Inspection Report on the condition of the Theban Tombs
Every year, the director of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, as the current MSA (Ministry of State for Antiquities) was called in the early to mid 1900s, went on inspection of the works in progress.
In 1940, Etienne Drioton, went on such an inspection with two of his staff: Georges Rémond (Controller of Fine Arts in the Ministry for Education) and Alexandre Stoppelaëre (Chief Restorer of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation).
Here are the (incomplete) reports by Rémond and Stoppelaëre, from February 1940, in which they describe the situation at several tombs at Thebes, Beni Hassan and Tuna el-Gebel.
Although incomplete (some pages, photos and plates were missing), the results of the report speak for themselves.
The report will be reproduced here, using the same sections as in the original report.
Note on the urgent measures to be taken against the imminent destruction of paintings of Theban tombs
Appendix / extracts from scientific press
Mission in Upper Egypt from Friday 2 to Thursday 8 February 1940, in order to examine the restorations carried out in various Pharaonic tombs in the Gurna area.
Follow up of my report of 29 February 1940 on the conservation and restoration of paintings and reliefs of the monuments and tombs in Upper Egypt
Study on the current situation of upper Egypt tombs and on the suggested methods to restore them
Ministry of Public Instruction
Fine Arts Direction
19 February 1940
Mission in Upper Egypt from Friday 2 February to Thursday 8 February 1940, of Mr G. Rémond, Director of Fine Arts, accompanied by Mr E. Drioton, Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, to examine the restoration work carried out in various pharaonic tombs in the Gurna area.
Restoration work, which had caused vivid criticism from personalities in the art and archaeology field, was suspended some two years ago by Mr the Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. It had been carried out by the moulding workshop, upon the request of the Antiquities Service and under the orders and supervision of inspectors, while the Fine Arts Direction was simply kept informed by copies of letters exchanged on this topic between the Direction of the Antiquities and the workshop.
I was accompanied during my visit by Mr the Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service et Mr Baraise, director of works at the Service. We visited the following tombs :
Gurna, Tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100) , Governor of Thebes under Thutmosis III
Entrance : the work is unfinished and part of the ceiling is still collapsed. The work consisted in applying white painting which could have been done by an unskilled workman. Various colours and patinas were tested on the right jamb of the entrance doorway, but the task was not completed because the workmen complained of the heat and stopped the work.
The scratches in the paintings or on the wall were patched up with white cement. All general harmony is therefore lost. All that remains visible is an irregular white chequered wall. The rest has vanished.
It is useless to try to consolidate the wall or the paintings as the latter were executed directly onto the rock.
This work has raised criticism and protests from various archaeological institutes, especially of the ‘Journal of Egyptian archaeology’, and from Mr Garris Davies, Egyptologist and draughtsman specialized in the Theban necropolis. Protests were addressed to Mr the Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.
Menna (TT 69)
The same whitish plaster was used to cover up all the scratches on the paintings.
It is not a proper restoration, but rather a hasty underlining of the missing parts. It looks like a painting whose missing parts were covered with white sealing wafers. It is therefore impossible at the moment to take good quality artistic or archaeological photographs of these paintings.
Sheikh Abdel Gurna
TT 64 : same white plaster applied unnecessarily and without any taste
TT 108- Nebseni : same comments
Tomb of Djeserkareseneb (TT38)
The plaster fill used to support the paintings was too fluid when it was applied between the wall and the paintings and has caused large smudges on the latter.
Tomb of Nefertari
First room on the right, “room of the sacred cow”
The colours used for the restoration of the arms, the throne and the seat of the god Horus are not the same as those of the intact sections.
The fragments of plaster that had fallen from the wall were carefully left in situ by Mr Maraise and by the inspector so that they could all be reassembled. The moulders ignored these fragments and swept them away. Everywhere the restoration was hastily and poorly done.
The plaster onto which the paintings of the tombs were executed in tempera, has become very friable because salt crystals pushed it away from the rock and it ends up falling off in tiny pieces. Restoration work of this plaster is of course highly critical. It consists in piecing back together some fragments and also in finding a substance that can fill the lacuna between the plaster and the rock, and that makes the two adhere, despite the salt crystals.
