Theban Tombs Publication Project: Tombs 72 (Rây) and 121 (Ahmose):
University of Charleston and Serapis Research Institute

Summary Report on the Condition of the Wall Paintings

S. Rickerby
November 1998
© 1998. All rights reserved


Among the most significant private tombs of the Theban Necropolis are those of Ahmose (Theban Tomb no. 121) and his son, Rây (Theban Tomb no. 72). Dating to the Eighteenth Dynasty, both tombs are located at the top of Gebel Sheikh Abd el-Gurna, at the northwestern edge of the Upper Enclosure, with commanding views over the village of Gurna and the area of the Assasif. The tombs owe their remarkable status to particular circumstances of the royal patronage and social standing of their owners-historical features which are reflected in the physical context, architectural construction and decoration of the tombs-and, lastly, in their patterns of later reuse, particularly in the tomb of Rây.

The tomb of Ahmose dates to the reign of Tuthmosis III (c. 1504-1450 BC), and that of Rây to his successor, Amenhotep II (1453-1419 BC). During this period both owners apparently achieved extraordinary status and almost monopolized family control as high priests in the mortuary temples of Western Thebes. That their ascendancy is intimately linked with that of the Thutmosid line-and with the decline of Hatshepsut and the Ahmosid line-is probably reflected in the siting of the tombs. Significantly, they are located either side of the upper tomb of Senenmut (Theban Tomb no. 71)-one of Hatshepsut's most important retainers-and it is possible that their construction accompanied the destruction of his tomb.

Rây's consolidated status is also no less remarkably acknowledged in the exterior architecture of his tomb. Cut into the slope of the hill on three levels, it incorporates a columned portico, a principal and upper terrace with central ramps, wall niches modeled in earthen plaster, pylons and enclosure walls. This arrangement, unique among Theban private tombs, clearly emulates the style of a royal terrace-temple, and is probably influenced by the fact that Rây was High Priest of two such temples dedicated to Tuthmosis III at Deir el-Bahari and Gurna.

While the interior decoration of both tombs conforms largely to the style and iconography typical of the Eighteenth Dynasty, certain features signify their exceptional importance. Ahmose's tomb preserves a fragmentary representation of a boat procession, a scene only rarely found in Theban tombs. Rây's tomb includes two depictions of Amenhotep II, one as a young man enthroned with the queen-mother, Merytre, the other in his chariot hunting. Such royal scenes in a private tomb context, though not unique, certainly emphasize Rây's high standing and likely royal connections. Although much painting has been lost from both tombs, what remains is clearly of high quality, and that in Rây's tomb most closely resembles the decoration of the almost contemporary tomb of Rekhmire.

As part of a long-term project to study and record the history, inscriptions and architecture of the two tombs, an integral component is their conservation. Deterioration, damage, and loss of decoration in both tombs have been unfortunately extensive, and serious issues affect the survival of their remaining paintings. Loss of much plaster and painting in both tombs has been the result of deliberately targeted ancient vandalism, though later incursions and other factors have also had their impact. Particular circumstances regarding the technique of the plastering in Rây's tomb-and, most remarkably, the later reuse of the interior-have contributed to patterns of decay which are of great technical, archaeological and historical interest, but which also now leave the remaining paintings in an especially perilous condition. It now appears certain that during the Coptic Period Rây's tomb was subjected to intensive firing-perhaps from its reuse as a kiln or bakery-which caused extensive chemical and physical alterations to both the plaster and paint layers throughout the interior. These alterations now present a range of conservation problems of an exceptional nature.

To assess these and other features of the two tombs an extensive condition survey was undertaken in the four-week period from 7 October to 4 November 1998. This summary report presents the initial findings of this survey as the first step in establishing a comprehensive conservation plan for the tombs of Rây and Ahmose.

Rationale, Purpose and Methodology of the Condition Survey

The conservation of the tombs of Rây and Ahmose would be an ambitious and complex undertaking and as a priority an information base covering a number of key areas is required to begin formulating an appropriate conservation strategy. Defining a program on such a large scale for both tombs depends on a number of critical factors, as follows:

These parameters formed the basis of the condition survey which was conducted by close visual examination of the tombs and their exterior environments, and comprised graphic, photographic and narrative components. Examination of the paintings was done in normal, raking and ultraviolet light. Since the decoration of the tomb of Rây survives in the most serious condition, a comprehensive graphic survey was undertaken of its principal deterioration phenomena and characteristics. The identification and assessment of these features in both tombs-encompassing the full stratigraphy of the paintings (plaster layers, preparatory grounds, paint layers) and their rock substrate-provide an essential base from which a conservation plan can be prioritized, addressing immediate, medium- and long-term conservation issues.

