The conservation and installation of ancient Nubian sandstone chapel walls and a coffin bench

Pamela Hatchfield and Jean-Louis Lachevre

Abstract

Between 1913 and 1932 The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston conducted the most comprehensive excavations ever attempted in the Sudan. Working his way from Kerma near the Third Cataract of the Nile to Meroe 350 miles further south, Egyptologist George Reisner uncovered the remains of a highly developed culture entirely distinct from the Egyptian kingdoms to the north. Some of the ruins of this culture had been noted by explorers of the early 19th century, but were left largely unexamined. Twenty-two carved and polychromed sandstone relief blocks excavated from the pyramid chapel of an unknown Meroitic king of the middle of the 3rd century AD were given to the Museum of Fine Arts by the Sudanese government in 1924.

Below the royal Meroitic pyramids in a burial chamber, a rectangular coffin bench was hewn from the living rock during the early second century B.C. The carved and polychromed bench served once as a support for the coffin of an unknown Nubian king. Twenty-two blocks from the base survive, and twelve, most undecorated, from the lid. Originally carved from a single solid block of stone, the decorated surfaces were sawn into blocks for removal from the site. The sandstone comprising both the coffin bench and the chapel was poorly cemented and became extremely friable due to weathering factors. The reliefs languished in storage, unexhibitable because of their fragile and soiled condition until 1980 when four blocks were cleaned and consolidated with methyl methacrylate monomer for a temporary exhibition at another museum.

Most of the Nubian collection of the Boston Museum has remained in storage since its excavation, notwithstanding the fact that it is the most comprehensive collection of its type in the world outside of the Sudan. The creation of the new Nubian galleries at the museum centered around the chapel walls and coffin bench, which remain the only monumental Meroitic reliefs in the New World. Some of the relief blocks from the chapel walls weigh as much as 350 pounds. In an effort to reconstruct the original appearance of the walls as nearly as possible, each stone of the chapel wall is individually mounted in a socket system on a self-supporting steel framework. The coffin bench stones were installed on a uni-strut framework which in turn is attached to its own frame on wheels for portability. Engineering surveys were conducted to assess whether or not additional support to the existing building structure was required.

In addition to previous treatments, this paper describes the analysis and cleaning of the reliefs and coffin bench, their consolidation with ProSoCo Conservare OH, and the development of a structural support system. Details of the purchase of airline respirator equipment and the ventilation system allowing indoor treatment of the stones will also be given.