University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Conservation Made Possible in Part with IMLS Matching Grant

01 JUNE 2003, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Seven ancient ceramic coffins from the southern Mesopotamian site of Nippur in present-day Iraq - all part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Nippur collection and the only such coffins in the United States - will receive the conservation they need, thanks in part to a prestigious matching grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency. The year-long conservation project will be carried out by independent conservator Julia Lawson with the advice and assistance of Virginia Greene, the Museum's Senior Conservator, and Dr. Richard Zettler, Penn Museum's Associate Curator in the Near East section.

Conservation for the coffins, which range in age from about 3000 to 1,800 years old, will include repairing of original excavation-period joins using modern adhesive and fillers, and extensive cleaning. Making the heavy coffins, of interest to scholars, more movable and accessible in storage, will be a priority.

One of the largest and longest-lived cities in Mesopotamia, Nippur was occupied before the 6th millennium BCE, and occupation continued until about AD 800. The University of Pennsylvania Museum first excavated at Nippur from 1888-1900, and co-sponsored later excavations there with the Oriental Institute, Chicago, from 1949-51. Penn Museum's Nippur collection contains approximately 5,200 pieces, including pottery and glass vessels; metal weapons and jewelry; stone beads, cylinder seals and weights; and clay objects including plaques, loom weights and cuneiform tablets. Detailed information on the proveniences of the coffins and associated grave goods can be obtained from the records of the excavations in the Museum's Archives. Penn Museum houses about half the material excavated at Nippur in the late 19th century, probably the largest such collection in the world and certainly the largest in the United States. Outside of Iraq, the only other coffins from Nippur are included in the Nippur collections in the Museum of the Ancient Near East in Istanbul. Comparable objects (from Uruk, in modern-day Iraq) are in the British Museum, London, and from Babylon, in modern-day Iraq) in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

The seven coffins in Penn Museum's collection represent three distinctive styles: two coffins in a style commonly referred to as the "bath-tub" coffin, beginning at Nippur about 9th-8th century B.C.E.; two trough-shaped coffins, Penn Museum examples of which probably date to the 1st-2nd century A.D.; and three slipper coffins, one of which is glazed, dating to the 1st-2nd century A.D.

The coffins are an important part of the material from Nippur, helping to illustrate changing burial practices both at the site and more generally in southern Mesopotamia over a period of about 1000 years. The varying styles reflect the penetration of Assyrian practices from the north, and the influence of Hellenistic customs, as well as the introduction of a Persian style of coffin with unusual decoration.

Following conservation, the Museum will post images of the coffins on the website (scheduled for fall/winter 2004-2005).

To carry out this project the Museum requested and obtained, through The Institute of Museum and Library Services, a $30,349 matching grant. IMLS, a federal agency that fosters innovation, leadership and a lifetime of learning, maintains a highly competitive conservation Project Support grant program. The last such IMLS grant that the Museum received was in 2000; that $50,000 matching grant enabled the Museum's Mediterranean section to undertake a stone sculpture conservation project.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at

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