Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2007
Issue No. 834
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Don't sink the boat

Khufu's funerary barge at Giza may undergo a long-overdue professional overhaul based on a new conservation and condition report, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Workers transporting the solar boat from its pit to the restoration lab

Ever since its discovery in 1954, the magnificent 4,600-year-old wooden funerary barge of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid, has been kept in poorly managed conditions. Its progressive deterioration has been calamitous. At long last, however, the responsibility of preparing a condition and conservation report on the vessel has been handed to Hani Hanna, chair of the International Conference on Heritage of the Naqada and Qus region, Egypt 2007.

Hanna summarised his comprehensive study by pointing out that the boat museum's environment and tourist visitation procedures needed to be urgently addressed, since the vessel had already been adversely affected by direct and indirect damage from humidity, temperature fluctuation, light and pollution. Outlining the reasons for and the extent of the damage, Hanna cited the serious harm caused by a wide range of other factors. "These include weakening, flaking, corrosion, dryness and brittleness in some areas of wood as well as widening of the separations between the wooden planks; breakage, cracks, warping, and twisting; cavities, gaps and holes in various places due to insect infestation; and changes in the colour of the wood due to fungal infection and photo- sensitised degradation due to UV-radiation and visible light," he said.

The list seemed endless, and eyebrows were raised when Hanna told his audience at the international conference that extensive damage had also resulted from defective former restorations, and the metamorphosis of consolidation, coating and restoration materials. Much to everyone's astonishment, he added: "there are several oil paint spots resulting from the painting of the interior of the museum building."

How was this allowed to happen? Why has the magnificent vessel, which was found dismantled but in perfect condition after being buried in the bedrock beside Khufu's Pyramid for more than 45 centuries, been allowed to suffer such neglect?

The boat was an important archaeological discovery by any standards, and because it came shortly after the Egyptian revolution it was a source of national pride. It proved to be by far the most ancient and well-preserved vessel that has ever come to light and, moreover, it has been a vital source of information about ancient ships, their design and construction during one of the grandest periods of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

When it was discovered, the boat was a puzzle of separate pieces. The dismantled parts, mostly made of Lebanese cedar wood, had been placed in systematic order. The major parts were laid out in 13 layers of 651 definable groups, a total of 1,224 pieces. Remains of ropes made of halfa grass were also discovered. These were used to connect the various parts, and in the matting which originally covered the cabins. It was noticed that hieratic signs -- a simpler writing method than hieroglyphs -- had been carved on each end of most of the larger wooden blocks, and archaeological research proved that these were used not only in boat-building but also in all building work in Egypt at the time.

"[That] all the boat blocks were connected to each other according to the signs indicated that the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom believed that these instructions were necessary so that the dismantled boat could be reconstructed in the afterlife," Hanna said.

The wooden pieces were lifted from the pit and housed on the western side of the Great Pyramid in a temporary shelter especially built for use during the chemical treatment and restoration. The pieces were cleaned with an electric brush by suction and air, and consolidated with solutions applied with a spray gun, by brush, or by the immersion of smaller pieces. "This difficult task was carried out by the late Zaki Iskander, director of the chemical laboratory of the then Department of Antiquities," Hanna says. "Each piece was photographed and described according to its original position and layer, and recorded on a massive sheet divided into squares relating to the major sections of the boat, so that each individual item was registered in full."

The task of restoring and reconstructing the boat was arried out by conservationist Ahmed ( Haj ) Youssef. After making extensive studies of the vessels of ancient Egypt, Youssef estimated that reconstruction would take 10 years. In fact it took 14, and on completion the vessel was magnificent to see. It was flat-bottomed with a massive curving hull. The thick planks were literally "sewn" together with a system of ropes looped through holes that met on the inside. The elegant prow and stern posts were in the form of papyrus-bud finials. Propulsion of the ship was by means of ten oars, steered using two large oar rudders. On deck was a small forward cabin, probably for the captain. Dozens of metres of rope were found in coiled confusion at the bottom of the pit.

While all this was going on, it was resolved that no effort should be spared to exhibit the vessel in such a way as to turn it into a major tourist attraction. An international tender was invited and that of Italian architect France Minissi was chosen. Minissi's design was an elongated, boat-shaped museum designed to complement the vessel in both size and shape, and to take advantage of the latest advances in modern display methods so that the visitor could view it from all sides.

The vessel was to be dismantled and rebuilt at the centre of the museum, directly above the pit in which it was found, the idea being to give a visitor an overall view of how it was preserved through the ages. Terraces on different levels enabled the boat to be seen from all angles, including from below.

The museum building itself caused controversy from the very start. The suitability of a modern structure beside the Great Pyramid was questioned, especially since it would obscure part of the ancient monument, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The architect consequently revised his plan. The outer shell of steel-reinforced concrete was fitted with a façade of transparent glass to complement its stern surroundings while helping to conceal its vast size and unusual shape. "The use of glass allowed the visitor to keep a visual link with the nearby pyramid, thus removing any sense of isolation from the archaeological site," Hanna says.