The moulders’ attempts have given very poor results. The entire work was carried out very hastily, without care, method or motivation.
In a letter dated 19 April 1894 and addressed to the Antiquities Service, Mr Lausel had ordained to remove the plaster until bedrock and to replace it with cement and then to glue the detached sections onto it, with white shellac.
Tests using liquid alum and liquid plaster were also carried out. The results of these various attempts varied from average to poor.
Mr Lausel complains in his correspondence that the requests for moulders were made to him at very short notice, at a time when his best moulders were engaged in other works. He also complains that he was given insufficient time to carry out delicate work (letters Lausel dated 1, 5 and 8 December 193. Addressed to the Antiquities Service) (Tombs of Menna and Nefertari)
During the same mission, I visited with Mr the Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, various other sites or monuments which, from the point of view of the restorations that were or should be done, are thought-provoking and call for the following remarks :
Highly impressive rock-cut stela of Amenophis IV in the desert hill, but spoiled by a protective wall and an iron door which make it look like a garage and spoil the beautiful character of the ancient landscape.
Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan :
The outstanding paintings of these tombs were covered, a long time ago, with a light varnish coating meant to protect them from weathering and the touch from visitors. Unfortunately this varnish absorbs dust and takes away most of the freshness of the colours. It is possible to remove it but it is a delicate task.
Sheikh Abadeh :
Coptic church of the 6th century. Paintings of the same date in all their original freshness, but mutilated. The debris of the plaster remain on the floor. They could be put back into place and, with the help of the photographs in our possession, restoration of the whole ensemble could be carried out.
This issue in even more complicated in Egypt because we are dealing with extremely ancient works of art on which all sorts of influences have taken their toll and whose restauration is made difficult by their distance or location.
Work of this type should be entrusted only to artists or specialized workmen, some of whom are employed by the moulding workshop. They must be chosen exclusively for this work. But their work must have been previously examined by a technician who is both, and we will never cease to stress this, an artist and a man of taste assisted by the advice of an archaeologist.
We have constantly underlined the need for technical courses to be taught here on such matters, which even in Europe are brand new. Mr A. Stoppelaere, a specialist in painting and restoration techniques, as well as Mr L. Riou, a specialist in various techniques of mural painting, who have taught here, were pinpointed by us as being capable of giving the most useful advice on such topics.
The Director of Fine Arts
Signed : Georges Rémond
Cairo, 3 April 1941
Report on the current state of the paintings in the tombs of Upper Egypt and on the suggested means to restore them.
During the mission which I have just undertaken in Upper Egypt, with Dr Drioton, Director General of the Antiquities, and Georges Rémond, Director of Fine Arts, I was especially in charge of studying the causes of destruction and the changes in the paintings of the tombs at Thebes, Tuna el-Gebel and Beni Hassan, and the means to restore them.
I was also responsible for examining the restoration works executed by the moulding workshop in 1937-38 and to study the means to correct them.
The state of conservation of the paintings in the tombs that I examined (Tuna el-Gebel and about 20 tombs at Thebes) is very worrying and the danger that threatens them is more serious that the changes, doubtless very regrettable, that the personnel of the workshop made to them, changes that provoked protests from the international press.
Most of the tombs which I examined are threatened of total destruction within a more or less close deadline. Some of these paintings have already reached such a degree of fragility that immediate measures of consolidation are necessary. Each day that passes destroys a part of this invaluable heritage. To help understand the physical causes of this destruction, it is necessary that I begin with a brief presentation of the techniques of Egyptian painting, the materials and their uses.
Technique of Egyptian painting and its current conservation state.
Egyptian painting, wrongly called fresque, can be compared to a gouache applied on a wall.
the colours bound by a gum are applied onto a wall , in more or less thick layers, depending on the effect sought after. They are lightly varnished in some places, to increase the transparency and the brightness of the colour.
Support coating :
the colours are applied on a coating of smooth plaster or sculpted stucco from 0 mm to 5mm thick which lies on:
It is important to note that this painting is very sensitive to water and humidity. Water dissolves the gum, lifts and stains the colours. Humidity rots the plaster of the coatings (dead plaster) and makes it powdery.
