After spending most of the year working with archaeological material in the Garstang Museum collection, it’s great when I get to be back out in the field in Egypt. As a curator of an archaeological collection, working with artefacts in their original context is a valuable reminder that all our objects, even those that have no recorded provenance, had an added value and meaning that can only come from understanding the way in which they were used and deposited. We can try to reconstruct that information for our museum collections by scouring the original excavation notes, where they still exist, but sometimes that information is lost for good. The next best thing is to compare the collections to material currently being excavated, where recording of context is now more thorough and precise than was common in the past.
In 2012 I joined the team from KU Leuven working at Dayr al-Barsha, Egypt, where I excavated shaft 5B in the First Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom tomb of the local governor Aha-nakht. Although it had been looted (at least twice – in antiquity and between 1894-1915) the shaft and its associated offering niche and burial chamber had never been systematically excavated before. As a result, we found many of the burial goods still in place – presumably where they had been placed during the funeral of the individual buried there. This included quite a collection of alabaster, faience and even copper objects.
Those objects were fairly simple to record and understand – after all they were largely intact and in their original context. It was the other major find of the excavation that was to prove more problematic. That was the wood….
There was a lot of wood in the burial chamber. It mostly seemed to be in the form of planks. I say ‘seemed’ because rain entering the tomb over the millennia had led to the wooden material becoming very degraded, and affected by fungi. There was a mixture of pieces that were relatively intact, and those that had turned to dust. Some pieces were so fragile that, although they looked whole, they would disintegrate the moment they were touched – they proved an interesting challenge to remove and carry down the cliff for storage and analysis in the dig house!
The material was so confused that we weren’t entirely sure what we were dealing with at the time. We presumed, from comparison to other burials of the date and area, that we were finding the remains of a nest of two coffins, pulled apart by ancient looters. Several pieces had coffin texts, clearly visible even in the gloomy light and dusty environment of the burial chamber. The wood was all recorded, consolidated, and moved to the excavation stores by the end of the season in 2012.
As no material may be taken out of Egypt, we have only a limited time to study it each year, during the dig season. It was not until 2017 that I began to work in earnest on the wooden finds. Work on the wood had been begun by others before this, so when I arrived on site that year I already knew we were dealing with not only coffin(s), but also a canopic box. Using the plans I had produced during the excavation, we could see that all of the material that was found in a particular area came from the box, not the coffin. And we have been able to restore almost 50% of it, including an entire side. This was a big surprise as the material had looked jumbled beyond recognition – and that just goes to show why precise recording is so important during excavation!
There were three of us working on reconstructing as much of the coffin as possible from the remaining wood – myself, the mission mudir Harco Willems, and conservator Mohammed Sayyid. It was an incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle, not only due to the extreme deterioration of the wood but also the presence of ancient repair pieces and additions, and the appearance of small bits of wood from other burials in the area (presumably introduced during looting) which gave plenty of red-herrings.
It has been slow going but, amazingly, more and more of the coffin – and we’re now sure it is one box coffin, rather than a nest of two or more – came together. It is even possible to read large chunks of the coffin texts – if you’re a renowned expert on coffins like Harco Willems, that is. I’m still at the stage where I can only recognise Dd-mdw and DHwty (the god Thoth) from the vague scratches remaining of the hieratic inscriptions on this coffin!
If you’d like to know more about this coffin, check out this post from the expedition.
Working on material like that from this excavation really adds to our understanding of museum collections, like those in the Garstang. For example, model alabaster vessels and faience Hs-jars are not an uncommon type of object in museum collections. But more often than not, they are completely out of context – at best we know the tomb they came from, but not their position within that burial, or their physical proximity to other objects. By examining the context of the Dayr al-Barsha material we can begin to understand more about the nature of the funeral ceremony itself, which can then be carefully extrapolated to cover other sites – like the shaft tombs excavated by Garstang at Beni Hassan, which produced material of a similar nature.
Although in many ways it would have been much easier if we had discovered a perfectly intact coffin, there are still new things to be learned from very damaged examples like this one. For example, I was able to have a close look at some of the construction methods of the coffin. We found copper coils of various sizes and shapes, which had been used to lash the coffin boards together. Because we carefully recorded the exact locations where we found these coils, we could see exactly how the different coffin boards had originally been bound together. And this is something that is rarely so apparent in a complete object – who would take apart a perfectly preserved coffin, to see the exact winding of the copper ribbon holding it together?!
If you would like to read more about the excavations at Dayr al-Barsha, please do check out the expedition web-page, which includes an extensive bibliography of publications related to the project.
By Gina Criscenzo-Laycock, curator of the Garstang Museum of Archaeology