Report from the field: Conservation in the burial chamber of king Woseribre-Senebkay

I’m back from Abydos! I thought I’d follow up on my last blogpost about my time in the field with some more specific information about the conservation work I was carrying out in the burial chamber of king Woseribre-Senebkay.

King Senebkay’s tomb was discovered and excavated in the 2013-2014 winter field season. The tomb dates to the later Second Intermediate period, to the Hyksos era, ca. 1650-1600 BCE, is in close proximity to the tombs of Senwosret III and Sobekhotep IV, and is part of a larger cluster of Second Intermediate period tombs. It consists of 4 chambers, the final being a limestone burial chamber with painted decoration. Based on observations and interpretation by Drs. Wegner and Cahail, the tomb was built fairly quickly and the painted decoration does not appear complete.

View of the exposed burial chamber with temporary wooden structure on day 1 of the conservation project

View of the exposed burial chamber with temporary wooden structure on day 1 of the conservation project

Another important feature of the burial chamber is that the limestone blocks were reused and much of the previous decoration is still visible. The blocks were disassembled from a group of mortuary chapels of high-ranking officials of the mid-late 13th Dynasty.

The previous decoration on the resused blocks is visible in many areas (indicated with red arrows in the image on the left) and in some areas there is still paint remaining (circled on the right)

The previous decoration on the reused blocks is visible in many areas (indicated with red arrows on the image on the left, surrounding the paintings that date to Senebkay’s burial) and in some areas there is still paint remaining in the previous decoration (circled on the right)

I won’t go into any more detail about the significance of Senebkay’s tomb and these features – this has been written about extensively elsewhere and I’ll provide links for more information below.

I was asked to join the team this season to work on the painted decoration in the burial chamber. During the previous season, the burial chamber needed to be stabilized (new mortar joins between blocks and replacement of missing blocks). In order to protect the paintings, another conservator was able to carry out some consolidation of the paintings and then covered the painted areas with cyclododecane and aluminum foil. At the end of the season, the tomb was backfilled.

Protective foil over the paintings on the east wall of the burial chamber, day 1

Protective foil over the paintings on the east wall of the burial chamber after the backfill was removed, day 1 of the conservation project

My goal for this season was to continue paint consolidation, to reattach detached stone fragments, to inpaint the new mortar fills in select areas, and to prepare the tomb for backfilling. A permanent structure will be constructed around the tomb later this year, but in order to protect the tomb until this can happen, it needed to be filled back in with sand and completely covered.

When I arrived on site, the first thing that I did was to remove the aluminum foil from the paintings and to examine them carefully. Due to timing/logistics it was not possible to uncover them before I arrived, so what I found under the foil was that there was still a lot of cyclododecane left on the surface of the paintings.

A detail of one of the goddesses - the hazy white substance over the surface is the cyclododecane, applied during the previous field season

A detail of one of the goddesses – the hazy white substance over the surface is the cyclododecane, applied during the previous field season

I’ve never mentioned cyclododecane (CDD) on this blog before. CDD is a cyclic hydrocarbon (C12H24), a solid wax that slowly sublimes at room temperature and it is used as a temporary consolidant, to protect fragile and sensitive surfaces during treatment, and it has become a very useful material for archaeological conservators to help with lifting fragile materials in the field. Check out this link for a video to learn more about it and how it is used.

While I tried several techniques to speed up the sublimation of the CDD in the end I wasn’t able to remove it everywhere because the painted surface below was so fragile and susceptible to abrasion. So, like anyone who has worked on an excavation must do, I made it work! With the help of my Egyptian conservator colleague, I focused on consolidating all of the exposed painted decoration, on cleaning select areas, and on the repair and inpainting work I mentioned previously. I’m going to show some of this work in photos below.

Senebkay's cartouche before removal of hornet's nest remnants (left, indicated with red arrow) and after cleaning (right)

Senebkay’s cartouche before removal of hornet’s nest remnants (left, indicated with red arrow) and after cleaning (right)

A detail of a column in the burial chamber before (left) and after repair of a detached fragment (right)

A detail of a column in the burial chamber before (left) and after repair of a detached painted stone fragment (right)

One of the goddesses (Isis or Nephthys) before (left) and after (right) inpainting and replacement of detached fragment (red arrow)

One of the goddesses (Isis or Nephthys) before (left) and after (right) inpainting and replacement of detached fragment (red arrow)

Two days before we were set to leave, I consolidated the most vulnerable painted decoration with CDD, and then we carefully draped cotton fabric over all of the painted areas.

