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!

 

 

  • Xu Youran

    I think this post is very interesting. I can know the whole experience that the writer had in Egypt on the Penn excavations in South Abydos.He told us how they block lifted a very fragile wooden coffin frangement,worked on the painted surfaces and so on.He also told us the life in Egypt which had a lot of fun.My question is how you preserve the painted surfaces and limestone blocks well.

    • mgleeson

      We are approaching the preservation of the wall paintings and the limestone blocks by first, making sure that they are well documented in written reports and photography, and second, trying to prevent further loss and damage to the decoration and finished surfaces. We are preventing this damage by removing salts and consolidating (sticking down) the paint and limestone surface with an adhesive.

  • Du Chengyu

    It’s a wonderful experience in South Abydos.First of all, I have a question of the history of pharaoph Senebkay.I want to know the background of that era. Except the fragile wooden coffin fragment, is there anything else discovered in the tomb?Then I want to kown the value of the discovery, can it help can understand the ancient Egypt? I can’t find the housetop of the tomb. I want to kown the reason of the missing of the housetop is natural reasons or artificial reasons .

    • mgleeson

      The discovery of pharaoh Senebkay and his tomb were significant for many reasons, and many that I cannot fully appreciate, as I am not an Egyptologist. But a few reasons are that he was previously unknown to historians, and he lived during a time period which is much less understood than other periods like the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, so this discovery is changing our understanding of history. In addition to the coffin fragment, there were other finds in the tomb including a wooden canonic box and the remains of Senebkay. The roof/ceiling of the tomb were damaged related to tomb robbery and deterioration.

  • Gengwei Guo

    lt’s an amazing experience in Egypt, l can feel your enthusiasm and devotion to the archaeological profession. Egypt is a city with rich history and culture, there are many artifacts worth learning and researching.

    • mgleeson

      Yes! It was an incredible experience to be in Egypt and contributing to this project! And it also made me appreciative of how much more we have yet to discover and learn, both in the field and in our museum.

  • Jialin Li

    I think it’s a very meaningful thing to recreate the works of arts and save the fragile segments.To sit quietly in the room,cleaning and consolidating reflects a calm heart that you have.Hoping that one day I can experience the job in the future too.

    • mgleeson

      I think that all of us who are in this field find our work immensely satisfying and rewarding. Best of luck to you in your future pursuits!

  • 王慧莉

    From the pictures of cleaning the painted surface in Senebkay’s burial chamber and working on the coffin fragment, I know that you work very hard. Would you please share some ideas about how to devote to the work on paintings since the temperatures are exceedingly high there. Besides, I want to know more details about mending fragments from a limestone stela. Is that progress difficult or do you meet some trouble during that progress? Finally, I think RTI imaging of the stela is very cool because it enhances the surface features of an object. However, I wonder if the ray can be harmful to the limestone stela?

    • mgleeson

      With the tomb paintings, we are mostly concerned about abrasion and salt activity within the stone, and we will do our best to prevent further damage caused by either of these factors. To avoid wind/sand abrasion, we are currently protecting the tomb through reburial but in the future, when the tomb is permanently opened, a protective structure will be built over it. For the salts, we removed surface salts and we will monitor the painted areas to watch for any changes in condition. Fortunately, salts are usually not a problem unless they are exposed to big changes in humidity, which doesn’t happen much in the desert!

      Mending the fragments from the stela was fairly straightforward, but consolidating the flaking surface was tricky because it was challenging to apply the consolidant without disturbing the surface.

      And finally, RTI imaging is essentially like taking a lot of photos with a flash. For the stone stela, a flash or light will not cause any damage (stone is not light-sensitive) so we can take as many images as we’d like!

  • mgleeson

    It was very hot there this summer! We were fortunate to have a temporary shelter/shade for us to work under while we were working in Senebkay’s tomb. We avoid damage during cleaning by choosing the right tools for the job and by working very carefully, and under magnification when possible. Where there are missing parts of the design, we only filled in the missing areas when requested by the director of the excavation and when we knew for sure what the missing design looked like. Continuing a line is relatively straightforward but filling in larger areas (missing noses, mouths, parts of bodies) requires too much speculation, so we didn’t fill those areas in.

  • mgleeson

    There were only 5 Americans this season but dozens and dozens of Egyptians working with us – in some seasons there are over 100 Egyptian colleagues and workmen assisting with the excavations. The extremely high temperatures can impact the conservation work – for example, there is an adhesive we regularly use to repair ceramic and stone artifacts, but in very high temperatures it doesn’t work well, so sometimes we need to use other adhesives to avoid this problem.