This year UCL Conservation has embarked on an exciting new collaboration with the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). MSc students will be working on five cartonnage foot cases from the society’s collection as part of their study of conservation methods for organic materials.
What is cartonnage?
Cartonnage is a sort of Ancient Egyptian papier-mâché. Cartonnage objects were formed over a core from layered linen and papyrus and covered in gesso in preparation for painted decoration. Cartonnage was used for the inner cases of elite coffins in the early Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC) and Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC), but by the Late Period (644-525 BC) the practice had fallen out of fashion. Cartonnage technology was employed again during the Greco-Roman Period, referring to the period of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt (323-30 BC) as well as that following Emperor Augustus’ invasion of Egypt in 30 BC. The Roman Pharaoh’s reign coincided with a change in how cartonnage was made, where the papyrus used to construct cartonnage objects was no longer sourced from recycled documents.
The foot cases currently at the UCL conservation labs were most likely excavated in the Faiyum, el-Hibeh or Oxyrhynchus at some point between 1896 – 1907. After excavation, the objects were packaged and padded using local sheep’s wool, and removed from Egypt with the intention of extracting their papyrus substrate for translation by Western papyrologists. The collection, which includes gilded cartonnage mummy masks and mummified crocodiles, has been left largely untouched for over one hundred years.
What is our role as conservators?
Cartonnage is an understudied material. It is our hope that the conservation treatments of these objects will aid further research, both through the conservation process and by facilitating future access.
The foot cases exhibit a myriad of condition issues, including powdering and cracking paint, delaminating layers, and splits and deformations. Ink markings are visible on underlying papyrus layers in areas of damage, suggesting that the objects were made before 30BC. We know that the cases were painted with the pigment Egyptian blue, which has a characteristic fluorescence when imaged using a 950nm infrared digital camera filter.
During lockdown the cartonnage team started experimenting with the working properties of various starches and cellulose-derived adhesives. We also made our own replica foot cases in order to approach the challenges of backing and clamping splits on an object of similar shape and fragile, laminate structure. Now that we have returned to the UCL labs, we look forward to continuing our investigation and treatment of this fascinating material.
Who are the EES?
Based in London and Cairo, the EES supports the preservation of Egyptian heritage through research, publication and training. The institution was founded in 1882 by Amelia Edwards (1831 – 1892) and Reginald Stuart Poole (1832 – 1895), with a view to supporting British archaeology in Egypt.
In 1888 Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), UCL’s first Edwards Chair in Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, excavated the cemeteries at Hawara on behalf of private patrons. Petrie found cartonnage mummy cases from the Greco-Roman period as well as papyri and portraits painted in pigmented wax (the Faiyum portraits). In a move to investigate these later periods of Egyptian history (anything after the Pharonic period was, and still is, considered late) the Greco-Roman branch of the EES was established in 1897. The branch supported the work of papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell (1869 – 1926) and Arthur Surridge Hunt (1871 – 1934). Grenfell and Hunt excavated sites around the Faiyum area, most famously Oxyrhynchus, ‘The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’, whose rubbish dumps yielded vast amounts of papyri. These documents—letters, edicts, receipts and poems written in a range of languages from Greek to Aramaic—are still being published today.
The Nile Delta excavations are closely linked to the Christian identity of the British Empire. Grenfell and Hunt garnered the financial support of senior bishops and caught the imagination of the public with the excavation of the ‘Logia’, or sayings of Jesus from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. The early Christian text began the Oxyrhynchus papyrus archive as P.Oxy.1.1.
The EES archives also include lantern slides, photographs and diary entries. The collection documents British excavations in Egypt, and crucially, the historically unacknowledged work of Egyptian archaeologists without whose expertise and labour the excavations would not have been possible.
Throughout lockdown the EES provided a programme of webinars on a range of subjects from Egyptian obelisks in Rome (Dr Luigi Prada, University of Oxford) to the racist and supremacist origins of Egyptology in the West (Dr Heba Abd el Gawad, Durham University). The programme is ongoing, and more information can be found on the EES events page: https://www.ees.ac.uk/Pages/Events/Category/events.