Most of the students and faculty have vacated Ann Arbor for the summer break, but it’s always busy here in the Kelsey’s conservation lab! This month we’re hard at work on all kinds of things.
My main work this month is to finish a book and an exhibition with my colleague Geoff Emberling. Focused on ancient graffiti at the site where we work in Sudan (El-Kurru), these projects have been fun. We’ve learned a lot by working on the book, and the exhibition has been an interesting exercise in how to share the story of El-Kurru and its graffiti with people who will probably never travel there.
Many exhibitions can display objects from a far-away archaeological site to tell a story, but in our case, we can’t transport the El-Kurru pyramid and funerary temple to Ann Arbor (although we can try to fake it). So it’s been a big challenge not only for us but for Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, our Kelsey colleagues who are responsible for the exhibition design, installation, and graphics.
Spring has officially sprung here in Ann Arbor, which means that the sun is (sort of) shining, the townies are out and about, and the next American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual meeting is just around the corner. Suzanne continues in her role as VP/ organizer-in-chief of the conference program, whose theme this year is “New Tools, Techniques and Tactics” in conservation. This year I’ve got a pretty cool job too, as I’ll be chairing a special session on research strategies in settings with limited resources (think archaeological sites, small museums, etc.). This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, and I was happy when it was accepted as one of six concurrent sessions that are proposed and organized each year by AIC members.
The idea of member-proposed sessions is relatively new to AIC, and a great thing about them is that they tend to cover topics that appeal to conservators who work on different materials (like objects, paintings, books and paper, textiles, etc.). Other session topics include imaging, gel cleaning, and contemporary art conservation. Conservators and scientists presenting in my session work within a range of specialties, including architecture, archaeological materials, indigenous heritage, electronic media, and preventive conservation. I’m interested in learning how these folks figured out how to conduct analysis on materials in remote areas, or adapted a well-known investigative technique to a new research question. In other words, I want to explore the penchant for problem-solving that so many conservators have, regardless of the types of objects they work on.
For any conservators reading this post, we encourage you to drop in on one of these sessions and hope to see you at AIC New England in May!
Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.
First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.
Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.
A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.
Happy New Year! My January has gotten off to a good start, because I spent most of December working at the beautiful site of Abydos, Egypt. Abydos is an ancient Egyptian royal cemetery site, and the Kelsey has a field research project there, directed by museum curator Janet Richards. We have a number of special conservation projects at Abydos, and the one I’m most closely involved with focuses on preservation of painted wood artifacts at the site. When they’re excavated, these objects are in truly terrible condition (rotten wood that’s chewed by termites, with bits of paint raining off into piles in the sand), and then the conservation team is responsible for putting them back together, taking care of them, and studying them along with the rest of the research team. It is interesting work, but my favorite thing about work at Abydos isn’t the work, it’s the people I work with.
Although the entire team is great, I’ll specifically call out the conservation colleagues I worked with this year (after all, this is a conservation blog post) — Hamada Sadek and Eman Zidan.
Hamada is a professor of conservation at Fayoum University. He is an incredibly thoughtful and careful conservator. He’s practical and good at bench treatment, but he also does research and publishes, AND he really likes teaching. He is a lot more patient than I am. Our in-lab dialogue is usually like this:
Me: Let’s get this thing done right now!
Hamada: GAH! Slow down! Did you even look at this, Suzanne??
Eman Zidan has worked in conservation and heritage preservation for both the Egyptian Museum and the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, and she’s currently taking some time off so she can finish her master’s degree in preventive conservation. This is her career mission — facilitating and improving care of archaeological collections throughout Egypt, including at places like Abydos. This is an area where I often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by the scope of the work, but Eman is calm and able to plan for things like termite infestations and pest control (think snakes) in storage areas.
Although I appreciate Eman and Hamada for their unique contributions to the conservation program at Abydos, for me personally they have also been important peer-mentors. I’m especially grateful to the American Research Center in Egypt, whose generous funding has given me the chance to work with them. Thanks, ARCE!
One of the best parts of being a conservator, in my view, is the opportunity to do research. Here at the Kelsey, we do a lot of research in support of the conservation and care of the Museum’s collections as well as Kelsey-sponsored archaeological field projects. In our efforts, we accumulate a lot of books. Sure, plenty of information we use comes to us in PDF or other non-print format. Yet somehow, even in this digital age, books of all shapes, sizes, and subjects have taken up residence in our lab at a starling rate, to the point where things start to go missing among the piles. From time to time — often at the behest of a lending library or a fellow researcher — we let go of a few of them. A recent “return” pile made me laugh. The stack contained books on trade routes, conservation materials, geochemistry, Egyptian painting, and at least three other seemingly unrelated topics. The only thing these books had in common was the fact that they are bound blocks of text with chapters, references, and page numbers. They were otherwise complete strangers, hailing from disparate corners of the bibliographic universe.
