Finalising the Conservation Campaign at the Tomb of Sennefer – and a Black Coffin

January and February saw the 2018 season of the Archaeological Mission to the Theban Necropolis of the Université libre de Bruxelles, and the University of Liège (MANT).  The mission has the concession for the study and conservation of three neighbouring tombs: Amenemope TT29; Sennefer TT96A; and C3  – the work at C3 also included excavation, resulting in a large number of finds – mainly coffin, cartonnage and furniture pieces and fragments.

I have been involved with this project since 2009.  This season was largely a study season – involving conservation, sorting and storing of the objects from the excavation, the final phase of conservation work on the ceiling of C3 – started in 2015, as well as the finalisation of the longstanding conservation project at the tomb chapel of Sennefer, previously discussed here: https://www.biancamadden.com/conservation-of-theban-temples-and-tombs-conference/ and here: https://www.biancamadden.com/egyptian-wall-plasters-paintings-and-the-publications-of-the-luxor-conservation-conference/.

The work at Sennefer entailed a final overview of the level of conservation of the tomb – to ensure that the appearance of the three halls balanced with each other in terms of treatment level, to pick up any final areas requiring small repairs, and to even up any cleaning – this included work on some remaining fly spots which slightly marred the area of painting around the famous scene of the cat with the haunch in the transverse hall, as well as some final cleaning and the removal of traces of masonry bee nests from graining beside the cut niche in the pillared hall.

In addition to the work at TT96A, I also undertook an assessment of salt activity in the burial chamber of Sennefer, at the request of the tomb guardian and SCA inspector.  This chamber has been open to the public for a long time and while there is evidence of various conservation/restoration interventions at the burial chamber, this is not associated with the MANT project.  The tomb guardian had noticed some disturbing areas of salt patches and lifting paint on one wall of the chamber – for this initial assessment it was particularly useful to be able to compare archival photographs, both from MANT, and from a 1980s Kodak survey, previously mentioned in this blog, used to create a photographic replica of the tomb.  It is interesting to see the practical implications for this kind of dual purpose documentation and recording – where the 1980s recording can be used much in the same way that the new Tutankhamun replica is designed to be, see https://www.biancamadden.com/tutankhamun-tomb-reconstruction/

Work on the excavation pieces included, for me, the bench based treatment of a black coffin excavated from C3 in 2017. The coffin consisted of an intact lower part, and a section of the decorated lid. In order to safely lift the coffin sections from the tomb and avoid loss or detachment of the fragile decoration, the polychrome surface was faced with Japanese tissue and Culminal (nonionic cellulose ether) 20,000 3% in water /ethanol in 2017.

photo courtesy of director Laurent Bavay

This season consolidation of the polychrome layer was undertaken, in conjunction with the removal of the facing tissue in a two-part process – which allowed both the softening and swelling of the facing medium to enable the safe removal of the tissue, while also using the tissue as part of the consolidation process through which to apply the consolidant – a compatible Culminal 2000 1% in water and ethanol.  Timing was key to the process, allowing enough time for the swelling of the facing medium, the penetration of the consolidant through the tissue and surface decoration to the wooden substrate, to allow relaying and re-adhesion of any detached or delaminating flakes. With the facing medium swelled and softened, and the polychromy consolidated and relaid the facing tissue could then be gently rolled back to reveal the fixed polychrome layer.  UV light was used as an additional tool to this process to detect any remaining surface traces of the Japanese tissue during the treatment – which could then be removed using a scalpel or tweezers during the consolidation process.

The conservation process was recorded photographically, and after the removal of all the facing tissue from the lower part of the coffin, infra red photographs were taken to attempt to clarify the decorative scheme – which included decoration of which only the medium is now surviving.

The photographs below are with credits to Anja Stoll and Rafael Morales.

On return to Oxford I gave a talk for the Oxford Conservators Group at the Chantry Library on the project at Sennefer, two write ups of the event can be found here:

A Talk: Conserving Theban tomb paintings

https://oxfordconservatorsgroup.wordpress.com/recent-events-blog/