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CONSERVATION

Conservation of the tomb and the objects in it has become an important part of the project. It started originally with the need to clean some of the paintings prior to documentation. However, surveys have shown the need for a more systematic approach to both consolidation and cleaning; also, a number of the objects found have been in need of some conservation.

The mission's conservators are Julie Dawson (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), Helen Howard, and Lisa Shekede (Courtauld Institute, London). Summaries of their work each season can be found in the reports on this site; to make it easier for you to find the relevant bits, try these links:

The following text is taken from a panel about the expedition's work exhibited at an EEC sponsored conservation conference in Cairo in May 1996. It is in two sections, Wall Paintings and Excavated Objects.

conserveConservation of the Wall Paintings

Introduction

The remains of the splendid 18th dynasty wall paintings in the tomb of Senneferi are extensive, but, as is shown clearly here, their condition varies enormously from area to area. A sharp distinction can be drawn, for example, between the appearance of the shrine room, where the overall condition of the extant painting is generally good, and the transverse hall, where the images are almost completely illegible.

In all areas there is considerable physical damage, and the majority of both paint and plaster layers have been lost below shoulder height. This can be readily explained by the wear and tear of centuries of habitation. The use of the transverse hall for cooking also accounts for the buildup of soot and other accretions which now conceal much of the original design. Fortunately there does not appear to be a problem with active soluble salts, but in both the shrine room and transverse hall, a considerable amount of the painted surface is also obscured by insect nests which cause substantial damage to the underlying pigment and plaster. The cavalier removal of some of these mud-built nests--perhaps by early epigraphers--has resulted in large unsightly voids in the painting where the nests were pulled off together with the paint and plaster substrate, and any remaining mud smeared over the surface. Of greater concern, however, are areas where the paintings have become detached from the rock-cut substrate and are in urgent need of stabilisation. With such diversity of condition and appearance, it has been essential to establish and prioritise the aims of the present conservation treatment within the financial and temporal constraints of the overall programme.

Conservation of the wall paintings: aims and objectives

  • To survey and document the condition of all accessible zones of painting and establish a list prioritising those areas where the condition compromises the safety of the painting
  • To stabilise the paint by arresting ongoing deterioration
  • To establish preventative measures to arrest future deterioration
  • To undertake light surface cleaning where necessary to facilitate epigraphy and documentation

Techniques and materials employed for emergency conservation in 1994 and 1995 seasons

Fixing of the plaster substrate to rock-cut support was undertaken by injecting Plextol B500:water (75:25) at the zone of detachment using a hypodermic needle and syringe. Just before the injection of the consolidant, the paint surface itself was pre-wetted with white spirit to prevent evaporation at the surface, thus avoiding unwanted staining of the paint surface. The zone of detached painting was gently held in position with an intervention layer of Japanese tissue until the adhesive took effect.

To re-lay paint flakes, the surface was prepared by the gentle removal of dust and cobwebs with a fine brush, and the application of white spirit to the surface which prevented any staining of the surface by the consolidant. Plextol B500 at 30% concentration was then introduced behind the flake which was gently pressed back into place with a spatula. Following the fixing of any powdering and flaking, light surface cleaning was effected with a Wishab (dry vulcanised latex) sponge. The result of this is impressive.

Removal of the insect nests was accomplished by slowly softening the mud structure with tiny poultices made from Arbocel BC 200 (highly pure cellulose pulp) combined with water over an intervention layer of Japanese tissue. The advantage of a poultice is that is prevents the water from penetrating too far into the mud of the nest. In this way, only a few millimetres of the mud are softened and removed at any one time, without causing any staining of, or damage to, the underlying paint layer.

Technique

From observation made during a close examination of the wall paintings in situ, it appears that the basic structural aspects of the painting compare closely with other 18th dynasty wall paintings in that:

  • Very deep recesses in the rock-cut surfaces of the interior of the tomb were filled with a mud/straw render
  • A single layer of coarse white plaster--which appears to consist of a mixture of calcium sulphate, calcium carbonate, and sand--was then applied to level the wall
  • A final layer of white plaster was employed to provide a compact and reflective white surface for painting
  • To set out the basic geometric framework of the design, lines were 'snapped' onto the surface using a red iron oxide pigment. These snapped lines can be clearly seen in the paintings. An underdrawing, also in red iron oxide, was then employed to place the main pictorial elements within the visual field
  • The white background of the paintings was then painted in a white pigment up to the outlines of features in the design, covering any errors made in the preparatory drawing

However, of particular interest is the thick impasto with which the paint has been applied in some areas, such as for the wig of the large figure on wall 6 of the transverse hall where tiny triangles of Egyptian blue, 4-5 mm thick, were employed to represent the complex hairstyle. it is also clear than an original coating--which appears to be wax--survives on distinct zones of colour.

conserveConservation of the excavated objects

Aims and objectives

  • To ensure that all objects are stable and correctly packed for long-term preservation
  • To record the condition of and conserve objects which need cleaning and stabilisation

Treatment of excavated objects

A wide variety of artifacts has been excavated from the shafts. Given the sheer quantity of objects, the time constraints, and the limitations of the tomb as a conservation studio, the treatments applied are necessarily very simple and focus on preventive care. Most of the objects will remain in storage in the tomb. Stability and fragility is assessed. For vulnerable pieces supportive packing is created using materials which are known to have good aging properties.

This may be as simple as a storage tray for tiny papyrus fragments, custom-made from layers of polyethylene foam. Some objects however require more extensive preparation for study and storage.

For example, pieces of linen inscribed with the titulary of Shabaka and the titles of Wedjahor were found in reasonably good condition, retaining considerable flexibility in the fibres. However, all had suffered from varying degrees of physical and ancient insect damage and were very badly crumpled. They could not be examined or stored safely in this state.

After removal of loose surface dirt each piece was placed in a humidity chamber and the humidity raised in stages in order to relax the fibres. Most of the fragments are too large to be stored flat so each piece was rolled between sheets of acid-free tissue over a wide roller made from stiff polyester sheet and placed inside a polyethylene sleeve for protection.

Apart from the obvious physical damage, the sandstone statue of Amenhotep is in sound condition. Most of the surviving pigment and the resin varnish which had originally covered it are adhering strongly to the stone.

Part-cleaned headThe surface was covered in scattered efflorescences of insoluble salts and a thick layer of dirt. The statue was brushed to remove loose dirt, then cleaned using very small quantities of filtered water (on varnished areas) and ethanol (on unvarnished painted areas) applied from cotton wool swabs. Some of the areas of insoluble salts were thinned mechanically with a scalpel. Small flakes of detached paint and white ground were reattached using 5% Paraloid B72 (an acrylic copolymer resin) in acetone as the adhesive. Two more pieces of the head were found in another burial shaft in 1994. For the purposes of photography the fragments rest quite securely unaided on the body, but actual repair of the statue has been deferred until all the shafts have been dug in case further pieces of the head are excavated.

© Julie Dawson, Helen Howard, Lisa Shekede,
Nigel Strudwick 1997-2007

© Nigel Strudwick 1997-2014