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Dear Team Members and Friends of the South Asasif Conservation Project!

The gates of the South Asasif tombs are closed now. We expect them to open again only in a few months time, reunite with our wonderful team and invite friends to visit us. Meanwhile take this beautiful bird from the tomb of Karakhamun as a good omen and a have very Happy Holidays!

Good Omen

 

Irtieru and the Woman in Black Garmets: A Story told by Miguel Molinero Polo

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Forty-five years ago, Shadi Abdelsalam premiered The Mummy, The Night of Counting the Years. Since then, the film began a career of awards and recognitions that still show it as one of the most admired works of Egyptian cinema.

The director based the story on an event of extraordinary importance for archaeology, the discovery of the Deir el-Bahari royal cachette. Despite the positive assessment of film critics, Western Egyptology censored some of the “freedoms” that Abdessalam had taken regarding the historical events. This judgment did not consider the intentions of the work, which are not those of a documentary that describes more or less faithfully the events of the spring of 1881. The Mummy is a parable about the identity of contemporary Egypt, shot in a difficult decade for the country, through the queries of a young man faced with a terrible secret: his family survives on the systematic looting of a group of coffins, those of their ancestors –of themselves– hidden in the Theban mountains. The gurnaui main character has a fictitious name, Uanis -his relatives are just “mother”, “brother” or “uncles” – while the names of the archaeologists are real (Gaston Maspero, Ahmed Kamal) as well as that of his community, the Hurubat. These, indeed, included the Abd el-Rasul family –not mentioned as such in the film– the historical discoverers of the royal mummies’ cachette.

Here begins the relationship –completely accidental, as is well understood– between the film and the activities of the SACP. The Abd el-Rasul family lived until 2007 in Rasayla, the house built around Irtieru’s courtyard. In fact, this was its central feature, a sun court with porticos on the north and south sides still concealed by the remains of the mud brick houses. Its rear rooms reached Karakhamun’s pillared halls. I do not have reliable information on the location of this family’s residence in 1881. Perhaps some of the readers of the SACP blog could provide consistent data on this particular. They may have lived already where they were known, in Rasayla, or very near, since twenty years after the actual events related in the movie, Robert Mond’s report on his archaeological activities in 1902 called TT 209, which is very close in the wadi Khatasum, as the tomb “near the house of the Abd el-Rasul”.

After the burial of Uanís’ father, at the beginning of the film, the uncles present their condolences to the family. The conversation turns to the obligation of the deceased’s children to respect the way of life of the family and keep the secret about the looting of the coffins. The scene takes place in the home of the fictitious Abd el-Rasul. The setting represents a tomb whose access is a ramp with a flight of central stairs and side ramps as in most late tombs. It is most intriguing that even if it is a Theban tomb, the walls do not appear decorated with the colourful scenes that characterize those of the New Kingdom. They are covered with carved columns of hieroglyphic texts without colour, a specific feature, again, of Late Period tombs, even if in those the signs could be filled with coloured pigments. This wall decoration is austere and therefore closest to the spirit of the film. But, at the same time, the similarity with Karakhamun’s tomb (and others of the Late Period) is evident. Did Shadi Abdel Salam ever get inside the house of the real Abd el-Rasuls? A part of the movie’s scenes were shot in the West Bank, therefore it is not impossible: this family’s ancestors were the main characters of the film and he was a person with a deep interest in history. Did he ever see Karakhamun’s tomb, at the back of Rasayla, and still accessible in the 1960s, when the director was preparing and shooting the movie? Was it the inspiration for the aforementioned setting? The similarities between both of them are evident.

In the aforementioned scene, the condolences are presented to Uanis’ mother, a woman dressed in the black garments of a widow, sitting with dignity on a dikka, and surrounded by respect for her figure and her words. Mixing reality, film and my own imagination, every time I enter tomb TT 390, that of Irtieru, accessed through the ruins of the Abd el-Rasuls’ courtyard, I cannot stop thinking about this scene. And we enter this tomb many times during the campaigns of the SACP. The underground part of the tomb is fully excavated and now hosts pottery, bones and the fragments of decoration from Karakhamun’s Burial Chamber being studied by SACP team members. The actual Irtieru was a female scribe, as stated by the titles in her tomb. And at each entrance to her tomb, I imagine Irtieru the Wise, completely dressed in black –it is anachronic, I know– sitting with total dignity on a carpet, with a similar gesture to that of the movie character on her dikka. She leans slightly at my entrance and tries to whisper her advice in my ear: where to place again each block of decoration that has dropped from the ceiling and walls.

