Sometimes a conservator receives a task that doesn’t require any adhesives or cleaning. This past week I found myself with a task that simply used my hands and mind. I received two heaps of Egyptian beads on strings that were such a tangled mess no one knew what they were. My job was to untangle them and make sure that they not end up in the same situation again.
One of the first things I noticed was that the thread and string that the beads were on was not an original textile. It appeared that when the beads were found they were strung on whatever threading was nearby. This meant I was working with Victorian string that was more sturdy than an Egyptian textile would have been. I slowly set about attempting to determine where the ends were so that I had a starting point and was intrigued to find that who ever had restrung the beads had attempted specific patterns in some of them. Was this a replica of what they had found? Or was this simply something they found aesthetically pleasing?
I spent an entire day carefully weaving strands of beads through one another until I was able to say I had separated both piles into individual strands or necklaces. The next step for me was to ensure that they would not end up tangled once more. So I used pieces of Plastazote that were lying around the lab and carefully began to pin the strands out in a manner that would keep them separated. The large necklace with many strands was pinned at the central joining point, careful not to pierce the threads, and then pins were place at the opposite end of each strand to keep them all separated with light tension. The other pile of beads had devolved into a few necklaces, for which I used the aforementioned method of pins and light tension to separate, and many strands of different types of string with loose beads. I put a knot in each end of the loose strands to ensure that the beads would not slip off and then used staples to hold the strands onto the Plastazote at each end. The staples fit perfectly next to the knots and held the strands of beads in place.
Currently the orderly strands of beading have been put back on the shelf but ideally they would be put on display at some point. It had been hoped that, once I finished untangling the bundles, a mummy net would be revealed. While it was disappointing not to find that it was a mummy net, the fact that the beads were all re-strung leafs us to wonder what the original product would have been. Could it have been one mummy net? Would it have been jewelry? We simply do not know. However, since their current stringing isn’t original, it is being considered that perhaps they be restrung into a traditional Egyptian patterned necklace or mummy net so that they are displayable. But for now they are nicely stored and untangled until decisions can be made.
Below is a fun progression of the process.