Original Techniques of Execution

Given the intimate connection between the original techniques of the wall paintings and their subsequent deterioration, a significant element of the condition survey was devoted to identifying and recording these features. While this was limited to a purely visual examination-no plaster or paint samples were taken for characterization or scientific analysis-the observed data proved to be both considerable and informative.

Tomb of Rây

Preparation of rock walls: The nature of the excavated limestone in Rây's tomb is highly fractured and weak, and is interspersed with conglomerate rock veins and major faults. Difficulty in cutting this rock during the construction of the tomb may have contributed to the marked irregularities that have been observed in the alignments of the 'T'-shaped plan. Indeed, at the rear of the long corridor what appears to be a vaulted niche in the ceiling may rather be the result of a rock collapse. Red lines and registration marks painted onto the rock as guides in the cutting of the tomb are visible throughout the interior where plaster has been lost, but the greatest number are visible at the rear of the long corridor, suggesting that cutting in this area was particularly difficult.

Plaster layers: The exceptionally poor-quality rock required equally extraordinary efforts in terms of plastering to create a suitable surface for painting. Plastering layers and thicknesses are not consistent throughout the tomb-these vary according to matters of expediency and the variable nature of the underlying rock-but multiple layering creating extremely thick plaster stratigraphies is the norm. Typically, two earthen plasters-mixed with coarsely chopped straw and other large inclusions such as pottery shards-are found as leveling layers, each layer being up to 4 or 5 cms thick. Often the lower layer adjacent to the rock incorporates large limestone fragments and chippings pressed into the plaster, and in many places impressions of finger marks show how the plaster was originally applied. In one location, at the north end of the transverse hall, there is an additional layer of earthen brickwork bonded against the rock with more earthen plaster, and bringing the combined layers to a remarkable thickness of about 24 cms. Earthen bricks are also similarly employed at the rear of the long corridor apparently to compensate for the extreme irregularity of the rock.

On top of the coarse earth-straw layers finer plastering serves as the base for the painting. Averaging 1 cm in overall thickness, a pinkish upper layer of 1-2 mm is sometimes evident overlying a buff-white substrate. The heating of the tomb during the Coptic Period may have created this superficial color alteration, confusing the evidence of whether the plaster was applied in one or two layers. Although, as mentioned, no analysis has been undertaken, this plaster appears to be gypsum-based with calcium carbonate inclusions.

Painting: The pigments used in Rây's tomb have not been scientifically examined, but appear to conform to the well known Egyptian palette (this, however, could include relatively unusual pigment such as realgar and orpiment). Both the visual characterization of the pigments and their application methods are difficult to determine with accuracy because of the comprehensive damage and alterations resulting from the heating. However, certain preliminary techniques can be recognized and a general sequence of painting established.

Within large compositional areas, the principal painted features (e.g. figures) were first outlined on the plaster in red within grids formed by snapped or ruled lines These principal areas were then overpainted with a white layer, through which the underpainting must have remained partially discernible. The compositional outlines were next reworked in red, and the main colors sequentially blocked in, often apparently very freely so that retouchings in thick white paint were added to redefine edges. All areas of hieroglyphic text were laid out more directly on the surface of the white layer. Typically, parallel red lines were snapped onto the white background as guidelines for the text dividers, the hieroglyphs then outlined in red, and the main colors and final outlines added sequentially.

Although most painting in the tomb was executed over the white background, the frieze, certain borders of the main compositions, and the ceiling are exceptions. In these cases, white was added during or after the application of the main colors.

Tomb of Ahmose

Preparation of rock walls: The excavated limestone in Ahmose's tomb, though still characteristically fractured, is of better quality than that in Rây's tomb. Consequently, the cutting of the 'T'-shaped plan appears to be more regularly aligned. An interesting feature is the copious number and variety of red lines and registration marks which seem to relate in part to the more complex cutting of the interior. The vaulted ceiling of the transverse hall, for example, is characterized by red registration marks painted at regular interval across its curvature. Another interesting feature of the preparation of the rock walls in Ahmose's tomb is the extensive use of

Plaster layers: The plastering of Ahmose's tomb differs completely from that in Rây's. The rock is leveled almost entirely with two to three layers of a light-colored plaster (applied by hand), with limestone chips pressed into the lower layer throughout the tomb. Interestingly, the red registration marks are often found on the lowest plaster layer in addition to the rock substrate.

The precise composition of these plaster layers remains uncertain. In places the layers (1-2 cms thickness being typical) are distinguishable by their slightly different color. Visually identifiable constituent materials include colored sand particles (yellow, black, and especially red particles are conspicuous), and small proportions of fine chaff. The particulate character and generally light color of these plaster layers may be an indicator of the use of Hib-silt, a natural mixture of clay and very fine limestone. Only in two instances is a coarse earthen plaster employed: at the north end of the transverse hall in the modeling of the vaulted ceiling; and part way down the north wall of this same corridor for one small area of plastering.