Heating the cyclododecane over a small portable stove on site

Heating the cyclododecane over a small portable stove on site

Cotton fabric draped over the tomb walls (left) and a shot during backfilling (right)

Cotton fabric draped over the tomb walls (left) and a shot during backfilling (right)

On our last day in the field, the chamber was backfilled with the sand that was removed from it previously, which will protect the tomb until the next season.

In addition to my work on site, I had the opportunity to work on some of the small finds from previous and ongoing excavations while in the dighouse in the afternoons, and the team generously made it possible for me to do some sightseeing during my time there as well, which rounded out the experience nicely.

A view walking into the Temple of Seti I (left) and a shot of Dr. Jen Wegner inside one of the chapels in the temple (right)

A view walking into the Temple of Seti I (left) and a shot of Dr. Jen Wegner inside one of the chapels in the temple (right)

After 3 years of working on the Egyptian collections at the Penn Museum, I was so grateful to have had this opportunity to go to Egypt – this experience not only allowed me to expand my conservation skills and understanding of our significant collection, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the exciting work that is ongoing in Abydos. I hope there will be an opportunity to return!

For more information about the excavations in Abydos, check out these articles:

Wegner, Josef. 2014. “Discovering Pharaohs Sobekhotep & Senebkay” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (April 2014). Penn Museum. http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=20698>

Wegner, Josef and Kevin Cahail. 2015. “Royal Funerary Equipment of a King Sobekhotep at South Abydos: Evidence for the Tombs of Sobekhotep IV and Neferhotep I?” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 51, pp. 123-164. http://lockwoodpressjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.5913/jarce.51.2015.a006

Wegner, Josef. 2015. “A Royal Necropolis at South Abydos: New Light on Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2015), pp.68-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/neareastarch.78.2.0068

Cahail, Kevin. 2015. “A Family of Thirteenth Dynasty High Officials: New Evidence from South Abydos.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 51, pp. 93-122. http://lockwoodpressjournals.com/doi/abs/10.5913/jarce.51.2015.a005

Report from the field: week 1 in Abydos

I have been working for the last 2 weeks in Egypt as the field conservator for the Penn excavations in South Abydos (led by Dr. Josef Wegner). I am here primarily to work on the painted decoration in the burial chamber of King Senebkay. It has been a fantastic experience so far, but our remote location, busy work schedule, and intermittent wifi connection has made it challenging to provide real-time updates. There has been so much going on, so instead of writing one long post, I’m going to break it up a bit and start out by posting some photos from my first week in the field. I’ll follow up with more pictures and information soon, but for the moment, enjoy the photos!

Sunrise on site

Sunrise on site

First tea of the morning (quickly followed by more and more tea)

First tea of the morning (quickly followed by more and more tea)

View of the site, with King Senebkay's burial chamber in the foreground

View of the site, with King Senebkay’s burial chamber in the foreground covered with a temporary shelter

Egyptian conservation inspector working in King Senebkay's burial chamber

Egyptian conservation inspector working in King Senebkay’s burial chamber

My conservation supplies for the day

Some of my conservation supplies for the day

Site bathroom (brought out just for me, the only woman out there at the moment)

Site bathroom (so fancy! brought out just for me, the only woman working on site)

Dr. Kevin Cahail standing inside a recently-excavated building

Dr. Kevin Cahail standing inside a recently-excavated building

A view from inside the dighouse

A view from inside the dighouse

Kevin working in the pottery yard

Kevin working in the pottery yard at the dighouse

More soon, I promise.

Egypt-bound

Yes, that’s right, I’m going to Egypt and I’m leaving tonight.

My bag is mostly packed; in there somewhere are a bunch of conservation supplies.

My bag is mostly packed; in there somewhere are a bunch of conservation supplies.

