Cartonnage: Fragments of a Mummy Wrapping (Part I)

Cartonnage is the painted material that covers many mummy bundles.  Like a plaster cast, it is made of layers of fabric (usually linen) that are wrapped around the bundle and then covered with a smooth, white layer of plaster.  After it is dry, the plaster surface can be painted with designs and Egyptian religious symbols.

Mummy and painted cartonnage of an unknown woman.  Egyptian, ca. 850-750 B.C.E.Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Mummy and painted cartonnage of an unknown woman. Egyptian, ca. 850-750 B.C.E.
Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Side view.  Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Side view.
Walters Art Museum, 79.1

The Walters Art Museum includes a number of examples of cartonnage, including several small fragments.  One of these fragments was recently in the Objects Conservation lab so that conservators could evaluate its condition and make recommendations about how best to preserve it.

Fragment of a mummy cartonnage with a seated jackal headed god.  Painted gesso on linen, with a modern linen mount.  Egyptian 6th - 1st c. B.C.E.  4 1/2 x 3 1/3 inches.  Walters Art Museum 78.5
Fragment of a mummy cartonnage with a seated jackal headed god. Painted gesso on linen, with a modern linen mount. Egyptian 6th – 1st c. B.C.E.
4 1/2 x 3 1/3 inches. Walters Art Museum 78.5

This fragment would originally have been part of a larger, three-dimensional cartonnage covering for an animal or human mummy bundle.  At some point before it came to the museum, it was cut down to its current size, pressed flat, and glued to a modern backing board.  This is not an ideal method of mounting this fragment and is not an approach that would normally be used here in the museum.  However, it was decided not to remove the fragment from this mount because the cartonnage is very fragile and the risk of further damaging it during removal is too great.

The fragment shows signs of other damage from water, light, and air.  To identify the materials present on this fragment, and how they may have changed over time, a combination of non-destructive examination techniques was used.  A binocular microscope was used to examine the surfaces very closely for signs of wear and deterioration.

A close up view of the cartonnage surface, showing cracks, loses, and abrasion to the paint and plaster layers.
A close up view of the cartonnage surface, showing cracks, loses, and abrasion to the paint and plaster layers.

Most Egyptian paints from this time period consist of pigments bound with gum Arabic, a natural gum made from the sap of Acacia trees.  Gum Arabic is still used today as the binder for most watercolors.  On this cartonnage fragment, the gum Arabic has deteriorated over the past 2,000 years, meaning that the pigments are no longer very well adhered.  The fragment therefore needs to be covered to protect the pigments from abrasion.

A close up view of an area of yellow paint on the cartonnage fragment.  Some areas still appear bright yellow; others have faded to a cream color.
A close up view of an area of yellow paint on the cartonnage fragment. Some areas still appear bright yellow; others have faded to a cream color.

The pale yellow areas of the fragment appear very faint to the eye, but under the microscope, they appear quite different.  Bright yellow, irregularly shaped pigment particles of various sizes are visible.  These are characteristic of orpiment; a golden yellow, naturally occurring mineral pigment.  This pigment was used extensively by ancient Egyptians, but we now know that it fades over time when

exposed to sunlight.  To preserve the traces of yellow pigment that are left, the fragment will be stored in the dark.

An example of naturally ocurring orpiment (arsenic sulfide).  When freshly applied as a pigment, this mineral will provide a bright, golden yellow color.
An example of naturally ocurring orpiment (arsenic sulfide). When freshly applied as a pigment, this mineral will provide a bright, golden yellow color.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Cartonnage:  Fragments of a Mummy

Further Reading:

Find out about other mummies and cartonnage at the Walters Art Museum:

http://art.thewalters.org/browse/medium/mummies–cartonnage/