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Progress of the work: May 2005

Inside the Egyptian galleries, work is continuing to prepare the space to receive the new display cases. New wiring is being installed, and new pipe work. And with the latter we have run into a difficulty. The new pipes need to run underneath the floor below the south window of the old Gayer-Anderson Room. The problem is that this space is occupied by a very large, heavy, granite sarcophagus belonging to a man called Hunefer

The sarcophagus of Hunefer

Technicians helping with the sarcophagus of HuneferWe had been debating whether to turn the sarcophagus round by 90°. If we did this it would allow people to get around it on all sides, and would allow them to see it better. In its current position it tends to look like a large and uninteresting piece of stone. The disadvantage of turning it round is that it means disturbing this object, with all the risks entailed, and also we have to be sure that the floor can withstand its weight if it were in a different orientation. Turning it round would also allow the new pipework to be installed.

Fortunately, a sonar survey of space under the floor has shown that there are supporting walls which would support the sarcophagus in this position, so the decision has been taken to turn it. Colleagues from the British Museum (Darrel Day and Bob Dominey) have been asked to come and help us with this.




First of all the sarcophagus has to be jacked up very slightly at one side. This allows two thin pieces of oak (known as slides) to be inserted underneath, after which the sarcophagus is gently lowered on to them. All the weight of the object is now passing through these pieces of wood, and this means that it is a relatively easy thing to turn it round on its central axis.

Jacking up Hunefer     Inserting slides under the sarcophagus of Hunefer   Turning the sarcophagus of Hunefer   

Rubbish found underneath the sarcophagus of HuneferAfter the sarcophagus has been turned, it needs to be pushed away from the window a short distance. This can be done using another jack which pushes the sarcophagus slowly across the base. (Click here for a short video clip of the sarcophagus being pushed with the jack (thanks to Christina Rozeik for this and many of the photographs here).






Technicians standing next to  the sarcophagus of HuneferA plinth still has to be constructed to support the ends which are overhanging the old plinth. Bob Bourne will do this over the next few days. 

We are approaching the end of the construction phase of the project, and will soon be ready for the new cases to be installed. In the meantime, our focus is turning more to the work of our conservators. 

The conservation project is being generously supported by a number of grants. The Newton Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Aurelius Trust have helped us buy new equipment, and this allows us to examine the objects in greater detail, so that we can diagnose and treat their problems more appropriately. 

We also have a grant from the Getty Foundation which supports any analysis which is beyond our own resources and expertise. 

This also allows us to take on extra conservators, among them Lucy Skinner who joins us in mid-May. She is an archaeology graduate, with an MA in Conservation from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and has worked in the Organics Conservation Section at the British Museum, and as a conservator for English Heritage. She has also done archaeological fieldwork and conservation in Egypt and the Sudan. 

Among the first objects she will be working on are our animal mummies: two small crocodile mummies, a sacred ibis, a falcon and a cat mummy. The mummies are X-radiographed to reveal the bones and other contents within the bandages, and also to assess the condition of their interiors. 

The resulting x-ray images show that one of the "crocodiles" is actually a fake and contains no bones at all.

X-ray image of a so-called crocodile mummy

Meanwhile, we have to test the prototype case to make sure that it provides the best protection for the objects. This means more than just their security; the environment inside the case must be suitable. 

Some types of boards, adhesives and fabrics give off gases that will over time react with the objects causing potential problems; e.g. metal objects may corrode. To avoid this, we gave the case makers precise instructions about the types of construction materials that would be acceptable and asked for technical data of every material they have used, so that we could check what our case really is made of. Also, we carry out our own tests, just to be sure. 

Light can be another problem. Some of the materials used by the ancient Egyptians are easily damaged by exposure to light, so this also needs to be controlled. Firstly, we have to check that the lights used in the case are not emitting ultraviolet, the most destructive part of the light spectrum. 

All the lights in the prototype can be dimmed to almost nothing. This is important as it means low light levels can be chosen for sensitive dyed and painted fabrics, but higher levels are available for illuminating unpainted stone and pottery. The tricky part is achieving a balance so that the objects are protected but visitors can see everything properly. 

Organic materials, like wood and ivory, react to changes in temperature and relative humidity (the dryness or dampness of the air). Conditions inside the case need to be as stable as possible. 

Data logger inside a display caseTo monitor the conditions, a small device is placed inside the case. It has a small aerial on top which allows it to send measurements of the temperature and relative humidity via a radio signal back to a computer in the conservation laboratory. By comparing this with information from similar loggers in the gallery we can find out just how good the case is at protecting the collections from changes. 

Working from case plans, object lists and thumbnail prints of individual pieces, we have drawn up detailed layouts of each display. Using these, we are trying out the positioning of objects in the prototype case, one case at a time, to see how they look in the proposed arrangement. 

When everyone is satisfied, the objects are taken out again and any necessary conservation work is carried out. If an object needs mounting in a particular way, that work will be carried out after conservation.