The film can be seen on Youtube. There are several versions, some include English subtitles.

The short films by Shadi Abdelsalam, most of them with an Egyptian subject, are also accessible through Youtube. For example, The Eloquent Peasant.

A commentary on the film The Mummy, written by the author of these lines is accessible through Academia.edu (in Spanish).

The last stories of the 2014 season written by Kenneth Griffin and Marion Brew will be featured in the next blog entry.

Blog Post 8: Reconstructing Karakhamun

One of the largest conservation tasks of the season is reconstructing the west wall of the Second Pillared Hall in the tomb of Karakhamun. The worst preserved wall in the hall, it consisted of only one section of stone with the lower part of a standing figure and a column of an offering list.

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When the outlines of the decoration of the whole wall were lined up on the floor our conservation team began rebuilding the wall itself. Two blocks of new limestone were placed on the sides of the original block in situ . A few steel rods placed above the original stone secured its safety.

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The weight of the upper blocks rested on the steel platform and allowed the conservators to build the wall up to ceiling level.

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The lintel above the entrance to the side room was the next challenge. Another set of steel rods created supports for the collection of joined stones that had once formed the lintel and its offering scene.

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The height of the lintel was determined by the ceiling level. Its horizontal position was more difficult to calculate and cost some sleepless nights to our artist Katherine Blakeney.

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With the badly-preserved standing figure appearing partially on the remnants of the wall and partially on the lintel, it was difficult to calculate its proportions and even imagine the exact position of the arms. In times of despair re-enactment may really help.

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After placing the finishing touches on the lintel the team moved to the rest of the west wall.

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Following the instructions of Miguel Molinero Polo, who reconstructed the overall composition of the north wall on the floor, the conservators and our artist marked the newly built wall and moved on to the task of placing the seated figure of Karakhamun on the western part of the wall.

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Ali Hassan and Katherine Blakeney are using the ancient grid system to recreate the figure, which was preserved only fragmentarily. Their hard work will pay off when they are able to place fragments of such beautiful carving and monumental quality as the one below, with the torso of the figure. The work continues!

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Blog Post 7: The Eye of Osiris

Today’s blog post features the latest exciting conservation developments in the tomb of Karakhamun.

The first one has enormous importance for the tomb of Karakhamun because it deals with the resurrection of Osiris in the burial chamber of the tomb. The painted figure of Osiris on the East wall of the chamber was considerably damaged. A few fragments of the figure, found in the debris and reinstated on the wall, gave it more presence and colour but the face remained blank and lifeless.

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Our head epigrapher Miguel Molinero Polo and the Project’s conservation team spent years reconstructing different elements of the chamber’s decoration.

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Even the tiniest fragments of painted plaster were carefully examined and taken into consideration. This season, Miguel Molinero and his student Andrea Rodriguez Valls doubled their efforts but none of their work could revive Osiris himself.

The miracle happened last week. Untitled

A small piece of whitish plaster and a few black lines drew the attention of our epigraphers. Fired up by the almost unrealistic thought that it could be the remains of the eye of Osiris, they hurried back to the burial chamber.

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The last moments of hope and doubt were painful.

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Yet the victory was complete and enormously satisfying. Not only was the scale of the fragment correct for the figure but the back of this piece of plaster fitted exactly into the depression on the wall. It was a truly magical moment as this could not have been expected on such a distorted wall.Untitled4

Miguel and Andrea performed the ritual of the opening of the eye of Osiris. The whole team fells rejuvenated and ready for new amazing discoveries.

 

 

Blog Post 6: A Conservator’s Perspective

For this blog entry John Billman interviews one of the most indispensable members of the South Asasif team, AbdelRazk Mohamed Ali.

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John: Could you start by describing your role(s) with the South Asasif Conservation Project (SACP)

AbdelRazk: My principal role with the project is the management of the conservation work and team, , but I also act as an administration manager for the project, handling items such as sourcing conservation supplies, accommodation for volunteers and airport transportation.

John: Didn’t you also work with Elena prior to the SACP?

AbdelRazk:Yes, I worked with Elena from 2004 during the Metropolitan Museum clearance of Nespakashuty D at Deir el-Bahri and the reconstruction of its entrance gate.

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John: What was your first year with the SACP?

AbdelRazk: I’ve been with the project since the very beginning in 2006 when we started together in Karakhamun (TT 223).

John: How has the project changed since then?

