Elisabeth Sawerthal (King’s College, London)
Working on objects in a study season involves the close cooperation of different specialists on the same objects. This became especially apparent in the last days …
As an illustrator for the study season at Amara West, I get to work on a great variety of types of objects collected over eight seasons of excavation at the site. These objects need to be drawn for final publication and further study. In their own way, all objects provide fascinating insights into the lives of the ancient town’s inhabitants. They range from very beautiful miniature amulets, including a wadjet-eye, and ivory beads, to the very practical diagnostic potsherds analysed by our ceramicist Valentina Gasperini, which can be visually reconstructed through a simple drawing. Other, less well preserved materials initially seem rather unimpressive in terms of aesthetics, but nonetheless, they help us deepen our understanding of life and death in the New Kingdom town of Amara West. Such is the case with the wooden coffin fragments from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, excavated in 2016, and tomb G244 (Cemetery C, excavated in earlier seasons) which I am currently drawing.
My task is to produce an accurate image of each piece that complements the more “neutral” photograph, and draws attention to the object’s most important features. This involves a consideration of the relationship between individual coffin fragments, as to if and how they were attached to each other. For this, I draw each fragment separately and then combine them to recreate a bigger surface, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Particularly interesting details are traces of paint on the surface – mostly fragmented lines and patches of black, white, red, yellow and Egyptian blue – which I highlight with my drawings in order to facilitate a reconstruction of the original decorative motif. Hardest to identify by far, as often particularly badly preserved, is Egyptian blue, a specific man-made blue pigment, later exported to other parts of the ancient world, including Greece and the Near East.
We are again using VIL photography. The adapted camera can detect minute quantities of Egyptian blue, using a method developed by Giovanni Verri (formerly British Museum scientist, and now at the Courtauld Institute). Egyptian blue luminesces in the infrared spectrum when it is excited by visible light, so if it can be photographed with an infrared-sensitive camera while illuminated it will glow very brightly – even if nothing is visible to the naked eye!
One evening, having identified three possible lines and a few small patches of Egyptian blue on an otherwise completely unimpressive coffin fragment from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, we undetook VIL photography of the piece. Our aim was to gain some clarification on the outlines of the remains of paint for my drawing. In expectation of further little blobs and bits of blue, we were totally surprised by what appeared on the camera display: “glowing areas” that made up a band of readable hieroglyphs.
This column of inscription must have been positioned centrally on top of the lid of the coffin, and reads “words spoken by Osiris”. After this unexpected success we continued to take VIL photographs of other coffin fragments from the same tomb and discovered further traces of Egyptian blue hieroglyphs and an image of a bird with outstretched wings.
Elina Rodriguez Millan (Spectrum Heritage, Edinburgh)
The pieces of this coffin had been consolidated on site directly during the excavation by Maickel van Bellegem in 2016 as the remaining fragments are incredible thin and otherwise would not have been able to be lifted. As with most conservation treatments in the field, Maickel aimed to stabilise the finds so they could be removed to safe storage at the dig house, where they would await further study.
In contrast, during a study season, we are poring over the objects in more detail, and sometimes require further cleaning or consolidation of objects. In this case, the consolidated fragments of the coffin had a thin layer of sand, and some small stone fragments, on top of them due to the difficult conditions in the tomb: wind, dust, swirling sand. If they were plain fragments, they probably wouldn’t need to be treated further, but in this case, removing the sand layer is key to unveil further parts of the inscription they hold. That is why, as soon as the inscription was discovered by Manuela and Elisabeth, I was asked to work on this exciting fragments and, soon, the biggest coffin fragment was brought to the conservation lab.
Given that most part of the inscriptions and decoration are only visible with UV light in the evenings, cleaning the coffin fragments during the day has proven to be quite tricky! That’s why I constantly use the VIL photographs as a reference, to see which areas are more likely to hold hieroglyphs that will help decipher the inscription. These photographs cover the conservation room wall, and are changed whenever we take new photographs, to see the progress of the treatment.