Conservation of a Child’s Lead Coffin

Hi, I’m Ruth Watson the current Durham University conservation intern working for the MAA as part of my Masters Course. Since starting my internship, a large proportion of my time has been dedicated to working on a lead coffin, featured in Hide and Seek: Looking for Children in the Past.

The almost complete coffin was excavated in 1990 from a Roman site in Arrington, along with a box containing terracotta figures. Shortly after excavation, the grave group was accessioned into MAA’s collection and the coffin underwent conservation to reshape the bent lead sections and saw the coffin mounted onto its current wooden support.

Coffin all round

(Coffin before treatment had been carried out)

Prior to its display in Hide and Seek, the coffin arrived from stores wrapped in old cardboard boxes and on first glance looked more than a little sorry for itself. It had a heavy layer of corrosion on the surface and the panels overlapped where they had shifted during transport. But it was by no means beyond hope.

The surface of the lead was lightly brushed to remove loose dust and excess corrosion which was collected with a museum vacuum. The removal of the corrosion dust revealed the double band and bead design that runs around the top of the coffin lid and around the base much more clearly, as the coffin is otherwise undecorated.

(Detail of the double band and bead design around the top of the coffin lid)

After brush vacuuming, attention was turned to reducing the old fill material on the back of several of the lid panels. In a number of places this was no longer providing support, but was standing very proud of the surface; causing the lead to have to bend and distort in order to fit onto the mount.

(Old fill material before and after treatment, allowing it to now sit much closer to the surface of the mount which will reduce the stress and bending on the lead section)

The remaining wood fragments on the outer surface of the lead sides, from what would have been the wooden outer coffin, were considered particularly vulnerable to damage. Therefore they were consolidated with an adhesive to provide extra support and better adhesion to the lead surface.

After the lead had been treated, attention was turned to the mount. The long-term plan is for the coffin to be remounted onto a steel structure, which will offer better support to the heavy lead. However in the short term the lid and sides of the wooden mount were painted in a layer of acrylic paint, to give the mount a fresher look as it was going on display.

 

(Coffin mount before painting (left) and after painting and covering with a layer of Melinex (right))

A thin layer of plastic known as Melinex was places over the lid once the paint was dry to act as a buffer between the lead and the newly painted wood. Once the lid sections were replaced, the excess plastic was cut away from in-between the panels so the shiny surface would bot be seen while on display.

Now that the conservation had been carried out, the coffin looks much improved compared to when it first arrived from storage. The excess lead dust is no longer obscuring the detail of the moulding and the new coat of paint to the mount makes it much brighter. The coffin now forms an integral part of the exhibition, with its associated terracotta grave goods displayed alongside.

We hope you come and see it for yourself!