ground of white chalk plaster and a thin layer of varnish, which he considered to have been originally colorless but was now yellowed with age. Blisters on the plaster were filled with paraffin applied by means of a pipette or applied as wax in petroleum spirit; fragments were secured with celluloid cement, and then the entire surface was sprayed with dilute celluloid. The entire box was covered with a thick coating of hot paraffin wax. He described the difficulty of removing the varnish to see original colors because of wax coating, presuming that the original varnish should be removed (Lucas 1934). However, in the description of the treatment of the coffin of Henettawy (MFA 54.639; fig. 14), varnished with a colored resin in antiquity, Winlock described treatment in the field with paraffin, excesses of which were washed off, leaving the unaltered ancient resinous coating intact (Winlock 1942).

Celluloid could be sprayed on or applied by brush. Lucas recommended celluloid in acetone and amyl acetate at 2%, which was then diluted to 1% for use. He acknowledged that the celluloid was yellow, but at 1% he felt that it imparted little color and was the best choice available in many instances (Lucas 1932). Glue, casein, celluloid, and plaster of paris were recommended as adhesives for wood by Lucas (1932). Tapioca water was also recommended for fixing colors on stucco (Petrie 1904).

Rathgen (1905) recommended that moist or wet objects be placed in thin size or isinglass solution until saturated, then dried slowly in a shady place. A solution of shellac, or varnish diluted with petroleum or benzine, was then put on with a brush. Sometimes the objects were placed directly into a mixture of varnish and petroleum or impregnated with melted paraffin. The varnish and petroleum mixture was preferable as a means of impregnation if there were cracks or holes because of the ease with which the superfluous solution dripped from the wood when it was taken out. Paraffin, however, set too quickly and imparted an unnatural white appearance to the wood. Owing to the large size of the vessels that would be otherwise required, paraffin was only useful for small or medium-size objects, but when making use of varnish, one end of a large object could be placed in the mixture while the solution was repeatedly poured over the object, placing the opposite end in the solution after two or three days, repeating until consolidation was complete.

Rathgen (1905) also mentioned other methods developed by late-19th-and early-20th-century practitioners whose names became associated with particular restoration techniques. In Leiner's method, wet wooden objects were laid in glycerin mixed with a small percentage of carbolic acid, taken out, and lightly wiped to wash off mold. Speerschneider's method involved heating in rapeseed oil, beeswax, pine resin, and benzene. Herbst's method involved boiling in saturated alum solution, brushing afterward with hot linseed oil, and then coating with varnish or shellac.

Fig. 14. Coffin of Henettawy, 3d Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty, 1075–945 B.C., polychromed wood, length 187 cm (inner coffin). MFA 54.639, 640, acquired by exchange with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of �Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, neg. 2459. The face, probably gilded, was removed from the coffin in antiquity, most likely by priests adding another burial to the tomb.

Rathgen recommended gum-damar solution but preferred colored collodion for coating polychromed objects. Presumably the purpose of applying varnish was to stabilize flaking polychrome. In addition to celluloid, a dilute solution of damar resin (incorrectly often called “gum” damar) in benzol or petroleum spirit was recommended, as was mastic resin in alcohol or a dilute solution of bleached shellac in alcohol. These were used at about 5%, but all were slightly yellow (Lucas 1932). Rathgen also recommended isinglass or glue as preferable to damar or shellac, with the addition of corrosive sublimate or formalin (Rathgen 1905).

8.2.1 Bersha Coffins

The tomb of Djehutynakht (fig. 15), which was unearthed in 1915, had been plundered in antiquity. The ends of the spectacular painted wood coffins had been ripped off, and mummified remains and burial

Fig. 15. Tomb of Djehutynakht, Deir el-Bersha, showing ends of coffins removed by plunderers. Late 11th or early 12th Dynasty, 2008–1836 B.C. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, May 1915, neg. C6810
objects had been strewn on the floor. As already mentioned, the removal of the coffin pieces was particularly difficult, requiring 20 men to lift the cover. The inscription was damaged as it struck a limestone outcropping during removal. Regarding the fragile condition of the surface, Story again wrote to Reisner:

It will be a wonder if any of the inscription on the parts of the large coffin which were in the pit is saved, for it drops off at the slightest touch. Said and I gave one section a coat of the varnish this afternoon, and large photos will be made of the inscription before packing. I regret to say though, that it worked the wrong way for instead of fastening the stucco to the wood, it pulled it away curling up all the edges. Said says it cannot be saved. A large photo will be made of the inscription, and then I will have the whole surface padded and try to get it to Cairo. That is, unless you give me further instructions. I shall not use the varnish on any of the other inscriptions, though something should be done to secure the line of inscription on the outside of coffin 4, part of which had dropped off and other parts nearly dropping off. But this is on this stucco also. (Story 1915, 82)

This varnish was probably a solution of cellulose nitrate. The contraction problem associated with this material was one Lucas had noted: “an excess of celluloid (i.e. either too strong or too many coats of a dilute solution) may cause paint to crack and raise up in small saucer-shaped fragments” (Lucas 1932, 42–43).

