42nd Annual Meeting – Architecture and Objects Specialty Groups Joint Session, May 29, "Luxor Temple Fragment Conservation Project: Case Study" by Hiroko Kariya

Hiroko Kariya, in her role as conservator for the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (Chicago House), discussed the site preservation and management of the Luxor Temple in Egypt, a site built mostly between the 14th and 13th centuries, BCE. In only 25 minutes, Hiroko discussed the nearly two decades of treatment, site preservation, the opening of an open-air museum, emergency planning, and changing roles of management with Egypt’s unstable political climate. A big task.
Her talk began with a brief background history of Luxor Temple and the Chicago House excavation of the site in the 1950s and 1960s, which included uncovering over 40,000 inscribed sandstone fragments. From antiquity to modern times, stones from the temple had been cut down and reused in other buildings. About 2000 of these fragments were surveyed in the 1970s and 80s, and on-site treatment and site preservation were at last begun in 1995. The impetus to treat the fragments came when archaeologists discovered that many stones, which had been placed directly on soil in the back of the temple, were essentially turning back into sand due to contact with soluble salts.
The sandstone suffered from granular deterioration, which was essentially the disintegration of the stones. It was difficult to take samples out of the country to be analyzed and for treatment experimentation, but eventually the team came up with a tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEOS) as the best consolidant. One reason this was chosen was because it was locally available – a serious consideration given the number of stones requiring treatment, as well as the difficulty in bringing supplies over from the U.S.. TEOS requires certain parameters to be effective, however, such as the need to be applied withing certain temperature and RH ranges. To achieve this, the conservators set up canvas “cases” around the stones, making microclimates to more effectively meet the parameters of the consolidant. They used the consolidant only on those fragments that would be reconstructed, and fragments were monitored annually on their database. The downside to TEOS was that its working time was slow and often multiple applications were necessary. Still, annual inspections have proven the treatment to be successful.
A larger scale treatment involved reinforcing walls on the temple site. One of the walls near the Ahmenhotep III colonnade was unstable. To stabilize the wall of 48 sandstone fragments, brick and mortar were chosen. These materials helped to lighten the weight of the original fragments, and were also able to be used by the local staff who helped in the reconstruction/stabilization project. All work was completed manually so as not to risk damage to the site and neighboring stones from heavy machinery.
In addition, a period of construction near the site revealed thousands of additional fragments. This discovery led to another phase of Luxor Temple site preservation and management: the creation of an open-air museum on the temple site. Chicago House field staff consulted other conservators, structural engineers, local residents, curators and others to create this new exhibit space. In the new setting, about 300 fragments that could not be matched elsewhere in the temple, were displayed chronologically outdoors in about 200 meters of paths. These paths helped guide visitors around the site and, importantly, created better flow in and around the temple, reducing overcrowding. The fragments were also illuminated at night. Whenever possible, they used local materials and trained the locals about the museum, fragments and history of the pieces. The fragments, as a result, became better valued once on display. This created the potential for increased looting, however, and many fragments are now displayed with metal bands around them.
An interesting factor in the new museum was the discussion of creating an audio-guide. Staff had thought to create them for self-guided tours, but many locals protested, saying that they’d lose money if not allowed to lead tours. Chicago House ultimately did not follow through with the plan, and instead provided more thorough training for the locals to provide the tours. This is definitely something often not taken into consideration in the U.S, and was, to me, an interesting insight into site management.
During the protests of 2011, the staff, who were in Egypt for their working season, initially had no idea what was going on in Cairo. In Luxor, the time was mostly peaceful, and many Chicago House staff chose to remain at Luxor. Ultimately, though, the political upheaval had a direct impact on Luxor Temple: decreased site security, delayed funding for projects, difficulty planning, and lack of general resources. Visitation decreased from 14 million in 2011 to 9.4 million in 2013; tourism dollars decreased from 18 billion to 5.9 billion (in Egypt overall). Hiroko showed many images from other ancient sites in Egypt showing the damage and looting – many we have seen before, but were nonetheless astonishing.
In reaction to the unstable political climate in Egypt, the biggest development in management policy, perhaps, is that Chicago House is creating plans for the site to be maintained without US staff. They keep suggestion boxes and have checklists in English and Arabic so that locals can keep up with inventory, tasks, and other maintenance functions. They’ve increased training in the locals in how to care for the site, and are actively working on this aspect of site management as we speak. Future years will determine the success of these plans, so we’ll have to wait until another talk from Hiroko to find out.
Because there was so much to cover in a relatively short time, I would have loved to hear more details about the discussions leading up to their decisions to build the wall the way they did, how they managed local staff and volunteers, more detail about the museum, and , finally, what hinted at a very interesting conversation about the political instability in Egypt and how that affects site management. Hiroko did a fabulous job summarizing Chicago House’s efforts – and now I want to know more.