2007 Field Note 5 - Preserving the Khasekhemwy Enclosure
The beginning of the 2007 season of work at the Khasekhemwy enclosure (the Fort) at Hierakonpolis marked a significant event--the inspection of our first major structural repair, that which we undertook at the southwest corner in 2006. Now it was time for the first true test as to whether our materials and techniques were doing what they were supposed to do on a grand scale.
Before I arrived at the site, I had already heard some disturbing reports. Speaking to Renée while transiting through Luxor, she told me that there were some cracks in the ancient structure at the southwest corner, right next to our repair work. This news made me even more anxious to get to the Fort to see exactly what was going on.
Upon my arrival at Hierakonpolis, I immediately went out to assess the monument, but the structure wasn't my only concern as I approached the ancient walls. When I entered the interior for the first time this season, there was an eerie silence and it took me a while to realise what was so different. Usually the air was filled with the sounds of numerous sparrows, desert larks, bee-eaters, and even the piercing cries of the occasional falcons circling above. Now there was nothing, not a peep, not a flap of a wing. As I walked through the entrance I looked around in wonder. Was I truly alone in this vast structure?
Our temporary resident: a pharaoh eagle owl at home in a crack in the Fort's walls.
As my eyes swept the walls to my left, I encountered another pair of eyes looking down on me. There, from a gap in the wall, a large face stared out at me--the unblinking and intense stare of a truly huge pharaoh eagle owl (Bubo ascalaphus). This creature, viewed from about 20 m away, was massive. It must have stood 80 cm (more than 2.5 feet!) high. We stared at each other for several minutes. I walked to the opposite wall and back again and the owl continued to stare at me. It was only as I returned to the spot where I had been standing that it spread its wings, which must have a span of 2 m (about 6.5 feet!!), and flew across to the west wall. So this was why there were no other occupants in the Fort--a wise decision, for even I felt slightly vulnerable. A creature this size was a truly wonderful guardian of the enclosure of Khasekhemwy.
The owl stayed with us for a day or two as, alas, our activities and the renewed presence of so many workmen disrupted its splendid isolation. It was last seen flying low over the desert, heading south.
As for the structure of the Fort, the concerns of settling brickwork or shifting foundations were soon put to flight, just as our erstwhile resident had been. Upon examination of the new construction in the southwest corner, it could be seen that the foundation was completely solid and undisturbed. The plaster bars set at the top at the join of the new brickwork and the old had not moved a millimeter--there was not even a hairline crack. This meant that the newly built brickwork support has not shifted even a fraction.
||Left, the southwest corner at the start of work in January 2007. Hairline cracks (arrows) in the ancient structure adjacent to the repair at the southwest corner were a cause for concern, but what had caused them was not initially clear. Right, the plaster bars (arrow) set into the masonry had not shifted or cracked, thus there had been no settling or movement. So far, so good!
On the south side of the corner, the sizeable crack was unchanged from previous years, as documented in photographs. This crack in the ancient brickwork was one of the main causes for concern that had led us to start work on this corner from the outset. So far, so good. However, there was a new crack on the west side, in the ancient masonry directly adjacent to the rebuilt corner. While it was now clear that settling or movement of the newly built corner had not caused this crack or any pulling at the ancient structure, what had? Examining farther along the west wall, I noticed that there were four bricks which had been dislodged from the ancient masonry above the repair brickwork and one solitary brick was lying on the sandbag buttress nearby.
Looking carefully, I could see that their original position was at the pivot point of two massive portions of wall which were separated by the large eroded hole halfway up the west wall. The fact that there was no outward bulging of the ancient brickwork could mean only one thing. The entire section of the ancient structure, from the crack, located about 30 m westward from the southwest corner, had tried to move, as have so many areas of the Fort in recent years; the piles of rubble lying around its feet testify to its increasing instability. This time, however, our newly built corner was there to support it. This had held firm and the ancient brickwork had settled behind it, finding a new equilibrium and in the process creating a small crack, which was easily grouted. The structure at this corner is now probably more stable than at any time since its construction. There is a very real possibility that had we not built the full 4 m height of reconstructed corner last season, we could have had 100 tons of ancient brick lying shattered on the desert floor. I think this confirms that we did the right thing, in the right place, just in time. But it also underlines the fact that we need to move fast to support other areas around the structure, as time truly is running out!
