Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer 2016 Conservation in South Abydos | In the Artifact Lab

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

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.

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

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

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 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 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). 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) (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 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!