October 17, 2012

Mummy, Want To Play With My Legos?

How do you repair an ancient Egyptian cartonnage mummy case?  With research, painstaking patience, historically accurate materials, space age engineering, and apparently LEGO’s

The cartonnage case of Hor had been existing in obscurity in storage at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The case was originally found in a temple at Ramesseum at Thebes, Luxor, in 1896.  Grave robbers had torn out the face and the mummy removed, which took away in internal support the case had.

“It came to the museum pretty much after the excavation, and was certainly displayed, but then its history is a bit mysterious,” said Julie Dawson, senior assistant keeper of conservation.

Cartonnage is a uniquely Egyptian materials process, with delicate layers of plaster, linen and glue generally only a few millimeters thick.  The problem with cartonnage is that it is very rigid, but extremely susceptible to humidity.  Hor was exposed to damp conditions at some point since it was retrieved in 1896, and had sagged dramatically around the chest and face.  The paint was cracking, the structure was becoming unstable and that is why the Fitzwilliam called in the scientists from the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department to help.

The conservators at the Fitzwilliam wanted to use controlled humidity to push the chest and face back out, but to do that, they had to work with the cartonnage facedown.  This was almost impossible because of how fragile it was already.

The Engineering problem offered this problem as a project for a final year student, and David Knowles, structural engineering student, rose to the challenge.

“I love history and engineering, and this was a great way of combining the two,” he said.

Knowles devised and made a frame to suspend the cartonnage facedown while the humidity was applied and the reshaping done.  He used a combination of traditional wooden frames and moldable materials designed for medical use.  Now Hor could be supported for weeks at a time, which gave conservator Sophie Rowe the chance to reshape it gradually.

Image Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum / University of Cambridge

“David made something that looks like an instrument of torture with a sort of helmet, and shoulder pads made of mesh they use in hospitals for making casts. This could be shaped with heat so we could get a very precise fit and precise support,” Ms Dawson said. “The case could then lie face downwards so Sophie could work through the back, very slowly.”

Once Rowe had Hor reshaped and stabilized, the next problem they encountered was creating internal support to replace the shape of the body and keep the cartonnage from collapsing again. As part of the display case, Knowles created six light little structures from LEGO bricks to place inside the chest cavity.  They are covered with archival foam at top and bottom where they touch the ancient cartonnage material, the LEGO structures are also adjustable using screw threads.

It took Knowles about eight weeks to design and build the LEGO platforms.  He considers them a “flash of inspiration.” They were his favorite toys as a child and according to Knowles they are used quite often in the engineering department.

Project supervisor, Simon Guest, a reader in structural mechanics in the engineering department, said: “This is such a good outreach activity for us to show that engineering is not just about metal-bashing and sums.  It’s also about interesting objects and doing things that help the public.”

The LEGO supports will not deteriorate over time, making them the perfect permanent internal support.  Knowles was awarded a prize from the engineering department for his creativity.

“We’re delighted it’s restored. It’s considered to be an extremely important object of its type. Although it still looks quite damaged it’s a beautiful piece, so to be able to bring such a major object out after so many years living sadly in the basement is a really great result for us,” Dawson added.

The Hor cartonnage mummy case is now on permanent display at the Fitzwilliam.

Featured Image Credit: Scott Rothstein / Shutterstock

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