Conservation of Ancient Egyptian mummification: call the specialist!


A highlight of the popular Antiquities collection at Eton College is the mummification display. Recently we noticed that some of the wrappings on the mummified heads were starting to shed and come loose. To understand why this was happening and to repair the damage we brought in Jenny Mathiasson who specializes in the conservation of antiquities and human remains. Over two days we worked together treating every object in the display. After initial examination of the objects we determined the likely cause of the deterioration was due to extreme changes in the humidity within the case. Organic specimens can react quite violently to humidity changes. This coupled with their age and fragility meant interventive treatment was necessary to stabilize them for the future and prevent the permanent loss of any original material.

The stabilization was carried out in two parts. First, areas of flaking linen wrappings were consolidated and once completed the larger strips of linen could then be relaxed back into their original places and re attached. It was important to work with adhesives that would complement the original materials and to test a variety of strengths until the best solution was found. In our case we chose to use cellulose based adhesives such as 2% methylcellulose in a 50/50 solution of IMS (alcohol) and deionized water and wheat starch paste in deionized water. The methylcellulose adhesive was low tack and could be wicked up easily by the linen so it was ideal for consolidating the flaking edges of the wrappings. The wheat starch paste was higher tack and more viscous so it was ideal for re-adhering the larger strips of linen back in their original positions.

The final stage of the treatment was to re-position the object on their mounts as some had shifted slightly over time. Overall we were able to stabilize three mummified human heads, a mummified falcon, a mummified kitten and two mummified human hands.


To prevent damage like this from reoccurring there is a humidity control system installed within the case, which will keep our mummified objects comfortable for years to come.

A huge thanks to Jenny Mathiasson for her expertise and to David Goode and Hawtrey House for hosting Jenny during her time at Eton.

Aimée Sims

Conservation Steward

Operation Ozymandias

The transportation of a pair of ancient Egyptian feet (ECM.2189-2010) to their new home in the Jafar Gallery.


The object in question was a pair of extremely heavy red granite c3000 year old feet which were once part of a larger statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (known to the Greeks as Ozymandias). It had been in ‘temporary’ storage in a window alcove for at least 2 years, awaiting a more permanent place in the Jafar Gallery.

In early September 2017, the new wooden plinth had been made, so I got the nod from Rebecca Tessier, Museums Officer, to go ahead and start planning what we would need for the move.


Firstly I needed to get a good idea of the weight of the piece. Using the dimensions, I could work out the volume and therefore have a pretty close estimate using a reliable formula. The estimated weight came out as 283 kgs, so very heavy for an object that is around the size of a large footstool!

I asked our Buildings Department if they had anything suitable to lift this kind of object but unfortunately they did not, but suggested that we might use a car engine crane. This sounded like a perfect solution so I went about sourcing one from a hire company, along with the required lifting slings.

One piece of equipment that Buildings could supply was a pallet truck which would be needed to move the wooden pallet which the feet were currently sitting on.

It was decided that we would transport the feet to the Jafar Gallery with the use of the Buildings’ van, but we still needed a strong trolley to get them from the Cloisters through the Postern Gate and onto the van.

The last piece of the plan would be to enlist some strong manpower from the Buildings team and so we were all ready for the move. The date set was 17th November 2017.


In order to be able to pick the object up it needed to be brought out into the centre of the floor, as the access to the alcove of the window was quite restricted and the base legs of the crane were not wide enough to get in close to it where it was. We did, however, manage to move it to the centre of the room with the use of the pallet truck. The next stage was to get the lifting slings underneath the object, but it was proving impossible to lift manually, even with four men, due to its relatively small size, yet significant weight. The problem was actually getting a good grip on it.

We were able to partially dismantle the wooden pallet in order to slip the first sling underneath one end, then slide it along the pallet far enough to get the second sling under the other end.

The crane could then be moved into place to attach the slings and lift the object high enough to transfer it to the trolley, which would in turn take it to the waiting van. The engine crane which we used had a maximum lifting capacity of 2000 kgs, so it was more than capable of doing the job and proved perfect as it was possible to fold it up in order to transport it easily between each step of the process.

