Written by Bethany Palumbo, ACR, Founder and Owner of Palumbo Conservation Services on behalf of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.
Tahemaa has been a resident of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society since 1922, when she was donated from the Salisbury museum (fig. 1). New research indicates that she arrived in the UK in 1823 from the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor, on the river Nile. Her coffin is dated from 700 BC making her approximately 2700 years old. We know from the hieroglyphics on the side of her coffin that she was the daughter of a Hor a high priest of Montu, the Flacon-God of War. Other than this we know very little about her and her life in Egypt.
Tahemaa has been at the Society for nearly 100 years but she has spent most of this time locked away from public view. In 1993, the Society decided to put her on permanent display in the Egyptology exhibition. Since then she has been seen by thousands of admirers, however due to her age and fragile condition, she is in need of urgent conservation treatment. Hundreds of years in an unstable environment have caused significant damage to the coffin. The fluctuations have caused the wood, plaster layers and paint to crack and flake. The layers of the coffin have even separated in some areas, lifting away from the wooden frame (fig 2). Many years without a display case has also resulted in a thick layer of dark, engrained dirt concealing the original colours of her decorative paintwork (fig 3).
The ‘Tahemaa Transformed’ project was initiated in 2019 to raise the funding needed to conserve Tahemaa’s coffin and purchase a new, custom-made display case. I am currently undertaking the conservation treatment of the coffin, which is a long process and will take many more months. While we want Tahemaa restored to her formal glory, her age and historical significance means that any conservation treatment undertaken needs to be sympathetic and minimal. The priorities of treatment for the coffin are therefore to clean the surface to remove the accumulation of dirt and to consolidate the paint and plaster layers to prevent any further surface losses.
Cleaning so far has involved two methods. Firstly, ‘smoke sponge’ a type of rubber sponge was gently wiped over the coffin to remove loose surface dirt. Afterwards I decided to further clean Tahemaa with solvents, but decided against aggressive chemicals or detergents. It was also important to minimise the amount of water used as this would cause the painted surface to swell.
I decided to clean Tahemaa’s coffin using human saliva. While somewhat controversial, human spit is used in museums all over the world as a tested and highly effective cleaning method. Human spit contains 99% water and 1% enzymes and it is these enzymes that breakdown the dirt. As long as you stay hydrated with water and work with a clean mouth, you’re good to go.
Using cotton swabs, I gently cleaned the surface of the coffin (fig 4) adjusting my technique for areas of existing surface damage. The result is amazing, with dark areas lightened, the gorgeous colours of the paint work underneath can now be seen (figure 5).
We were very lucky to be joined by the Objectivity Youtube Channel who came to watch the conservation and discuss the project. Follow this link to see the video they made.
While conservation work has been postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions, we are still fundraising for her new display case through Gofundme and are nearly half way to our target so please spread the word and share this link. Any donations would be greatly appreciated.
Romão, Paula M.S et al. International Institute for Conservation, Studies in Conservation, Volume 35, Number 3, p.153-155 (1990)
Burnstock, A., and R. White, “The effects of selected solvents and soaps on a simulated canvas painting.”, Cleaning, retouching and coatings: Contributions to the 1990 IIC Congress, Brussels, pp. 111-118, (1990)
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