The coffin pieces were boxed and sent to Cairo but were not shipped by boat to Boston until 1919 because of World War I. They were packed in cheese-cloth and cotton, with “wood wool” between the outer case and inner case. During shipment, a fire that broke out in the hold of the SS Clan Murdoch resulted in water damage to some pieces. Some artifacts were described as being “badly mildewed and covered with frost,” others “colors rubbed and dimmed.” Because of the fire, the ship was diverted to New York and the cases not opened until they got to Boston. Although they were triple-boxed, the cotton wool in which they were wrapped had become soggy and rubbed the painted decoration. Story further noted that since the wood had been dry for thousands of years, the soaking would cause it to disintegrate much more quickly than it would have otherwise (Story 1920). It was noted that an object in the shipment that was coated with paraffin had suffered no damage, even though the case housing it had been wetted.

8.2.2 Djehutynakht Funerary Models

The tomb of Djehutynakht contained more polychromed wood models than any other Middle Kingdom burial known to the present day. Because of the activities of tomb robbers, these were found strewn in great disarray throughout the tomb chamber and had already suffered from disarticulation, flaking, and staining. Their fragile condition is evident in photographs taken during excavation (fig. 16; see also fig. 13) and in those of the Bersha Procession published by Terrace (1967). The Bersha Procession, the most finely executed of these, was reconstructed in the field before being shipped to the MFA. Some component parts were mismatched during this reconstruction, a situation addressed during a retreatment at the MFA (Roth and Roehrig 1989).

8.2.3 Hetepheres' Furniture

Queen Hetepheres' tomb contained gilded and polychromed wood furniture including an inlaid bed, chairs, a bed canopy, a curtain box, and a gold-and silver-covered headrest. Much of the wood was in extremely fragile condition or had already disintegrated, reportedly as a result of fungal attack (Reisner 1932), leaving for the most part only gold casings or inlays to describe their shapes. The meticulous recording of dimensions and positioning of fragments in this excavation allowed for the accurate reconstruction of this suite of furnishings. Lucas was closely involved in the restoration of the furniture, and on his advice the remaining wood was consolidated with a 2% solution of celluloid dissolved in amyl acetate (Reisner 1927). It was immediately decided that accurate reproductions should be made.

The reconstruction of originals and fabrication of replicas were conducted more or less simultaneously, the original material to remain in Cairo, the reconstructions for Boston. These were produced by a number of people working together, including Dows Dunham and his wife, Marion Thompson;Will A. Stewart, a painter and director of technical education for Egyptian government schools who restored the bed, chairs, bracelet box, and canopy; and Joseph Gerte, who made the copy of the canopy for Boston. The fragments of the curtain box were reconstructed, and a copy was made simultaneously by Haggi Ahmed Youssef, a technical assistant at the Cairo Museum (Reisner 1927). Immense difficulties were overcome in restoring these objects from fragments of gold leaf or, in the case of the carrying chair, from wood, which had shrunk to one-sixth of its original volume.

Fig. 16. Boat models in the plundered tomb of Djehutynakht, Deir el-Bersha, May 7, 1915. Late 11th or early 12th Dynasty, 2008–1836 B.C. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, May 1915, neg. C6818

8.2.4 Henettawy Coffins

The coffins of Henettawy (21st Dynasty) (see fig. 14), which were excavated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entered the MFA collection in 1954. Constructed from wood with plaster reinforced with superbly woven fine linen, they were elaborately painted and varnished. They suffered from water damage in the tomb, the wood having swelled and contracted and the plaster rotting in successive drenchings. They had been treated with paraffin in the field. The wax was melted almost to boiling and applied with brushes or squirted into cracks with a syringe. The plaster was described as becoming elastic and could be pushed back into contact with the wood while still warm. Because of the colored varnish, color saturation was not considered a problem (Winlock 1942).



Objects and substances of organic nature provide a particular wealth of botanical and faunal information, the importance of which Reisner understood early on. Due to the mostly utilitarian or decorative uses of these materials, viewed secondary to fine art, much remains unpublished, unaccessioned, and unknown to date. Of approximately 1,000 accessioned objects, more than 700 consist of bone and ivory.

