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.

Making scarab amulet impressions – part 1

Our Conservation Department is fortunate to have several interns and technicians, and two of them have spent some time in the Artifact Lab lately, working on a project to make impressions of scarab amulets for the Egyptian Section.

Conservation intern Naomi Shohami working on making the amulet impressions

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection-here is an image of one, and a link to it’s record in our online Collections Database.

Bottom (left) and top (right) views of one of the scarab amulets in our collection. This one is inscribed with a cartouche of Men-kheper-re (Tuthmosis III).

Amulets have been used throughout Egyptian history and were made in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors. The amulets that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now (as pictured above) are scarab amulets, and many are made of glazed steatite, a relatively soft stone. Although the first scarab amulets appeared as early as the Sixth Dynasty, they became more popular during the Middle Kingdom-this is also the period that the heart scarab, the “classic mummy amulet” was introduced. (For more information on amulets and other topics related to mummies and ancient Egyptian funerary practices, check out Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson’s book, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity).

Many scarab amulets are made to represent the scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer), a species of dung beetle which collect dung into balls and then roll them to a desired location, often to lay their eggs in them. The ancient Egyptians associated scarabs and the dung ball rolling with the new-born sun-god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each morning.

Amulets were often used for funerary purposes – they were placed among the wrappings of the deceased person during the mummification process, with the belief that the amulets would provide protection for the person in the Afterlife. Amulets were also given as gifts and were used administratively.

Of particular interest to archaeologists and Egyptologists is that many of these amulets bear inscriptions – sometimes a spell, a decorative symbol, and sometimes the names and titles of officials. And it’s not just the amulets that they’re interested in-when used administratively, the amulets were used to seal boxes, letters, etc. in clay or mud. Archaeologists often find these seals – which look like little lumps of mud – in the field, with traces of their impressions. In fact, two of our Curators are currently in Egypt, excavating in South Abydos, and they have recovered thousands of mud seals. In the field, they are doing “micro-epigraphy” on these mud lumps to record any of the designs or glyphs found.

Here is an example of what one looks like:

One of the mud seals found during excavations in South Abydos. In this case, all that is visible is a spiral border decoration. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner

In the Artifact Lab, we are making impressions of the amulets from our collection so that our curators can use the impressions to teach students how to “read” the mud seals before they encounter the real thing in the field. My next post will describe how we make these impressions, and how we do this without causing any damage to the amulets themselves.