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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Keeping the Fort safe during the work season are Abdel Hafiz Abdel Bassett, Jusef Ibrahim (night guards) and Gamal Sidain (year-round day guard).
Filling the holes required a mixture of man and donkey power.
Success: The fragile walls meant it all had to be done by hand, but we made remarkable progress in restructuring the foundations.
The arrival of the water truck made compacting the soil much quicker.
One of the falcons flies over the Fort.
The central gap is opposite an even deeper and uglier gap on the interior wall, which we can fix only after the exterior has been made secure.
The dedicated crew, 2006
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Hierakonpolis 2006: The Fort


The Fort at the start of our 2006 season

The first order of business, of course, was the Fort, the ceremonial enclosure of the Second Dynasty King Khasekhemwy (ca. 2700 B.C.). We were anxious to see how last year's repairs had weathered the very hot summer. There were many successes, but some failures. On the plus side, the masonry at all of the repair points had held up well with no obvious shrinkage or settling. In some cases the mortar at the junction of the old and the new had pulled away, but this was easily fixed with a little grouting. The restructuring of the foundation at the southwest corner was also successful. Last season we filled the deep pits at the base of the wall with layers of compacted soil. Pulling back the protective covering, we found the surface had dried hard and firm, with no cracks or shrinkage--just as we had hoped and exactly what was needed for the next step in fixing the Fort.

[image] Left: Success! Some of last seasons' repairs only needed grouting. Right: Failure. We had to encase the fired brick retaining wall with debris to prevent further thefts. [image]

Less successful was the fired brick retaining wall we built around the stub of the perimeter wall on the west side of the monument, but not for reasons we might have expected. Although we post guards 24/7 during the work period, over the summer we retain only a day guard, mainly (we thought) to prevent children from climbing on the sand bags and hurting themselves or the structure. We had no idea that guards would also be required to prevent pre-dawn raids on third-quality red bricks, yet someone had tried to steal the wall! As the employment of full time guards against such occurrences would be both impractical and financially impossible, it was clear that there was going to be no shortcut for raising the ground level all along the west wall. We would simply have to put the dirt back into all the large pits and deflated areas to prevent further erosion of the wall foundations. And so we did, beginning immediately as continued subsidence (only a brick here and there, but it all adds up), especially around the big gap in the center of the west wall, meant that there was no time to lose.

[image] [image] There was going to be no shortcut for filling in the big pits threatening the foundations of the Fort. A view of the northwest corner before and after.

Again, we revved up the donkey carts, and for the large quantities of dirt required, we chose the disfiguring spoil heaps around the Middle Kingdom tombs, where new discoveries had already drawn our attention (more on that next time). We made remarkable progress in a little over a week considering an area more than 35 m long, 10 m wide, and up to 1.5m below the footing of the wall needed to be filled, requiring hundreds of cubic meters of soil, all of which transported by hand. Compacting the soil over such a large area with water applied one bucket at a time would have been quite a job, but the timely arrival of the water delivery truck saved us that task, but gave a few workmen an unanticipated soaking.

The sandbags were also a disappointment. We had been warned that the plastic weave bags would disintegrate in the sun and the burlap would be eaten by termites, but we hadn't expected so many of the bags to fall apart so soon. Some could be salvaged, but again it was clear that there were no short cuts or substitutes to cure what ails the Fort. The only thing that was going to work was durable and permanent mud-brick masonry to fill the gaps and stabilized the all-important corners.

[image] Left: Failure. We were warned that the sandbags would disintegrate and they did! Right: Success! a healthy supply of bricks made to our revised specifications ready for deployment. [image]

Luckily, a resounding success was our revised brick recipe! Not only did the new bricks look strong and unaffected by a summer of exposure, but they passed the professional compression test AND the more no-nonsense home strength text (hurl brick against wall) with flying colors. This was a good thing, as the boys had been busy, and we now had over 10,000 bricks ready for deployment.

Everything suggested it was time to really get down to business, and when the falcons--the sacred bird of our patron god Horus--paid a visit to the Fort, we needed no further encouragement. While we couldn't get close enough to tell for sure, we like to think that one of the visitors was Phoebe, a falcon who spent several weeks as our houseguest convalescing after a nasty encounter with the high-tension electrical wires (see Phoebe's story, "A Wing and a Prayer"). Along with her friends, she had come to wish us well on our ambitious endeavor. They were a glorious sight.

