Conservation Programs

Medinet Habu

Under Lanny Bell's directorship more than thirty years ago, the Epigraphic Survey added conservation to its program and a conservator to the staff. Now, because of rapidly changing conditions in Egypt that are causing the monuments to decay at an ever faster rate, we have expanded our conservation programs even further. From 1996 to 2006 the Epigraphic Survey received a grant from the Egyptian Antiquities Project (EAP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), administered through the American Research Center (ARCE) and generously approved by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), for documentation and conservation of the Thutmoside temple at Medinet Habu and its later additions. Thanks to this grant, Chicago House was able to seal the rooftop of the small Amun temple against rainwater (a more frequent occurrence recently) and clean the salt, dirt, and soot-stained painted reliefs below. As this cleaning was finished, newly exposed painted details were added to the drawings that have recently appeared in Medinet Habu IX. A grant from USAID Egypt (2006-2016) supported the documentation and conservation in the small Amun temple plus the new blockyard storage area, conservation in the southern well of Ramesses III, and dismantling and restoration of the Roman-period Gate of Domitian. Our program at the Medinet Habu small Aumn temple also included the restoration of the sandstone flooring in the two central chapels, which were largely missing since antiquity. This necessitated the careful cleaning of the floor debris, made up of the backfill from the excavations of our predecessors in the 1930s. Among the more interesting finds in the floor debris were six large and two-hundred medium to small fragments of a colossal granodiorite seated dyad of Thutmose III and the god Amun. During the 2000-2001 season, conservator Lotfi Hassan and stone cutter Dany Roy joined the largest base fragments and secured them with stainless steel dowels 2 centimeters in diameter and almost a meter in length, which were epoxied into place. The joined statue base was raised and moved into the exact center of the central sanctuary, where the dyad had originally been set up, over a damp-coursed, reinforced concrete foundation. On March 24, 2001, the top section of the statue was winched into position and epoxied, completing the joining of the six largest pieces of the group. The reassembled dyad, broken at the top, stands almost 3 meters in height, even without the heads.  Analysis of the smaller fragments, including sections of the king's legs and kilt, was completed shortly thereafter, after which they were joined to the core statue. It is a rare opportunity to restore a piece of Egyptian sculpture to its original architectural setting. Because this particular dyad was an integral part of the architecture of the central sanctuary, it is a dramatic addition to the room.

In 2010 we noted that the 1st century AD sandstone gate of the Roman Emperor Domitian, reassembled in the late 19th century by Georges Daressy from scattered blocks behind the Small Temple, was in danger of collapse due to groundwater seepage and salt-induced decay of its foundations. After consultation with the MSA/SCA, conservator Lotfi Hassan, master mason Frank Helmholz, and our structural engineer Conor Power, it was decided that the gate had to be completely dismantled in order to replace the foundations with new sandstone, protected from groundwater infiltration by subterranean damp-coursing. Permission was granted by the MSA/SCA to begin that work in 2011. During the winter of 2012-13 Frank Helmholz and the Chicago House workmen cut and shaped seven new replacement blocks for the lowest courses of the gate, and put into place the bottommost course on a new reinforced concrete footing, installed in 2011-2012. One old stone was salvaged and joined to a new block, and all new stones were bolted to the new damp-coursed foundation with steel pins. The remaining blocks from the gate, stored nearby, were consolidated by the conservation team, and reassembled along with additional newly cut stones quarried from the same quarries as the original blocks, Gebel el-Silsileh. During the 2019-2020 season another Roman-period gate from the time of the Roman emperor Claudius outside the Medinet Habu eastern enclosure, in terrible condition due to ground water salt decay, was also dismantled and will be restored on a new foundation in its  original location in 2021.  This work has been supported from 2015 by a generous grant from USAID Egypt for the development of the Medinet Habu precinct for tourism, renewed for another four years in 2019.  Also covered by this grant is a special training program for Egyptian conservation students coordinated by Medinet Habu senior conservator Lotfi Hassan.   