State of conservation:
If we exclude the frequent ancient hammerings, one can observe in the tombs, all the intermediary stages that lead to total destruction, next to paintings that present an apparently perfect state of conservation. This destruction of the Egyptian mural paintings is always the consequence of the falling off of walls, the lifting or cracking of the coatings and the invasion by salt of the paintings.
The superficial accidents, the damage due to the rubbing of the visitors’clothes and the careless guides, the bee and lizard nests, which leave indelible marks on the paintings, could be easily avoided by an active surveillance by inspectors and ghaffirs and by fitting tight closed doors.
Thick or varnished colours peel off and fall off leaving areas with no colours. These accidents could be stopped by inspections carried out by a technically qualified staff, also in charge of these small repairs.
Cause for the destruction of the walls, upheaval of coatings and salt deposits.
During the long closure of these tombs, the atmosphere, deprived of any contact with the outside air, was maintained in a balanced state which favoured an apparent conservation of the paintings, without preventing, however, a very long but undeniable ageing of the materials.
Once opened, the colder and more humid air found inside the tomb is replaced by a warmer and drier air. A light but continuous draught takes place.
(Webmaster’s note: Some of the photos and plates, mentioned in this report, were missing)
This draught slowly dries up the walls, sucks in and evaporates on the surface of the coatings the water present in the rock. The drying up of the rock and the evaporation of the water on the surface of the coatings has a three-fold consequence :
I-Contraction an division of the rock.
The rock close to the wall divides on a 20 to 30 cm average depth. It then looks like a broken lamellar, the fragments of stone having as sole binder between them the roughness of their surface.
The bricks and the mud brick dry up and contract.
II- humidification of coatings and loosening
Porous and hygrometric coatings swell with water and loosen. Plaster rot. Not properly supported by a ruined wall, the coating loosen up from the wall under its own weight, and gets distorted.
Note : this collapse is caused by the weight or the fall of crumbling limestone from the wall ( photos 1-8-19)
III- Salt deposit and crystallization
Water coming from the rock may contain dissolved salt which crystallizes at the surface of the coatings during water evaporation
This phenomenon is intermittent. It stops during the periods of extreme dryness to resume at each increase of water present in the mountain (rain- variation of the plan of underground water)
This crumbling of the rock and the raising of coatings was observed in more or less advanced stages in all the studied tombs (about 20).
See plates I,II,III,IV, tomb of Nefertari, upper part of the tomb
The coloured parts of the plates show the observed raised zones, the hachured parts show the destroyed areas.
|The lower part of this tomb is either completely destroyed or has reached such an advanced stage of fragility that a rapid destruction is to be expected (see photos no. 7-8-9-10-11-12)
The coatings in the painted chambers of the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis are for the most part raised and distorted by sliding and also doomed to rapid destruction (see photo no 16)
Planned methods of restoration
The major causes of destruction of the painting in those tombs are :
It is therefore planned to reconstruct the destroyed wall and the coating and to attach the raised painting on this wall.
Injection of a liquid that adheres
The first idea which comes to mind is to inject between the raised coating and the wall a liquid that adheres (plaster or cement) which will infiltrate in the rock crevaces, will keep the plaster in place and transform this destroyed mass into a homogenous block.
In order to inject efficiently this liquid that adheres, it is necessary to wet profusively the parts that need to be reconstructed. Without this precaution, the liquid quickly dehydrated by the dried up rock, would create a blockage near the injection point, preventing to reach the deep parts of the rock that needs to be reconstructed.
We have reported the sensitivity of this painting regarding water and humidity. The water introduced abundantly behind the coatings would have a disastrous effect – stains, destruction of coatings , swelling and collapse of the colour (see photos no 15 and 16)
Furthermore, if such a process can be envisaged, it won’t eradicate the deep cause of the damage, the deposit of water present on the rock.
