UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

A graduate conservation training program focusing on the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic materials


Technical Study of Two Japanese Masks: Investigating Their Attribution as a Pair

The work described in this poster was conducted as part of a Master’s thesis project for the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program and presented at the Annual Conference of the Association of North American Graduate Programs in Conservation (ANAGPIC), Buffalo State College, April 24-25, 2009.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA houses a collection of Japanese polychrome wooden masks. A pair of these masks, identified as “honomen” (gift or dedication mask), was attributed to the same maker based on their stylistic similarities. The museum records stated that the masks were dated to the 18-19th century and made in the style found in the Kyūshū region of Japan. However, neither the pairing nor provenance of the masks was supported by any textual or technical evidence.

The poster presented here summarizes the preliminary results from a comparative technical investigation on the Fowler masks, as a part of the research to answer the questions regarding the masks’ provenance and their paired attribution. Analytical techniques such as wood characterization, polarized light microscopy (PLM), x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), x ray diffraction (XRD), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS) and micro-chemical analysis using environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM-EDX) were used to determine the masks’ material composition and methods of manufacture. The analytical results, combined with studies on the masks’ context of use and iconographic origins, provided material evidence that the masks were manufactured in close association with one another, although there was no firm evidence to establish that they were indeed manufactured by the same hand. Furthermore, identifying vitreous pigments on one of the masks pushed the mask’s estimated date of manufacture to 19th-20th century. This finding also added knowledge to a class of pigment not widely used in the Japanese palette until modern times.

Built upon the analytical understanding of the Fowler masks’ material composition and present condition, the research project concluded with a conservation treatment to improve the long-term stability of the polychrome. The most urgent treatment priorities were stabilizing the fragile matte paint surface and locally reinforcing the structural defects on the masks. Due to time constraints, consolidation of the paint was performed only on the red mask. Major structural defects on both masks were reinforced by filling the cavities in the wood with a light-weight and mechanically-reversible fill made of rolled-up Japanese paper, capped with a light-weight putty made from Acryloid B-72 bulked with glass microballoons for a better seal. The fill was then inpainted with Liquitex acrylic emulsion paint to reduce the color contrast between the fill and the wood.

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Project News: Research and treatment of flaking arsenic containing paint layers on a Ptolemaic mummy cartonnage

The work described in this poster was conducted as part of a Master’s thesis project for the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program and presented at the Annual Conference of the Association of North American Graduate Programs in Conservation (ANAGPIC), Buffalo State College, April 24-25, 2009.

A Ptolemaic mummy cartonnage, belonging to the Robert V. Fullerton Museum at California State University, San Bernardino, seemed to be suffering from an alteration of the paint layers found on the object. The pigments used to decorate the mask had darkened and several areas, primarily those a dull yellow in color, displayed severe flaking. The flaking yellow pigment was found on alternating squares of the checkerboard pattern on the head, on the double headed cobra on the back, on the areas of the wig, above and below the headband, and on the face of the standing figure on the PL side of the mask. The aims of this project were to identify the cause of the flaking and treat the cartonnage.

In order to determine the causes of alteration to the dull yellow pigment, a technical study was conducted to identify the materials used in the manufacture of the mask, focusing on the pigments and binders applied to the areas now flaking. X-ray fluorescence (XRF), x-ray diffraction (XRD), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), polarized light microscopy (PLM), gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (GC-MS) and ultraviolet (UV)-fluorescence were employed to characterize the cartonnage. The ground was found to be made primarily of calcite (CaCO3) and the binder used for the pigments was a gum. Fatty acids identified in a brown material covering areas of the surface were thought to possibly be from the embalming material used for the mummy. The flaking paint was composed of the arsenic-containing pigment orpiment (As2S3), in addition to possible altered forms of the pigment such as arsenolite (As2O3) and pararealgar (AsS). Comparison of the flaking yellow squares on the head to the non-flaking yellow squares showed they both contained arsenic, but the quantity of arsenic in the flaking squares was higher.

Though the preliminary results of this research have helped to identify the materials used in the decoration of the cartonnage, no clear answer has been found to explain why some areas painted with arsenic-containing pigments are flaking while others are not. Further analysis will be undertaken to try and determine the cause of the flaking and whether the differences in the amount of arsenic in the yellow paint may be influencing the condition of the pigment in those areas. Treatment will also be conducted on the cartonnage to reduce the glossy material found on the surface, identified as Paraloid B-72 (an acrylic co-polymer resin), and to consolidate the areas of flaking paint.

Egyptian cartonnage images courtesy of Robert V. Fullerton Art Museum, gift of the Harer Family Trust, 2001

Egyptian cartonnage images courtesy of Robert V. Fullerton Art Museum, gift of the Harer Family Trust, 2001