Natural fibers were used for the production of baskets and funerary sandals and for coil, string, and cordage. Burial goods also include food offerings, grains, and flowers. Animal materials such as leather, hide, and gut can be found on clothes, scabbards, and as tying materials, while human and animal hair was essential for the production of wigs. Leather objects from Kerma occasionally contain applied decorations of faience or metal. Woven fur strips appear on a seat cover from Kerma, and ostrich feathers were worked into fans. Bone and ivory supplied carving material for small amulets, bangles, inlays, game pieces, seals, sculptures, furniture inlays, and other decorative items. Also used for beads and jewelry were ostrich egg, shells, mother of pearl, and amber. Tortoise shell and horn were shaped into knife handles, combs, and inlays. Natural wax has survived in the form of small figures or as a paint medium on later mummy portraits.

Mummified human and animal remains and preserved body parts and organs are integral to Egyptian funerary culture and, thus, to excavations of necropolises. Most of the osteological material found by the Harvard University–MFA Expedition is now housed at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, while human and animal mummies remain at the MFA.

Often, residues of oils, fats, and resins can be found in stone and ceramic vessels, intentionally applied as varnishes on polychromed wood or as embalming or libation materials on coffins and mummy wrappings. Composite organic substances constitute cartonnages, built from layered linens, soaked with gum, and shaped as coffins, mummy trappings, or containers, which were often finished with gesso and painted. Textiles and papyrus, a sizable part of the collection, are treated by other disciplines.


Most of the methods discussed here were found in the early conservation literature and are evident on objects in the collection. Much was written about ivory and bone, but other materials are covered less thoroughly. While Petrie and Lucas were intimately familiar with Egypt, much of Rathgen's work was also concerned with finds from northern European archaeological contexts.

9.2.1 Bone and Ivory

Lucas (1932) mentioned the washing of bones with soap and warm water, but cautioned that, overall, water should be used sparingly and better warm than cold. He stated that ivory in good condition could be cleaned with damp sponges or brushes; in poor condition it should not be wetted, and soaking should be avoided since it could lead to splitting. Petroleum spirit could be substituted for water on fragile surfaces (Lucas 1932).

The impregnation with wax, applied in melted condition by immersion or gradually by brush and pipette, was advocated by Lucas (1932) as an ideal treatment method for many types of materials in the field. He elaborated on the importance of choosing an appropriately high melting type to avoid its melting on objects in the summer. Paraffin wax was used for bone, horn, ivory, plaster, and wood (Lucas 1932). He was also aware that paraffin could pose significant difficulties to subsequent laboratory treatment, since it was almost impossible to remove, and therefore he asked for alternative methods if extensive future work was anticipated. Ivories in Nineveh were boiled in gelatin, which Lucas thought would be disastrous on Egyptian pieces; he also mentioned the use of glue by Wolley at Ur (Lucas 1932). Lucas advocated strengthening of ivory with a 1% solution of celluloid.

Petrie (1904) discussed ivory that can be flaking, particularly in wet soil, and advised that it be block-lifted and dried slowly before brushing off soil. He also was in favor of paraffin wax and suggested that darkening, caused by wax, could be removed with a poultice of heated fuller's earth. Of all the organics other than wood, he seemed to focus only on ivory and bone.

Rathgen (1905), on the other hand, preferred isinglass, or glue since aqueous solutions could be used on damp material. He recommended the use of dilute solutions at high temperature of approximately 120�F, perhaps in combination with a bell glass. Fragile pieces should be bound with strips of gauze, and the addition of corrosive sublimate to the glue would prevent mold growth (Rathgen 1905). After such an impregnation he advocated coating with shellac or resin.

Petrie (1904) observed crystalline carbonate accretions on ivory, which were harder than the original substrate. After consolidating the ivory in wax and wiping off its excess with benzol or ether, he recommended the use of nitric acid to dissolve the crystalline lime: “Even strong nitric acid will only dull the surface of waxed ivory, and not remove any perceptible amount, while it dissolves the concretion rapidly” (Petrie 1904, 92).

Lucas (1932) also addressed the problem of accretions, but in a more careful manner recommended dilute acid (5 parts hydrochloric acid, 95 parts water), which would be brushed repeatedly and needed to be washed out until test results were neutral.

Petrie's (1904) recommendations for desalination of wood, discussed above, could also be applied to bone or ivory.

One of the MFA excavation publications states that bone can be “treated with a solution of shellac in spirit before being measured or the skull repaired, as they were in fragile condition” (Dunham and Simpson 1974, 21). Lucas cited Kish's method of “melted wax poured over the bones until they were carefully encased in a damp proof solid envelope” (Lucas 1932, 75–76).

