From the Conservation Lab: Copper-Alloy Color Reconstruction of Three Ancient Egyptian Artworks

Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum, a special exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, gathers together a group of ancient Egyptian objects focused on the Faiyum region, including the illustrated papyrus book of the title, along with many statues and figures made of metal.  Just as the Book of the Faiyum holds untold secrets, many of the metal objects in the exhibition are more than meets the eye.

Recent research has shown that many ancient Egyptian metal objects were originally exuberantly colored, employing contrasting metal alloys or other inlays to highlight details or portions of a figure. Due to corrosion of the metal surface, many of these objects no longer appear as they did when they were first made and used.

The ancient Egyptians relied on colorful natural materials to create pigments and paints, and when making statues and figures, they drew on different types of naturally occurring metals and metallic ores—including bright pink copper, cool white silver, and warm yellow gold. By skillfully combining and manipulating these and other metals, ancient artisans created a range of metal alloys with different colors and surface finishes. Some metal objects were further ornamented with contrasting inlays of stone, glass, or Egyptian faience.

Here at the Walters Art Museum, a team of curators, conservators, and conservation scientists studied several objects in this exhibition in order to learn more about their original appearance. Using a combination of art historical knowledge, scientific analysis, and close examination, they assembled clues about the materials and techniques used to make these objects. Based on this information, digitally altered images of three objects in the exhibition have been created to convey an impression of what the objects’ original appearances might have been.

These animated images show the objects’ current condition and how they might have looked originally:

54_417

Egyptian, Statue of a Seated Isis, ca. 650-550 B.C. Copper alloy with gold, silver, and electrum inlay, 14.8cm x 5.2cm x 11.2 cm. Walters Art Museum, 54.417.

54_419

Egyptian, Horus the Child Seated on a Lotus, 664-332 BC (Late Period). Cast bronze, blue enamel inlay, 46cm × 11.3cm × 11.2 cm. The Walters Art Museum, 54.419.

54_2111

Egyptian, Statue of a Seated Isis, ca. 650-550 BC (Late Period). Bronze with gold and electrum inlay, 14.8cm × 5.2cm × 11.2 cm. Walters Art Museum, 54.417.

Visit Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum at the Walters Art Museum to learn more about these objects and how they were originally created.