Once we moved the object to the van we used the crane again to lift it on board ready for transport to the Jafar Gallery, where there is a lift between the ground level and the gallery level.

The lifting process was reversed to move from the van back on to the waiting trolley, then into the lift and up to the gallery level. We’re almost there!

For the final time, the trusty crane was set up next to the waiting plinth in the Jafar Gallery. We made sure to protect the polished floor between the lift and the plinth, then carefully wheeled the feet up alongside it. As can be seen in the picture below, we were again faced with the problem of the fairly narrow crane legs and found that we were literally inches away from being able to lower the feet directly down into position.

The solution turned out to be one that many believe the ancient Egyptians came up with when faced with a very similar problem. We lowered the object gently on to three wooden broom handles placed below, then used them to roll it along the plinth until we were happy that it was in the correct alignment. We could then remove the lifting straps and the broom handles and voilà, Ozymandias’s feet were safely in place.


Bryan in the Jafar Gallery, watching the feet being lifted onto its plinth by the crane

This was a perfect example of great teamwork. Everybody involved contributed their own individual knowledge and expertise and showed that if we all pull together, we can achieve great things!

By Bryan Lewis, Foundation and Collections Handyman

Ramesses’ feet, along with a host of other objects from antiquity, can be seen by all at the Jafar Gallery every Sunday between 2.30pm and 5pm. Please drop by!

Travels with a potato

At some point in the 1970s a small Roman coin was discovered in a garden off Eton High Street. It was not until 1984, however, that Jack Speller was able to get his find properly identified by the Keeper of Antiquities at Eton College, Dr Michael Ballance. What he had uncovered was a coin of the Emperor Probus (with a figure of Victory on the reverse) from the late third century CE.

Probus was born in Sirmium in modern-day Serbia, joined the army as a young man and worked his way up through the ranks. While serving as commander of the eastern army in 276 he was proclaimed emperor by his own troops. He reigned for six years (an impressive feat during these tumultuous years), and was fully occupied during that time fighting Franks and Vandals in Gaul and Middle Europe, putting down usurpers and rebellions, planning a major campaign against the Persians and supervising the regeneration of his hometown of Sirmium. Ironically it was his innocent-seeming efforts to help his hometown that led to his death. His plans to drain the local marshes and reclaim valuable farmland seem inoffensive, even laudable, but his soldiers, resenting the Emperor’s strict disciplinarianism, chased Probus into a nearby watchtower and hacked him to death.

So much for Probus – what about his coin? From the Greek legend it is clear that the coin, a tetradrachm with a value equivalent to a denarius (mostly bronze with just a trace of silver), must have travelled some distance from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to reach a garden in Eton. The legend reads:



Reverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

Since Alexandria in Egypt was the only city to produce Greek coinage for Probus we can be confident that this is where it was minted. From the Greek letters on the obverse we are also able to date the coin to the fourth year of Probus’ reign (278-279 CE).

How then did this Greek/Egyptian/Roman coin make its way to Eton? Unlikely as it may sound, it did not travel with a Roman soldier or merchant, but hitched a ride to Britannia in a sack of potatoes. Jack Speller had not been not digging in his garden when he unearthed the coin, but emptying out the soil from a sack of particularly earthy new potatoes. As the clods of earth fell out, something caught Jack’s eye and that something, after days of painstaking cleaning to remove the heavy clay, turned out to be our Roman coin. Since the potatoes came from Cyprus, the coin must at some point in antiquity have made its way from Alexandria to that island, where it presumably lay lost and buried for almost two thousand years. In the 1970s it was then unwittingly scooped up into a hessian sack and transported all the way to Tudor Stores Grocery shop on Eton High Street.

Some forty years later Jack’s daughter offered the much-travelled coin to the Eton Museum of Antiquities and we have been delighted to accept it as much for the story of its journey, as for the object itself. So the next time you find yourself peeling potatoes, keep your eyes peeled too: you never know what you might find.


Obverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

By Rob Shorrock (RECS), Keeper of the Eton Museum of Antiquities