Walk Like an Egyptian

Unwrapping the Ancient Egypt Department of the British Museum

Pyramids, mummies, Tutankhamen & a penchant for heavy eyeliner are just some of the remnants of ancient Egyptian culture that have entranced archaeologists, tourists, writers and children throughout history. What these fragments have revealed is the astonishing sophistication of this ancient civilization and belief system. The Pharaonic period was shaped by an obsession with death that would put the Victorians to shame. The transition from life to afterlife was considered a complex matter, both in spiritual and physical terms, hence the elaborate burial practices involving spells, embalming the corpse, and burying the dead with food and treasures to ensure their resurrection.

The Plus Paper visited the Ancient Egypt Department of the British Museum where similarly extreme lengths are taken, this time to preserve the artifacts for generations to come. Here an Aladdin’s cave of such treasures as ancient fabrics, delicate papyri, golden coffins carved with hieroglyphics, and exposed mummies can be found. The whole department has been divided into different sections, including an area for colossal bookshelves and research materials, as well as whole rooms that have been specifically built for the mummified, with controlled lighting, temperature and humidity. Every object is being carefully handled, labeled and archived by experts.

It is incredible to think that the Pharaonic civilization began towards the end of the fourth millennium BC. Given how much time has passed, these mysterious relics that provide such a rare and vivid window into a prehistoric age are more precious than ever. It is reassuring to know that inside the British Museum, these ancient articles are in safe hands.

We spoke to Nicola Newman, a specialist from the British Museum.

The Plus: What is the most difficult part of preserving these relics, technically?
Nicola Newman:
I find the one of the most challenging aspects of conservation is that each object is different and as such needs to be approached individually. Conservation includes knowledge of materials, methods of manufacture, and knowledge of what the object was used for and how it is likely to deteriorate. It also includes a need to be aware of how the object is viewed now and what is expected from it in the public domain. We also need to understand the best way to prevent or slow down any further deterioration with the methods which we have available.

TP: What is the reason behind the varying temperatures and humidity levels in the room?
When dealing with objects that respond to fluctuations in humidity it is important to keep the environment stable to avoid dimensional changes to the object. Fluctuation in humidity affects many materials for example; a painted wood sculpture may shrink if the humidity is very low, this in turn would mean the surface area would be reduced and the paint would not have sufficient surface any longer. This causes paint to become detached from the surface and subsequently lost.

TP: How much research do the staff usually have to do in order to be equipped to preserve an item?
This varies according to the experience of the conservator and the frequency with which they treat the material in question.