9.2.2 Leather

Rathgen (1905) preferred the Copenhagen method, which rendered leather soft by placing it in train oil for an hour and then drying it with filter paper. He recommended lanolin as well as poppyseed oil in benzene.

Lucas (1932) observed that leather was subject to deterioration and became brittle when dried. In heat, it could turn almost viscous, and it would blacken upon drying and take on the appearance of resin. He warned that exposure to sunlight and sulfuric acid could be damaging, particularly on certain vegetabletanned leather. Well-preserved leather could be cleaned with soap and water, as neutral as possible. According to him, the leather should then be brushed while still damp with a rag, and castor oil could be used to restore its suppleness. He also cautioned against the use of oils that turned acidic (animal, vegetable, neat's-foot, and olive oil) and recommended castor, lanolin, sperm oil, and Vaseline, sometimes used warm. Oil and grease darken leather, however, and dyed or light-colored leather could easily be spoiled. He noted that if leather had become too brittle, a mixture of 75% alcohol and 25% castor oil was useful. Cockroaches, silverfish, and beetles were recognized as dangerous, and methods to control them will be discussed below (Lucas 1932).

9.2.3 Fabrics and Hair

Rathgen (1905) stated that other than removal of earth and soil, not much was needed for fabrics and hair. After drying, impregnation with a gum-damar solution, poppy-seed oil, or a solution of India rubber seemed desirable.

9.2.4 Feathers

Rathgen (1905) recommended immersion in alcoholic solutions of corrosive sublimate or spraying with corrosive sublimate in alcohol or aqueous solution, which he realized was poisonous. He mentioned that naphthalene was not always useful; neither was finely powdered pepper, when mixed with alum. Lucas (1932) recommended strengthening brittle feathers by spraying them with a very dilute solution of celluloid (approximately 0.5%).

9.2.5 Horn

According to Lucas (1932), horn did not need more than cleaning with lukewarm water, but he warned against insect attack.

9.2.6 Basketry

Basketry became desiccated and brittle, but remained fairly stable in the Egyptian environment, requiring surface cleaning. Saturation with melted paraffin wax was the only recommendation Lucas (1932) had for severe cases. He saw the darkening effect of the wax as desirable.

9.2.7 Resins and Wax

The extent to which true amber (fossilized resin) was available in ancient Egypt is unknown, but in the past, various artifacts that may have been made from lumps of modern resins may have been misidentified as ambers, and treatments considered appropriate to amber may have been applied to these. Lucas (1932) thought that fossil resins, since they were buried for geological times before being used by man, would not be adversely affected by burial and could be washed with soap and water. Rathgen (1905) suggested mechanical cleaning by rubbing between fingers covered with a woolen glove and by impregnation with shellac, poppy-seed oil, and isinglass. He also mentioned the preservation of amber in distilled water to which were added small amounts of glycerin and alcohol; greater than 1% of the latter would be injurious to the amber.

Other resins, according to Lucas (1932), were often brittle and too tender to bear any treatment other than washing in warm water or brushing. He suggested that repairs could be carried out with celluloid cement. He cautioned against the use of alcohol and other solvents on resinous varnishes, but he removed deposits of organic nature (grease, oil, resin, and tar) with organic solvents.

Lucas (1932) wrote that ancient beeswax was cleaned with soap and water, as well as alcohol, and that it was treated by chloroform applied with brushes.


Lucas and Rathgen both appear to have been more concerned with long-term preservation issues than was Petrie, reflecting the nature of their backgrounds as chemists working with museums, in comparison with the archaeologist who worked in the field. Awareness of environmental issues with respect to storage and display was high even in the 1920s.

Rathgen (1905), for example, pointed out the importance of exhibition cases to protect against dust and the public. He also advised that objects on exhibit should avoid direct sunlight, heat, and variations of temperature and that labels should not be attached with iron wire. Lucas (1932) discussed the fading effects of lights on textiles, paper, papyrus, and wood. Stating that even diffused daylight could be damaging, he preferred artificial light. He mentioned the effects of temperature and choices of fabrics and colored glass to minimize effects on the objects. He also pointed out the damaging effects of moisture, which was essential for the growth of bacteria and fungi as well as the action of salts and other chemical changes, such as reactions with sulfuric gas in the air. He recommended drying agents and that organic materials be kept as dry as possible, mummies in particular.