AbdelRazk: When we started we were essentially excavating a pile of rubbish hoping we were in the right place as we looked for the tomb, we had a small team with just 5 workmen and our focus was initial excavation, and then when we found the tomb we undertook emergency stabilization.  Another challenge back then was access as part of the necropolis was still inhabited so we had to negotiate to perform even emergency conservation to the tomb of Irtieru (TT 390). Today the project is firmly established with a large team, our own supply of limestone for reconstruction and the support of sponsors and volunteers all of which enable both excavation and significant reconstruction in parallel.

John: Indeed, now the project undertakes many different tasks of reconstruction and conservation, taking for example the recently completed work in the vestibule of TT223 (Karakhamun) – what were the challenges faced here and how were they overcome?

AbdelRazk: In the vestibule there were a combination of challenges, we had some fallen pieces to reposition, numerous cracks in the wall and dust deep within the walls, but most of all past flooding had left a deposit of salt on very delicate wall surfaces.  We were able to tackle these issues building on a wide range of experience including our work in the burial chamber of Karakhamun. We first undertook emergency consolidation measures as soon as possible before establishing a programme for the long-term protection of the room. This involved both mechanical and chemical cleaning to reveal hidden decoration, as well as the filling of the cracks in the wall and preventative consolidation of remaining drawings to ensure the future preservation of the room.

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John: Most famous perhaps, and often featured in this blog, is the reconstruction work in the pillared halls of TT223, how initially was the approach to this work determined?

AbdelRazk: We looked at best practice elsewhere, particularly from temple sites where such large-scale reconstruction was more common. In the monumental task of reconstructing the decorative and textual program of the First and Second Pillared Halls we work in close cooperation with a team of epigraphers and art historians including Erhart Gaefe, Miguel Molinero Polo, Kenneth Griffin, Elena Pischikova and Katherine Blakeney. We were keen to be as true to the original construction materials as possible, using Egyptian limestone and our own lime-based mortar softened from the previous season.

John: What advantages does this approach give?

AbdelRazk: By focusing on materials that are natural to the Egyptian landscape, and close to those used by the original constructors of the tomb we can be more confident how these will weather over time, and how the ancient stone will interact with the modern reconstruction. Additionally as we are continually making new joins and excavation continues to find missing pieces of the tomb, a key advantage to our approach is that we can easily cut pockets to insert newly re-discovered original pieces.

John: What are the most important things in completing this work successfully?

AbdelRazk: Time and money are both key, we need long seasons to make substantial progress and funding, both for materials and tools as well as people, but most importantly a strong and skilled team.

John: You mentioned your team, everyone on site admires not only the work they do but the strong sense of commitment and team spirit that is always so evident, how do you choose a team like this?

AbdelRazk: Many of the team members have worked with me on other missions for many years, but also we need a range of skills from joins to reconstruction, and so while specific individual experience is important personal qualities such as commitment and enthusiasm are still more valuable.

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John: What is it you like most about the SACP?

AbdelRazk: I very much enjoy the work, things such as the joining of fragments to reconstruct the tomb, but most of all it is our team. We have an all-Egyptian team of conservators,  and we look at what we have done and it is an Egyptian team that has achieved this. The team is doing it for themselves, we all feel a real sense of achievement from the work of the project.

John: Looking back over your 8 years with the project what has been the greatest achievement so far?

AbdelRazk: It’s hard to choose one thing, but the False Door reconstruction has been really successful. It was extremely difficult and complex with a lot of calculations, but we did it and now in the Second Pillared Hall you can really start to see the tomb closer to that which it was.

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John: Finally, looking forward, what do you hope to achieve with the SACP?

AbdelRazk: There is a lot of work still to do, we need more money, time, tools and people to achieve everything but I hope the journey from the Open Court to the Second Pillared Hall will be one that is closer to the ancient experience. It will be truly amazing if we can open this monument to the public, and everyone can see what we have done, I dream one day of bringing my son and daughter here to see our work.

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Blog Post 5

Blog Post 5

The past three weeks we were very busy working on a number of projects.

Salima Ikram came to work on the animal bone deposit in the tomb of Karabasken. Her time at the site, although short, was extremely productive. We all learned a lot trying to assist Salima as best we could. Salima is sorting bones in the tomb of Irtieru assisted by her student Nick Brown.

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We have completed the conservation of the vestibule in the tomb of Karakhamun. Katherine Blakeney is taking final photography of the ceiling.

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The arrival of Joy Stamp and Jane Golding revived the ceiling project. With thousands of painted ceiling fragments found on the floor of the collapsed tomb of Karakhamun reconstruction is not an easy task. Numerous patterns and their variations – seventeen in total – were identified so far. The geometric and floral designs are painted red, blue, yellow, white and black.