The final layer of plastering adjacent to the painting is a much finer, very white layer of no more than 2-3 mm thickness. This is almost certainly a gypsum-based plaster.

Painting: The preparatory techniques and methodology, pigment range and stratigraphic layering of the painting appear in most respects identical to those in Rây's tomb. A significant additional discovery was of an overall preparatory layer on the plaster surface. This is most noticeable on the north and south walls towards the west end of the long corridor where the plastering-because it was apparently never completed-ends abruptly about 70 cms above floor level. At this juncture, the overlap of a thin, buff-colored preparatory paint layer is clearly visible. This type of preparatory layer may also be present in Rây's tomb, but is no longer identifiable because of the heat damage. Another significant discovery was of a preparatory outline design which was apparently completely disregarded in the final painting: on the south wall of the long corridor, beneath the rare scene depicting the boat procession, is an outline of a goose. This perhaps indicates that a different iconographic program was initially planned for this location.

Interestingly, large areas of Ahmose's tomb painting were left unfinished. Although the hieroglyphic texts at the west end of the long corridor were completed to a high standard, on the nearby figure painting the corrective edging in white was omitted. Most notably, the ceilings throughout the tomb were left in varying states of completion. The painting in the western niche, however, was accorded special finishing touches. Here, a line of decoration on the ceiling and all the colored features on the walls were coated with what appears to be a thick wax layer, now darkened and embrittled with age.

Present Condition

Both tombs were visually surveyed to determine the main categories of deterioration that affect the paintings.

Tomb of Rây

Heat damage and alterations: While it had been previously thought that the earthen plaster throughout the tomb had been fired as an original technique of execution, this conclusion proved too simplistic.

In the south extension of the transverse corridor there is clear evidence that a partition wall divided the tomb during the Coptic Period. South of this one-time partition the interior walls are entirely blackened, while on the opposite side the plaster and paintings have undergone extensive, in-depth heat-induced changes: the earthen plasters have been effectively fired-creating a characteristic red appearance in the outer stratigraphy of the applied layers-and the pigments are radically and comprehensively altered. The plaster and painting escaped alteration in the narrow zone which was protected by the inserted partition wall in the transverse hall, and at the entrance to the long corridor there is evidence of a second partition.

The effects of the heat damage are varied, and certain preliminary conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the heating process. Clearly, smoke produced during the heating was confined to the area of the transverse hall south of the one-time partition, while the generated heat was directed throughout the rest of the interior. Within the smoke-blackened area the earthen plaster has not altered to red and retains its straw inclusions below a superficial level. However, close examination of the surface shows that much of the painting has been effectively lost, the bare plaster and preliminary painting being mostly all that remains (exceptions are where insect nests protected the painting from both the heat damage and smoke blackening). It seems likely that this area did not receive prolonged heating, but rather short periods of intensive firing, sufficient to scorch the surface of the paintings severely but not to create any in-depth alteration of the plaster. Throughout the rest of the tomb, however, prolonged heating resulting from the fire source behind the partition wall caused the extensive paint and plaster alterations but did not actually burn the paintings.

While the heat-induced alterations throughout most of the tomb are both comprehensive and radical, for the most part these have not left the pigments in a vulnerable condition. In the smoke-blackened area, where surface pigment has been extensively lost, the impression of the painting is now largely conveyed by a 'negative' visual effect: the colors of features such as individual hieroglyphs are almost entirely lost, but are now silhouetted by the surrounding smoke-blackened surface. This phenomenon is widespread and is a warning that cleaning would actually remove the definition of the remaining painting.

The other main identified categories of the condition survey are described below:

Rock Support and Plaster Layers

Detachment from rock: This represents the most serious threat to the safety of the paintings, and occurs in numerous places throughout the tomb. The situation is exacerbated by the considerable thickness of the plastering, and is clearly most endangering for the ceiling plaster. On the positive side, the extremely fractured nature of the rock continues to provide a reasonable key for even the detached plaster layers. Nevertheless, these areas of detachment from the rock are a priority risk.

Detachment between plaster layers: This is a comparable, and sometimes greater, risk to the safety of the paintings. Delaminated and deformed thin layers of plaster are found in a few areas (e.g., the north end of the transverse hall), and considerable areas of planar detachment affect the upper plaster in the smoke-blackened area of the tomb. The areas of planar detachment generally appear visually stable, but are in fact extremely vulnerable. Often detachment from the rock and between the plaster layers occur together, and are probably partly a result of the intensive heat damage. There is evidence that the heating has weakened the gypsum binder of some plaster layers.

