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Talking shop: A conservator and an Egyptologist discuss the reconstruction of a stone vessel

Welcome to guest blogger, PAHMA gallery guide, and UC Berkeley Egyptology PhD candidate Elizabeth Minor! We’re going to discuss a stone vessel from Naga ed-Deir that I recently reconstructed in the museum gallery. When conservators and archaeologists put their heads together, we can both learn more about the objects with which we work.


PAHMA 6-313 after reassembly.

AL: Hi Elizabeth, thanks for providing some expert knowledge about this stone vessel. I have lots of questions about the site and tomb in which it was found, as well as about how this type of vessel would have been used.

EM: Hi Allison, thanks for giving me a chance to geek out about ancient Egypt! 

AL: Anytime! To start things off, please tell us about Naga ed-Deir and George Reisner’s work there.

EM: Naga ed-Deir is a really interesting site. There is an extensive cemetery along the desert cliffs, ranging from some of the earliest periods of Egyptian history to some of the latest.  The site is the cemetery for the ancient town of Thinis.  This area is what is considered a regional center, not with the same kind of gigantic monuments that you find just up the Nile at Thebes, like Karnak Temple or the Valley of the Kings.  Ancient Egypt was split into smaller administrative regions called nomes, which are kind of like modern American states.  Thinis was the capital city of the 8th Upper Egyptian nome, called “Ta-wer”.  That means the people buried at Naga ed-Deir provide a unique look at provincial Egyptians, not just the pharaoh and his court which we hear so much about.

This pot came from tomb N1523, which means that it was the 23rd tomb found in Cemetery N1500.  This part of the site was used for burials in the Early Dynastic Period, mainly Dynasties 1 and 2.  Ancient Egyptians and modern Egyptologists use dynasties, or groups of related pharaohs, for dating.  If you surprise an Egyptologist and ask for an absolute date, we usually have to think about it for a while.  Dynasties 1 and 2 are roughly 2920-2649 BCE, but we are always perfecting how we calculate the exact years for dynasties.  The earliest finds at Naga ed-Deir are from the Predynastic Period (starting around 4000 BCE), and show a long history of increasing wealth among some individuals in the area.  Other sites in Upper Egypt show the same pattern, but eventually the nearby rulers at Abydos seem to take over the whole region, and then all of Egypt.  This is the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt, so Dynasties 1 and 2 are when cultural traditions are developed that will be continued by Egyptians for millennia.  What’s really interesting about Naga ed-Deir is that you can see the whole development of Egyptian culture, with tombs used even in the Greco-Roman period (332 BCE-AD 395), all through people who lived and died in the same local area.

The site of Naga ed-Deir was excavated by Dr. George Reisner starting in 1901.  Reisner was a young Egyptologist who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  He was finishing up a job at the National Egyptian Museum when Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst decided to start sponsoring scientific archaeological expeditions all around the world.  She hired him and gave him complete control to decide where to excavate, and even told him she didn’t want him to just look for beautiful objects for her museum.  Dr. Reisner took her forward-thinking to heart, and developed careful record-keeping techniques, especially taking photographs of all the steps of his excavation and finds.  Over a hundred years later, researchers can still use his notes and photos to analyze his sites, like we are right now.

PAHMA 6-313 in situ at Naga ed-Deir.

AL: How would this jar have been used; what type of contents would it have held?

EM: A stone jar like this wouldn’t have been used for everyday eating and cooking. This jar would have been used to hold some sort of liquid for the deceased to use in the afterlife, probably some kind of oil or fatty substance that could have been as valued as the stone itself.  Perfumed oils were used in mummification, or just cosmetically to make people smell better. Ancient Egyptians believed that your soul lived for eternity in an afterworld, and you’d have a chance to enjoy all the things you liked to do while you were alive.  That meant that you needed to have a supply of anything and everything you could think of.  Earlier on in Egyptian history, they took this very literally and tried to pack actual examples of items.  This jar also had a dual purpose in that the stone vessel itself was valued.  The beautiful banded stone, the elegant shape, and all the work that went into making it meant made it a luxury item.

AL: What can this vessel tell us about the social status of the person with whom it was interred?

EM: Looking at this vessel on its own, we can tell that the person who owned it was an elite who wanted to have the best provisions for the afterlife.  We can tell a lot more about the person by looking at in the context of the whole tomb.

