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08.09.2017

Tru Vue Blog: Conservation of Egyptian Coffins

Jennifer Marchant, Conservator of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was a recent recipient of funding from the Tru Vue grants scheme to help her attend the Second Vatican Coffin Conference, an important event in the ancient Egyptian coffin research calendar!

The conference had an extremely packed programme, with 70 papers over four days and the talks took place in the Vatican Museum under the watchful gaze of rows of Roman sculpture.

In my job at the Fitzwilliam Museum, I’m involved in a project to research and conserve our collection of ancient Egyptian coffins. With other colleagues, I produced a paper for the conference to present our recent work on the inner coffin of a man called Pakepu. This was a chance for us to show how layers of textile, plaster and painted decoration were applied after the mummified body was sealed into the wooden coffin. Going to the conference gave me the chance to discuss this technology with many other conservators, scientist and Egyptologists.

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At a conference as rich as this, it’s hard to express everything that I learnt, so I’ll just pick out a couple of the themes that are most important to me.

A number of papers explored evidence for the reuse of coffins in ancient Egypt. More and more examples of reused coffins are being discovered, something I’ll consider every time I examine our own collection. This can be reuse of fragments of wood, or wholesale coffin reuse with just a name or small element of the decoration altered.

Secondly, several papers showcased conservation techniques; notably, a paper about the conservation of three wooden coffins at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. One coffin was missing the end of its nose; this loss drew the eye away from the original decoration. The conservator applied a layer of colour matched Japanese tissue to the loss. This subtle solution is easily reversed, allows people to concentrate the coffin itself, but is easily identified as a modern intervention.

As well as keeping us busy with plenty of papers, we were lucky to have been given a private tour of parts of the Apostolic Palace not usually on the tourist trail, including the Cappella Paolina where the Cardinals assemble ahead of each conclave when a new Pope is chosen. Amongst the spectacular painted decoration, I spotted the word "conservator" up above one of the doorways, presumably a mark left by an early restorer. One idea from this conference I won’t be applying to my own conservation work!

Jennifer Marchant has been a conservator within the Department of Antiquities since 2012. Her work involves conservation treatments, condition checking objects for incoming and outgoing loan, courier duties and research and documentation of ancient construction materials and techniques. 

Image: Inner coffin of Pekepu, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge ©

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