Over the past few months, conservation work has been underway on an impressive 22nd Dynasty Egyptian bead net, composed of multicoloured faience beadwork largely on its original string.
As a traditional funerary piece of Egypt’s Late Period, this would originally have laid atop a mummy’s wrappings and would have held the amuletic function of protecting and preparing the deceased for the afterlife. Interestingly, this example is special for its intricately detailed beaded frieze, which depicts a central beetle flanked by two djed-pillars on either side, as well as the figure of Anubis in his jackal form framing the scene (Friedman et al, 1998, 249). All three motifs form part of Ancient Egyptian religious symbolism. For example, the beetle represents the god of the morning sun, Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky daily. By extension, themes of rebirth and regeneration became connected to beetle imagery, leading to its use in funerary contexts (Andrews, 1994, 51). Djed-pillars were similarly connected to Osiris, god of the dead, who despite dying was revived once more. Therefore, as the MET points out, this symbol represented permanence, often in spite of death. Lastly, the god Anubis was very commonly depicted as a jackal, and his role as the god of funerary practices explains his presence and positioning in this scene, overseeing this funerary preparatory process. The imagery depicted here is further clarified when compared to a similar bead net frieze from the Louvre, allowing an even greater appreciation for the detail and beauty present.
Regarding the bead net’s initial condition, this had been adhered to two perspex boards in the past, presumably as an old display method. While the process of adhering objects for display purposes was unfortunately more common in the past, this would no longer be carried out today because it could unintentionally cause damage. For instance, by applying an adhesive on this bead net’s ancient thread, the already fragile fibres were now degrading further and falling apart in areas of direct contact. Moreover, the bead net as a whole was not entirely stable, as various faience beads had been missed during the adhesive’s original application, which led to a large number of them coming loose and running the risk of being lost. It therefore quickly became evident that these plastic boards had to be replaced with a newer, less damaging and more secure backing medium.
In order to detach the bead net, testing was initially done to determine a suitable solvent that would help dissolve the adhesive, with the results pointing towards acetone as the most effective solution. A small, thin brush lightly dampened with acetone was therefore methodically used to detach each bead and thread section requiring it, by placing the brush between the board and the object and allowing the acetone to soften and dissolve the adhesive. A secondary wooden tool was then employed to nudge each beaded section free from the board, all the while taking care not to allow lengthy or direct contact between the acetone and the thread. While such a process was long and certainly required patience, it ultimately proved very effective in fully detaching all sections of the bead net!
From here, the next steps involved making a new, more suitable board for this object, and subsequently attaching it in a more stable, yet less invasive way. As a result, it was decided that a padded board would be made from conservation grade, acid-free materials, onto which the bead net could be gently but securely sewn. For the making of the board, archival, buffered box board was used as the base, due to its acid-free, non off-gassing nature. Polyester wadding was then cut to size and placed atop the base to both softly support the bead net better and allow sewing to take place. Two types of fabric were then used to wrap and secure the box board and wadding in place, providing better grip and additional padding: domette and calico fabrics. Once all these components were sewn together, the new board was complete!
At this point, moving the bead net from the old boards to its new one was a two-person job, requiring coordination and patience while the object was slowly slid across. With this done, the beadwork and thread is in the process of being secured to the board, carefully looping over the ancient thread in a discrete, yet reversible and non-damaging way.
While this sewing process is not yet complete, both the overall stability and appearance of the bead net have already improved significantly without the additional stresses caused by the old display method. Soon the intricate nature of this object, which incredibly has survived millenia against all odds, may finally be safely and fully appreciated once more.
Andrews, C., 1994. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
Friedman, F.D., Borromeo, G., & Leveque, M., 1998. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience. London: Thames & Hudson.