Monday, January 25, 2016

Report from the field: Conservation in the burial chamber of king Woseribre-Senebkay | In the Artifact Lab

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

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 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 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

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)

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)

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

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)

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.>

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.

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.

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.