Conserving the Big Man

Today’s post is by Alison Draper, Object Conservator at MMU Special Collections. As well as caring for the objects in our collections, Alison also undertakes conservation work for other organisations. Here Alison explains the processes involved in conserving an Egyptian coffin piece belonging to Wigan Museums.

The conservation of an Egyptian coffin piece, informally known as ‘Big Man’, was recently undertaken for Wigan Museums. This piece dates from approximately 1500 BC on stylistic grounds but a lack of further information means that his identity is still unknown.

The head is made from pieces of wood held together with wooden dowels and a resinous substance similar to pitch. The face and wig are separately carved pieces. The finished coffin consists of a number of different layers: base wood  covered with a layer of gesso (either Plaster of Paris or gypsum bound with animal glue), then a woven linen textile layer, followed by another layer of gesso and finally the painted layer created with natural earth pigments. Loss and damage to the object now allows us to see these different layers.


Before conservation, damage to the head made it too vulnerable to display. The most serious problem was the separation of the outer painted layers from the underlying wood. Other problems included; loss of upper layers, cracks, distortion, brittleness and dirt. The large areas of white paint were part of an unfinished restoration undertaken at some point in the  past. Although posing no threat, these were highly disfiguring and made the interpretation of the head difficult.

The damage to the head was stabilized to make it possible to display it without further deterioration. The surface was cleaned , the fragile pigment layer consolidated to prevent further loss, and the detached linen layer adhered onto the wood. Conservation materials were used throughout which are stable and can be reversed in the future if required. Removal of the white paint was too damaging to the underlying wood and so it was disguised as much as possible by overpainting with a more sympathetic colour.

The large areas of loss were not reinstated but left to show the true state of the object. Any restoration would have been primarily aesthetic and would have involved a great deal of supposition in the absence of any evidence of exactly what has been lost.The head is on display at the Ancient Egypt Rediscovered exhibition at the Museum of Wigan Life until June 2016.

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