Thus encouraged by the success of last season's work, we pressed with the next increment of obviously necessary repairs.
Our first task was to complete the repair of the southwest corner and rebuild that last meter or so necessary to make a strong support all the way up the wall. Doing this entailed re-erecting the two-story-high scaffolding and removing the old and fortunately unoccupied wasp nest within the wall on the corner. The southwest corner is now completely supported, with no unsupported or overhanging ancient brickwork waiting for gravity's call. Further building to complete the profile of the Fort along the very top of the wall may take place when we have much higher scaffolding, but at present the southwest corner is secure and stable.
The plaster bars set onto the two buttressing sections in the central gap in the west wall also proved to be unbroken, with no evidence of settling or shifting. Thus we could finish their construction to the top and start several further buttresses to fill in the same ugly gap, gradually building up a support and making it a safer place to work.
||Left, finishing the southwest corner. Right, starting repairs at the northeast corner. We estimate that we'll need 12,000 bricks to rebuild this corner!
We also began the daunting task of working on the northeast corner, clearing the loose debris and rubble up and preparing the foundations to take the massive structure that will replace the lost masonry at this corner and the important support it provided.
Whilst working on the Fort we continue to make discoveries about its construction and development in areas visible mainly where the wall are in fact most threatened and least stable. We feel that it is important that these windows into the Fort are preserved for future generations to observe, while we also preserve the monument as a whole. Just how we preserve a view of them is, however, quite a challenging proposition. When we started work near the northwest corner we found the face of the earlier phase of construction revealed where the second phase brickwork had fallen away. This original face of the Fort preserves the pilasters of the first phase and shows most clearly the construction and appearance of the "Fort within the Fort." It is also possible to see in this window that the first phase walls were built at a slightly higher level, but again without ground preparation. A levelling course was laid at the bottom to make up for the dips and rises in the topography. While clearing away the rubble from the section of original wall, we also discovered the socle or sill at the base, from which the pilasters appear to spring. The sill is only two courses high, while the socle in the second phase construction can be up to eight courses high. Again, the reasons for all of this remain to be determined, but it shows one of the few divergences in plan between the first phase and the second phase construction. We will be careful to make sure that while we support this section of wall at the northwest corner, we also keep a view of this original face visible for future study by ourselves and others.
Another discovery is the presence of a secondary door or passageway into the Fort through the east wall just at the northeast corner. The door, which is filled with debris and possibly some second phase brick, is 1.10 m wide, similar to secondary doors in monuments at Abydos, however from those monument one would expect the door to be on the north wall. Flanking this opening, the original second phase wall facing on the interior of the north wall preserves what would appear to be a jamb for this door, built of alternating headers and stretchers, extending out 13 cm from the vertical plane of the northern interior wall. The filling, though poorly preserved, was made with the usual stacked headers, but is faced on the interior with an alternating header-stretcher veneer, set back 40 cm from the face of the eastern interior wall, suggesting that the door was subsequently turned into a large niche at this northeast corner. The exterior, still buried beneath rubble, and cannot be examined until we stabilize a large undercut area on the interior east wall adjacent to doorway. So we began on that right away.
It is possible that this passageway was cut through the first phase wall to allow easier access to the interior when the walls were widened and may have subsequently been filled. On the other hand, the brickwork around suggests it had more importance than that. Building a main entrance the southeast and a secondary or false entrance at the northeast is a plan reminiscent of Second Dynasty mastabas (so called two-niche mastabas), and the development of the concept of the false door. Once we have stabilized the east wall in this area, we intend to clear the debris out the passage and find out more about it. We will let you know.