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It seems that the ceilings of the spacious rooms of the tomb were divided into segments featuring different patterns. The newly finished tomb looked extremely festive despite some unfinished and unpainted areas. Trying to create more space for their installations Joy and Jane purchased wood from the friendly owner of a wood workshop and ordered platforms, which they placed on top of the shafts in the tomb of Karakhamun.

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These new surfaces immediately became covered with beautiful designs.

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The big news in the tomb of Karabasken are the entrance steps to the tomb. The steps are getting stronger and stronger as they go down. It seems that Karabasken had an impressive entrance area with an elegant staircase. Nick Brown and Katherine Piper are taking measurements in the trench.

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All the finds from the field go to John Billman who takes great care of them.

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The Second Pillared Hall in the tomb of Karakhamun keeps growing. The North West corner is shaping up and soon will be able to receive its decoration consisting of the texts of BD 48 and 49 on the west wall and an offering scene on the north wall of the hall.

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Meanwhile, the conservators are working on the vignette of BD 15 in the south west corner.

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Not only tomb walls grow in South Asasif. The Project has adopted these adorable ginger twins. We see them as a good omen and hope to see them grow and prosper.

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The last day before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan was very special. Our team was happy to have the chance to give a holiday present to everyone at the site.

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The workmen of the Project were in a true festive spirit. IMG_1225

To deliver the boxes to the conservators working in Karakhamun we had to form an offering bearing procession. How appropriate!IMG_1291

RAMADAN KAREEM to all our Egyptian friends and colleagues!

 

Weeks 4 and 5

The last two weeks have been very intense and productive. Our team members excavated, recorded, reconstructed, sang and danced. All this was happening at the site of South Asasif and all these activities happen to be interconnected.

The excavation of the open court in the tomb of Karabasken has revealed new architectural features of the court as well as a number of important decorated fragments from the tomb of Karakhamun. Our conservators reinstated the fragments in their original places in the Second Pillared Hall and our team members celebrated our success with an exciting rock concert.

In more detail, it happened in the following sequence:

Nick Brown, Kerry Webb and Robyn Kealey are in the court of Karabasken bagging and recording small finds. During the last two weeks our skilful archaeologists (with the participation of Natalie Marquez) explored, recorded and disassembled a few partitions built in the court by the latest occupants of the tomb to realize that their building blocks originated in the tomb of Karakhamun. Moreover, two of them fit directly into our recent reconstructions.

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A well-preserved fragment of the outer frame of the False door was a welcome addition to the Offering formula and joined directly with the fragment above. Our conservators carved a “pocket” in the new limestone and put it in the next day after it was found.

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The legs of the statue of Osiris from the False door were another happy find. Previously found parts of the statue constituted the feet in situ, a torso and a crown. We calculated the length of the legs’ based on known contemporary examples and carved a support for the torso. Based on the calculations done by Katherine Blakeney the newly found part of the legs from the feet to the knees will demand some adjustments to the previous reconstruction. The original legs are slightly more elongated proportionally and display rather more rough carving than could be expected based on the sophistication of the torso. It seems that after the shape of the statue was coarsely carved out of bedrock only the upper part received final modelling treatment and the legs were left in a preliminary stage with rough chisel marks.

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The installation of the new fragments on the False door was a cause for celebration by our conservation and excavation team.

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In fact our multi-talented team members mark every success with a display of their artistic genius. Katherine Blakeney, Ali Hassan, Hassan Dimmerdash and Mohamed Abu Hakem celebrated the re-installation of the statue of Osiris with a spirited dance.

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Peter Tolhurst praised the benefits of excavation in the tomb of Karabasken in a series of songs with his own lyrics. The exciting backup singer was Natalie Marquez.

While some mission members dance and sing others work extra hard. Taylor Woodcock and Katherine Piper are re-checking stone fragments registration databases although they look like miners. Mohamed Shebib and Said Mohamed Ahmed are sorting fragments from the Second Pillared hall of Karakhamun. (To be continued)

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Week 3

Posted on May 23, 2014 |

The team members of the South Asasif Conservation Project are continuing with their daily activities at the site. With more members joining us this week we were able to re-open more work stations.

John Billmann is enjoying the peace and quiet in the tomb of Irtieru, where he has moved his object registration table.

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Martin Labram and Katherine Piper have teamed up for stone fragment registration in the tent next to the tomb of Karakhamun.IMG_0172

Annie Haward and Francesca Jones are copying the remains of the text of BD 17 on the south wall of the tomb under the supervision of the head of the epigraphic team, Miguel Molinero Polo.