The time for experimentation now over, the laying of the first permanent brick at the southwest corner was a momentous occasion. We all gathered round while our mason, Abdullah Nour, and Richard Jaeschke, the conservation supervisor, laid out the guide lines, prepared the reinforced foundations with a sprinkling of water, mixed the mortar, and placed the first brick. The work had begun! Averaging two courses of brick a day, but picking up speed as we went up, in a little over a week, 14 courses of new brick had been laid following the pattern and slope of the original walls. These were then left for five weeks to dry and settle and again test the strength of the foundations.

[image] Left: Laying the first brick. Right: Averaging two courses a day, the permanent repair of the southwest corner was not a small job. Day three--so far, so good. [image]

During the course of this restoration work we had several difficult decisions to make. The slope or batter of the walls was easy enough to determine, but how far to build out considering that no original surface survives in the upper levels of the walls to either side of the corner? We knew that all exterior surfaces had been adorned with decorative pilasters and we could extrapolate their position both from those that were still preserved and the distinctive brick pattern their construction left behind, but should we re-create them in our restorations? These are difficult issues. In the end, we decided to build out to just beyond the preserved plane of the wall to either side of the corner. To inset the restoration, as is often done on interior walls, would have left the edges of the original bricks exposed to the elements and erosion. Building out will also allow us to cut back or modify the appearance of the new bricks in future. After much discussion, we also decided against adding the pilasters since we could never re-create them in their entirety as we no evidence for how high up they went or what happened at the top. While their presence would certainly add to the aesthetic appreciation of the Fort, we felt that their re-creation at best would be only a guess, and one we were not yet prepared to make. Should we change our mind, they can always be added later. We did, however, build in the sill or ledge on which the pilasters rested since ample evidence for this curious feature is still preserved all around the monument.

[image] Left: The pilasters are well preserved on the lower south wall, but the loss of original surface on all the upper walls means we don't know how fully to reconstruct them (view from a cherry picker in 2001). Right: We included the intriguing sill or ledge in the new masonry at the corner. [image]

At the very base of the Fort, the sill sticks out 13 cm or half a brick length beyond the exterior plane of the main walls, but is flush with the raised pilasters. It was apparently meant as a foundation or levelling course, making up for the dips and rises of the underlying topography on which the Fort was built. This can be seen clearly along the west wall of the monument. The number of brick courses composing it varies between five (near the north corner to seven at the north side of the gap in the center of the west wall) and three (on the south side of the gap), rising to eight at the south corner. Despite the variation in the number of courses, the top remained more or less level, although the north side is 20 cm (equivalent to the thickness of two bricks) higher than the south. Considering its 67 m span, a slope of only 20 cm is pretty remarkable, but the view into the walls afforded by the so called "central gap" shows that while this may have been an error, it was no accident. The change in level resulted from the deliberate phasing out of one course of bricks at about the center of the gap, just five courses up from the bottom. Why this was done is unclear, as the loss had to be made up by bricks set on edge higher up. Perhaps it was necessitated by some issue raised during the encasing of the first phase wall at the core (for which no sill has been so far identified). Two crews working from either end met unhappily in the middle, or maybe they wanted a 20 cm slope in the sill possibly to mirror the ground surface (the base level of the walls at the north and the south corners also differs by 20 cm). We hope that answers to this and other quirks of construction will come from future study and observation as our work continues. One thing, however, was abundantly clear--despite the interesting views the central gap may provide, this was one window that had to be closed.

[image] [image] Left: Remnants of the original sill on the west exterior wall at the north side of the "central gap." On the south side, the top level of this ledge is 20 cm lower. Right: Within the central gap we can see that the change in level was caused by the deliberate phasing out of one course of bricks (red arrow), but this was later corrected by setting bricks on edge (black arrows). We don't know why.

As mentioned in earlier updates, this 15 m long and 3 m high gap in the center of the exterior face of the west wall poses a major threat to the Fort's survival. It is located directly opposite a deep and dangerous cavity cut into the west wall from the interior. Between them there is currently only about 1.5 m of brick. Further losses at this point could spell disaster and, without immediate action, more were imminent. While the raising of the ground level around the gap had helped to arrest further subsidence from the lower parts of the wall, something needed to be done to support the bricks teetering above. Long segments of brick had already detached and it was unclear what was actually holding them in place at all, making this area an extremely dangerous place in which to work. Sand bags were obviously out, so we opted to make buttresses from brick--two columns of brick masonry to support the upper masonry, prevent further losses and between them create a safe work space for the incremental repairs necessary to plug with gap.