Now well aware of the difference between the bricks used in the first and second phase of construction, it is also possible to see that there may also have been another entrance in the south wall near the west corner, which was walled up in the second phase. Again further exploration of this possible entry way must wait until the fragile walls are stabilized.
Plan showing the various options for the trajectory of the perimeter wall
Lansing's photograph of the perimeter wall in 1935 shows that it continued for at least another 6 m to the north without making a turn.
Garstang's photo shows a deposit of Second Dynasty beer jars placed between the perimeter and main walls of the Fort along the east side.
Access to the main entrance was made indirect, at least in the second phase, by the construction of the perimeter wall. The only currently preserved segment of the perimeter wall on the east side prevents direct access to the main projecting gateway, but where the opening through the perimeter wall was placed has been, and remains, a subject of conjecture.
On their plans, both Somers Clarke in 1902 and John Garstang (with query) in 1906 indicate that the perimeter wall followed a return course around the northern salient of the projecting entrance area, although on what basis they did so is now unclear. Clarke, among others, suggested an opening in the return face on the north, but Ambrose Lansing apparently found no trace of this return wall or an opening within it during his excavation of an area approximately 6 m wide in this area in 1935. His archives indicate that the segment of the perimeter wall now preserved extended farther to the north (and south) than currently preserved, but broke off a short distance from the edge of his excavation without making a corner.
Standing approximately 2.60 m from the assumed facade of the second phase gate, the standing segment of the eastern perimeter creates a corridor wider than elsewhere around the structure. If it continued along this preserved trajectory without making a return, a large enclosed space may have been present in front of the east wall, in which various activities may have taken place. Garstang's photograph (Liverpool H62) showing a deposit of Second Dynasty beer jars, partly disturbed by later burials, to the east of the south gate and may suggest that much of this corridor may have been used for offering activities, perhaps paralleling the more extensive finds made recently (2005) by the north gate and perimeter wall of the Second Dynasty funerary enclosures at Abydos (click here for a photo).
This season we tried to find out just where the perimeter wall was on the east side. Unfortunately, only one area near the northeast corner was still of sufficient height that it might preserve remnants of the wall. The remaining area has been deflated to below the level of the wall footings. We started by cutting a section along the mound of debris still present. Unfortunately, all we could find were tumbled bricks, apparently from the main enclosure wall. Further investigation showed that a late period cist burial, cut into the base of the main walls had caused this weakness in the fabric, causing it to fall. Although we found some areas of compacted original ground surface that may have acted as a foundation for the perimeter wall, no trace of this wall could be found. Richard holds out for a continuation of the wall along the trajectory as currently preserved, with no jutting westward to follow the main walls, while Renée opts for the latter, but so far we can find no evidence to support either theory. We hope that further exploration around the northeast corner, once it is stabilized, may give us the clues we need to solve this mystery, but for now we must admit that we simply can't tell.
In addition to trying to solve the various mysteries of the structure, we also repaired also sections of the undercut wall along the north wall where the distinctive scars of the original pilasters of the second phase were still evidence in the sadly eroded surface. We decided to include a reconstruction of the pilasters in this case, as we could be sure of their location. The building of the pilasters not only recreates the appearance of the original facade, it also helps to support the relatively shallow gap fill required along this wall face. We also started to fill some of the elevated holes, gaps in the walls that start above ground level. In total we must have lain more than 10,000 bricks in the first part of this season.
This is just part of the huge project that we have undertaken. Now confident of our materials and techniques we can really start to make a difference. Having again exhausted our supply of bricks, we went back to the brickyard (the back of the dig house) and cranked up production in preparation for another major round of repairs in March.
This season's work at the Fort has been made possible by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation administered through the World Monuments Fund and the generous donations of the Friends of Nekhen (see www.hierakonpolis-online.org). As always, we are extremely grateful for this support and I am sure that if he could, Khasekhemwy would like to express his gratitude also--it is now returning back to the structure of which he must have been very proud and so are we!
A well deserved rest after a hard day's work...