- Fig. 1 X-bag material as collected from the crypt.
Following on for our recent blogs about the conservation work on the iron coffin from St Bride’s, find out more as the team take a closer inspection of the coffin, both inside and out. Words: Jill Saunders.
Fig. 2 Our first pile of material for sorting.
Fig 3. Retained fragments of different material type.
Once the coffin and lid were safely in the lab, we decided that the first thing to do was to investigate the bag of loose debris which we had gathered during the collection of the coffin from the crypt. This would allow us to become familiar with the material and possibly make some important discoveries to inform our approach to the object. We also wanted to organise and safeguard the material so that it could be a resource for future research. We picked through the bag contents on trays and were able to observe different material types. Eg: iron flakes, textile, unidentified organic, unidentified grey inorganic etc. We separated out fragments of reasonable size into type and bagged and labelled them accordingly. The primary identification for this material was ‘X-bag’ as it had no provenance. Ie we did not know exactly where (from inside or outside of the coffin) it had originated. We sat opposite each other so that we could confer and discuss our interpretation of the material as we went along.
With a rough idea of the types of material we were likely to be dealing with we were ready to turn our attention to the coffin, and we began by doing a thorough visual assessment, which the poor lighting and restricted access in the crypt had not allowed.
Fig. 4 A patch of border detail preserved on the previously hidden side.
Fig. 5 Further losses in the iron coffin side.
Being up close to the coffin in good light, we could see lots of details to the fragile decorative areas on the coffin’s exterior surface. We felt it important to record this right away in case of minor losses incurred during treatment. Though photographs are incredibly useful, there are certain subtleties and information which cannot be recorded effectively in this way, so we decided to use Melinex sheeting to mark on different aspects of what we could observe. The sheets were held in place with bulldog clips and Plastazote to protect the coffin and we were careful to use the least number of clips necessary and only in undecorated areas. We devised a code for different features (eg border detail) and used permanent markers in different colours for recording. In this way, we recorded each side and end and the coffin interior, and we saved two more sheets for each side of the lid. We also recorded the precise location of internal features such as textile patches on the interior walls by placing a marker beside them to indicate distance before taking photographs.
Once we had recorded all that we could see our first interventive task was a massive clearout of the dust and debris inside the coffin. Remember, it had been on open display in the crypt for many years, and during this time lots of material had fallen in and built up. We had to remove it so that we could see what we were dealing with as at this stage we had no idea what features of the coffin interior had been preserved. We divided the interior into sections so that we could record the provenance of debris and noted observations as went. At the head end of the coffin we discovered what appeared to be compressed organic matter which looked a bit like sawdust (Fig. 9) and a sort of rough textile beneath it which could be seen clearly protruding from the end (Fig. 10).
Fig. 8 A designated section ready for excavation.
Fig. 9 The remains found at the head.
Fig. 10 A close-up of the head end showing textile and saw-dust like compressed matter.
At the foot end we found similar material but a more complex construction of multiple layers (Figs 11 & 12), and also an interesting surface texture, probably the remains of a packing material such as straw (Fig. 13).
Fig. 11 The foot end before initial clearout.
Fig. 12 The foot end afterwards
Fig. 13 Suspected compacted straw.
The clearout also revealed more of the loss to the base, and it seemed to us that this strongly indicated the presence of a body. The damage is very localised and surrounded by strong iron which suggests that the corrosion was due to a contact-catalyst rather than a more general instability caused by the inherently reactive nature of the iron metal. It appears that the corrosion has occurred where the body would have been. Over time acidic chemicals and liquids formed during decomposition processes have seeped down and attacked the metal (Fig. 14).
Fig.14 Losses to the base seem to correspond to the placement and decomposition of a body.
Our initial clearout had revealed key features but there was still a lot of dust trapped within them and covering most areas of the coffin (inside and out). We knew that for more thorough cleaning we would have to think carefully about protecting different elements:
• Though compacted, the suspected saw dust and straw were still loose and came away with the lightest of brushing or air blowing.
• The patches of textile adhered to the interior walls could be dislodged or damaged.
• There was a substantial amount of brittle material remains of decorative features on the exterior walls which were also vulnerable to sustaining losses.
We thought carefully about different approaches we could take and had discussions with the Conservation Team, especially Jill Barnard, who is in charge of conservation for the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men
exhibition. But, for the time being, we safely re-wrapped the coffin in its plastic sheeting to concentrate on the lid. We did this for two reasons. The first reason was one of logistics: space was needed in the lab and the scissor lift trolley which the main coffin was resting on was needed for deinstalling the Dickens and London exhibition. We had to treat the lid so that it could be moved to storage and the coffin could be lifted (on its board) onto the table where the lid was, to free up the trolley. Secondly, and more importantly from a conservation perspective, working on the lid first would afford us the opportunity to really get to know the material and the qualities of different decorative features before working on the larger, more complex coffin base.
Watch this space for the next (less gruesome) entry covering our investigation and treatment of the coffin lid: Keeping a lid on it.