Conservation and investigation of ancient bodies at Abydos: Challenging work in post-revolutionary Egypt

Lucy-Anne Skinner, Daniel Doyle, and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim

Abstract

Excavations during the spring of 2012 at the North Cemetery at Abydos were eventful, with many chance finds discovered, including some beautiful furnished burials from the Middle Kingdom (around 1800 BCE) requiring urgent conservation intervention. It was one year after the January 25th revolution and tensions were high on site. The possible threat of illicit looting of the site for antiquities forced the archaeologists to keep work low-key while ensuring that methods used were as transparent as possible – in order to not provoke rumors or attract too much attention from the local villagers – and to satisfy the concerns and wishes of the Ministry of Antiquities authorities.

This paper will focus on two human burials discovered buried at the base of a giant sand dune in the North Cemetery. We will describe the conservation process, and how we managed to achieve our goals in a very challenging working environment. Due to remarkable natural preservation of hair, flesh and skin on the bodies, and textile wrappings encasing them, careful planning was necessary to find a method of maintaining the bodies intactness during and after excavation. A creative technique was employed for block-lifting the complete burials. Following transfer of the block-lifted burials, within wooden crates, to the onsite magazine in Abydos, they remained in storage until May 2015 when a grant from the American Research Center in Egypt allowed a small team to return to Abydos and continue the treatment and investigation. This was the second phase of the project, which took place in the midst of continued security fears, permit delays and limited access to the storage magazine.

This next step in the conservation process involved inverting the crates to allow treatment of the bases of the two wooden coffins beneath the bodies. Once the underside of the coffins had been conserved and supportive mounts constructed, the crates were turned upright once again, the sides of the crates and cushioning materials removed – exposing the bodies for the first time since excavation. Careful planning was essential to ensure we had sufficient materials on site for the conservation treatment. Nevertheless, because of the difficulties we faced importing or purchasing conservation grade materials in Egypt (even in Cairo), it was sometimes necessary to substitute imported supplies (such as adhesives for constructing the supportive backing of the burials) with local alternatives. Final conservation of the bodies and remaining coffins will be finished before the summer of 2016, in addition to the investigation, analysis and documentation of the project, allowing us to begin preparing the final publication. The project was ambitious in its aims, striving to demonstrate what it is possible to achieve with determination and resourcefulness – in a country where the logistics of working are becoming increasingly difficult.