British Museum blog

Working with Chinese master scroll-mounters

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Conservation work in progress at the Shanghai Museum

A few weeks into my secondment, I started working under the guidance of Master Zhu Ping Fang, observing a large variety of conservation cases from large format hanging scrolls to hand scrolls on both paper and silk.

I first came to Shanghai Museum’s Chinese paintings conservation studio in 2005. My first thoughts on that occasion were that I had entered a secret temple.

The intensity and precision of the conservator’s activities when you see them in person reveal the incredible depth of their skill and knowledge, and I was absolutely fascinated. I didn’t know at the time how this experience would impact my education and my everyday life as strongly as it does now.

This is a busy studio and the walls are surrounded by thick wooden boards covered with drying paintings which are gradually incorporated into beautiful fabric mounts. The paintings are enclosed in the most beautiful plain and patterned silk, the style and proportions of which have been established largely by tradition.

Conservators hard at work

The same rules and methods have been used for hundreds of years and are guided by aesthetics, proportion, materials and hand-made tools. Students of scroll mounting have to practice until they have mastered the complexities of the handling and use of tools and materials including brushes, knives, paste, paper, and silk.

Some of the tools used for mounting

As assistant, I have to do everything that relates to the preparation of materials, from making paste, to dying paper and silk, selecting and preparing pigments for toning processes and preparing lining papers and silks. Equally, the assistant works closely with the master on the paintings themselves carrying out backing removal, repairs, as well as lifting or pasting large format artwork, which has to be done by two people.

Mixing the paste for mounting

Different conservation and remounting procedures take place simultaneously in the studio and so I have also assisted the masters with various treatments. I have worked on establishing the appropriate historical proportions and preparing silk to be used to surround a painting and fit it into the structure for a hanging scroll called Lizhou. I have also burnished the back of four paintings and inserted wooden fittings onto two scrolls.

The conservation studio with hanging scrolls on the walls

I lined a painting with three layers of medium weight Xuan paper and mounted it onto lined and dyed silk borders in the so-called ‘jinpian’ (or ‘frame’) format – a flat, 2D mount as opposed to a scroll mount which is rolled.

I was also assigned a work of calligraphy that required full treatment. That means assessment and selection of the appropriate procedure and materials, as well as cleaning the painting and dying its new lining paper. I’ll write more about this in a later post.

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Piecing together the Chiseldon cauldrons puzzle

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin working on one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

As is often the case, the painstaking process of excavating the cauldron I’m working on has been more complex and time consuming than we initially thought.

The majority of the cauldron was lifted from its findspot in a block of soil supported by plaster bandages. Hundreds of smaller fragments were also removed from around the object during excavation. The fragmentary state of this cauldron is partially due to the fact that it was buried upside down, and over time the weight and the pressure of the overlying soil crushed and distorted it.

I began by carefully cutting away thin strips of plaster to reveal the top of the block and clear soil from the metal. With heavy clay soil, which is more solid than the objects, this has to be done with great care using scalpels and leaf trowels to remove soil dampened with water and alcohol.

One of the Chiseldon cauldrons before being unwrapped

Working down in layers, the sheet metal is uncovered, and the true condition of the object revealed. It is highly fragmentary and even undisturbed areas are in pieces.

Fragments loose in the soil have to be rejoined back onto larger sections immediately otherwise their location will be lost. This is done using thin tabs of nylon gossamer, a thin random weave of synthetic fibres, adhered over the join.

Removing the plaster support and soil from around the object makes it very unstable and because of this you are unable to see the entire object at once; the metal is so thin and fragile that it is unable to support its own weight.

I have now laid out the fragments from the excavation on a large table and have been looking for joins between them, and also between the fragments and metal contained in the soil block. Although I have found a number of joins there have been disappointingly few.

Fragments of one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

Very quickly it became apparent that there was something strange about this cauldron – there seemed to be too much copper alloy – several folded layers in the block as well as large sheet fragments.

From knowledge of other cauldrons we can tell that they are made in sections riveted together; the iron rim supporting the handles, then below this, two sections of copper alloy bowl. As I began to reveal more it appeared that there were two bases on top of each other – was this two cauldrons one inside another? Or were we looking at areas of a separate cauldron either displaced during burial or placed into the pit in fragments?

As each layer is revealed the position of the fragments is carefully recorded. Stephen Crummy, one of the Museum’s illustrators, has been using 3D laser scanning and photogrametery to map the block.

The next stage will be to try and decipher and interpret the remains. Then, after supporting and stabilising them, we will remove sections of the metal, effectively disassembling the object from around the soil.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , ,

Getting to know you – a first glimpse at the shroud

Monique Pullan, British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The shroud arrived in the Organics Conservation studios at the British Museum last week, and the project has now begun in earnest.