Thanks to Reisner’s great recording skills, we know exactly what this tomb looked like and what else was found in it.  It’s interesting that he thought it was a smaller imitation of the larger tombs in the cemetery, and with some similarities to Dynasty 3-4 tombs.  That means that the tomb was probably built in the later part of the Early Dynastic Period.  There were five stone vessels found in the tomb, but the rest of the tomb was disturbed.  These types of stone vessels are also more like, but not completely like, Dynasty 3-4 vessels at the site.  In other words, this is an in-between tomb in almost all ways.  Not quite Dynasty 2 or 3, not extremely wealthy or poor.  Also, by Dynasty 3 most of the highest elite Egyptians, the ones who were closest to the pharaoh, would build their tombs in the area right around the king’s burial.  This was moved from Abydos in Dynasties 1 and (part of) 2 from nearby Abydos, to much further north at Sakkara.  So by Dynasty 3, Naga ed-Deir was much further removed from the cultural capital of Egypt.  The people who lived and died there probably had much less access to wealth.


Field photograph of stone vessels found together in tomb N1523 at Naga ed-Deir.

AL: Is PAHMA 6-313 a typical size/shape for a valuable Early Dynastic jar that would have held equally valuable liquid products?

EM: This is a large and wide example of this type of cylindrical stone vessel (personally, I think that it looks kind of like a top hat).  There are a variety of forms and stones used for vessels in the Early Dynastic Period, and they seem to have been a favorite burial item at the time.  Alabaster seems to be a favorite due to its relative softness and bands of color.  Reisner had 26 classifications of stone vessels at Naga ed-Deir, ranging from these upright cylindrical vessels to thin plates.  Archaeologists use typologies of vessel forms to track subtle changes in design over time.  Consistent patterns of change, or types that are often found together, can then be used as benchmarks to date the context in which an object is found.

Chart illustrating part of Reisner’s stone vessel typology for Naga ed-Deir.

AL: So chronologically, this jar is pretty early, even by Egyptian standards. Did the ancient Egyptians continue to create and inter vessels like this in later periods as well?

EM: Stone vessels were one of the earliest types of luxury burial goods in Egypt.  They are found in Predynastic graves at Naga ed-Deir, and continue on into the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom.  The most complex and numerous examples from around Dynasty 2 and 3.  The pharaoh Djoser of Dynasty 3, the first king with a pyramid, had underground chambers packed with stone vessels.

But by Dynasty 4, Egyptians started using substitutions for stone vessels, rather than putting all the resources and labor into them.  Prince Kawab at Giza, for example, wanted to have the complete set of one-thousand stone vessels in for his afterlife.  He used a magical loophole though, and had many mini model alabaster vessels made instead.  Other Egyptians just had a list of all the goodies they wanted a thousand of (a thousand was more of a concept of abundance, like a ‘bagillion’ or ‘gazillion’ or ‘infinity-plus-one’), like Prince Wepemnofret’s stela also on display in the Hearst gallery.

Stone vessel carving skills weren’t forgotten, though.  Pharaohs in the New Kingdom, like King Tut, had extremely intricate alabaster vessels with openwork designs.  They’re so thin and translucent that they glow orange around the painted designs if you put a light inside of them.  Although the vessels are what’s left for us to study today, you always have to remember that equally valuable oils and unguents were contained in them.  When Tut’s tomb was robbed in antiquity, the thieves went straight for the jar contents, even before rummaging through the golden jewelry.

AL: Thanks Elizabeth! It’s so helpful to learn all about Naga ed-Deir, Reisner’s work there, as well as about the history of use and manufacture of stone vessels in ancient Egypt. Your turn to ask me some questions…

EM: What did the vessel look like before conservation?

AL: Before conservation, the vessel consisted of upwards of 20 fragments of varying sizes, in addition to a collection of very small chips, flakes and particles.


PAHMA 6-313 before treatment.

EM: What is the vessel made of?

AL: The vessel is carved from a dense calcium carbonate stone, variously referred to as limestone onyx, travertine or calcite (technically a mineral rather than a type of stone). It has large, well-defined crystals and orange, grey and white banding caused by iron and perhaps other mineral impurities. Testing a tiny sample with hydrochloric acid, which effervesces when in contact with calcareous material, confirmed that the stone is primarily calcium carbonate.

Now this question can actually get confusing because of the ways different people use the term “alabaster.”  If you ask a geologist what alabaster is, he or she will tell you that it is a type of stone composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, or gypsum. Both true alabaster and some types of limestone are creamy in color and translucent. The ancient Egyptians used both types of stone to carve vessels, but many Egyptologists use the word “alabaster” to describe any light colored translucent stone regardless of its composition.

EM: If the vessel was almost complete in the excavation photos, why was it in pieces when you started working on it?

