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Two days into taking apart a 4,000-year-old Egyptian funerary boat, researchers at Carnegie Museum of Natural History noticed something that no one had ever seen before.
There were tiny crystals tracing the hollowed-out end of a few of the ancient boat’s cedar boards. They sparkled against the dark wood, making it appear like a geode.
“We have no idea what they are,” says Lisa Haney, an Egyptologist and assistant curator of the future Egypt on the Nile exhibition at the museum.
There is no record of crystals in the documented history of the 30-foot-long boat unearthed more than a century ago in Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo. Determining what they are and how they got there will be part of the work that Museum Conservator Gretchen Anderson will be conducting over the next few years before it is reassembled as part of the new exhibition.
Anderson and her team spent three months planning its disassembly and relocation to a conservation lab about 100 feet away from where the boat has been on display in the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt since 1990.
The funerary boat was constructed from roughly three dozen individual boards—the largest of which is nearly 14 feet long and 130 pounds—attached through a kind of dovetail peg system known as “tenon joints.” Museum staff carefully detached each one, cataloged it, and laid each on an individual shelf in the lab, where they will undergo extensive analysis and testing as Anderson attempts to fill in the gaps of the artifact’s history.
“To improve preservation we need to have a better understanding of what was done to it in the past,” Anderson says.
Opportunities like this are rare. There are only three other boats like it in existence—another is at Chicago’s Field Museum and the other two are in Cairo. This particular object has been in the care of Carnegie Museum of Natural History for more than a century, but it has been disassembled only a handful of times. The last time the boat was taken apart was more than three decades ago.
The boat began as a royal funerary boat of pharaoh Senwosret III, but that was only the start of its 4,000-year journey. It’s been through a lot just since it arrived in Pittsburgh in 1901. Museum staff have used a variety of chemicals on it, and visitors at one point were even able to touch the boat, leaving hand oils on the wood. Anderson’s work over the next few years is figuring out what chemicals and pigments are original to its construction, and what happened after it was unearthed.
First, it will undergo a light dusting. Then tests will be performed to identify chemicals and inorganics saturated in the wood. And finally, any fragments that are in danger of breaking off will be reattached using an adhesive that won’t negatively interact with previous treatments.
Anderson is particularly concerned about an Eisenhower-era cleaner called “Wife’s Pride.” Records show that it was applied to the Dahshur boat, but the product isn’t available anymore and so it’s tough to distinguish which chemicals came from that product versus others.
Fortunately, technology has come a long way since 1990, when only 15 percent of U.S. households owned a personal computer. Thirty years ago, conservators would have used microscopes, ultraviolet light, and magnification, and treatment reports would have either been handwritten or typed on a typewriter. Today, conservators have more analytical tools at their disposal, including X-ray fluorescence and electron microscopes.
“To improve preservation we need to have a better understanding of what was done to it in the past.” – Museum Conservator Gretchen Anderson
Decades ago, X-ray fluorescence equipment used for non-destructive chemical analysis required a specialist to operate, and the machines were so large they filled an entire room. Today, the technology is hand-held.
Also, the data processing capability of personal computers has vastly improved. A smartphone app today requires more storage than the average hard drive had 32 years ago. The tools that Anderson has at her disposal are infinitely more sophisticated than what her predecessors used.
“With science, we’re all looking at data,” Anderson says. “And that’s what you’ll find when you talk to any of the curators—it was done manually, but now we can model all sorts of things digitally.”
The whole experience has been both exciting and unnerving for Haney. As an archeologist, she’s accustomed to excavating pieces of artifacts and putting them together, not taking them apart.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of taking something apart versus putting something back together,” Haney says. “But it’s really exciting; and, honestly, this boat deserves the type of attention and care that it’s going to get in order to continue to be such a special part of the material in our care that we get to share with people.”
The public won’t see the Dahshur boat for two to three years. When it emerges, it will be the centerpiece of an exhibition about life on the Nile River, which Haney hopes to relate to the importance of rivers in Pittsburgh.
But first, Anderson has to investigate curiosities like those crystals. Later testing revealed that they came from a pesticide that was used to treat the wood at some point. They weren’t there 4,000 years ago, or even 40 years ago. But they are now, which makes them part of the boat’s story.
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