Study and conservation of a miniature Egyptian coffin

In 2016 the Fitz made the headlines with a remarkable discovery: a miniature Egyptian coffin (E.43.1907) that had been thought to hold mummified organs was found to contain an embalmed human foetus, probably the youngest ever known to be buried in Ancient Egypt.

Figure 1. The miniature coffin featured in The Guardian.

The coffin had been X-rayed in preparation for the Death on the Nile exhibition, but when the results appeared inconclusive it was decided to CT-scan 1 its contents. This revealed a mummified foetus only 18 weeks into gestation, its arms ritually folded over its chest. It was wrapped in bandages, over which molten back resin had been poured before the coffin was closed.

Figure 2. Detail of the face and right ear.

The coffin that holds the bundle is of interest in itself. Excavated in Giza by the British School of Archaeology in 1907, it came to the Museum in the same year. Though the wood is poorly preserved and the painted surface entirely lost, surviving details of the face and ears show that it was skilfully carved. Measuring only 43cm in length, it is a fine example of an anthropoid coffin of the Late Period (664-525 BC), built on a tiny scale.

Figure 3. Diagram of a mortise with a loose tenon (copyright Geoffrey Killen and The Fitzwilliam Museum). Tenons in this coffin are pegged, meaning that a small dowel holds them in place from the side.

I recently re-examined the object with the aim of completing its technical study and assessing the condition of the fragile surface.

X-ray examination confirmed that box and lid are each carved out of a single piece of cedar wood2, joined by four pegged tenons on each side (Figs. 3 and 4). The deterioration of the wood is so severe that deep crevices are visible in X-rays of the box (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. X-ray image of the upper half of the box. Deep crevices are visible in the degraded wood. Four rectangular tenon holes can be seen around the edges, each one with lateral holes for pegs.

A powdery white material can be seen on the ears, face, chest and feet (Fig. 5), particularly in recessed areas. This shows that the surface would have been covered in a white preparation layer (typically calcite mixed with animal glue), applied over the wood to create a smooth surface for painting. Traces of black resin are also visible, which may be unintentional splashes from when the burial bundle was coated.

Figure 5. Detail of the feet, showing remnants of the white preparation layer and traces of black resin.

Although to the naked eye the surface appears to be bare wood, microscopic examination reveals occasional loose pigment particles. The main colour visible is blue, seen on the wig and the collar. This is likely to be Egyptian blue3, a glassy, copper-based frit4 commonly used in the ancient world, and one of the earliest synthetic pigments. Red, yellow, and green pigment particles are also visible under the microscope, but it is hard to be sure that these are original.

Figure 6. Fingerprint in black resin, visible on the outer surface of the coffin, on the proper right side. Microscopic image by Jennifer Marchant.

Close examination also reveals signs left by craftsmen at the time of manufacture: a fingerprint in black (Fig. 6), probably left at the time the coffin was closed after the molten resin was applied within; and chisel marks on the wooden surface around the head (Fig. 7), which might have served to roughen the surface before the preparation layer was applied.

Figure 7. Raking light reveals chisel marks around the head of the coffin. Image by Jennifer Marchant.

The surface was investigated further with an imaging technique known as Visible Light Induced Luminescence5 photography (VIL), used to detect the pigment Egyptian blue, and ultraviolet6 light (UV), which helps reveal the presence of varnishes and resins, but no further traces of the original decoration could be seen.

The fibrous structure of the wood is severely weakened by what appears to be brown-rot, a type of fungal degradation, also responsible for the pronounced fracturing of the surface (known as ‘cubing’). Entire sections of the surface are lost, particularly on the sides, but the head is better preserved. The surface layer easily crushes and powders on touch, a symptom of degradation of the wood structure at a cellular level.

Figure 8. The author carrying out consolidation treatment of the highly degraded surface under magnification.

The conservation treatment aimed to reinforce particularly degraded areas of the surface to avoid further losses. After cleaning with a soft brush, smaller wood fragments and highly deteriorated, fibrous areas were consolidated with a cellulose-based adhesive7, selected after testing due to its compatibility with wood and the fact that it did not change the appearance of the surface. Larger fragments were secured in place by inserting tabs of a long-fibre paper tissue soaked with a strong cellulose starch paste8. The powdery plaster and pigment residues had to be consolidated without touching the surface, as any contact with a brush would have picked up the loose particles. This was achieved by applying a consolidant9 in a mist using a nebulizer. For this treatment I chose Funori, a polysaccharide derived from dried red algae that has been used in Japan as an adhesive for over 300 years and is known for its excellent ageing properties and suitability for matte surfaces.

Though the coffin remains one of the most fragile objects in the Antiquities collection, the surface is now significantly stronger and less prone to losses, allowing for the coffin to be moved safely when needed for further examination and display.


Flavia Ravaioli
Objects Conservator, Research Associate



The mummified foetus was discovered by Helen Strudwick, Associate Curator (Egyptian Antiquities), and Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation, both from the Fitzwilliam Museum, in collaboration with Dr Tom Turmezei, Honorary Consultant Radiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, and Dr Owen Arthurs, Academic Consultant Paediatric Radiologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London. Technical investigation of the coffin was carried out by the author and by Jennifer Marchant, Conservator of Antiquities and Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The wood species was identified by Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum, in 2006.