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Meanwhile Miguel, who is now in the middle of his own project in TT 209, has visited the burial chamber of Karakhamun with members of his team to show his previous work and make plans for his return to TT 223 in July.DSCF5615

The most progress was made on the reconstruction work in the tomb of Karakhamun. Erhart Graefe has identified more fragments of the Stundenritual texts. Here is his new addition to the First Hour of the Day.DSCN0570

A new block of limestone was finished by the stone cutters and delivered to the tomb.

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Katherine Blakeney and Ali Hassan finally got enough wall surface to position the top of Karakhamun’s head. It is a key fragment for placing the section with Karakhamun’s titles directly above, as many of the fragments join directly. The work will be continued next week.IMG_0108  IMG_0113

As the mission’s photographer, Katherine Blakeney must find the right light and camera position to photograph each found fragment to best advantage. Sometimes things turn unexpectedly tricky. Katherine Blakeney, Peter Tolhurst, Mohamed Shebib and Mohamed Abu Hakim are in the middle of a photo experiment.

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Week 2

Posted on May 16, 2014 | 1 comment

Week two was dedicated to preparing for the reconstruction activities in the tomb of Karakahmun. The most labour-consuming part of this process is the cutting and delivery of blocks of new limestone to the Second Pillared Hall of the tomb. Our brilliant Egyptian conservation team employs rather ancient building methods. Large blocks are cut into smaller sections by means of hammers, metal wedges and wooden poles.

A tower equipped with a pulley system was built in the open court to slowly lower the blocks onto the floor of the tomb. From this point the blocks are transported on a sledge sliding on large beams.

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The first block of the season became a part of the north-west pilaster featuring BD 51 and 104 on the east side. Conservator Ali Hassan has already started adding new fragments to the reconstruction of the text following instructions from Ken Griffin.

 

Meanwhile, Katherine Blakeney is preparing the South Wall for the final stage of the reconstruction started last year. She is using the almost compete seated figure of Karakhamun on the east wall of the hall with traces of a proportional grid as a reference for recreating a fragmentary figure of Karakhmun on the south wall. The grid on the south wall was informed by the remaining lines in the area of the offering table.

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Erhart Graefe is rapidly moving forward with his reconstruction of the text of the Ritual of the 8th Hour of the Day. The success of his work may allow us to reconstruct the corresponding pillar in the First Pillared Hall of Karakhamun already this season.

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Peter Tolhurst and Marion Brew are deep into excavating and recording modern mudbrick structures in the open court of the tomb of Karabasken Their work has already been rewarded by finding a group of re-used fragments from Karabasken’s original decoration.

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John Billman, Annie Haward, Francesca Jones and Martin Labram arrived at the end of the week! See the next blog post for our new activities!

 

Week 1 – Opening

Posted on May 10, 2014 | 1 comment

The South Asasif Conservation Project has opened for its 2014 season. We are excited to return to the site and reunite with old friends. Image

ImageOur conservators opened the protective gate to the tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223), which we installed last year.  We started removing fabric and plywood from the pillars, when something unexpected happened…

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Mohamed Shebib found a nest with two baby birds hidden in the folds of the fabric. Katherine Blakeney was delighted and called it a good omen for the season. The birds looked tiny and helpless. However, only a few days later, one of them is already starting to show excellent fighting skills and trying to bite anybody who gets close to the nest.

 

When the conservation materials arrived we were pleasantly surprised to recognize the driver as Mahmoud, one of the sons of Ahmed Mahmoud Abd El Rassul, one of the last “owners” of the tombs of the South Asasif necropolis. ImageIt brought back a lot of memories from 2005 when were only looking for “lost tombs” in this area. It took us some time to earn the friendship of Ahmed Mahmoud. When it finally happened we were blessed to be greeted with glasses of hot buffalo milk with at least four lumps of sugar in each. It was tremendously refreshing. Slide6

We went back to clearing the debris in the open court of the tomb of Karabasken (TT 391).

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Conservation and reconstruction work in the tomb of Karakhamun is continuing in the 2nd Pillared Hall. Katherine Blakeney and Abdelrazik Mohamed Ali are marking the newly-rebuilt South Wall with grid lines to reconstruct the figure of Karakhamun.

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All our activities are supervised by the most important member of the team, Reis Mohamed Ali.

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In the midst of all this bustle, Erhart Graefe has created his own secluded office space and is already hard at work.

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We are looking forward to a productive and successful season.