Saturday, 27 November 2010

Al-Ahram Weekly | Heritage | Never bettered, never better

Great article about my favourite Luxor team, Chicago House Al-Ahram Weekly | Heritage | Never bettered, never better: "Never bettered, never better
As the Epigraphic Survey at Chicago House in Luxor enters its 87th six-month season in Luxor, Jill Kamil talks to director Ray Johnson about the work in progress
Click to view caption
Clockwise: Medinet Habu blockyard moving, coordinated by conservator Lotfi Hassan; conservator Hiroko Kariya preparing display group; Khonsu Temple epigraphic team Brett McClain, Jen Kimpton, and Keli Alberts puzzle over an inscribed block; open-air museum at Luxor Temple

'Preserving Egypt's ancient records for present and future generations is what we strive to do,' says Ray Johnson, director of Chicago House, the iconic home of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute archaeological team in Luxor. Johnson says that the documentation techniques pioneered by founder James Henry Breasted, while now augmented with new digital tools, have never been surpassed. 'When a photograph or a scan is not clear enough, or the wall surface is terribly damaged, we use non-invasive photographic and digital images as the basis for precise line drawings that continue to set the standard for epigraphic recording everywhere,' he says. 'This technique has become known simply as the Chicago House method, and it still sets the disciplined and meticulous course of the work of our documentation teams.

'We use many different techniques for recording inscribed stone surfaces, depending on the condition of the stone. In hard-to-reach areas aluminium-foil rubbings have proven to be tremendously useful, as is tracing with film on well-preserved surfaces when photography is not possible. We have lots of important projects in the pipeline,' Johnson adds. 'Among the primary sites where we work with the SCA are the Medinet Habu temple complex; the Eighteenth-Dynasty sections of Luxor Temple; Khonsu Temple at Karnak and even a private tomb from the time of Amenhotep III.'

Having conscientiously followed work in progress in Luxor over decades, and having perused the published results of the work completed by the Epigraphic Survey, all of which, by the way, are now available for free PDF download from the Oriental Institute Publications website, (just click 'Egypt' for all the titles), I quite naturally asked myself what remained to be done. Johnson must have anticipated such a question because he proceeds to tell me that 'there are literally kilometres of inscribed wall surfaces in Luxor that have never been properly recorded.' He also tells me about Chicago House's 'exciting new collaboration with the American Research Centre in Egypt, part of its USAID- funded East Bank Groundwater Lowering Response Initiative.'

Does my face register a blank at his words? Perhaps, because he goes on to explain that after the Luxor east bank dewatering program (sponsored by the SCA, USAID, and Sweden) was activated in 2006, the system effectively lowered the groundwater passing beneath Luxor and Karnak Temples by as much as three metres, thereby slowing down the groundwater salt decay of those structures. 'This has enabled follow-up conservation at the sites,' he says, adding that the training of Egyptian SCA conservators has been coordinated by ARCE during the last few years with a special grant from USAID.

'Chicago House is currently assisting ARCE in a floor restoration project at Khonsu Temple in Karnak, which involves replacing missing paving stones along the main axis of the temple that were quarried away in late antiquity -- and which made visiting the site difficult.' Johnson explains that Ramesses III built this temple out of the blocks from half a dozen temples that he dismantled and reused for this purpose, and that, 'luckily for us', in the interests of construction speed his workmen intentionally neglected to erase their original inscribed surfaces.

'As a result almost every block in the temple has earlier decoration preserved on one or more faces, and the floor and foundation stones are no exception. When an area where paving stones are missing is cleared, and earlier inscribed blocks are exposed, my team carefully records the earlier carving before thenew paving stones go in and conceal that information forever.'

Johnson's keen interest in the work in hand registers in the enthusiasm with which he speaks. 'It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and there have been lots of surprises,' he says, 'for instance the team has discovered that most of the floor blocks appear to be from an earlier Eighteenth- Dynasty Khonsu temple, thus providing a new and hitherto unknown chapter in the history of mighty Karnak'. It strikes me that Breasted would have been inordinately happy to know of this re-cycling process, and the care with which the Chicago House team is recording every scrap of information while it is accessible.

But that's not all. With support from ARCE, USAID, and now the World Monuments Fund, Chicago House has sponsored what is known as the Luxor Temple blockyard conservation programme. 'It has been going on for almost 20 years,' says Johnson. 'As environmental conditions changed in Luxor, with increasing humidity and higher groundwater, the decay of the monuments we were documenting accelerated and we recognised the need to expand our programme to include conservation and restoration. So we applied for special grants for that purpose'.

The culmination of the Luxor Temple fragment programme is a new open-air museum display area along the eastern side of the temple that opened to the public last March. 'Here samples of inscribed fragments selected from tens of thousands have been reassembled and arranged in a chronological display by Chicago House. The joined fragment groups represent all periods of Egyptian history: Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Christian and even Islamic,' Johnson says. 'The captioned displays add a valuable educational component to the temple visitors' experience. You can actually watch the style of the art change through time before your eyes.'

The passion for Egyptology, and the desire to preserve for posterity all that remains before it is too late, is a cumulative process. All displays in the blockyard, including a section that features inscribed stone recovered during the USAID-sponsored Luxor Temple dewatering programme, is protected by chain-link guardrails and by specially-built stone walkways. 'The displays are also lit for night-time viewing,' says Johnson, who adds, 'At the culmination of the blockyard museum, where one re-enters the great court of Amenhotep III, we have restored an entire wall section made up of 111 fragments to its original location on the wall. It is an amazing scene. The carving shows the barque of Amun on a pedestal being offered to, and followed, by large figures of Amenhotep III. The barque itself was carved by Amenhotep III, hacked out by his son Akhenaten, restored by Tutankhamun, appropriated by Horemheb, and finally enlarged by Seti I, who inscribed his own name in the restoration inscription.

'I put that scene together on paper more than 25 years ago,' says Johnson with a half-concealed smile of pride. 'It's a dream-come-true to see it physically restored to the wall.'

When William Murnane's book United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu was published by the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and in a paperback edition by AUC Press in 1980, I thought that all the work by the Epigraphic Survey at that monument was at an end. Far from it! Members of the team are hard at work on documentation of the small Amun temple of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III in the precinct, as well as digital drawings of miscellaneous pharaonic and mediaeval graffiti throughout the complex, 'primarily on the roof and upper walls of the Ramesses III mortuary temple, as well as various, mostly demotic graffiti in the ambulatory of the small Amun Temple'.

It is quite hard to keep up with the work being carried out in Luxor, especially in view of the fact that while restoration and documentation continue, nature (and man-made activities, such as agricultural expansion and urban development programmes) continue their counter attack. For instance, who knew that a second USAID/SCA dewatering program was recently activated on the west bank of Luxor, designed to protect three kilometres of west bank monuments - from Medinet Habu to the Seti I Gurna Temple - from groundwater salt decay? The system was activated in October, and word has it that the destructive groundwater at those sites has already gone down by a metre. And how many people have heard of the 11-kilometre, four-metre high wall recently completed by the SCA on the west bank to protect and safeguard Egypt's cultural heritage sites south of Medinet Habu .

I was pleased to hear that a small collection of books from the library of the late Henri Riad now forms the Henri Riad Memorial Library at Chicago House. Riad was a close friend of Labib Habachi (whose photographic archives are already in the Chicago House library). Riad and Habachi both feature in my AUC publication Labib Habachi: The Life and Legacy of an Egyptologist. The difference in their ages was just enough to bring about a form of hero worship by the younger scholar Riad for his older mentor.

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