Preserving an Ancient Tomb

The conservation of a 3,500 year old tomb.

By American Research Center In Egypt

The tomb of Menna, in Luxor, Egypt, is a popular tourist destination and a valuable resource for Egyptologists. But, over the past 3,500 years, many people, ancient and modern, have interacted with the tomb and environmental factors had taken a toll on the vibrant wall paintings. So recently, researchers and conservators combined their efforts, using new and innovative techniques, to restore the structure and paintings and preserve the tomb for the future.  

Conservators realized that an essential part of the project was using non-invasive techniques that would not further damage the decoration or structure of the monument. 

To identify the original painting techniques and materials, the project team employed a variety of imaging techniques and analysis that did not require touching the walls of the tomb at all.  

Photography in the Tomb by Project PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

However, many of the machines used to do this type of documentation and analysis are usually stationed in labs. Therefore, the team had to adapt these machines to not only make them portable for use inside the tomb, but also to work in the hostile environment of the Theban necropolis.  

Archaeometrists at Work by Project PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

Employing these kinds of instruments also required a powerful source of electricity...  

Project Generator by Project Staff PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

... and working in the hot, dusty, desert mountain environment in the poorly-ventilated tomb was a challenge.  

Workers excavate at an early dynastic site in Abydos by Kenneth GarrettAmerican Research Center In Egypt

Although tombs are built for eternity, they are inevitably exposed to unexpected environmental hazards. In the tomb of Menna, for example, wasps decided to build their nests on the wall, which had to be careful removed.

Wasp nest, Andreas Paasch/Douglas Thorp, 2008-10, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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Removed wasp nest, Katy Kobzeff, 2008-10, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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In this condition survey, the area of the wasps' nest is indicated in purple on the left. The lotus blossoms after removing the wasps' nests is shown on the right.

An important part of the work and research in the tomb was understanding former conservation attempts. Conservators had to know what materials and techniques were used in previously in order to decide how they could best preserve the walls. Earlier missions did not always keep detailed records of the work undertaken, making the task even more difficult. Conservators, therefore, had to study the walls and compare old photographs of the tomb closely to discern what had been done, when, and how.

Normal Photo of Offering Table, Project Staff Photographer, 2007-07, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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Raking Light Image of an Offering Table, Project Photographer, 2007-07, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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One of the techniques used by the team is called “raking light” in which the painting is lit from different angles. Compare this raking light image (right) with the same offering table in normal light (left) to see how raking light makes layering techniques and brush strokes visible.

Using these techniques, it was even possible to distinguish different artists that had painted the tomb by comparing how carefully they constructed the outline of the figures.  

Here you can see a correction made during the time of the tomb’s original decoration. Menna’s left arm was repainted in a different position and in a slightly redder color.    

Redrawn Arm by Project Staff PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

Using scientific devices and techniques, including x-ray fluorescent, UV-visible, and near-infrared spectroscopy, the team could identify exactly what minerals were used to create the colors, the order the color was applied to the wall, and even the hands of different scribes!

The skin color for the male figures, for example, was created using a mix of calcite white and red-brown iron oxide. Painters also used organic binding glue made from animals, plants, or beeswax.  

Menna (left) working as an overseer by Katy DoyleAmerican Research Center In Egypt

By employing UV-light, conservators were able to identify where organic compounds had been used in the paintings.   

UV photograph of offering scene by Andreas PaaschAmerican Research Center In Egypt

Condition survey, Andreas Paasch/Douglas Thorp, 2008-10, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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Key to the Codition Survey, Project Photographer, 2008-10, From the collection of: American Research Center In Egypt
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All the research and analysis was combined to produce condition surveys for each scene that gave a detailed review of the state of preservation. This helped conservators identify the areas that needed immediate treatment.

The task of ARCE’s conservators was difficult. While it was necessary to stabilizing and treating the wall, they did not want to distract visitors from the actual paintings.

The chips and old repairs were carefully removed and refilled so that the walls appear visually cohesive again.

The fill was made from lime putty and sandstone mixture created from local materials.  

Conservation work by Project PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

To make the tomb of Menna more accessible to future visitors, the project team also installed a wooden walkway in the broad hall but closed off the very narrow, and therefore vulnerable, long hall.  

Tomb Interior by Project Staff PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

They also installed a long-lasting and energy-efficient LED lighting system that allows the visitors to see the paintings but protects the pigments in the paint from damaging overexposure to light.  

Interior of TT69 with added handrails, floors, and lighting system by Project PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

The conservation team set an example for future archaeological and conservation work in Egypt by adapting advanced technical instruments for portability and application in the field.   

Project director Melinda Hartwig shared all this information in a book published through ARCE and the AUC Press called "The Tomb Chapel of Menna (TT69): The Art, Culture, and Science of Painting in an Egyptian Tomb".  

Archaeometry Equipment by Project Staff PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

Now that researchers and conservators have breathed new life into Menna’s tomb once again, the brilliant paintings within will be accessible to a whole new generation of visitors and researchers and Menna's memory will live on.  

Explanatory Sign Currently Greeting Visitors to TT69 by Project Staff PhotographerAmerican Research Center In Egypt

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Credits: Story

The conservation and documentation of the tomb of Menna was sponsored by American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Georgia State University in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. 

 Created by Elisabeth Koch and Tessa Litecky, ARCE
 Visit ARCE at www.arce.org

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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