JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 10 (pp. 363 to 380)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 10 (pp. 363 to 380)




When an object has been treated more than once, sometimes the repairs applied at different times are difficult to distinguish. Technical analysis of each applied material may be required in order to determine whether it is appropriate—or even possible—to remove any of them. (In the case of works created with modern electronic media, when documentation is lacking it may be impossible ever to distinguish imposed alterations. See sec. 7, below.)


Sometimes an old restoration is so skillful that it clouds an understanding of the object's true condition, which only becomes apparent upon re-treatment. Conservator Stephen P. Koob discovered this effect while working on a Seljuk luster-glazed ceramic ewer of the late 12th century or early 13th century (fig. 14). During his re-treatment of an extensive prior repair (probably done in the 19th century), the ewer's many fragments were found to include several fired glazed restorations, inserts that were formed and decorated to compensate for old losses (fig. 15). These fabricated fragments are technically excellent, and they were not detected until Koob disassembled and cleaned the mended ewer (Koob 1999).

Fig. 14. Seljuk ewer, late 12th or early 13th century, lusterglazed ceramic, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, F09.370. Conservation photograph during recent re-treatment, showing reattachment of fragments and minimal puttying. Courtesy of Stephen Koob

Koob states in his article about this repair that he and the curator decided to reuse the restoration fragments from the old repair in his re-treatment of the ewer, primarily because “the replacement fragments are well-fired, stable and an excellent match to the original,” but also because reusing them was economical (Koob 1999, 163). There is a third reason to retain these beautifully manufactured fills: they exemplify excellence in ceramic restoration—or deceit!—in a past era. Hence a “joint curatorial/conservation label has been proposed to present the viewer with an understanding of the original and the restoration” (Koob 1999, 164).


Ancient Egyptian artifacts are among the oldest cultural objects that conservators work on, and they may have repairs that date from widely disparate eras. It is useful to read descriptions of treatment materials and techniques applied in the past that have been observed by modern conservators (Jaeschke and Jaeschke 1988; Norman 1988).

Fig. 15. Conservation photograph during recent re-treatment of Seljuk ewer (fig. 14), showing two replacement fragments fabricated during an earlier repair. Courtesy of Stephen Koob

If components of coffins were reused later, or old repairs were modified with newer materials, it becomes difficult to distinguish among the various interventions. Conservators and curators at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University have been working on a multiyear cooperative effort to conserve some Egyptian coffins (Stein et al. 2002). These coffins had received many modern repairs and restorations during the approximately 150 years that they were part of another collection before the Carlos Museum acquired them in 1999. Structures had been reinforced, losses (both structural and superficial) filled, and restorations added. The coffins had also suffered fire and water damage. As the examination and treatment at the Carlos Museum advanced, traces of ancient damages and repairs also became evident.

On a set of two nesting coffins that were built and decorated in the 25th dynasty 760–656 B.C. for the female mummy of Iawttavesheret, modern large yellow eyes made of plaster had been affixed to the face of each coffin lid. The Carlos Museum team considered these eyes inappropriate and disturbing because their size and technique were inconsistent with the usually smaller, inlaid, and more finely crafted eyes on coffins of that era (Stein 2002; Stein et al. 2002). During the recent conservation the plaster eyes on both the inner and outer coffin were removed, revealing finely carved cavities in the wood for the eyes and eyebrows (fig. 16). These features were restored with modeled epoxy putty painted to simulate bronze inlays and toned paper to recreate the look of stone eyeballs and pupils (fig. 17).

Fig. 16. Detail, inner lid of coffin for mummy of Iawttavesheret. 25th dynasty 760–656 B.C., mixed media, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, 1999.1.8. Conservation photograph during recent re-treatment, revealing original surface of one eye with cavities for its lost inlays and showing other eye as previously restored with painted modern plaster

The Carlos Museum team also found evidence of what they believe are ancient repairs and alterations due to reuse of a coffin for the funeral of another person. The lid of a coffin originally made in the 21st dynasty 1075–945 B.C. for a woman named Tanakhtanettahat appears to have been reused in antiquity (accession no. 1999.1.17C). A cracked area across the lower legs seems to have broken and been repaired before the coffin was reused for another mummy. This ancient repair has now been documented and preserved. During this process it was also decided to remove (and save) isolated areas of the extensive ancient overpaint, so that viewers could see that beneath it there is still well-preserved, delicately painted original decoration (Stein et al. 2002).

Fig. 17. Detail, inner lid of coffin for mummy of Iawttavesheret (fig. 16), after recent re-treatment. Photograph by Kay Hinton

Work on these coffins has been technically complex. For example, conservator Renée Stein explained (2002) that it has not been possible to fully characterize all the coatings, or to conclusively distinguish ancient from modern applications. Samples that have been analyzed by Fourier transform-infrared spectroscopy and by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry have revealed the presence of resin(s), nondrying fat, drying oil, and beeswax. However, it is uncertain whether colorants were added or what appearance was intended. It is sometimes unclear, even in cross section, whether consecutive (including some possibly modern) applications of more than one material were made, or whether several materials were mixed before being applied. The analysis of these materials is expected to continue.

According to Stein, it may be impossible to selectively reverse some kinds of prior treatments. Even if a modern oil were identified on one of the coffins, it would be difficult to remove if the coating had penetrated a porous or chemically similar original layer beneath (Stein 2002). In such cases, the author of this article believes that maybe the best one can do is use the clues provided by analyzed samples to create modified digital photographs suggesting how such artifacts might have looked after the ancient treatment and before modern interventions.

Copyright © 2003 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works