Summer 2016 Conservation in South Abydos

I just returned from spending almost 3 weeks in Egypt on the Penn excavations in South Abydos. This was my second time on the project (I went for the first time last December/January). I specifically returned to continue work on the wall paintings in the burial chamber of pharaoh Senebkay and to provide additional conservation support for the project during my time there, which included object treatment, documentation, and block-lifting an extremely fragile wooden coffin fragment.

A view of the site in South Abydos, with Senebkay's burial chamber covered with a temporary shelter in the foreground

A view of the site in South Abydos, with Senebkay’s burial chamber covered with a temporary shelter in the foreground

I joined Dr. Josef Wegner (Joe) and his team at the end of their time in the field, so by the time I arrived, the season was well underway and everyone was doing their best to keep from melting in the exceedingly high temperatures and intense sun of the Upper Egyptian desert climate (think, getting up before sunrise to start working and during the hottest part of the day, sitting in front of a fan in a dark room).

There are times of the day when all you want to do is find a cool place to rest.

There are times of the day when all you want to do is find a cool place to rest.

Most of my days in Abydos were spent primarily in the field, working on the painted surfaces and limestone blocks in the burial chamber of pharaoh Senebkay. The work involved continuation of cleaning the limestone blocks, paint consolidation, stabilization of flaking limestone, and inpainting select missing areas of the painted decoration.

In the process of cleaning the painted surface in Senebkay's burial chamber

In the process of cleaning the painted surface in Senebkay’s burial chamber

I was fortunate this season to be joined by conservator Danny Doyle, who had worked on Senebkay’s burial chamber exactly a year ago, and who was also returning to Abydos for a second time. We had additional conservation support from the Egyptian conservation inspectors.

Danny working in the tomb (left) and myself, Yehia, one of the Egyptian conservation inspectors, and Danny in the tomb

Danny working in the tomb (left) and myself, Yehia (one of the Egyptian conservation inspectors), and Danny in the tomb

This season we also made the decision to open up the tomb chamber adjacent to the burial chamber to block lift a very fragile wooden coffin fragment. This fragment was left in place in previous seasons due to its fragile condition. Danny and I stabilized it, block lifted it, and we brought it back to the dig house to further clean, stabilize, and document.

A view of me working on the coffin fragment taken from the burial chamber (left), Danny working on the fragment in situ (center) and back in the lab (right)

A view from the burial chamber of me working on the coffin fragment (left), Danny working on the fragment in situ (center) and back in the lab (right)

In addition to the work in the field there was other work to do in the lab, including cleaning, consolidating, and mending fragments from a limestone stela, also from Senebkay’s tomb.

An overall view of the stela (left) and mending a detached fragment (right)

An overall view of the stela (left) and a mended fragment being supported while drying (right)

Following the conservation treatment, I assisted Joe in RTI imaging of the stela, capturing overall shots, and then details of specific areas of interest. For those unfamiliar with RTI (reflectance transformation imaging), it is a computational photographic method where you capture a bunch of images of an object from a fixed position while you move the light source around the object, illuminating it from different angles. An interactive RTI viewer tool allows you to use these images to enhance the surface features of an object which often reveals details not observed under regular lighting conditions. Dr. Jennifer Wegner worked on the translation of the text on this stela this season, and capturing these RTI images will allow this work to continue back at the Penn Museum. (More on RTI and how we use it here.)

Here is our amazing RTI setup - as you can see, Joe was happy that everything appears to be working properly (at this moment anyway).

Here is our amazing RTI setup – as you can see, Joe was happy that everything appears to be working properly (at this moment anyway). This image also gives you a sense of scale – this limestone stela is HUGE.

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to return to Abydos, to continue to learn about this complex site, and to contribute to the long-term preservation of the finds. Besides the work, and our efforts to stay as cool as possible, we also played a lot of bocce in the evenings, and even celebrated a couple birthdays!

A competitive game of bocce in progress (left) and a party-pooped kitten (right)

A competitive game of bocce in progress (left) and a party-pooped kitten (right) (kitten photo by Jen Wegner)

Finally, I have to say that while being in Egypt was really exciting, there was plenty of exciting work happening right here in the museum the entire time I was gone. Since I left, nearly both of the large-scale Buddhist murals in the Chinese Rotunda have been taken down (thanks to the hard work, sweat, and hopefully no tears from an amazing team of conservators and riggers), the Egyptian storage move project is clipping along at an incredible rate, and there has otherwise been a whirlwind of activity in the department.

There isn't much left of those murals in the Rotunda. The left one is completely gone and the right one will be gone by next week.

There isn’t much left of the Buddhist murals in the Rotunda. The left one is completely gone and the one on the right will be gone by next week.

Kudos to all of my colleagues for keeping this all up while also holding down the fort in the Artifact Lab in my absence!

 

 

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.