One of the most anticipated projects to take place at Museum Textile Services in 2018 was the conservation of twenty-three archaeological Coptic textile fragments from the collection of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine. Originating from Antinoé, Egypt, these 1500-year-old textiles once belonged to the artist Marsden Hartley, who was inspired by their design and colors. MTS director Camille Myers Breeze first assessed the collection in 2006 and treatment was finally realized thanks to the persistence of museum curator Bill Lowe and a generous grant from the Coby Foundation.
Nine of the textiles were categorized as medium intervention. They were characterized by a large amount of adhesive reside on the reverse and moderate soiling. Seven of these textiles needed to be moistened with deionized water to soften the adhesive and allow it to be reduced mechanically with a micro spatula and tweezers. All of the textiles were then flushed with deionized water on the suction table.
Four textiles were categorized as high intervention, three of which were adhered to linen backings. After adhesive reduction and suction cleaning, all four fragments needed to be hand stitched down to a new backing fabric to preserve their structural integrity. One of the textiles was reunited with its earlier wool backing fabric, stitched to new cotton fabric, and also overlaid with net. Three textiles were found to be weak enough that we opted to overlay them with sheer nylon net to prevent against fiber loss and minimize the amount of stitching we needed to take through the remaining adhesive deposits.
An inherent part of the stabilization plan are the individual mounting boards Museum Textile Services constructed for each textile. Made of acid-free eight-ply mat board, each board was covered in grey cotton poplin adhered on the reverse with BEVA film. The ten low-intervention textiles sit passively on their boards with no mounting stitching, leaving both sides available for future study. The nine medium intervention textiles were sufficiently weak that they needed to be hand stitched to their fabric-covered mounting boards. After the four high intervention textiles were lined with new cotton, they were also hand sewn to individual fabric-covered mounting boards.
In the next installment of this blog we will go into the history of Coptic textiles, the controversial archaeologist who excavated tens of thousands of fragments, and how they came to be disseminated across the United States, particularly in college and university collections. Until then, enjoy this slide show of the entire Bates College Coptic collection after we completed conservation and mounting.