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Inside The Conservator's Art

A behind-the-scenes look at conserving Egyptian artifacts at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology { 2010 10 11 }

Why do these ancient Egyptian copper alloy surfaces look so different?

These two sets of five spear points were excavated in 1900 at the Egyptian site of El Ahaiwah. The spear points date to the early Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-945 BC), when El Ahaiwah was a fort. The fort had an adjacent cemetery where military personnel were buried with high status items including sets of five copper alloy spear points.

Corroded spear points (PAHMA 6-19276-19280) before treatment, cleaned spear points (PAHMA 619271-19275) before treatment. Despite their shared archaeological context and similar morphologies, the two sets of points have very different looking surfaces. The spear points in one set (6-19276-19280) have dull green powdery corroded surfaces, while the other spear points (6-19271-19275) have smooth dark shiny metallic surfaces.

Corroded spear point PAHMA 6-19279 (after reassembly), with matte green powdery surface.

Cleaned spear point PAHMA 6-19273, with dark shiny metallic surface.

In the burial environment, copper alloys convert back to mineral corrosion products including copper oxides, copper carbonates, and various other compounds. The formation of such corrosion products on the surface of metal objects accounts for the green patina (altered surface consisting of accumulated corrosion products and other materials from the environment) visible on one set of spear points. In early field photos of metal objects excavated at El Ahaiwah, all of the spear points found at the site have matte, corroded surfaces typical of archaeological copper alloy objects.

Metal objects excavated at El Ahaiwah, c. 1900. Spear points 6-19276-19280 appear on the top shelf and 6-19271-19275 on the proper right side of the middle shelf. Photograph courtesy of Joan Knudsen. If this is the case, why do some of the spear points now have shiny metallic surfaces? The answer probably lies in a 1922 treatment carried out on this set of spear points. According to museum records, these spear points were cleaned and coated with Metalol in January, 1922. Research by former PAHMA intern Nicole Ledoux revealed that Metalol was a commercially available tung oil-rosin mixture dissolved in mineral spirits. The records do not specify how the spear points were cleaned. When used in reference to metal conservation, the term cleaning can describe the reduction or removal of corrosion products in addition to accreted dirt or other types of soiling. The formation of layers of corrosion on metallic surfaces sometimes obscures surface details and distorts the original shape of the

object. Aggressive corrosion can eat can away at the metal, causing eventual destruction. Conservators may reduce corrosion on archaeological metals in order to slow deterioration caused by aggressive corrosion or to reveal obscured features. However, corrosion layers can contain valuable information about how objects were manufactured and used, and about their burial conditions. Cleaning archaeological metals is a permanent, interpretative act that conservators approach with care and mindfulness. Contemporary conservators try to understand the nature of metal objects through non-destructive study before removing corrosion products, using techniques like X-radiography or X-ray fluorescence. (X-ray fluorescence, or XRF, is an X-ray based technique capable of identifying elements present on surface being analyzed). When conservators do reduce corrosion, they generally clean the objects mechanically, working with small tools and the aid of magnification. Careful mechanical cleaning allows them to control the process and to avoid removing potentially informative material. In the past, more aggressive chemical and galvanic (involving electric current) cleaning methods, sometimes collectively referred to as stripping, were used to remove corrosion from archaeological metals. Stripped metals often have a metallic looking surface due to the wholesale removal of burial patinas. These methods fell out of use due to concerns about damage to the object and aesthetic objections to the unsightly surfaces they tend to leave, which can be pocked or spongy and prone to quickly losing their luster. In addition to creating unattractive surfaces, such methods can be hard to control, often remove more material than is desired (including original metal) and can cause the formation of new unwanted corrosion products. XRF analysis of both sets of El Ahaiwah points revealed that the shiny spear points have zinc on their surfaces, while the corroded points do not. This suggests that the shiny points may have been have cleaned using an electrochemical method that entails immersion in a sodium hydroxide solution along with zinc granules. This technique, which was in use during the early twentieth century, can result in the deposition of zinc from the bath solution on the objects surfaces during treatment. The two sets of spear points illustrate the dramatic effects that early treatments can have on metal objects. We hope to continue investigating the spear points and to confirm that the differential zinc levels on the surfaces of the two sets are due to past treatment. Posted by Allison on Monday, October 11, 2010, at 4:03 pm. Filed under Conservation treatments, Historical background, Metals, Scientific analysis. Tagged El Ahaiwah. Follow any responses to this post with its comments RSS feed. You can post a comment or trackback from your blog.