The late Gamal Mokhtar, then minister of culture and national guidance described the museum designduring an interview (in the 1980s) as "a disaster from the start". The glass was double-glazed and stylistically massive, but while it screened out direct sunlight its special sunscreen glass created a hothouse effect. At times the temperature of the boat's timber was raised to more than double the 22 degrees Celsius at which it had been kept during the thousands of years it had been buried.

Visitors, complained about the heat and humidity so fans were installed, which unfortunately did little more than circulate the hot trapped air. In addition, the influx of tourists raised the already high levels of air humidity which, along with the temperature, caused the wood to expand and contract dangerously. Mokhtar was gravely concerned about the boat and said that the museum might have been considered the best of the projects but that it was bound to fail because the environmental conditions of the plateau had not been taken into account in the design.

When the seriousness of the problem was realised, discussion ranged round whether the glass museum should be dismantled and replaced, or whether air conditioning should be installed. The latter was considered unwise, because generators would cause vibrations that might cause damage to neighbouring tombs. Then, with the floor and ceiling as well as the boat being made of wood, the question was raised that the museum might be a serious fire hazard and fire extinguishers were installed.

Construction of the museum began in 1961, but it was delayed several times and stopped completely while technical and engineering problems were overcome. "The peculiar design of the museum does not provide the proper environment for preserving the wood," Hanna says. "Several sheets of glass allowed the sun rays to enter without any prevention or filtration for most of the spectrum, across the full range of UV, visible and IR radiation. The space between the glass panes also does not prevent rainwater, pollution, rodents and insects from entering the boat. The air control system of the museum is so antiquated that it depends on a freezing system using Freon gas to function, and does not supply a suitably controlled air-conditioned environment to preserve and protect the wood."

According to Hanna, the interior galleries on varying levels were built too close to the boat, and that while they enabled visitors to study it from all angles, they placed them in semi-physical contact with the ancient vessel. "The emissions and detritus of visitors following the pre-laid out route are absorbed into the surrounding atmosphere," he says. "The results of such visiting procedures are detrimental to the object, particularly when one takes into account that hundreds of visitors visit the boat daily."

Recommendations included facing the lower parts of the exterior walls of the museum with mud brick; insulating against the sun's heat; and facing the lower interior walls with concrete slabs to increase the efficacy of the air conditioning and as a fire precaution. "The museum was also provided with a fire-extinguishing system, and, in addition, all the electrical circuits laid when the museum was built were later isolated from the mains supply as an additional safety factor," Hanna says.

The reconstruction started "in an intensive manner" only in November 1981, 27 years after the discovery. "The air conditioning system was renovated and repaired so successfully that instead of working at 50 per cent efficiency, as it had before, it now worked at full efficiency," Hanna says.

During this final phase of the museum's completion, the boat itself was fully restored chemically. The museum was officially opened to the public on 6 March 1982. It now had a new entrance leading visitors from a vestibule through to a hall approximately 64sq m, through which those entering and leaving the museum can pass. At the eastern end of the ground floor, on the southern side of the museum, the empty boat pit can be seen along with the massive stone blocks that covered it; and, on the northern side are five adjoining square halls, each 40sq m, the three walls of which displayed photographs showing various stages of the boat's discovery, retrieval and sorting, and the treatment of the various parts and reconstruction. Space was provided to display ropes and matting found with the timber.

Unfortunately, Hanna says, the museum's environment and the visiting procedures continue to cause both direct and indirect damage to the wood of the boat. "In addition to the direct damage that may result from environmental factors and visiting procedures, indirect damage is still taking place as a result of the degree of variation they cause in humidity, temperature, light and pollution levels, which in turn increases the risks of detrimental impact to the structure of the boat."

Hani Hanna took the twin initiatives of digitally documenting most of the present damage, previous restoration work, earlier condition reports and related archives, and of collecting and archiving such records in one group file. This group file was included in the condition and conservation report on the boat that he delivered to the Supreme Council of Antiquities in fulfilment of his mandate.

In it, Hanna stressed the importance of re-examining both the concepts of the restoration and the design of the boat museum in the light of current knowledge and experience, which has improved over the last half century, both in restoration and conservation techniques as well as museum design.

"It's important to set up a scientific committee to study the report presented here in order to determine what further investigations may be required, or what modifications need to be made to it, before a comprehensive plan is drawn up prior to the implementation of a supervised programme of restoration and conservation," Hanna adds.

Committees take time to do their business, and while the experts talk, the boat continues to deteriorate. How long, Al-Ahram Weekly asks, before decisions and active steps are taken to save the boat which was extracted from the bedrock a century ago?

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