Lucy-Anne Skinner spoke about the conservation of human remains at the site of Abydos, Egypt. Working for the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University project, Lucy had to engineer some novel solutions when two unusual burials needed to be block lifted. Lucy explained that block lifting an entire burial is not common at Abydos, as most graves are fully excavated in the field. Two graves excavated in the 2012 season in the North Cemetery presented unusually complete assemblages of grave goods, with one wearing a beaded headdress over well-preserved hair, and these factors prompted the conservators to block lift rather than to try to treat the components in situ.
The team of workmen working with the conservator helped build a wooden frame and slide metal sheets underneath, so that the entire burial could be lifted. Foil was used as a barrier layer, and expandable spray foam was used to lock components into place so that the burial could be transported back to the lab and eventually (in another field season) flipped over to work from the bottom to stabilize the lower portion of the coffin before addressing the human remains and other components. Lucy showed many details of the extraordinary finds including beautiful hippo ivory clappers. Though this project began in 2012, conservation of the burials was only completed a few days before this talk was presented (really!). Political instability in Egypt and the extraordinary logistical challenges surrounding excavating in a country undergoing political and social upheaval complicated the timeline and created extra challenges for the conservators.
For me, the big takeaways were that conservation in the field requires a great deal of planning and then a lot of on-the-fly creativity. Many digs lack a field conservator, but clearly the planning and execution of this complicated project really benefited from having Lucy on site over the course of multiple seasons. The project took several years to complete, so communication and planning in the off-season was needed for a successful outcome. Particularly challenging issues of working within Egypt while in the middle of a period of crisis were dealt with admirably by Lucy and her colleagues.