Coffin Conservation: Part 1

Coffin Conservation: Part 1 (written by Bethany Palumbo)

When Tahemaa died 2700 years ago, she was wrapped in linen and buried in an elaborate coffin. The coffin, made from wood, was layered with plaster and fabric to create the gentle curves and shape of the coffin. On top of this is the painted layer, created with mineral pigments mixed in a natural gum or resin to make a paste. While we still need to officially identify the pigments and materials used in the composition of the coffin, we can see how they are deteriorating.

These types of organic materials are extremely vulnerable to deterioration caused by environmental changes. As the environment around Tahemaa becomes hotter or colder, more humid or drier, the materials used to make the coffin expand and contract. These fluctuations, repeated over many centuries, have caused the wood, plaster and paint to crack and flake. The layers of the coffin have even separated in some areas, lifting away from the wood (figure 1).

Figure 1- Layers of the coffin structure peeling away.

Many decades without a display case has also resulted in a large build-up of fine, engrained dirt and this is concealing the bright colours of her decorative paintwork (figure 2).

Figure 2- Original colours are darkened with the build-up of surface dirt.

While we want Tahemaa restored to her formal glory, her age and historical significance means that any conservation treatment undertaken needs to be sympathetic and minimal. The priorities of treatment for the coffin are therefore to clean the surface to remove the accumulation of dirt and to consolidate the paint and plaster layers to prevent any further cracking or surface losses.

The first step of cleaning is to use dry methods. This was undertaken using ‘smoke sponge’ a type of vulcanized rubber that could be gently wiped over the surface. This picked up lots of loose surface dirt. Afterwards I decided to further clean Tahemaa with solvents, but decided against aggressive chemicals or detergents. Instead I decided to clean Tahemaa’s coffin using human saliva. While somewhat controversial, human spit is used in museums all over the world as a tested and highly effective cleaning method. Human spit contains 99% water and 1% enzymes and it is these enzymes that breakdown the dirt. Spit also evaporates, leaving behind no chemical residues that would require rinsing.

Using cotton swabs, I gently cleaned the surface of the coffin (figure 3) adjusting my technique for areas of existing surface damage.

Figure 3- Cleaning the coffin with cotton swabs and a lot of patience.

The result is amazing, with dark areas lightened, the gorgeous colours of the paint work underneath can now be seen (figure 4).

Figure 4 – Shows the effectiveness of enzyme cleaning on the painted surface, before (left) and after (right).

This process is time-consuming but for an object like this coffin, patience is key! You can find me in the Egyptology room at the BNSS every Tuesday for the next few months carrying out this work so please come by and say ‘hi’.

Bethany Palumbo 27th July 2019


References- Royal Society of Chemistry, online article. International Institute for Conservation, Studies in conservation, Volume 35, Number 3, p.153-155 (1990)

Tahemaa Transformed

Who is Tahemaa? (written by Bethany Palumbo)

‘Tahemaa’ is the name of our Egyptian Mummy. We know this because it is written in hieroglyphs on the side of her coffin. The hieroglyphs also tell us she was the daughter of Hor, a high priest of Montu, the Falcon-God of War. We do not know for sure where she lived, died and was eventually buried, but we have some evidence to suggest it was in ‘Wasat’ the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, renamed Thebes by the Greeks and today known as Luxor on the river Nile.

We can date Tahemaa to 700 BCE, making her approximately 2700 years old. We believe she was of Nubian descent, which would fit with this period as the Pharaohs at the time were the Kushites, Nubians that had invaded Egypt from the South. Today, the region of Nubia is split between Egypt and Sudan.

We originally thought her to be in her twenties when she died but CT scans in 2009 have shown that her teeth were in truly terrible condition, with missing teeth and abscesses that are not usual for a young person. For this reason, we now believe her to have been middle-aged, between 35-55 years old, which was an exceptional age for an Ancient Egyptian!

We don’t know much more about her or how she came to the UK but we do know that John Passmore Edwards, an MP for Salisbury donated her to the Salisbury Museum in 1880. They then gifted her to the BNSS in 1922 where she spent many decades locked in a store room and only visited by special appointment. In 1993, due to her popularity, the BNSS put her on permanent display in the Egyptology room where she remains today.

Why does she need our help?


The coffin of Tahemaa is nearly 3000 years old and for the most part it has managed to remain intact. However, it is starting to show signs of deterioration. Environmental changes have caused the structure to crack and the original paintwork to flake. UV light risks fading the pigment while many decades without a protective display case have left it with a great build-up of surface dirt.

The conservation of Tahemaa’s coffin is part of the project ‘Tahemaa Transformed’ and our Conservator Bethany will tell you all about the complexities of the conservation process in the next blog post! We will be fundraising for the Tahemaa Transformed project throughout the summer of 2019 through a dedicated online Gofundme page and via donations from visitors, who can come to the BNSS every Tuesday between 10am and 2pm from 25th June to see Bethany at work and get a close-up and personal view of Tahemaa. Suggested donation, £5.

Our GoFundMe campaign page is here

Please visit our Facebook page here to see the recent BBC South segment on the new facial reconstruction of Tahemaa created by Vanessa Pearson, a 2019 graduate from the Arts University Bournemouth.

Also keep an eye out for Tahemaa and other rare and unusual objects from the BNSS on the Objectivity YouTube channel here

Bethany Palumbo, 6 June 2019