Jillian, H. and Z. Wyszomirska-Noga, ‘Funori: The use of a traditional Japanese adhesive in the preservation and conservation treatment of Western objects’, in Adapt & Evolve 2015: East Asian Materials and Techniques in Western Conservation. Proceedings from the International Conference of the Icon Book & Paper Group, London 8-10 April 2015. London: The Institute of Conservation, 2017. 69–79.

Strudwick, H. and J. Dawson (eds.) Death on the Nile. Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. London: Giles, 2016.


Preparing for ‘Flux’: Object Processing on a Large Scale

In the past year, the Applied Arts team has faced a monumental task: processing a group of 360 newly acquired pieces of Parian-ware (or Parian) porcelain, predominantly busts, in preparation for an upcoming exhibition. Most were dirty and many were separated from their original bases, which had become jumbled up. The scale of the project required that we think differently about how to care for the objects, finding an efficient way of processing them while respecting individual conservation needs.

The Glynn Collection of Parian-ware was acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2016 as part of the Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance Tax scheme. Largely featuring busts of Classical characters and Victorian public figures, it provides an important insight into lives deemed worthy of commemoration in 19th-century England.

Acquiring such a significant collection opened up exciting possibilities for interpretation and display. The exhibition Flux (opens March 2018 in the Octagon gallery) is guest-curated by the artist and historian Matt Smith. As well as producing his own art, predominantly in clay, Matt has extensive experience of curating museum collections, often re-interpreting them from the view of an outsider. Flux will make use of his own unconventional Parian-ware (most fascinatingly produced in black Parian!) highlighting the Fitzwilliam’s historic collection and making it more relevant to a contemporary audience. The Flux display will accompany a major exhibition of studio pottery, Things of Beauty Growing, which will showcase ceramics sourced by the Yale Center for British Art, in New Haven, USA.


Parian-ware is named after the Greek Island Paros, known for its white statuary marble that was popular in the Classical world, which the porcelain imitates in appearance. Parian was a development of the biscuit (or bisque) porcelain used primarily by factories in France, such as Sèvres, to produce small-scale statue-like figures. This was developed further by porcelain manufacturers in Staffordshire, Britain, in the mid-19th century in order to give the surface a more reflective, marble-like finish. The slip-casting method, where liquid porcelain is poured into a detailed mould, allowed mass-production; making affordable, marble-like statues and busts available to middle-class Victorian homes. Parian was popularised by many British factories, right through to its decline in the early twentieth century. It was produced by many famous names such as Coalport, Wedgwood and Copeland. Factories competed with one another to obtain the finest Parian ‘recipe’. This has resulted in the many pieces within our collection having very different finishes, textures and weights. They vary greatly in density, porosity and colour: there are many shades of white and a few are tinted with coloured slips. Several busts are mounted on separate Parian bases, attached with threaded metal dowels. All these aspects need to be taken into account when treating each object.

The considerable size of the Glynn Parian-ware Collection made it necessary to develop a methodology that would allow streamlining the process of accessioning and conserving the porcelain in preparation for the Flux exhibition. The collection has occupied most of the available work surfaces in the department for much of the year, and clearing space was a priority. The first step required the combined effort of Departmental Technician Timothy Matthews and Research Assistant Helen Ritchie, who examined, photographed, measured and described the objects one by one, recording all information on a spreadsheet and eventually assigning each a museum accession number.








The condition was assessed by Penny Bendall, an independent ceramics conservator, who identified which objects required more complex conservation treatments, such as the reattachment of broken parts, removal of old repairs and re-mounting on bases. The vast majority just needed cleaning in order for them to be appreciated properly and to be made suitable for public display. The porcelain had more than likely been stored in different conditions and cared for in different ways by different owners. While many of the larger busts appeared to have been kept outside, their surface weathered and discoloured by accumulated dirt, smaller statues were far cleaner. Timothy Matthews and Assistant Conservator Flavia Ravaioli removed surface deposits using an enzyme-based detergent that activates in warm water. You will see from the photographs that a small amount of detergent was initially applied by brush and left on the objects’ surface for a few minutes to allow the enzymes to work. The detergent was then worked over the surface with the brush, taking care not to scratch the surface, until all the dirt had lifted. This was followed by thorough rinsing with specially-filtered water to remove all residues of the detergent. Finally, the porcelain was dried with soft cloths, then left in a warm place until completely dry.

When cleaning Parian-ware, we are very mindful of areas of restoration, the porosity of the surface, the presence of metal elements and old labels. When encountering a restored piece of Parian, we do nothing more than dust it with a dry brush, as using detergent and water could weaken or remove previous joins or restorations. A small handful of restored pieces were cleaned with acetone on small cotton wool swabs to allow more localised application.

Once clean, the objects were labelled with their accession number, photographed, and stored away to await display in the spring. So far 260 pieces have been completed. Only 100 more to go!









Timothy Matthews, Departmental Technician

Flavia Ravaioli, Assistant Conservator