AL: While there was breakage at the rim when Reisner excavated the piece (visible in those great field photos), the major damage took place sometime after it was photographed in Egypt. We don’t know exactly when or how the vessel shattered into so many pieces. It was in San Francisco by 1906, and may have been damaged in the great earthquake that took place that year. Museum record keeping has become much more thorough since the early twentieth century. Now we record any changes to an object’s condition so that in the future, people will know exactly what happened and when.

EM: Did you find out enough by analyzing it to be able to make one today? How long do you think it would take?

AL: I’m not sure that I could make one today, but by looking at marks on the stone surface and researching ancient Egyptian stone carving technology, I have a general sense about how it was made. The center of a block of stone was probably roughed out with a man-powered drill called a “twist-reverse-twist drill.” Once the basic shape had been carved, additional shaping and smoothing of the surfaces was performed with abrasive materials like sand, polishing stones and maybe copper tools. You can see fine striations on both the interior and exterior surfaces that were probably left by abrasive polishing. Not sure how long it would have taken!

EM: Why reassemble it?

AL: Remember that collection of small chips, flakes and particles?


Detached chips, flakes and particles from PAHMA 6-313 before treatment.

In the vessel’s fragmentary state, the stone was at risk of gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Object handling and storage methods can exacerbate this problem. When groups of fragments are stored in cramped bags, boxes, trays, drawers etc., the fragments can abrade and jostle each other, causing additional breakdown. Reassembling the extant pieces slows down this process, so reassembling the vessel is a means of preserving it.

Reassembly has another important benefit. Now people can immediately see the jar’s shape and size, which as you mentioned above, can provide important archaeological information about both the individual object and the context from which it was excavated.

EM: How did you reassemble it?

AL: I worked from the base up, joining fragments with an acrylic copolymer called Paraloid B-72, dissolved in acetone. B-72 is a popular adhesive for ceramic and stone reassembly because it is very stable over time and remains reversible. I want to make sure that whatever adhesive I use will remain easy to remove without any risk to the vessel, even many years in the future.  In addition to remaining soluble, B-72 will not soften and slump, discolor, or release any unwanted by-products that could harm the stone.  B-72 has another nice property in that it is thermoplastic, or becomes slightly malleable when heated. This allows a conservator to make minute join adjustments by applying localized heat (frequently with a hair dryer) while reconstructing an object. It’s important to get the joins as perfectly aligned as possible because each slight misalignment throws neighboring joins off, and multiple minor misalignments can accumulate to create larger misalignments down the road. In order to keep the fragments positioned while the adhesive set up (as the acetone evaporated), I used clamps or tape to hold fragments in place. When joining smaller fragments together, I placed them in a bowl of plastic pellets so that the joins were parallel to the ground, allowing gravity to help hold the fragments in place.


PAHMA 6-313 during treatment.

EM: How did knowing more about the Egyptological and excavation background of the vessel help with your reconstruction?

AL: The more I know about an object, the better. No matter what type of object I work on, understanding how it would have been made and used, what it meant to the people who made it, and what it may mean to people today allows me to make the best treatment decisions possible. Regarding technical issues, knowing the vessel’s expected shape expedited figuring out how the fragments joined together. Knowing that the vessel probably once held some sort of precious oil or fatty substance helped me to look for any residues or stains on the walls, and avoid cleaning possible residues. Having early photographic documentation and knowing when it was excavated and transported helped me to figure out approximately when damage and prior undocumented restorations had occurred, which in turn helped me to make an educated guess about old restoration materials that may have been used.

EM: What should I do if I find a broken stone vessel while I’m excavating?

AL: First of all, document it before trying to remove it from the ground. Photographs and sketches will aid a conservator in reconstructing an artifact if additional breakage occurs. You may want to block lift it, or lift both the vessel and the  surrounding dirt as a unit in order to keep the vessel as intact as possible. Conservators and archaeologists frequently employ different sorts of reinforcing material like bandages and plaster to secure the “block” in which the fragile object is lifted. Once taken out of the ground, the block can be carefully excavated in a more controlled setting. Be mindful of the possibility that there may be residues of the vessel’s original contents on the interior, traces of added decoration on the surfaces, or other subtle types of evidence that can be unintentionally cleaned off during any dirt removal.

EM: What are you going to work on next?

AL: A painted wooden funerary stela! Thanks again for all of your input Elizabeth, and I can’t wait to discuss the stela and other objects.

Elizabeth is frequently on gallery guide duty at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on Friday afternoons between 2:00-4:00 PM. If you’re in the area, come by and chat with us about ancient Egyptian objects on display in The Conservator’s Art.


{ 1 } Comments

  1. Bud Blue | 03/30/2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. I never fully appreciated the complimentary but separate roles of the field archaeologists and the conservators.

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