The danger here meant we couldn't be too ambitious to begin with. Richard, donning hard hat, bravely cleared two ca. 2 by 1 m areas up against the wall to examine the foundations. Archival images from the 1930s had led us to expect a large and deep pit here, and we were not disappointed. This pit had cut into the soft desert sands underlying the Fort and it was easy to see how the bricks from the wall had simply toppled over into it. In a method now well rehearsed, we reinforced the foundations with water-compacted soil and let them dry to form hard platforms upon which we began to build the buttresses.

[image] [image] [image]
Left: Richard prepares to explore the foundations below the central gap. Center: Exploration revealed a large pit had caused the wall to tumble, creating the gap. Filling in the hole, we prepare a platform for the supporting buttresses. Right: Building the buttresses in the central gap.

With the buttresses and corner at the half-way point, it was now time to let it all dry while we got on with other activities at the site. When Richard returned in late March for round two, we picked up where we had left off, putting another 16 courses on the southwest corner (4 m of new masonry in all) and taking the buttresses nearly to the top of the gap. In both locations only a few courses at the very top remain to be added next season to insure a tight fit after the still unknown effect of settling and drying have been ascertained. To help us monitor the situation, bars of plaster ingeniously devised by Richard were inserted half into the ancient and half into the new brickwork. Scored at the transition point, the bars will snap should there be any movement. Measuring the distance between the two halves will tell us the amount of shift we might expect and make provisions for in future large-scale constructions--like that necessary to fix the northeast corner, which is next on the list once we restock the brick supply.

[image] Left: Picking up where we left off, by the end of March, we were almost done. (We left only the very top unfinished to insure a tight fit next season after settling and drying.) Right: Plaster bars were inserted to help monitor settling or shifting of the new masonry. [image]

In fact, our courtyard was pretty empty after the rebuilding of the corner took well over 6,000 bricks and the buttresses just over 900 bricks each. We simply couldn't even consider beginning on the northeast corner despite its increasingly perilous condition, but there were still plenty of things to keep us busy. As with some many situations in conservation (and life for that matter), even the best of intentions can have unexpected side effects. Thus, while the posting of day guards had substantially cut down the amount of human damage to the Fort, it apparently made it a far more attractive habitat for wild life. Much to our chagrin, at least one, but probably two, little desert foxes now called the Fort home. With our well-known soft-spot for animals, we felt the best way to dissuade them from their choice of residence was to fill in as many of the low-lying holes as possible, concentrating mainly on the west wall.

While few of the holes appeared structurally threatening from the exterior, they were surprisingly deep. Gaining access (for a human at least) was difficult. Again, Richard came up with an ingenious solution, which we call the "pizza-oven technique." After cleaning out the loose debris and packing down a foundation, the bricks were delivered at the end of a wooden plank and tapped into place. This technique also served us well in the larger, but incredibly dangerous holes, where significant shoring and buttressing will be necessary before human enter can be contemplated. At these locations and others with a lower fear factor, we began incremental repairs beginning at the corners and building inward and substantial progress was made.

[image] Left: For those hard to reach places, Richard developed the pizza oven technique of gap fill. Right: Incremental repairs were made at the corners of the more serious gaps. Little by little we will fix the Fort. [image]

We are, of course, extremely pleased with our very visible progress this season. Perhaps more important, the workmen, who hail from the neighboring village and in whose hands the survival of the Fort ultimately rests, are very proud of the fruits of their efforts. They are pleased to be helping to restore to strength a building that has stood here for 4,600 years, the last standing remnant of the once this once eminent and venerated, and still very significant, city of Hierakonpolis.


Looking visibly better, the Fort at the end of the 2006 season

The 2006 season of conservation at the Fort was made possibly by a grant from the World Monuments Fund and generous donations from the Friends of Nekhen. Please help us continue this important work by joining the Friends of Nekhen. For more information see www.hierakonpolis-online.org. All photos are property of the Hierakonpolis Expedition, with thanks to Richard Jaeschke, Xavier Droux, Liam McNamara, and Art Muir.

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