Why so many books? One reason is that Suzanne and I have made a big push recently to publish some of the research we’re doing. This means checking sources, conducting literature reviews, and verifying information left and right. The research itself has been pretty wide-ranging, from computational imaging of ancient graffiti to chemical analysis of pigments on artifacts. This is where the diverse subject matter of the books in our lab starts to make sense. Conservators often find themselves needing to answer many different types of research questions. Sometimes these focus on figuring out how cultural materials were made and used. But more often than that, they’re about developing ways to characterize and slow artifact deterioration. Cultural heritage preservation is our primary goal, after all! Conservators have always been active in presenting their work at conferences, and an increasing number are publishing their practical experiences in books and journals. This means more peer review, and even more helpful references to fill our lab with. All good things, in my book!
The first session focused on ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The ASOR group works on cultural heritage preservation in conflict zones and receives funding from a variety of important sponsors. They focus on documenting damage due to conflict, promoting global awareness of heritage in conflict zones, and planning emergency and post-war responses. We heard from archaeologists working on projects in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. If you love a) human life, and b) archaeological and built heritage, these papers aren’t easy to hear. And yet, it was good to see the important work ASOR is doing in partnership with local communities and heritage professionals in areas suffering from prolonged conflict and instability.
Our second session looked at wider preservation initiatives for archaeological heritage and community-focused projects at archaeological sites. We heard about a great photo archive project at the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), where archival photographs of Jordanian heritage are being digitized and made publicly available; this form of virtual site preservation is also a special form of time travel, since researchers can see early images of important sites. Following this presentation, a report from Tel Mozan about the ongoing site preservation and presentation work by local community members and Syrian professionals made me jealous that I don’t work there; I would happily hear multiple days of papers about this project! We also heard from two other wonderful community-engaged projects: the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project, and the Umm el-Jimal Project, which is doing so much cool stuff — like water conservation — with its community, it’s hard to know what to explore here. You’ll have to check it out for yourself.
The conference was also interesting for many other reasons. In addition to lots of great archaeology papers and posters (many by current or former IPCAA students), I attended several meta sessions about ASOR itself. For example — the name, is it time to change it? The member consensus was “yes!” Other big topics were: where and how the organization should hold its annual meetings, and how the group would like to develop its research over the next fifty years. I was impressed by the commitment of the ASOR and ACOR boards to transparency and the desire to engage members in these kinds of decisions. It was an inspiring meeting, as always, and I hope you enjoyed this update about it. Check out some of the links above!
Happy fall from the Kelsey Conservation Lab! In celebration of my favorite season, Suzanne and I bring you this gem from our conservation image archive: multispectral CANDY CORN! Here in the Conservation Lab we use multispectral imaging (MSI) primarily for research. MSI involves illuminating artifacts with ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, and then capturing the results in an image. Some ancient pigments and dyes reflect and emit light in characteristic ways, and MSI can be used to identify them. We also occasionally deploy MSI for the sheer fun of it — because who wouldn’t want to see what their favorite corn syrup-infused Halloween candy looks like under ultraviolet light?
The image above presents candy corn four ways. Starting at the upper left, the first is in visible light (VIS), or how you’d expect your candy corn to look in a glass dish on your coffee table. Below that we have longwave ultraviolet light (UVL), which causes the candies’ ingredients — possibly the food dyes — to fluoresce different colors. (Cool! And slightly disturbing?) The black-and-white image at the upper right (IRR) shows the candy in infrared light, revealing that candy corn is pretty darn good at reflecting infrared radiation. (Who knew?) And finally we have an infrared false color image (IRR-FC), which transforms the infrared reflectance into distinct colors. This is a post-photo capture process that can help ID pigments, and could tell us something about the food dyes if only we had a multispectral database of such things. (A girl can dream ….)
I for one will continue to consume candy corn in spite of all this information, because nostalgia is a powerful thing, my friends. Thanks for tuning in to our blogroll, and many thanks to former graduate intern Janelle Batkin-Hall for capturing these inspired multispectral candy corn images.
