Egypt Restored at the Carlos Museum
Sometime in the third millennium BCE, at the height of the Egyptian Old Kingdom’s glory, the scribe Wehemka and his wife Hetepheres were laid to rest in an underground tomb near the Great Pyramids of Giza. Upon their mummified bodies, their servants placed a brilliant broad collar, an ensemble of over 1,000 cylindrical beads arranged in a series of graceful, concentric semicircles. Its terminals were gold, and the faience beads, strung together by an intricate weave, gave off an otherworldly glow in the darkness. It was a fitting parting gift to a noble man, one that would help Wehemka and his wife retain their nobility in the afterlife.
The tomb was shut, and remained untouched by human hands for thousands of years. Time passed, and as the earth shifted, the colors faded and the organic materials slowly broke down. The beads eventually spilled out upon the floor, as the ties that bound them finally snapped. And there they sat until one day a haphazard team of workmen broke open the tomb. They were greeted by a scene of disarray — beads were strewn about the floor, many broken or half buried in the sand. They gathered what they could — breaking many in the process — and placed them in small metal can, which they brought to the leaders of the excavation, who awkwardly strung them together into a two tiered necklace. From there, the necklace was exported to the Georg Steindorff Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig, where it was accessioned and became a part of the institution’s permanent Egyptian collection. For nearly a century, it was displayed in its erroneously reconstructed form, and in time, all memory of its assembly faded. Ersatz form became fact, accepted by the eyes, learned or not, who gazed upon the rows and beads, arranged in a way they were never meant to be, completely divorced from historical fact.
Fast forward to the present day, as curators at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum were preparing their own exhibition on treasures from the Old Kingdom, in which the broad collar-cum-necklace was to be included. Shortly after its arrival at Emory, the necklace came under the scrutiny of Dr. Peter Lacovara, the Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art. Lacovara, an expert in ancient Egyptian archeology, quickly realized that the previously unquestioned arrangement of beads did not correspond to the normalized pattern of Old Kingdom necklaces. “Dr. Lacovara recognized that the beads had originally been part of a set consisting of a broad collar and a choker worn at the neck, as is often depicted in images of women of the Old Kingdom,” the Carlos Museum wrote in a newsletter to its members.
Soon after, it was decided that the broad collar should undergo a restoration to return it to its original, historically accurate state. Once permission was granted by the University of Leipzig, the project came under the direction of the Carlos’ chief Conservator, Renée Stein, who enlisted the help of a team of conservation fellows, volunteers and interns. Among these was longtime Carlos benefactor and Docent Emeritus Gail Walter, who has worked for many years as a jewelry artist.
In a summary of the project, Mrs. Walter explained the process behind the unstringing, arranging and restringing of the beads. First, the hundreds of surviving beads were sorted by type and color. From there, the length of each bead was measured and laid out to establish the four curving rows of the broad collar, with the longest beads in the middle and the shortest near the terminals. Still, many beads were missing, and would need to be accurately reconstructed, a task that fell in part to College senior Sam Owens, an intern in the Carlos Conservation Lab.
“Looking at the pile of beads, the project was very daunting at first,” Owens explained in an interview with the Wheel. “But Gail [Walter] was a great resource. She has worked on several broad collars before and knew exactly what to do.”
Owens, who has significant backgrounds in art history, chemistry and visual arts, began the process by using a scanning electron microscope with a spectrometer to document the elemental composition of the beads in order to identify the original pigments used and the reasons for their decay. Once this was determined, Owens helped to recreate beads using a combination of Sculpy, a common brand of Polymer clay, and several types of pigment. In addition to producing new beads, Owens used Sculpy to recreate the missing terminals, which were then gilded using an adhesive and gold leaf.
To ensure that the faux beads did not clash visually with the original, third millennium BC beads, the newly created bits were made to look aged by carefully matching their color with the ancient beads. Still, some signs that the beads were not authentic were deliberately left in the final product. Owens explained, “It would have been too stark a difference to simply insert green and blue beads intermixed with the original beads. To make sure the collar was aesthetically pleasing and suggestive of the original color, our fabricated beads were lightly tinted either green or blue.
The entire ensemble was carefully restrung using a ladder stitch, a method in which the string from the middle bead of each row is passed to the terminal. “Approximately eight feet of string was used for each half of a row to provide a significant amount of excess string to use for attaching the rows,” the research summary explained.
“The restringing process was very time consuming, but now I could make my own broad collar,” Owens explained. “[Walters] tackled the most difficult part of the stringing, combining all the separate rows of beads, which took a lot of experimentation to connect the rows while keeping them aligned.”
Finally, after several months of work, the broad collar project was complete.
“This project has been going on since January, and it’s great to see the final product, knowing how much time and energy went into it,” Owens said.
The finished result, an accurate recreation of the broad collar as it was originally intended to be, is marvelous to behold. It somehow shows its enormous age, and yet, it looks sturdy enough to be held, or even, if no one was watching, picked up and placed around one’s neck.
Students wishing to see the broad collar in person will unfortunately need to wait until the object is cleared for exhibition. But rest assured, the collar will be available for public viewing before it is returned to Leipzig.
— By Will Partin III