Layers and layers: An overview of treatment approaches for Egyptian cartonnage at the Penn Museum

Tessa de Alarcon and Alexis North


Egyptian cartonnage is a particularly complex material, creating unique challenges  around treatment, display, and storage. Both flexible and rigid, it is built up of layers of linen or papyrus (or sometimes both), followed by gesso, and finally paint. Each of these layers has its own conservation challenges. These objects are funerary in nature and would have originally been part of an assemblage of burial material for a deceased mummified individual. All the pieces presented in this paper have been physically separated from the mummified individuals they originally belonged to. In most cases, this happened prior to entering the museum collection, though a few were separated after entering the museum. The separation and removal of these pieces from the mummified individuals they covered has caused some of the observed deterioration, as well as further improper storage. Observations also suggest that certain paint colors are more prone to deterioration and loss than others. Preliminary pigment characterization was conducted using non-invasive methods such as portable X-ray fluorescence and multi-modal photography.

Recently, a group of over 20 cartonnage objects has been treated at the Penn Museum, either as part of an IMLS grant-funded project to treat Egyptian funerary material, or as part of the preparation for the installation of new Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries. This paper will examine deterioration trends associated with past handling and storage, the different types of cartonnage construction, as well as preferential flaking of specific paint colors. The prevalence of each issue and how it may relate to the manufacture and treatment/handling history of the object will be discussed.  Current treatment approaches will also be presented with a focus on consolidation, humidification, and proper support for these complex objects both in storage and on display.

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29