By Caroline Roberts, Conservator, and Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation
Emergency preparedness is very much on our minds right now. Real-life disasters have been happening around the world: Hurricane Florence, Typhoon Mankhut, and the terrible fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Our thoughts are with the people and communities affected by these events, while the events themselves serve as sobering reminders of how important it is for museums to plan for emergencies. Here at the Kelsey Museum we have the ability to plan in a special way: by responding to an entirely pretend disaster.
Every other year, the University of Michigan’s Department of Emergency Management organizes and runs a tabletop drill for us, in which we respond to and recover from a made-up disaster scenario. In August we had our third such drill and — as happens every single time we participate in one of these exercises — we found ways to improve our plans for response and recovery. Our thanks to Sydney Parmenter, emergency management specialist at U-M, for organizing and leading this year’s exercise. Talking through each response decision, thinking about the roles we would each need to play as responders, and seeing where problems are likely to occur — this all helps develop our preparedness as a team. Real life is different from a drill, and we’re fully aware that we’ll never be perfect, but this series of unfortunate, hypothetical events always informs and empowers us to improve.
Last week Suzanne and I took on the daunting, seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning out the Conservation Lab. When Suzanne mentioned earlier this summer that she wanted to schedule a lab cleanup, I thought she meant getting rid of some cardboard boxes, the used swabs … the usual tidying up one does in warmer months when there’s enough light to see things starting to pile up.
Oh, was I ever wrong.
What Suzanne had in mind was in fact a purge of all unused STUFF that had accumulated since her arrival at the Kelsey some 16 years ago, as well as a number of things that were here pre-Suzanne. We’re talking camera and microscope parts adapted to long-gone bodies; sad-looking Dremel tools that have seen better days; files that, at this point, belong in some sort of archive. We discovered the residues of past experiments — including blobs of dried-up green goo that I’m pretty sure were my doing — and various and sundry samples of artifacts, grout, bugs, and debris from now-ended research campaigns.
There were moments of extreme indecision on my part, but Suzanne never wavered in her quest to rid our space of excess. Were it not for her drive and vision for a cleaner lab, I’m pretty sure we would have failed, with me buried under a pile of unused condition report template forms, never to be seen or heard from again. Thankfully, she got us through it. As a result, the lab has some rediscovered room to grow, and I learned quite a few things about the history of the Kelsey’s conservation department.
I recently returned from a few weeks of work at one of the Kelsey Museum’s excavations — the site of Notion in Turkey. Notion is a beautiful, rugged, and windswept site on promontory jutting into the Aegean Sea, and it’s interesting from a research perspective because it preserves an entire city, albeit at ground level.
For the past three years, I’ve been working with Notion team to assess the site’s condition and the ongoing risks to its long-term preservation in order to develop a sustainable plan for its conservation. Conservation planning at Notion is interesting and challenging for many reasons. One is that the city is built from a few stone types that have inherent problems (translation: the stone is falling apart). Another is that Notion is poised to develop — and be conserved — in a way that’s uncommon for an archaeological site. Because the site has remained almost untouched, it preserves a large stretch of pristine coastline and is home to quintessential Mediterranean ecosystems. Unlike many archaeological tourism destinations in Turkey, Notion provides an opportunity for something closer to ecotourism, a type of sustainable tourism designed to benefit local communities at the same time that it encourages conservation and enjoyment of the natural environment. This poses a special conservation challenge: How can the site be preserved in ways that are unobtrusive and retain the value of its natural as well as archaeological features?
To give you a view into some of the difficult decision-making around this, here is one small example, focused on oregano. Yes, this star of summer cookery plays a major role at Notion! Notion’s wild oregano is incredibly powerful; it makes the site smell amazing, it’s attractive, and people come from all around the region to harvest it. But … it’s also a pesky condition risk to our falling-apart stone. It grows particularly well inside the blocks of the Temple of Athena. Not around them. In them. The oregano is literally breaking them apart.
So the question becomes, which is more important? The temple? The oregano? Thankfully it grows in other places on the site, too, so if we decide to remove it at the temple, we won’t doom this herb to destruction (but I secretly think the oregano from the Temple of Athena is the best on the site). At the moment, the Notion team is still in the planning phase for excavation and conservation, so we’re not yet ripping this herb out wholesale. We do, however, occasionally harvest small amounts for our own use, and I will leave you with one recipe for it — a cocktail created by the conservation and site management team at Notion. Enjoy!