In 1932, Lucas described the beginnings of integrated pest management strategies used today, seeking to prevent access and to kill pests if objects became infested (Lucas 1932). As preventive measures, the following were recommended for insertion into exhibition cases: paradichlorbenzene, naphthalene, or thymol. Otherwise, fumigation with carbon disulfide or ethylene dichloride and carbon tetra-chloride was recommended, as were arsenic and copper compounds, but not for antique objects because they required immersion in a water solution. Rathgen quoted a 1904 lecture by Bolle regarding destruction of “animal enemies” of organic materials with carbon bisulfide, which had no effect on colors if perfectly dry (Rathgen 1905).

To destroy woodworms in an Egyptian coffin, a benzene-saturated atmosphere was used, or naphthalene, heated to sublimate. Aqueous potassium arsenite, corrosive sublimate, or petroleum could also be poured into holes and openings in the wood to eliminate larvae (Rathgen 1905).


The research presented here was in large part made possible by the extensive photodocumentation, field notebooks, and records created by Reisner. Living institutional memory, former reports, and the new museumwide database, which has prompted the need to record the museum's holdings in their entirety, have also been invaluable in piecing together the history of the treatment of the MFA's Egyptian Collection. This research also confirms the vital importance of documenting a collection's history, its archival materials, and the analysis of previous conservation methods and materials. We have furthermore drawn on influential early publications by Petrie, Lucas, and Rathgen, which discuss what could be considered standard procedures for the time and undoubtedly reflect what was done to some of the MFA objects before they came to Boston.


For providing advice, memories, resources, and support, thanks are due to Arthur Beale, Lawrence Berman, Emma Copley, Nicole Crawford, Michele Derrick, Denise Doxey, Rita Freed, Joyce Haynes, Alice Klein, Jean-Louis Lachevre, Peter Der Manuelian (who also generously supplied many of the images published here), Yvonne Markowitz, and Richard Newman.

Scientific analyses referred to in this article, unless otherwise noted, were performed by the MFA's Scientific Research Department by Richard Newman and Michele Derrick, and are not published.


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SUSANNE G�NSICKE received a certificate in archaeological conservation from the R�misch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, Germany, in 1987, followed by an advanced-level internship at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in objects conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She worked as site conservator at the New York University Apis Expedition at Memphis, Egypt, and at the MFA Expedition at Gebel Barkal, Karima, Sudan. Currently associate conservator of objects in the Department of Conservation and Collections Management, she has been employed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 1990. She has published and lectured widely on the technical study of ancient Egyptian and Nubian material culture and on issues of site preservation. Address: Objects Conservation, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass. 02115

PAMELA HATCHFIELD is head of objects conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she has been employed since 1985. She has a master's degree in art history and a certificate in conservation from New York University. She served an advanced-level internship at the Harvard University Art Museums and has worked and volunteered in conservation at numerous institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Harvard University Art Museums, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Grenada National Museum. She has also served as site conservator on the New York University Apis Expedition at Memphis, Egypt, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Expedition to the Western Cemetery at Giza. She has held numerous positions within AIC, including program chair and chair of the Objects Specialty Group, AIC Board member (director for public outreach), and chair of the Publications Committee. Under a Kress Publications Grant from AIC, she has recently authored Pollutants in the Museum Environment: Practical Strategies for Design, Exhibition and Storage. With Jane Carpenter, she published Formaldehyde: How Great Is the Danger to Museum Collections? Her research interests include the museum environment, the examination and treatment of archaeological wood, polychrome, and stone, and Egyptian gilding methods. Address as for G�nsicke

ABIGAIL HYKIN is associate conservator of objects in the Department of Conservation and Collections Management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She received her M.A. and certificate of advanced study in objects conservation from the State University College at Buffalo, New York, in 1992. She continued her training at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Fogg Art Museum, and the MFA. She was assistant conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum from 1995 to 2000. Address as for G�nsicke

MARIE SVOBODA is a graduate of the State University of New York, College at Buffalo, Art Conservation Program, receiving her M.A. and certificate of advanced study in 1994. Her postgraduate experience includes positions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her interest and love for the conservation of archaeological material has led her to work at excavations in Turkey, Pakistan, and Honduras. As of 1997 she has been an assistant conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Address as for G�nsicke

C. MEI-AN TSU received her M.S. in objects conservation from the University of Delaware in 1995 and held conservation fellowships at the Freer Gallery of Art, Harvard University Art Museums, and Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education. She has worked as an archaeological conservator in Turkey, Israel, Honduras, and Pakistan and is currently involved in the preservation of cuneiform tablets in Turkey. Prior to becoming an assistant conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2000, she was a project coordinator and assistant conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Address as for G�nsicke

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