JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 167 to 192)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 167 to 192)





The ceramic, faience, and glass collection at the MFA consists of approximately 13,000 ceramics (most of which have not, as of this time, been accessioned and are unpublished), more than 21,000 faience, and approximately 700 glass pieces. This count includes ceremonial and domestic material, as well as thousands of unbaked mud seals from the Second Cataract Forts in Nubia, often still in their original packing. The ceramics from Egypt and Sudan are considered the most comprehensive collection outside the Nile Valley. The faience collection, mostly from Nubia, represents a unique group, as does the glass, which is the largest collection outside of the Mediterranean.


One of the primary issues related to the preservation of ceramics and faience in the field was the presence of salts. This problem has been documented at all Egyptian excavations, and as a result, standard procedures were developed to deal with it in the field: desalination and/or consolidation. Reisner's field notes document that “deteriorating and rotted” faience artifacts were buried in clean sand in order to slowly dry them out (Reisner 1923b). This insightful measure probably allowed the salts to migrate out of the objects into the sand and could have prevented entire layers of glaze from lifting off due to rapid drying. We cannot determine how effective this procedure was since the particular objects treated in this manner were not recorded. This is the only treatment method specifically described by Reisner.

Petrie wrote in his field notes that the pieces were desalinated for weeks and dried in intervals to encourage the salts to rise to the surface so that they could be brushed off (Petrie 1904). Rathgen soaked objects to remove salts and kept detailed records of the process and methods of measuring the levels of chloride extraction, as did Lucas (Rathgen 1905; Lucas 1932). Salty, fragile objects were also coated with molten wax (Jaeschke and Jaeschke 1988) or 1% celluloid prior to desalination (Lucas 1932).

Prior to the desalination of fragile objects, such as painted pottery that could not be first immersed in water, Lucas recommended cleaning in petroleum spirits followed by a coating of celluloid. This procedure was also used for the removal of fatty deposits from the interior of vessels (Lucas 1932).

Unfired ceramics were routinely baked to enable salt extraction. Unfired clay objects that could not be baked were consolidated with celluloid (Lucas 1932) or with a benzine-varnish mixture (Rathgen 1905). Soaking in solutions of hydrochloric acid was recommended for removing calcareous accretions from baked, unfired, and fired artifacts, followed by thorough washing (Lucas 1932; Rathgen 1905).

Although no documentation exists for the materials used to repair breaks on ceramic and faience objects at Reisner's excavations, MFA object records suggest that mucilage was very commonly used (this was the case, for example, with all the ceramics excavated at Giza in the 1920s). However, a wide range of materials was known to be used during this period. Lucas (1932) frequently repaired breaks in ceramics and faience with celluloid cement. Plaster of paris was also used for breaks in addition to filling large gaps (Lucas 1932). Ceramic artifacts from Petrie's excavations were typically repaired with animal glue and shellac (Jaeschke and Jaeschke 1988; Norman 2002). For broken earthenware artifacts, Rathgen also recommended animal glues, such as warm Cologne glue or Syndeticon thinned with vinegar; for fills, chalk, plaster, brick dust, or fire-clay dust mixed with fish glue, while larger gaps were filled with “stone cement” (Rathgen 1905). A few objects excavated in 1911 are documented in the treatment records as having been repaired with an adhesive that contained barium sulfate (commonly identified in more recent MFA examination/condition reports as the “intractable adhesive”).

More novel approaches published by Rathgen include consolidation of clay objects with Belmontyl oil, which would have given them a lacquered appearance. Surfaces of glazed vessels were restored by impregnating them several times with a mixture of poppy-seed oil and benzine, whereas friable clay objects were treated with egg white, fish glue, dilute solutions of warm size, or shellac (Rathgen 1905).

Both Lucas and Petrie suggested removing degraded glazes from faience by washing and then rubbing or abrading the surface with fine emery paper, followed by coating with molten wax (Lucas 1932; Petrie 1904). Also recommended, but not as effective for saturation as wax, was coating with olive and poppy-seed oil (Lucas 1932). Flaking and broken faience was repaired with celluloid cement, and it was noted that should the flakes no longer fit, they could be shaped using a file or emery paper (Lucas 1932). Faience objects were treated with a wide variety of materials. However, records from one particular site document a group of shawabtis as being treated with sealing wax mixed with shellac. These were all repaired around 1903, probably using the only material available at the time.

At the MFA, many faience figurines were noted in their condition reports as exhibiting heavily worn or abraded surfaces. These may possibly indicate aggressive surface cleaning to remove degraded and disfiguring glazes, a common practice at all excavations, as mentioned earlier.

Early conservation records on glass are virtually nonexistent.

Loose beadwork, faience, or glass, was carefully washed in soap and water (Lucas 1932). However, if the beads were strung and the threads were deteriorated, melted paraffin was typically poured over the surface to retain their positions and enable lifting (Lucas 1932; Petrie 1904). Examples of this technique, as performed in the field, can still be found in the MFA's collection. The application of mud, accidental or intentional, has also enabled the preservation of original beadwork, bead order, and stringing methods, as seen with the MFA's broad collar of Ptahshepses Impy (MFA 13.3086), which Reisner's wife, Mary, was able to accurately reconstruct due to its remarkable state of preservation (Markowitz and Shear 2002–03). Field notes have shown that in addition to the broad collar, Mary Reisner was actively involved in the reconstruction of beadwork objects at other sites.

To remove soil and other accretions, glass was washed in warm soap and water (Lucas 1932). Rathgen recommended treating the glass with olive or poppy-seed oil, to resaturate the colors (Rathgen 1905). Weeping glass in some instances was washed in dilute sulfuric acid, followed by a coating of melted paraffin wax or celluloid or varnish (Lucas 1932), or washed, dried, and coated with Zapon (Rathgen 1905). Also used for repairing glass was celluloid cement and a mixture of glue (gelatin or isinglass), gum ammoniacum, and mastic in alcohol (Lucas 1932).

Through various documents we know of Lucas's involvement with MFA artifacts, principally with the material recovered from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres, although the nature of his involvement with the ceramics found there is uncertain. Many ceramics, both functional and ceremonial, discovered in the tomb, were damaged by the collapse of wooden supports on which they stood or by thieves who plundered the tombs or after excavation (Reisner 1927). The MFA Bulletin describes how, over a 10-year period, the Hetepheres ceramics were reassembled by qualified Egyptian workmen in the field (Reisner 1938). In addition, an archived image from 1917 documents Mary Reisner mending faience at Nuri Camp (fig. 8).

Based on the amount of correspondence that exists between excavations and colleagues, it can be assumed that many of the techniques practiced in the field by Reisner's contemporaries were probably adopted by him. For example, a bead net pot (MFA 20.1569a–c) excavated in 1914 and still in its original container is covered with a thick application of wax. As previously mentioned, this procedure was commonly used for salvaging beadwork at other contemporaneous sites. The various techniques and materials described in the early literature for treatment of ceramics, such as animal glue, shellac, and plaster mixed with hide glue fills, are very commonly found on artifacts at the MFA.

Fig. 8. Mary Reisner mending faience at Nuri Camp, 1917, Sudan. Courtesy of Harvard University–MFA Expedition, 1917, neg. D290

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