Margot Murray, conservator

I have been fortunate to work on some amazing pieces from the Egyptian collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, including a coffin for a man called Khnumhotep. He was an estate overseer in the second half of the 12th dynasty, about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.

It is amazing that his coffin has survived in such an intact state. I understand that Khnumhotep’s was a role of importance and had a large personal wealth associated with it in order for him to have such an impressive coffin.

Fashions change in conservation. In the mid-20th century the approach was more for Egyptian objects to look new, whereas now we prefer their history to be more visible. We don’t automatically cover up any damage.

I had to assess what restoration had been done in the past. Ultra-violet photography allowed us to see areas that were not original pigment or where different adhesives had been used to try to hold bits together. The end of his nose reacted quite strongly – it was a bright colour on the UV photograph – which confirmed that at some point it had been remade and regilded.

Working on a collection like this, I am conscious that these objects belong to people, especially funerary objects because they meant a lot to their owners at the time. It is nice to do my part to ensure they are cared for and last as long as they can for future generations. When it so closely linked with a person, it is important to keep that person and their life in your mind while doing the work.

It is a special coffin because the beard is original and that often doesn’t survive. The coffin has quite pronounced ears and they are intact too. The face is largely original. The wig had been heavily retouched, so there was a lot of black paint covering the original pigment – it would have been more of a blue-green colour.

Once I removed the paint that was covering the original pigment, I repainted the areas where no original pigment remained to a colour that was more sympathetic to what it would have been like, while still maintaining the look of age of the object.

Beforehand I did a lot of testing. It was about choosing a combination of solvents that would only dissolve the modern paint. Then the process was painstaking, using cotton swabs to roll the non-original paint away from the surface.

When the coffin was treated in the past, they had applied a lot of plaster to fill areas of rot. I took the restoration paint back to reveal the modern plaster where I knew I could repaint and wouldn’t be covering the original surface.

Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, a new permanent gallery at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is now open. Visit