Fixing the Fort: Week 2
The poor Fort has certainly suffered its share of abuse. Even before the treasure hunters and early archaeologists took an interest in it, the prevailing wind progressively dismantled its north wall and then went after its southern one.
Meanwhile rain cut channels into its standing walls, where birds and insects found homes in widening gaps.
||Wasp nest within hole in brickwork of the Fort's walls|
In addition, an earthquake in 1934 (documented by an expedition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) spelled the end of the western outer wall and part of the main wall on the east, although the activities of earlier archaeologists may have been a factor in its weakness.
It is actually pretty remarkable that the structure stands at all. Its survival is a tribute to the abilities of its original builders.
|Left, the west enclosure wall fell over during an earthquake in the 1930s. Right, archival photo from 1906 shows the west enclosure wall prior to the earthquake. Comparison with the archives shows that much deterioration has occurred over the last 100 years and is accelerating! (University of Liverpool Archive Neg. H102)
Hard as it may be to believe, this catalogue of sorrows does have a silver lining. The loss of wall surface and matrix has allowed us a view into the interior of the walls and provides not only a good look at how the monument was constructed, but also has led to some most unexpected discoveries.
The walls were built of mud brick almost entirely laid as headers (with the short side of the brick is perpendicular to the face of the wall), which were staggered throughout the thickness of the wall, so that they appear bonded in cross section, but only stacked when viewed face on.
||Left, bricks laid as headers. Right, cross section of the west enclosure walls shows the headers are staggered throughout the thickness of the wall.
To help hold the wall together, reed mats were also inserted, but because of insect action, only scant remains of the white silica structure of the reeds can now be observed.
Because of the staggered pattern of laying the bricks, only the outermost row of bricks was laid with stretchers (bricks laid with their long side visible on the face of the wall), usually in an alternating pattern with headers. The alternating header and stretcher pattern is very useful, as it allows us to distinguish the original wall surface from damaged and worn areas, especially when trying to determine the original angle of the walls (they appear to have been built with about a 2 degree slope making then about 5 m thick at the base and 4 m thick at the top).
||The outermost row of bricks was laid in an alternating header and stretcher pattern, with certain bricks jutting out to anchor the decorative pilasters, which have here fallen away leaving only a darker surface as evidence of their presence.|
Considering how important a rule of thumb this alternating header-stretcher pattern was for us, you can image our surprise when peering into an undercut and corbelled area we saw a construction using stretchers placed deep within the wall.
This was not the first time it had been noticed: I had always been told this odd brick work was a repair made in the 1960s, though perhaps one of the worst repairs ever made, as it certainly hadn't stopped any of the bricks from falling away. We all stood and marvelled at its ineptitude, but it took the trained eye of Preservation Architect Bill Remsen to see it for what it really was...and it wasn't modern.
Under his close scrutiny it became clear that it was in fact an inner and obviously earlier wall, fully finished with niches and pilasters now encased within the center of the wall! Although the brick and pilaster size was the same, there are slight differences in brick recipe. The bricks from this older wall in the core are slightly yellower and contain less straw making them easy to spot once you know what you are looking for. Racing around the building, we could begin to see this core wall everywhere and it quickly became evident that there had been an earlier construction, which had reached a height of about 2 m all around the building before someone changed their mind and the order was given to make the wall thicker, presumably so that it could be taller. To this original wall, which was approximately 2.10 m thick (4 Egyptian cubits, the standard unit of measure based on the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger: a distance of approximately 52 cm, though this changed over time) an additional 6 courses, or about 1.5 m (each brick is 26 cm long or half a cubit), of brick was added on the interior and exterior faces to bring the walls to their current thickness.
This was an amazing discovery. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine when the original wall was built. Evidence for two construction phases had never before been observed in a monument of this type. While it is certainly possible that Khasekhemwy took over an unfinished monument of a predecessor, we could detect no damage or weathering of the wall at the core, or difference in design. For several reasons, it seems more likely that the second phase of construction relates to an embellishment of a monument already under construction rather than usurpation. Changes in plan may in fact have run in the family. Khasekhemwy's successor, Djoser, altered the plans for this Step Pyramid several times, making it progressively bigger and grander each time, until it became Egypt's first pyramid.
||Once you knew what to look for, the core wall and the additions could be observed everywhere. View of south side of entrance.|
On the other hand, it is also possible to interpret the two phases of the monument as an indication that Khasekhem, as he was first known, did plan to be buried at Hierakonpolis and started a rather modest funerary monument. Later when he overcame his rivals, he abandoned this monument to concentrate on his new construction at Abydos and returned only later to Hierakonpolis to finish it off. Nevertheless, he retained the unique features of the Fort as it was originally built, for example, the jutting out gateway with flanking side chambers, for reasons still unexplained. Clearly, only more research may help us understand the enigma of the Fort, but this new discovery of its two phases of construction is certainly an important step toward solving some of the mysteries.
