How comfortable do you feel surrounded by skeletal remains and natural mummies? The symposium hosted by the British Museum left no areas unturned, from the excavation, conservation and curation of natural mummies, and allowed participants of the day access to natural mummies from their extensive collection.
Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British museum, kicked the day off by considering the legal aspects and ethics in the curation of human remains. A huge 91% of the British population appears to be on side with the display and retention of human remains by museums for research purposes, but there are obligations. The display of human remains less than 100 years old does not sit well on some peoples’ shoulders and named remains attract a similar apprehension. This seems at odds with the display of Egyptian mummies that often have their names inscribed on their cartonnages, but maybe the longevity of these mummies makes their display more palatable.
Derek Welsby, assistant keeper in archaeology of Sudan and Egyptian Nubia, and Daniel Antoine followed with a description of the problems involved in the excavation of skeletal remains and natural mummies from their resting places, in this instance, the fourth cataract of the Nile Valley, Sudan. Skeletal remains dating back to the Neolithic period were uncovered from various burial sites and natural mummified bodies from the medieval period were excavated from this previously understudied region of The Sudan. Over a 1000 skeletal remains and naturally mummified bodies were donated to the British Museum by SARS, the Sudan Archaeological Research Society via the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan. For the past two years the British Museum have been undertaking research into population genetics and the pathology of these Nilotic human remains. A human remains database has been created by the museum that will open up the research potential of these people, negating the need for physical interaction and reducing the risk of damage to the bodies.
Barbara Wills, conservator of organic artifacts at the British museum had the job of surveying the mummies. She examined, photographed, assessed the needs of each individual and established a strategy for stabilization. Barbara was in the wonderful position of receiving a Clothworkers Conservation Fellowship that allowed her to put all of her time and effort into the development of a passive method of stabilization and display. Barbara has a wonderfully calm demeanor that exudes respect for humanity. I don’t know whether she had this disposition before she started work on the mummies or whether the mummies taught her this respect on her travels with them. A workshop on the second day of the symposium allowed for the exploration of these stabilization and display methods that Barbara developed during her fellowship and shall be discussed later.
The life of the Nilotic people is unraveled not only from research into the human remains but also by analyzing the textiles and leather excavated along side the bodies. Caroline Cartwright, from the department of conservation and scientific research at the British Museum, gave an excellent talk about the problems and pitfalls of trying to identify materials that may have been in close proximity to soft tissues and Anna Harrison, a senior conservator of organic materials at the British Museum, followed with the issues surrounding the conservation of archaeological textiles. Of particular fascination was the discovery of human hair mats that were treated like dry archaeological wool and the revelation that an imprint of a textile may be present on a skin sample even if the textile no longer remains.
A lunch break allowed time for a visit to the temporary exhibition: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, where a number of the curatorial issues discussed in the morning session could be seen in practice. The use of explanatory and contextual information was well presented and tasteful lighting within display cases offered respect to the mummies.
Nancy Odegaard from the University of Arizona and Arizona State Museum resumed proceedings by discussing the post-excavation deterioration of the Chinchorro mummies of Arica, Northern Chile. The storage facility for the mummies is far too hot and humid and the mummies are acting as the environmental buffer. Deterioration was manifesting itself in the form of a ‘black ooze’ emanating from the bodies. A quick, easy and inexpensive solution to this problem was the introduction of some locally sourced hygroscopic wall coverings that took over the work of attempting to stabilize the environment.
A Sudanese mummy offered Joanna Russell, from the department of conservation and scientific research at the British Museum, the opportunity to use HPLC to investigate the dyes present in colourful textiles adorning the body. All dyes identified, Pseudopurpurin, Purpurin, Alazarin and Indigotin were used in Egyptian dying.
Marie Vandenbeusch, a project curator in the department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, used infrared reflectography on a tattoo found on the upper leg of a naturally preserved female mummy from medieval Sudan. The tattoo represents one of the earliest known surviving examples of a tattoo from this period and region and represents a Christian monogram of the Archangel Michael. (images found at: http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/06/26/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt-and-sudan/) Of particular interest was the fact that it was mainly women that were tattooed and this particular tattoo was hoped to provide protection under Michael, the patron saint of Nubia.