Accompanied by Jonathan Clark and Deborah Phipps, conservators from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS), and Faye Kalloniatis, research associate at Norwich Castle, the whole team was able to discuss first impressions – for some of us this was the first time we actually saw the textile. Jonathan and Deborah, together with Man Yee Liu, Head of Conservation at NMAS, will be joining us at key stages during the treatment.

The immediate reaction was one of surprise at how small the bundle is, at about 30 cm by 20 cm. But at the same time, we could see that there are many layers of fabric, and the fabric is quite fine– so potentially this could be quite large when opened.

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

So the question at the moment is – how big is it!?! And what shape is it? Not knowing makes planning difficult. We are now trying to arrange our work space and figure out how many tables we need, how big our support boards need to be, and so on. Make your bets now, as hopefully in a couple of weeks we’ll have opened it up to its full size!

It’s important to document the bundle as it is now, as this will be the last time it will be in this form. So we have to resist temptation to plunge in straight away and instead look for evidence to tell us if it has been opened up since discovery or not – if folded in antiquity we’ll need to consider if it’s more ethical to keep the bundle as it is.

Perhaps the Colman family looked at or even displayed the shroud at home or to their friends?

We can see one clue already – an anomalous pale cotton thread appears to be winding its way through to the inside of folds of the textile. This is clearly not an ancient Egyptian thread, not least because cotton wasn’t used then – probably a sign that it has been opened up since 1897.

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We also have to decide where to start unfolding it – there are no obvious edges from which to begin. We also don’t yet know how easy it will be to open? Although it looks soft and flexible, it could turn out to be quite brittle, particularly if there are any stained areas, with the fibres set in position. We can already see many holes and tears and, worryingly, fragments joined to each other by a mere few threads. When we lift the edges of folds to get a better look at the interior of the bundle, it really does look extremely fragmentary.

One exciting observation we’ve already made is that there are small hieroglyphs visible across the exposed textile. They are executed in black (most likely charcoal) and a red/brown (probably an ochre), the two colours most usually used by scribes at this time.

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Hopefully the curators will be able to decipher them, as not only will the hieroglyphic writing help us position any fragments, but of course the text will also help us understand what it is, why it was made and possibly even who it belonged to.

After we complete documenting the shroud as it is, we’ll finally start to unfold it. We’ll construct a large tent so we can work in a raised humidity environment and carefully start to lift each layer.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , ,

A charred seed…

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Conservator, Jamie Hood working on one of the cauldrons

The two Chiseldon cauldrons we chose to work on first were found next to each other in the pit and had corroded together.

My colleague Jamie Hood has been given the first cauldron to be removed from the ground during excavation to work on.

Although it appeared to be in one piece in the ground, it was heavily corroded with large cracks hidden by the mud and soil. It was impossible to lift whole, so was removed in four large chunks surrounded by soil. The fact that it is in pieces actually makes it better for Jamie to work on as it is easier to move, handle, and support, and also fits under a microscope.

When he first started work within a few minutes I heard: ‘WOW, look at this, a charred seed!’ from the other side of the room.

My cauldron was probably the last one placed in the pit thousands of years ago. This meant that it was resting on top of the others and was therefore the one first discovered by the metal detectorist in 2004.

Of all the cauldrons, it is in the worst condition – a chunk lifted in plaster bandages and a lot of small pieces of corroded metal. But, it might also be the most interesting.

Some small fragments of the copper alloy already cleaned have decorative scalloped edges, or, apparently, as decorative as it gets for cauldrons in the late Iron Age.

As yet we don’t know much more about this cauldron and wont until I excavate it from its soil block. However, due to its highly fragmentary condition it will not be possible to physically reconstruct it.

Instead I will try and concentrate on a virtual, or at least an intellectual reconstruction, trying to gain as much information from the fragments as possible.

A piece of one of the cauldrons

The most important areas are the rim, handles and decorative patches, and if we can relocate these and examine how they were constructed then this will tell us a great deal about the cauldron.

To make things more complicated some of Jamie’s cauldron was corroded to and lifted with mine. Trying to decide which fragments of 0.5mm metal belong to which cauldron will be very difficult and the whole process will need very careful excavation and detailed recording.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , ,

An ancient Egyptian textile reveals its secrets…

Monique Pullan, British Museum

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle, packed for transport. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle, packed for transport. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Over the next three months I’ll be leading an exciting joint project between conservators and curators from the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum to uncover the secrets of an ancient Egyptian textile.