I have the great fortune to be joining the Penn excavations in South Abydos for a couple weeks to carry out conservation work on some of the recent finds. The team is led by Dr. Josef Wegner, Egyptian Section Associate Curator at the Penn Museum. This will be my first visit to Egypt, but not my first time working on an excavation (nor will it be my first time working in a desert in the winter!). I’m really excited for this opportunity and I’m looking forward to seeing in person the sites and finds that I’ve heard so much about over the last 3 years since beginning my job In the Artifact Lab. I’m not sure what kind of updates I’ll be able to provide from the field, but I’ll certainly be posting about my experience once I return in mid-January. Since I’m not there yet, I don’t have any photos to share, but if you want to see some images of the site and read about a graduate student’s recent experience there, check out this blog post on the museum blog for a taste of what I’ll be doing/seeing.

6500 year-old Ubaid skeleton in Artifact Lab

blog1On August 5, 2014, Penn Museum’s PR team issued a press release titled “6,500-Year-Old Skeleton Newly “Discovered” in the Penn Museum”. The story caught the public imagination and spread throughout world news media like wildfire. Thanks to popular demand, the skeleton will be spending the next few weeks in the Artifact Lab, getting some long-overdue TLC.

To learn more about his past, read this post on the Museum’s blog.

The Ubaid skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

While the skeleton is inside In the Artifact Lab and later on display, visitors will have frequent opportunities to meet with a physical anthropologist or informed physical anthropology student to ask questions. From Saturday, August 30 through Sunday, September 14 (exception: Labor Day Monday, when the Museum is open), an expert will be on hand from 11 am to noon, and again from 1:00 to 2:00 pm. From September 16 through International Archaeology Day on October 18, a physical anthropologist or student will be on hand Tuesday through Sunday (exception: Wednesdays) from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

 

Fragmentary painted coffin from Abydos

If you are a member of the museum, you may have already seen some information about these painted coffin board fragments in the most recent issue of Expedition magazine:

E12505_2These fragments, which date to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1700 BCE), were excavated from the North Cemetery of Abydos in 1901 by John Garstang. The museum supported Garstang’s work through the Egypt Exploration Fund.

Despite the severe insect damage, the preservation of the painted details on these fragments is remarkable.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

This fragment features 3 usekh collars, which were often reserved for nobility. Beside each collar is a mankhet, or counterpoise. The hieroglyphs above are the names of each of the collars, which are slightly different.

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus and the vulture

A detail of the usekh en nebti, the collar of the two mistresses that incorporates the uraeus
and the vulture (7.5x magnification)

These coffin board fragments have never been exhibited, and our renewed interest in them is due to the fact that we are currently excavating tombs from the same time period in South Abydos, including the funerary complex of Senwosret III. You can read a lot more about this project in the recent Expedition issue and on the museum blog by following this link.

In order to exhibit the coffin fragments, they need some extensive conservation treatment. Their surfaces are dirty, the paint is cracked, cupped and lifting from the wood support, and is very fragile, and some of the boards are structurally unstable due to the extensive insect damage.

We are currently working on these boards in the lab, and we have made some good progress. We are cleaning the painted surfaces with a kneaded rubber eraser. The eraser can be shaped to a fine point, and working under the binocular microscope, it is possible to remove the dirt from most of the painted surface without disturbing the fragile paint.

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

We are using kneaded erasers (left) to clean the delicate painted surface of these coffin boards (right)

Some areas of paint need to be stabilized before they can be cleaned. After testing a variety of adhesive solutions, I settled on my old friend methyl cellulose, a 2% solution of methyl cellulose in water to be exact, to consolidate fragile areas.

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

Paint consolidation is being carried out under the microscope with a fine brush

I am now working on testing some fill materials, both to stabilize the edges of lifting paint and also to stabilize the fragile wood. I will post an update as soon as I make some decisions and proceed with this part of the treatment!

 

First step for the heads

Last week I introduced you to two wooden statue heads that I’m working on and promised to share the step by step process of their conservation.

laura blog 2 image3

A first step in understanding these objects is gathering information about their past. As we said in the previous post, they are from Dendera and were discovered in 1898. The other questions were: Who discovered them? How and when did they arrive in Philadelphia? And more…

To address these questions, the best place to begin is the Museum Archives. I first checked Clarence Fisher’s field notebooks, since we know that he excavated in Dendera for the museum from 1915-1918, continuing the work begun by Charles Rosher and Flinders Petrie. An afternoon looking at (all!) of his notebooks revealed no leads. The other possibility was to refer to Petrie’s own field records; and here I found reference to the heads, or more precisely the “statuettes”, noted in his field notebook.

