Monday, December 15, 2014

The perks of being an Egyptologist in Luxor

By Edu Marin

Luxor, Egypt, Dec 12 (EFE).- At five o'clock in the morning, the Egyptian city of Luxor wakes up to the sound of Muslim prayer and the braying of donkeys. At that same time, Spanish Egyptologist Milagros Alvarez Sosa and her team begin to prepare for a 3,500-year journey backwards in time to the Pharaonic era.

Alvarez preps for her archaeological expedition by donning a shirt, hiking boots, red hat and sunglasses. She sips at her coffee, as breakfast won't be until considerably later on.

"Sometimes we feel more like farmers than Egyptologists, because Luxor is another world," Alvarez tells Efe, referring to the Min Project, conducted in coordination with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. The site includes the tomb of Min, who was a tutor to the Pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427-1401 BC).

Luxor is at the epicenter of modern Egyptology: time does not only stand still in the Theban necropolis, where most of the archeological treasures are concentrated, but also in the city itself.

"Animals are an important part of life in Luxor. It is a very rural area," Italian archeologist Irene Morfini tells Efe. Morfini recalls how she had to wait many times for the female donkey to breastfeed her baby while on their way to the tomb of Min.

It was during the reign of Thutmose III (1490-1436 BC) when Min tutored the young prince and future pharaoh, Amenhotep II, teaching him the essential skills of the era, such as archery.

The team studying the tomb is helmed by Alvarez and Morfini, who supervise a hardworking squad comprised of three Spanish conservator-restorers, a Dutch archeologist, an inspector, two Egyptologists, an overseer and several Egyptian workers.

The humidity and heat are off the charts inside the tomb. Wearing a flashlight headband and holding a brush and a syringe, conservator-restorer Ruth Rufino assesses signs of possible damage to the hieroglyphs engraved on the walls.

"The next step will be implementing a preliminary consolidation of those parts that are prone to damage or decaying. Then we'll get to the restoration process, which will last for a long time," Rufino explains.

In her first direct experience with Egyptian ruins, Rufino highlights the importance of the work performed by conservator- restorers: "It is crucial. Without restoration, there is no search."

The dark tomb of Min is lit only by small bulbs shining a dim light on the conservator-restorers and Egyptologists studiously working on the walls. The workers prepare breakfast while Alvarez and Morfini make sure everything goes as planned.

The labyrinthine passageways that lead to the tomb, in addition to the intense humidity, lack of air and the smell of mummified remains, are enough for Alvarez to reaffirm her choice of becoming an Egyptologist.

"When I get into the tomb and work in silence, I realize that all this work is worth it. Nothing is better," she says with a hint of pride.

The team's efforts have also resulted in the discovery of other important archaeological findings, such as the tomb of May, a senior official in the period of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Alvarez and Morfini, along with their collaborators, found the 3,500-year-old tomb early in 2014. "If it hadn't been for a crack in the wall made by a thief, we would have never discovered the tomb," Alvarez points out.

Perhaps surprisingly, Alvarez explains that these great discoveries are not the most important part of an excavation.

"The data found must be interpreted; we hear what the restorers and epigraphers have to say, we analyze the data and give it life," she asserts.

At 1.30 PM, all activity stops dead in its tracks in the Min tomb. Alvarez and Morfini, along with the team, head back to the Valley of the Nobles under the fiery sun, finally returning to their apartments, where they usually stay for two months a year.

At the end of the day, Alvarez is unequivocally proud to lead one of the three Spanish archeological missions in Luxor.

"This is a men's world. It has not been easy for the workers to accept a young woman as their manager, but I earned their respect eventually," she concludes.


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