Luxor Temple

Although the Epigraphic Survey has in the past dealt exclusively with standing wall remains, an exciting opportunity presented itself at Luxor Temple to incorporate fragmentary material in our publication program. The upper walls of the Colonnade Hall and other parts of Luxor Temple are mostly missing, quarried away in the medieval period when stone was needed for house, church, or mosque construction. Excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, which exposed the southern end of the sphinx road linking Luxor and Karnak temples, also exposed hundreds of buried stone foundations made up of reused block fragments that had been torn off the upper walls of the temple. When the excavations were finished, the fragments were piled in dozens of rows on the bare ground around the temple for future analysis. From this pool of material, the Epigraphic Survey identified over 1,500 sandstone fragments from the Colonnade Hall alone, and is including them in the publication of the hall. Each block fragment is drawn by the Chicago House team the same way a wall section would be drawn using photographic enlargements or the digital drawing tablet, and when the drawings are collated and finished, each fragment drawing is photographed (or scanned) so that scale prints of the drawings can be reassembled for the publication. Many of the fragments join like huge, stone jigsaw puzzles to form long strips or sections from numerous identifiable scenes, and augment considerably our understanding of the decorative scheme of the missing upper registers. RILT I, our publication of the Opet Festival reliefs, features joined fragment groups from the first register of the hall, and RILT 2 illustrates joined fragments from the Colonnade Hall facade that preserve important information about its original decorative program. The third volume in the Luxor Temple Colonnade Hall series will be devoted primarily to the upper register fragment groups, one of which is over 75 feet long, and to an architectural study of the hall.

In 1995 the Epigraphic Survey received a five-year grant from the Egyptian Antiquities Project (EAP), USAID, ARCE, and the SCA for conservation and consolidation of the deteriorating decorated sandstone fragments in our Luxor Temple blockyard. Originally under the supervision of conservator John Stewart, project oversight passed to project conservator Hiroko Kariya. In 1998 we erected an onsite conservation lab, which now allows greater control of the fragment treatment, and we also received permission from the SCA to expand our fragment documentation and conservation efforts at Luxor Temple. Between 1999 and 2009, thanks to Robert Wilson matching grants and the World Monuments Fund, we largely achieved our goal of raising all the fragmentary material around Luxor Temple up off the ground onto protected storage platforms, by category, for documentation, treatment, and eventual reconstruction. Another milestone, also supported by the World Monuments Fund, is the Luxor Temple blockyard open-air museum, three years in preparation and opened to the public on March 29, 2010.

Current projects include the documentation of a corpus of Ptolemy I blocks preserving a version of the famous Bentresh stela in the Louvre.  We have also recently inaugurated a new data management program for the Luxor Temple blockyard coordinated by Chicago House architect Jay Heidel, and a new digital documentation program under his supervision utilizing photogrammetric documentation of entire rows.  The aim is the eventual, complete digital documentation of all 50,000 + fragments and blocks in the blockyard.

Among the fragment groups found in the Luxor Temple blockyard is a series of architectural components originating from 6th Century A.D. Coptic church dedicated to St. Thecla, which stood originally in front of Luxor Temple. Its surviving sanctuary foundations, which are themselves made of reused Pharaonic blocks, can be seen just beyond the present entryway to the Luxor Temple precinct. The sanctuary foundations were the focus of a previous Chicago House conservation condition study, and many decorated blocks in the blockyard appear to come from that area of the church. Conservator Hiroko Kariya cleaned and conserved several of the blocks from the Thecla Church, and, thanks to a grant from Nassef Sawaris, architect Jay is currently undertook a complete analysis of the fragments, including detailed drawings of the decorated surfaces of each block, as well as AutoCAD reconstructions of the joined architectural fragment groups. It will eventually be possible to reconstruct on paper a number of major architectural components from the church, and we envision being able to reassemble at least one of the large arches of the apse in its original location before the pylon of Luxor Temple.