This page notes the “2 statuettes” at the foot of the coffin.
From Petrie Notebook n.15, p.30, courtesy and copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

That mystery solved, we moved onto the next one. Included in the storage drawer with the wooden heads, we found a note indicating “2 wooden statuettes nearly consumed by white ants”.

laura blog 2 image2After a little more digging, I found that this was a quote from Petrie’s publication about Dendera, on p.10, paragraph 2…and the rest is still meaningless to us! In this publication Petrie indicates that the heads came from a secondary burial, belonging to a woman, under Adu II’s own funerary chamber.

Moreover, it unveiled a new clue: Petrie wrote that he discovered “statuettes” and not only their heads. That could imply the fact that they were still complete statues at the time of the excavation. It is possible that they were in such a poor condition that the archaeologist left the bodies and only took the heads. We definitely do not have any more parts of these statues in our collection – after checking, no “spare bodies” are registered in the Egyptian storerooms of the Penn Museum.

All of this may seem to be only details but it is essential information for a conservator: the fact that W.M.F. Petrie discovered the heads is highly interesting, because he most likely treated them in the field. He published a book where he explains his practical way of applying a “first-aid” treatment to damaged artifacts (Methods and aims in Archaeology, 1904) which may provide critical information for us! Indeed, knowing this will allow the conservator to be aware of what kind of material was added to the original object and how to deal with it.

My investigation into these old treatment materials will be the topic of a post to come!

 

A final report from Abydos

Back in June, we provided an update from the Penn excavations at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III in Abydos. The team has since returned from the field, and graduate student Kevin Cahail generously passed along some photos showing what the project looked like as they were wrapping up in the field. Just as a reminder, the project has concentrated on three principal areas: (1) the subterranean tomb of pharaoh Senwosret III; (2) the mortuary temple and associated structures dedicated to the cult of Senwosret III; and (3) the urban remains of the Middle Kingdom town at South Abydos. You can read a bit more about the project in our first post.

After excavations are complete, the team documents the site by setting up a huge wooden ladder in the middle of the desert, climbing up it, standing at the top, and taking photos. Kevin mentioned that its a great view, but that he did have to put quite a bit of trust into his Egyptian compatriots to hold the ladder steady.

01 Site Photo MethodAnd this is what the view looks like – here is a shot of part of the Cemetery S excavations of 2013:

02 Cemetery SThe mound in the background is mastaba S10 of the Late Middle Kingdom. Three tombs are visible from left to right, CS.8, CS.4, and CS.5. These three tombs date to the New Kingdom.

Following their excavations in the town site of Wah-sut, grad students Paul Verhelst and Shelby Justl are seen here drawing brick plans of the exposed architecture:

03 Paul and Shelby  drawingIn the background the workers begin the process of backfilling the excavated areas.

This shot shows the excavations in the Temple Cemetery, Tomb TC.19:

04 TC19 excavationThis one-room vaulted tomb with a rectangular entrance shaft had been looted in the months before the team arrived in 2013. Despite this, they did recover a fragment from a yellow-type coffin showing the lower portion of some standing gods:

05 TC19 Coffin fragand a wooden coffin hand applique with painted rings:

06 TC19 Coffin handThe last tomb they excavated was TC.20, a tomb which the team discovered belonged to a Scribe by the name of Horemheb.

07 TC20 OverviewTo the left is an overview of the tomb showing a heavy-walled entrance shaft, an antechamber, and in the foreground, the burial chamber.

A third vaulted chamber to the right below the sand remains unexcavated.  The team plans to tackle this next season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To give you a sense of the size of this tomb, here is a photo of Joe Wegner taking a photo of Kevin from inside TC.20.  Kevin is standing in the entrance shaft, and Joe is in the burial chamber:

08 Joe in TC20And here is a final group photo of the excavation team standing on the recently completed cover building over the tomb of Senwosret III:

09 Final Group PhotoIt was a busy field season and the team intends to return this winter, conditions permitting. We will continue to provide updates on this blog as their project progresses!