Faults and cracks

Major rock faults: The rock substrate of Rây's tomb is affected by a number of major rock faults running up the walls, and across and along the ceilings. For the most part these either do not affect the paintings because they occur in areas away from surviving plaster; or they correspond with already present plaster cracks. The most serious combination of rock faults occurs in the transverse hall where two intersecting cracks diagonally traverse almost the entire length of the ceiling from the south-west corner to the north-east corner. At their intersection, the ceiling appears especially destabilized.

Significant plaster cracks: As mentioned, these mostly correspond with underlying rock faults. Although many cracks affect the plastering, only those that occur in-depth and/or through the combined stratigraphy of the plasters were recorded in the condition survey since these represent the most endangering.

Visible rock inclusions: As an aspect of the original techniques of the plastering, the inserted limestone rocks and chippings now present some conservation problems. Plastering adjacent to the chippings is now often detached from the smooth surfaces of the insertions, creating internal voids and areas of delamination. Probably this separation of the earthen plaster from the limestone chips was exacerbated by the heating.

Lacunas: Many lacunas of varying depth affect the surviving areas of plaster. A large number of these are of archaeological interest, having been deliberately inflicted by Rây's enemies sometime after his death. Only those lacunas of considerable depth-and which may require edging repairs for their stabilization-were recorded in the condition survey.

Paint layer

Flaking: This problem is mostly specifically related to areas of painting in Egyptian blue. Presumably, this coarser ground glass-like pigment originally required more binding medium for its painting, a circumstance which later promoted its contraction and lifting. The largest concentrated zone of Egyptian blue flaking is on the principal fragment of surviving painting at the north end of the transverse hall. Although this flaking appears severe, the flakes are still rigidly attached and for the most part are not in danger of loss.

Powdering: Pigment powdering is extremely limited, occurring sometimes on the white backgrounds of the paintings in the long corridor, and elsewhere on some areas of the coarsely-applied Egyptian blue pigment.

Animal/insect/bird activity

Bird nests and droppings: Birds have been active in the tomb in the past, building nests within rock crevices or on the upper edges of the thick plaster layers. roppings on the paintings present localized but serious problems. Birds are now excluded by the tomb door.

Bat broods/droppings and scratchings: Probably more damaging than the bird activity, and certainly more extensive, has been the action of bats in the tomb. Remains of bat broods-characterized by thick black accretions-are typically found in the corners of the tomb at ceiling level. Corrosive marks left by bat feces and urine are present on the surface of the paintings throughout the interior. Similarly extensive are scratching and clawing marks along the upper edges of the walls which have abraded the paintings.

Insect nests: Clusters of mud insect nests are attached to all the surfaces of the tomb interior, and often these have associated insect bore holes through the painted plaster, Some nests must have been present prior to the Coptic Period since they have also become fired. Exclusively in the smoke-blackened zone, many of these preexisting nests have shifted and run down the walls, leaving accretions and stains. Again, this seems to indicate the intensive surface effect of the firing in this rea of the tomb, as opposed to the prolonged heating elsewhere.

Tomb of Ahmose

The condition of the paintings and original plaster in Ahmose's tomb is much better than in Rây's. Despite extensive deliberate defacement, the areas of remaining decoration are generally well attached both to the rock substrate and between plaster layers; plaster cracking is minimal; and the paint layer is largely unaffected by flaking, powdering or similar phenomena. In most cases, these favorable conditions are the result of the good original techniques employed in the tomb.

The principal conservation problems are summarized below:

Rock faults: While the rock faults in Ahmose's tomb appear not as threatening as some in Rây's tomb, one fault-in the southern half of the transverse hall-has left an open cleft in the ceiling; rainwater infiltration has clearly occurred as a result. Other faults at the juncture of the exterior wall and the ceiling in two other locations in the transverse hall have also allowed water ingress (in the northern half and at the south end).

Occasional plaster detachment: Although, as mentioned, the painted plaster is mostly well attached, an overall survey of the accessible remains showed that some areas of minor detachment require stabilization. These are mostly confined to plaster edges, and large voids or zones of plaster delamination are absent.

Animal/insect/bird activity: Bat broods, feces and urine, bird nests and their droppings, and extensive clusters of insect nests affect the interior surfaces of Ahmose's tomb as they do in Rây's. Bat activity has been a more serious and copious problem in Ahmose's tomb, however, with the end walls of the corridors being comprehensively splattered with feces and urine. Where these have landed on the paintings, staining and/or contraction of the pigment occurs. Insect nests are also especially extensive, and greatly obscure some of the finest remaining areas of painting.

Accumulated dust: Because of the open cleft in the transverse hall ceiling (and, until last campaign, the open doorway) large amounts of dust have accumulated on the interior wall surfaces. This clearly is not a problem that threatens the stability of the paintings. However, significant features of the decoration-including the many interesting preliminary setting out marks in red paint-are effectively obscured by the dust.

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