At this point we can say one thing for sure: the walls encasing the original structure do not bond with the old wall, but only abut it, so in effect the Fort is made up of three walls, not one, at least for the first 2 m. This feature helps to explain some of the patterns of damage we observe. As Bill Remsen explains: "By constructing the later walls of the Fort against the earlier walls without bonding, the builders ended up with walls that were far less stable than they could have been. I believe that this construction decision probably has weakened the structural integrity of the main walls (in comparison with the walls of the Shunet at Abydos, which were built in one phase) and may partially account for the extent and the pattern of wall collapse.
Specifically, the division of the typical wall, as seen in cross section, into three independent, parallel walls at the base, means that the walls probably have a propensity to fail back to the inner core far faster than they would have if the walls were uniform, bonded masonry acting in a more monolithic manner. The numerous areas of wall undercutting thus pose even more of a threat, since the foundation undercuttings quickly cause the encasing walls to fail back to the inner core wall. You then end up with very heavy upper walls teetering precariously on a small footing. Earthquakes would cause such walls to rapidly fail through lateral shearing. In other words, you have some big problems in need of immediate attention and a very complicated job to document this important new information on the original structure at all the same time."
In other words, our big job just got bigger! But we didn't mind, we were so excited about this new discovery. Particularly intriguing was the bit of the corner of the original structure still preserved at the southwest angle.
||Bill Remsen examines the southwest corner. It is easy to see where the added walls abut the core wall.|
This is the only well-preserved corner in the entire monument and we were anxious to examine it. But we had a big problem. The encasing walls at the southwest corner had fallen away because of a large pit dug by treasure hunters looking for the foundation deposits: a custom the ancient Egyptian's had of placing model tools and other offerings and charms beneath the corners of buildings to ensure good luck. With their foundations undermined, the added walls fell away revealing the core wall, but above the core wall, where the walls were built as one, a huge chunk of masonry remained dangerously unsupported. For reasons of safety, investigations would have to wait until scaffolding arrived to provide a protective shelter under which to work. Luckily we didn't have long to wait. Scaffolding and heavy timbers with which to create a protected work place were kindly provided by Hassan Allam and Sons contractors (Cairo), who also sent us the carpenters and engineers to help erect it. We wish to express our extreme gratitude for their generous assistance and support. It has made all the difference! The suggestions made by engineer Mohammed Tahawy, who came to the site at short soon after becoming the father of twins (congratulations!), were also very useful and much appreciated.
With the scaffolding now in place, the next step was to secure a protective roofing--just in case. Heavy timbers and some piping did the trick and after a quick look around from that vantage point, Joe and Richard were in the corner like a shot.
Quickly the fallen bricks were removed and the corner was fully revealed. Again careful scrutiny revealed that each side of the original corner was composed of a raised pilaster, though these were not of the same size. The pilaster on the west wall was 10 cm, i.e., one header, wider than the south. Perhaps corners can be a problem, or do we have evidence for more varies niche and pilaster constructions than the limited remaining evidence on the ultimate exterior walls now preserves? Each pilaster was flanked by a niche, in which the filling by the additional walls could be seen.
The careful way the niches were filled when the wall was widened can also been observed in the gateway area where the niched facade of the first structure is slowly emerging as the bricks of the casing walls erode away.
Because the pilaster and niches of the first structure were never plastered, we know that the first building was never completely finished. Remains of the final finish to the final building--a thick coating of mud followed by a coating of white plaster--can still be observed on the niches of the south wall, which was covered in the rubble until 1906 when it was cleared by Garstang.
|Left, the well-preserved niche and pilaster brickwork along the south wall. Center, the scratch coating of thick mud applied to the niches before they were painted over with whitewash. Right, the niched wall within the wall was never finished, as there was never a plaster coating.
Aside from examining the core structure, our work in the Southwest corner had another important purpose. We needed to determine just what it would take to stabilize the corners. Clearance revealed not only the core, but also the big pit responsible for the corner's collapse. Only a few bricks of the foundation remained as a large hole cut through the harder soils on which the Fort was built and descended into the softer desert sands below. Most of the pit had filled with fallen bricks, suggesting that the corner collapsed rather quickly--perhaps immediately, so we decided against cleaning it out completely lest we discovery the perpetrator still in place! Instead we concentrated on devising a method to rebuild and reinforce the foundations to support the new bricks necessary to stabilize the corner. We experimented with various materials--different types of soils, as cement is forbidden for use in archaeological monuments on account of its high salt content. In the end we found that earth compressed with water and pounding would probably do the trick, however laborious and slow since each layer or lift needs to be left to dry before the next can be applied. We managed 2 lifts before the Christmas break, and then supported the now exposed sides with sandbags until we can more formally stabilized the corner when the exact recipe for the new bricks is perfected. Clearly fixing the Fort will be a long-term project, but it is proving to be rewarding in so many ways!
Much more observation and documentation needs to be done before we can unlock the secrets of the Fort. But thanks to the eagle eye of Bill Remsen we now know that the Fort had two phases of construction, though the historical and functional significance of this is not yet known. Recognition of its hidden inner core now helps us to understand the root of some of the Fort's problems and as a result we can now formulate better ways to fix them. While some aspects will take time to implement, there were other things we could do right away...and so we did!