Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lego helps save ancient Egyptian mummy case

Thanks to an ambitious conservation project, the ancient Egyptian cartonnage mummy case of Hor, a little-known treasure of the Fitzwilliam Museum, is now on display after years in obscurity.

The conservation of the mummy case was undertaken with the assistance of the University’s Department of Engineering, who helped construct clever frames to support the delicate case during conservation and a new display mount with internal supports using LEGO®.

The mummy case was found in the Ramesseum at Thebes by Quibell in the Ramesseum in 1896. The gilded wooden face had been torn out by robbers and the mummy removed.

Cartonnage is a uniquely Egyptian material, often only a few millimetres thick, consisting of layers of plaster, linen and glue. It is remarkably rigid but also very sensitive to humidity. At some point the Hor cartonnage had been exposed to damp conditions and had sagged dramatically around the chest and face. This caused structural problems and serious cracking and instability in the painted decoration. There had been some attempts at repair and restoration, most probably in the cartonnage’s early years in the Museum with some of the gaps  filled in with a blue-green paint.

The cartonnage is decorated with scenes from the underworld books, which can be seen on the walls of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor; the colour scheme is also unusual.

In the recent project, the conservators wanted to reshape the cartonnage by using humidity to soften it and allow it to be manipulated. But introducing water into this material was risky because the painted surface is very easily damaged by moisture, and furthermore, if the whole cartonnage were softened at once there was a real danger it would collapse. Introducing water in a controlled way to the distorted area could only really be done if the cartonnage was face-down – but the fragile state of the chest and face made this almost impossible.

Luckily, help was available from the University’s Department of Engineering. In the latest of a series of collaborations with the Museum’s conservators, the Department offered the problem as a project for a final year student. The challenge was taken up by David Knowles. In close consultation with the Fitzwilliam, David devised and made a frame to suspend Hor face-down while the reshaping was carried out. Using a combination of traditional wooden frames and mouldable materials designed for medical use, Hor could be completely supported for weeks at a time, allowing conservator Sophie Rowe to reshape the cartonnage very gradually.

Once Sophie had successfully reshaped the chest and face and stabilised the surface, David designed and built a display mount for the mummy case. An essential part of this is the internal support which ensures that the structure cannot collapse again in the future. Six light, ingenious little structures made from LEGO® have been placed inside the chest cavity. They are adjustable using screw threads, and are padded with archival foam where they are in contact with the ancient surface.

A great result for Hor, who can now be displayed safely and for David, who was awarded a prize by the Department of Engineering for his final presentation on the project! See the video here: Video

Past Horizons. 2012. “Lego helps save ancient Egyptian mummy case”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 15, 2012. Available online:

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