Heather Bonney, a collections manager for human remains and repatriation at the British Museum, discussed the general curation and digitization of the human remains collection at the British Museum. Human remains can be acquired via three different routes. They may have been purchased anatomical specimens, ethnographic collected remains or they may be from an archaeological context and each requires different legal documentation for their storage and display. Osteoware software and the Oracle Word database were then discussed for the digitization of the collection. (The Oracle Word database is really tailored towards a British archaeological context).
Finally but certainly not least Emily Taylor and Simon Prentice, museums assistants at the British Museum, gave a superb talk about the safe packing and transportation of human remains. It is essential that all remains are carefully photographed before travelling so they can be referred to after unpacking and the person unpacking the remains must be able to deconstruct and replicate the packing easily so it must be simple but effective. Cellite honeycomb boards were used instead of the old-fashioned mummy boards but beware, do not use the Aluminium version of the boards if the mummy is to be sent for a CT scan as the Aluminium interferes with the scan.
Barbara Wills lead the second day of the symposium. She gave us an insight into the development of an inexpensive, simple, reversible, reliable and relatively quick way of displaying human remains for display or research using Plastazote LD33 and LD45 (polyethylene foam), PTFE tape and sheets (polytetrafluoroethylene, plumbers tape) and Polyester wadding.
Plastazote LD45 covered in Tyvek (a spun bonded olefin material that is inert and gas permeable) can be placed on a cellite board onto which the mummy can be displayed. Plastazote LD33 can be cut into shape and pinned to the board, offering support or preventing movement.
Fig. 1 Artificial bones being supported or held in place by Plastazote LD33.
There should be at least a 10cm boarder to the outside of the human remains to prevent damage to any delicate parts when being transported. Barbara demonstrated a quick and easy way of cutting the plastazote into shape using only a big sharp knife. (Figure 2)
Fig. 2. Fold the strip of Plastazote LD33 and cut on the outside of the fold. Cut as deeply or as shallow as needed to create the supporting structure.
The wonderful thing about PTFE is that it adheres to itself through static attraction only. There is no adhesive involved! PTFE sheet can be wrapped around Polyester wadding that has been fluffed, to create really soft ‘pillows’. Really soft ‘pillows’! ‘Pillows’ of the size and shape you require. (Figures 3 and 4)
Fig. 3. Barbara Wills demonstrating the construction of a small PTFE and Polyester wadding ‘pillow’ used for the support of a very fragile part of a body.
The PTFE polyester wadding ‘pillow can be pinned directly to the board or supported in a cut piece of Plastazote LD33 to give extra support. This was named ‘The Mushroom’.
Fig 4. Barbara Wills demonstrating the construction of a skull mount using fluffed Polyester wadding wrapped in PTFE sheet. Barbara made a sausage shape that she then curved round and pinned in place. Plastazote LD33 cut into wedge shapes can be pinned at each pole position to offer additional support.
A sheet of PTFE could be pinned to a Plastazote LD33 surround creating a hammock like structure. This could support very fragile parts of a body that would not survive using a conventional support.
PTFE tape can be wrapped directly around a fragile part of a body that needs to be held together and, as there is no adhesive involved it is completely reversible. When the static property of PTFE could potentially be damaging to a fragmented part of a body or where hair is present then the static can be eliminated quickly by shooting a beam of electrons at the material from an antistatic gun. Conventional tying can then be used to hold the PTFE in place.
Barbara Wills was apologetic to those attending the workshop as she considered her ideas simple. However, the simple ideas are sometimes the ones that are overlooked and missed. Barbara has developed a system that can stabilize and display any human remains without the need for chemicals and consolidants. The mummies we observed had been displayed in a manner that negated the need to move them for research purposes. However, if a research project did come along that required the movement of any of the bodies then this could be easily achieved without too much intervention, minimizing any damage that might occur to these priceless human remains.
Author: Julie McBain, MSc student at Cardiff University.
Photographs: Renata Peters, Lecturer, University College London