The textile, probably a burial shroud, from the collections of Norwich Castle Museum, has been tightly folded into a small bundle ever since it was donated in the1920s by the Colman family of Norfolk.

There is no record of the textile having been unfolded, and little is known about it beyond the fact that it was purchased in Egypt in 1897. But glimpses of hieroglyphic texts, written in black and red inks, make the Egyptologists at both museums very keen to have a better look at the textile in its entirety.

Norwich Castle Museum (of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service - NMAS) research associate Faye Kalloniatis and NMAS conservator Jonathan Clarke carefully pack the textile for transport to the British Museum. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Norwich Castle Museum (of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service - NMAS) research associate Faye Kalloniatis and NMAS conservator Jonathan Clarke carefully pack the textile for transport to the British Museum. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor, curator of the current British Museum exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, believes it may be inscribed with spells from the Books of the Dead, and possibly date from the early 18th dynasty (1550 – 1295 BC ), – over 3,000 years old.

If so, this would make it a very rare and important specimen – but first the bundle needs to be opened up for further investigation.

Up to now, the extremely fragile and fragmentary condition of the textile has meant that researchers have been reluctant to open it out for fear of causing damage. But now, with support from the Partnership UK program to facilitate skills sharing between national and regional museums, the textile will be coming into the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

Here we’ve had the unique opportunity to build up specialised skills in the treatment of ancient archaeological textiles, and will work together with members of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service conservation team.

From now until the end of March we’ll be updating the blog regularly to show how we investigate and conserve the textile, and ultimately discover the identity of this mysterious bundle of cloth. Whether it turns out to be that rare Book of the Dead shroud or not, it will surely have an interesting story to tell.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , , , ,

Cauldrons on the move

Jamie Hood, British Museum

Conservator Jamie Hood labelling one of the cauldrons for transportation

As I wasn’t at the excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons it was difficult to imagine that the nine or so blocks of soil sitting in plastic crates and wrapped in plaster bandages really contained Iron Age cauldrons. But a few weeks ago when Alex and I visited the Museum’s off-site store, I knelt down and looked at the closest crate and spotted the edges of metal sheet and part of an iron handle sticking out of the soil.

Conservator Alexandra Baldwin at the British Museum store

It’s at moments like this that you start to think about the step by step process of conserving the object to bring it back to life (and also quickly calculate how many hours it might take… literally hundreds).

But before we could start work we had to move the cauldrons from storage to the Museum itself.

The Museum’s off-site store is vast with hundreds of crates and many rows of racking which all hold evidence of Britain’s past. While it was easy for us to jump on the tube to get to the store, transporting the cauldrons was a little bit trickier.

We picked two of them – discovered next to each other in the burial pit, and corroded together – and packed them safely in big boxes. It’s always nerve-racking transporting fragile objects, so to protect them we surrounded them with rolled-up tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap.

Conservator Jamie Hood transporting one of the cauldrons at the British Museum

Once safely at the Museum we moved the crates to the metals conservation lab and carefully unpacked the cauldrons.

The first step is to record the soil blocks and fragments of cauldrons by taking pictures, making detailed drawings and examining the surface through a microscope. In preparation for the next stage, when conservation really begins, you can then begin to start removing some of the soil with small hand tools and brushes.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , , ,

Digging up – and preserving – the Iron Age

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin excavating the cauldrons

Five years ago I, and my colleague Simon Dove in the department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, joined a team from Wessex Archaeology in a field in Wiltshire to excavate what we thought were three small bowls. Two weeks later, in baking sun and torrential rain, we had lifted 10 – or 12 – rather large cauldrons.

Brilliant! 10 Cauldrons! Being extremely rare, this was an exciting find.

One would have been fantastic. Three would have been amazing. But 10-12, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. First, we had to excavate them. Then we had to store them and finally conserve them so we can learn from them and perhaps even put them on display.

With such a huge find, and with the conservation project alone estimated to take two of us two years, Jody Joy, British Museum curator of Iron Age Britain, and I decided to apply for funding to study the cauldrons properly and conserve them so that we could understand their wider significance and give them the attention they deserve.

An illustration of how the cauldrons may have looked when first buried

Now we have the funding, work has started and over the next two years myself and a colleague, and Jody, along with scientists and other British Museum staff, will be unravelling the evidence of life in the Iron Age the cauldrons can provide us with.

In the coming months I’ll be writing regular posts – as will Jody, and my colleague in the conservation team Jamie Hood – documenting the journey through the project and describing what goes on behind the scenes at the British Museum, revealing discoveries as we find them… and not to mention the challenges we face.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , , , ,

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