Sepiolite: An Ethiopian Incense Burner

By Andriani Maimaridou, MA Conservation Studies: Ceramics and Related Materials

The object is an Ethiopian incense burner which suffered from impact damage causing multiple fractures and detached sections. This presented an interesting challenge due to the unusually lightweight and porous body which required further research and analysis to identify suitable materials for the conservation treatment. Based on the choice of conservation materials, another challenge was to create a phased bonding plan to aid access during treatment.

Identifying the fabric

The object was incredibly lightweight. There was an indentation mark to the base and tool marks to the interior, suggesting the fabric was very soft and carved. Online research showed that traditionally in Ethiopia these types of censer are made of sepiolite, a hydrated magnesium silicate clay that is also called Meerschaum¹.

Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy

Fortunately, I had access to a Meerschaum pipe² (Fig.4) that enabled the extraction of a very small sample for analysis using the FTIR-ATR method to compare the two materials. On the transmittance spectrum below, both samples have the same peaks in the fingerprint region between 1500-650 cm–¹.




Bonding in stages allowed better access to the top section for filling the bond lines and surface losses to the interior. Similarly the fills were retouched to the interior before bonding the two sections together using the same adhesive and tapes.

To fill the losses, after careful tests, 30% acrylic resin in equal amounts of two solvents bulked with glass bubbles was used. This type of fill material was felt to be appropriate for such a soft fabric that would be sensitive to any moisture.

It proved to be a really interesting project that allowed me to consider a material type that was new to me, use scientific analysis to confirm its composition and problem-solve issues of access while creating a successful bonding plan. 


¹ CAMEO, (2019). Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopaedia Online, Sepiolite. (15/5/20)

² Image ref: Vuckovic, J. (2010) An initial investigation into appropriate water-based adhesives for bonding meerschaum tobacco pipes. MA dissertation, West Dean College

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