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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Ceratocorys horrida

Microscopy Aids Conservation and Exhibit of Sikh Artifacts

The Sikh religion originated with the person and ideology of Guru Nanak, who was born in the mid 15th century in the Punjab (In: The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom, Susan Stronge, Weatherhill 1999:33). Punjab is part of northern India and present-day Pakistan. This 500-year old religion called Sikhism attracted many followers and fashioned a unique culture.

The Sikh kingdom rose to prominence during the early 19th century. With increased political power came Sikh courtly traditions of dress and elaborate display of wealth modeled after the style of India's princely states. The golden era ended with the 1845 and 1849 wars against the British. Particularly, in the last nine decades Sikhs endured repeated persecutions for their faith. Conflicts with the Moughals, who ruled India, and with neighboring Afghans resulted in the death of thousands of Sikhs. (info from the exhibit script written by Sarah Grusin, exhibit content developer and writer, NMNH Exhibit Design).

While defending their faith and territory, Sikhs developed a highly respected military tradition. The armor featured at the exhibit represents weaponry typically used by Sikh warriors. The armor and decorative textile, like the rumala, were among over 120 artifacts that were examined in the preparation for this exhibit.

Microscopic examination in particular reveals much about an objects' history, structure, previous handling and stability. The microscopic examination that was carried out prior to display of the Sikh artifacts served as a visual guide for conservators in their choices of conservation methods. Many of the artifacts that were generously loaned by private collectors have never been examined before. Thus the examination provided the owners with the information about their objects' composition and based on findings - recommendations for the most appropriate handling and storage after the objects are removed from the exhibit.

Several of the spectacular artifacts were examined - an armor set dated for mid 19th century and Rumala, a clothes for the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Overall view of armor set on exhibit.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Arm-defense, overall view prior to stabilization.

The armor set from the collection of Dr. Satijiv S. Chahil consists of a helmet, breast and side shields, and two arm-defenses (guards). (fig. 1) All components are made of gilded steel and brass, some lined with velvet, others with wool and cotton padding. The hand covers of arm-defenses are particularly richly decorated with metallic thread embroidery and sequins.

The arm-defenses required stabilization prior to their display. (fig. 2) The microscopic examination that was carried out before undertaking conservation treatment revealed a complicated history of the object's decoration. The original design around the centers was composed of gold leaf applied on steel with a dark patination. It became apparent under a higher magnification that the areas under and over the gold leaf were scratched, evidence of both - the surface preparation for gold leaf application (pattern of even parallel 'groves') and later abrasive cleaning. (fig. 3) The gilded decorations were toned with a clear, light brown coating. An additional layer of clear overpaint, with silver specks in some areas and gold powder in others, applied in the center of arm-defenses and shields partially overlapped on the gold decorative border. Microscopic examination revealed also that corrosion of metal migrated to the surface of gold forming small rusty pits and deposits. (fig. 4) For the purpose of the exhibit, only the exposed areas of active corrosion were stabilized.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Gold decoration with groves around it partially filled with gold.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Rust pits on gold.
The embroidered hand covers
The embroidered hand covers

Microscopic examination of the embroidered hand covers of the arm-defenses indicated the metallic-wrapped thread couching applied over red velvet with embellishment of metallic sequins. (fig. 5) The red velvet was indicated by remnants of red thread. Dark gray tarnish of the metallic thread wrapping and sequins indicated silver as the main metallic component. (later confirmed by the elemental analysis). This sumptuous quality of the decoration indicated that the armor was primarily intended for a ceremonial use. The metallic thread was constructed by wrapping a metal strip around a fiber core (cotton or silk), often in such a way as to reveal color of the fiber core to enhance visual quality of the decoration. (fig. 6) Ceremonial use and later handling resulted in the metal wrapping to break and separate from the fiber core. Stabilization of loose fragments was carried out to prepare the textile for exhibit.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Sequin, velvet, thread.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Silver wrapped threads- tarnish.

The metallic thread is sensitive to mechanical damage, such as folding, causing permanent bending of delicate metal strips and relocation the thread within the textile matrix. That was particularly evident during microscopic examination of rumala, a ceremonial cloth dressing the sacred book as clothes would a ruler. (fig. 7) The fabric, light like a gauze, is made of blue silk interwoven with gold-wrapped thread. (fig. 8) Folding of the textile caused relocation of threads and metallic wrap to bend. (fig. 9) Although this artifact was not used for the exhibit, the microscopic examination and assessment of the condition assisted the owner in providing proper storage.

The Guru Granth Sahib (the sacred book) is treated with the same respect as the human guru would receive. The book is resting on a decorative support, protected with a canopy suspended over it, and covered with rumala. The assemblage currently on exhibit "Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab" illustrates intricacies of this rich religious ceremony.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Fold in rumala -overview of textile.
Figure 9
Close up of the borders of the cloth.
Figure 8
Figure 8. Gold wrapped slk thread close-up.
Figure 9
Figure 9. Relocation of metallic thread.


Images and content provided by Hanna Szczepanowska and captured at the NMNH SEM Lab with assistance from Scott Whittaker. Most images were taken to support conservation efforts prior to display in the NMNH exhibit "Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab" curated by Dr. Paul Taylor with support from the Sikh Heritage Project. Special thanks to Sarah Grusin for assistance in exhibit content development and writing.

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