Bringing back the colour to ancient Egyptian coffins

15 April 2020
Uncovering the secrets of ancient Egypt used to involve a shovel, a gentle brush, and endless patience. Things have changed. Now archaeologists are using some of the most advanced technologies available.
Ancient Egyptian coffin lid of Mer-Neith-it-es

The coffin lid of Mer-Neith-it-es.

It’s beautiful and mysterious, but it lacks the lavish colours you’d expect of a mummy’s coffin. The plainness makes you think it might have been for a commoner rather than a member of Egyptian nobility.

“Actually, no,” says Dr James Fraser (BA(Hons) ’04 PhD ’16), Senior Curator at the Nicholson Museum that has the coffin in its collection.

“Coffins that retain their colour are probably coated in plaster because they were made of the cheaper local woods of Egypt, like sycamore or acacia. And plaster preserves paint better than wood.”

Wealthier Egyptians were placed in these wooden, human‑shaped coffins, which were then placed inside a larger wooden box or stone coffin called a sarcophagus, which would also be elaborately decorated. In this case, the coffin was made 2500 years ago for a woman called Mer‑Neith‑it‑es.

History is always written by the winners, the wealthy and men. Archaeology gives you a whole new perspective.
James Fraser

“The coffins of the wealthy were often made of imported Lebanese cedar,” continues Fraser, a genial and playful academic with a gift for making you hang off his every word. “Artists were able to paint straight onto it, but over the centuries, the colours on wood fade. The lack of colour suggests it’s a top‑of‑the‑line model.”

With the colours now effectively lost, the plain wood has the archaeologist in Fraser asking what the colours were. What the paints were made of. What hieroglyphs might have been present. Not so long ago, the answers would have come from educated guesswork. And Fraser’s guesswork is very educated.

Bringing the pieces together

His first museum job after university was as an artefact registrar at the National Museum of Afghanistan, with field work in archaeological hotspots including Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Uzbekistan, Kashmir, Cambodia, and the Solomon Islands, all leading to his immediate previous position at the British Museum. He sees archaeology as a source of lost truth.

“History is always written by the winners, the wealthy and men,” he says. “Archaeology gives you a whole new perspective because it’s harder to misrepresent the incidentals that fall into the archaeological layers of history.”

As Fraser contemplates the coffin of Mer‑Neith‑it‑es, his toolkit now includes technologies that are revolutionising what can be uncovered in both newly discovered objects and objects that have already been investigated but have more secrets to offer.

Light for the darkest corners

James Fraser with archaeological tools.

Senior Curator of the Nicholson Collection, James Fraser, with some tools of his archaeological trade.

For some artefacts, Fraser might find himself in the University’s Hybrid Theatre. Like a super‑futuristic movie set, this is where robotics and advanced X‑ray imaging technologies give unprecedented insights. Features locked inside objects too precious to risk damaging, are now visible and explorable in the finest detail. And of course, mummies have become an open book.

In terms of the faded mummy’s coffin, the colours that could only be guessed at are now identified using a technology called vibrational spectroscopy which uses light to identify substances.

The University has the biggest concentration of spectroscopy equipment in Australia, held at the Sydney Analytical Vibrational Spectroscopy facility run by Dr Elizabeth Carter. “This has been a passion of mine since I did my postdoc in the United Kingdom,” she says. “I have been working with museums since 2005 to make scientific analysis of cultural heritage an integral part of these investigations."

The story of spectroscopy goes back to ancient Rome when it was first realised that a glass prism could generate a rainbow. But the most significant leap came in 1815 when Joseph von Fraunhofer, a physicist and optical lens manufacturer, bypassed prisms and invented a device that generated a rainbow of light so clear that it could be closely examined.

This device made it possible to examine the strange, black lines that had been noticed by previous scientists but never explained. It turned out that these lines represented wavelengths of light that had been absorbed by impurities in the glass. Later scientists found that every atom or molecule interacts with light in a way unique to that substance, like a fingerprint.

That line of thinking evolved into vibrational spectroscopy, where infrared or laser light is directed at substances and the light that passes through the substance or what is reflected back, is measured and interpreted. It’s an enormously useful technology that can be miniaturised and sent to Mars for planetary surveys or used to reveal the invisible traces of paint colours on the face of a faded Egyptian coffin.

Ancient Egyptian coffin lid of Mer-Neith-it-es shown with colour

The coffin lid of Mer-Neith-it-es, as viewed through the DStretch (decorrelation stretching) process, which exaggerates colour differences. The colours aren’t true, but they highlight what is imperceptible. Image by B Drabsch & A Howells, University of Newcastle.

“To the naked eye, red is red is red,” says Carter, who last year won the Vice‑Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Research Excellence.

“But chemistry shows that red pigments are very different from each other. It could be mercury sulphide which is vermilion, or red from lead oxide. They give very distinctive spectra.”

A key benefit of vibrational spectroscopy is that it is usually non‑ destructive of the original sample and can be done to a functional extent in situ (making it handy at crime scenes and for testing the ripeness of fruit in orchards).

In the laboratory, where Carter works, not all the equipment is mobile. There are systems that incorporate multiple light sources, mirrors and microscopes, making for remarkable sensitivity.

Recent projects have included identifying the source of microplastics in Sydney Harbour and aiding in the development of pharmaceuticals.

Avoiding past mistakes

Despite the high tech hunt for coffin colours, there is no plan to repaint the faded coffin of Mer‑Neith‑it‑es.

In the past, precious places and objects have been restored in well‑meaning ways that new information shows to be completely wrong. So, the two scientific illustrators working on the coffin, Dr Bernadette Drabsch and Andrew Howells, from the University of Newcastle, will instead produce a 3D digital recreation of how the coffin would have looked when it was first placed within its tomb.

The process started with a high‑resolution 3D laser scan of the coffin, allowing elements of the coffin to be hugely magnified so the smallest details can be seen. By using digital brushes, textures and lighting effects, the recreation will mimic as closely as possible the wood grain and handmade marks on the original timber.

Where it all comes to life

In a world‑first idea unique to the University of Sydney, that recreation will live with the coffin itself, in the Egyptian room of the University’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum, due to open on 18 November 2020. Enhancing the Nicholson’s Egyptian collection with new technologies will create the most comprehensive and immersive display of Egyptian artefacts in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Something like this is extraordinary because it brings the field into the museum,” says Fraser, who has just returned from directing an archaeological excavation in Jordan.

“And I love doing field work.”

Written by George Dodd. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim.

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