 

Update from Abydos

A few weeks ago I wrote about Penn Museum Curator Joe Wegner and his team who are currently excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III. Recently the team has been battling exceedingly high temperatures and consistent loss of power (so no internet and water) but despite all of this, graduate student Kevin Cahail has been kind enough to continue sending me photos and information about their latest discoveries.

Many visitors to the Artifact Lab ask if mummies are still being discovered in Egypt. The answer is yes, and now I can point to the recent discovery of a mummy just outside of one of the tombs that was recently excavated.

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

View of the burial chamber from tomb CS.5

The shot above was taken after excavation of a tomb (named CS.5) – this is actually the same tomb that contained the curious bricks with the dots in them that I included images of in my last post. Excavation of this tomb revealed that the burial had been long-since removed, but soon after excavation, a skull, and then the rest of a body, was found in the sand nearby. It appears that she(?) was at some point thrown out of her tomb by robbers.

Mummy upon discovery, before excavation (left) and after excavation (right)

Exposed skull found in the sand (left). Removal of the skull revealed the rest of the body, shown here after excavation (right)

Removing and transporting unexpected or unwieldy archaeological finds often requires a bit of resourcefulness. In order to move this mummy into a box for transport back to the dig house, Kevin recovered an old laundry detergent sack, which they then slid under the mummy,

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and used as a sling to lift the mummy into a box.

in boxReconstruction of the skull of this mummy is now underway.

In addition to the field work, the team also spends time in the lab, which sometimes includes minor conservation work. This shabti figure was found in two pieces:

shabtiKevin used Acryloid B-72, an acrylic adhesive commonly used in conservation for repairing ceramics (among many other things) to re-adhere the fragments:

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

Kevin holding the recently repaired shabti figure

As you can see, Joe, Kevin, and the rest of the team have been busy, and they only have about another week left in the field. As I hear more from them during their last days in Abydos, I will follow up with further information.

 

From the field

Those of you familiar with the Penn Museum know that we have a lot of ongoing research projects, not all of which are based here at the museum. Since the museum was founded, it has supported and initiated archaeological excavations around the world, and this work continues today.

In fact, we have a team out in the field right now – Egyptian Section Curator Joe Wegner recently headed back to the field with a small team of graduate students to continue his work excavating in Abydos at the mortuary complex of Pharaoh Senwosret III.

Excavations underway in Abydos

Excavations underway in Abydos

Excavation of a tomb in progress

Excavation of a tomb in progress

Abydos is located 300 miles south of Cairo and is the cult site of Osiris, king of the afterlife and god of the netherworld. It was a place of pilgrimage and considered sacred throughout Egypt’s 3000 year history. The Penn Museum excavations there are focused on the classical phase of the Osiris cult during the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11-13, ca. 1050-1650 BCE) and has concentrated on three principal areas: (1) the subterranean tomb of pharaoh Senwosret III; (2) the mortuary temple and associated structures dedicated to the cult of Senwosret III; and (3) the urban remains of the Middle Kingdom town at South Abydos.

Senwosret III built the first hidden royal tomb there, abandoning the pyramid form and setting the stage for the later hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

During the last field season, Joe’s team completed the construction of a cover building over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III. There are double iron doors to the left side, which lead down iron stairs set above the ancient mud-brick stairs down into the tomb.

The new tomb covering over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III (this photo was taken before the covering was plastered and painted to blend into the surrounding desert).

The new covering over the entrance to the tomb of Senwosret III (this photo was taken before it was plastered and painted to blend into the surrounding desert).

So far this season the team has been busy. One project is the continued excavation of newly-discovered tombs – one of which can be seen in the image below. In the photo, you can see the sloping passage which ends in a blocked doorway. It is evident that the tomb robbers who originally emptied this structure entered through the vault in the center of the image. To the right of the image is where the next chamber lies, through another door and down, and more excavation is required to enter this area of the tomb.

tomb 2_1One interesting feature of this tomb is that it seems that whoever made the bricks signed their work by impressing two fingers into the top of the wet mud before the brick dried (seen in the image below). Only one, seen in the center of image, has a single dot.

tomb 2 bricksThe team is also searching for fragments of artifacts which may help to indicate the date of this, and other tombs. I will continue to provide updates as they make new discoveries!

Special thanks to Kevin Cahail for sharing information and photos from the field.