One could fear that after a more or less long period of time, the same accidents happen again. However, for small surfaces, after strengthening the coating layers, this process could be envisaged after a trial test.
when the support of a painting is destroyed it is common, in restoration, to transport the painting onto a new support ( new canvas, transposition of painting onto wood))
In the special cases we are dealing with, the process would consist in strengthening the painting with cartonnage, detach it from the wall, reconstruct that wall so that it can no longer absorb the water contained in the rock. Remove the damaged coatings and replace them with new coatings, which have the same property and reflecting qualities. Strengthen the back of this painting and put it back into its place or in certain cases, transport it in a museum.
One mustn’t hide the fact that in many cases, this process would be extremely difficult because of :
In many cases, one would have to cut the panels and put the displaced areas back into place.
The state of war deprives Egypt of a certain number of well known materials necessary to this task, which would need to be replaced with materials that would have to be located and tested.
This work can be done but entails the same risks as, for example, a surgical intervention.
Colour scaling : The treatment of this accident is quite common in restoration.
Salt – Beni Hassan: Attempts at dissolution, scraping or varnishing of this cover must be done and examined after a long period. But it seems impossible to eradicate the cause of the damage.
Tombs at Thebes: The damage cannot be solved for the badly damaged panels, for the others, only transposition can save them (isolation from the rock).
Preparation of restoration work
During my trip, extremely urgent consolidations were started at Thebes and Tuna el-Gebel. Before starting any restoration work, it is necessary to undertake a complete study of the painted tombs of the necropolis at Thebes and Tuna el-Gebel, to determine the nature and importance of the work to be done for each tomb and to determine the urgency of the work. Such a study would last at least 4 months (about 430 tombs need to be studied)
During this study, students from the restoration school would continue the necessary consolidations. Methods of restoration explained above would be tested. This would show the most adequate method to use in each situation, to check the quality of the material and to train the staff.
If, after this survey and this trial period, the direction of the works was entrusted to me, I would ask for the creation of a commission thus composed of :
in charge of examining in situ :
Restoration work carried out by the moulding workshop
This restoration work, carried out by a staff who was not used to the methods and to this discipline of restoration work and who, it seems, was not fully aware of the priceless value of the works of art that were entrusted to them, was done without proper method and with no care.
The consolidation work kept in place large painted sections which would have otherwise fallen off and this is an advantage.
This is a temporary solution, which does not eradicate the damage and which unfortunately did not prevent the coatings near these repairs from breaking. Work done with no taste, with an unaccountable roughness. See photos 9-10-15
The filling of the chiseled out or scratched sections was most of the time unnecessary. Each small accident was too widely filled. The plaster and the colour overlap onto the original and strong colours burst like a brass fanfare in the middle of a string quartet, thus making panels completely invisible to a sensitive eye.
Fortunately with a lot of time and patience, it will be possible to erase or modify this work without damaging too much the original.
This project , which was postponed because of events, was resumed at the return of Mr Stoppelaere from the army of the Levant.
The very detailed visit which we have just made, Mr Drioton, Mr Stoppelaere and myself, of the monuments and tombs of Beni Hassan, Tuna el-Gebel and the Theban tombs in the Valley of the Queens, in Gurna, in Sheikh Abdel Gurna and the Valley of the Kings, has confirmed and worsened the conclusions of my previous report.
The whole paintings and reliefs that we very carefully examined are doomed of being rapidly and almost completely destroyed.
The report of Mr Stoppelaere on this subject will provide analysis to explain the various scientific reasons and will establish the state of gravity with photographs and the method to save them, the procedure to follow for such work and the convincing experiments already performed during these two weeks.
The Director of Fine Arts, in each occasion, and particularly at each meeting of the committee of Fine Arts, repeated that with regard artistic restoration, it is necessary to avoid all hasty solutions and act only on the advice and the observation of expert technicians, and artists of well tried taste, and only after tests and decisive experiments are carried out.
The question of the restoration of works of art is one of the most critical. Even in European museums or in the restoration of monuments, despite all precautions and advice, some beautiful works of art were spoiled.
- Thanks to Francis Amin, for letting me have a copy of this report,
- Thanks to Sylvie Weens (Sylvie is an Egyptologist and former EES assistant secretary), who has taken upon herself the painstaking task of translating this (originally French Report) into English. Even the pages that were hardly readable.