By Neville Agnew and Martha Demas
The title of archaeologist Brian Fagan's book, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt, encapsulates a jaundiced but perceptive view of what has happened to the antiquities of Egypt. The era of the ancient tomb robbers is long gone, but tourists and archaeologists continue to be drawn by the magnet of Egypt. Archaeology has become an academic enterprise with missions from around the world appearing like migratory birds year after year at the set season to work their concessions. There is ever more to discover and understand about this most ancient and wonderful of civilizations.
Tourism to Egypt may be said to have an even longer history than archaeology. Visitors in ancient times were enthralled by the mysteries of the country and by a deep antiquity that was already thousands of years old when Herodotus gazed upon the Sphinx. From a trickle to a torrent, tourists have continued to arrive. Today a vast industry exists (as anyone who visits can attest), and Egypt's economy depends upon its revenues. The country's sites serve tourism—but are far from being preserved by it. Tourism is a user of sites and a destroyer in the absence of care and management.
Because of a long history of exploration and research going back over two hundred years, the focus of professional attention has remained strongly archaeological. Management and conservation of sites and artifacts did not develop in tandem with archaeology (although Egyptologists like Howard Carter, discoverer of Tutankhamen's tomb, did meticulous work to preserve the treasures they discovered). So great is Egypt's appeal that it steadfastly remains a premier tourist destination; however, most tourists go but once in a lifetime, which means that there is an endless flow of first-time visitors and little incentive for the industry to manage and enhance the experience. The authorities have not been prepared for the onslaught of mass tourism, rapid development, and physical threats to sites. Their orientation is toward archaeological investigation, and an entire stratum of professionals trained in management, protection, and care of sites has largely been missing—although Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is taking steps to address this problem.
To reach a point where administrative systems and trained personnel are in place to manage the many forces at play is a long-term endeavor, requiring action by many agencies and others vested in preserving the sites' integrity and authenticity. The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI)—in a six-year partnership with the SCA—is among the institutions addressing these issues, focusing its activities on the Valley of the Queens. Burial site of the queens and princes of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), the valley contains nearly one hundred tombs—including a most beautiful and famous tomb, that of Nefertari, favorite wife of the powerful and long-reigning ruler Ramses II. In the late 1980s the GCI undertook the conservation of the wall paintings in the tomb, by then closed to visitation for some years because of escalating damage. The GCI's current Queens Valley project is a comprehensively conceived undertaking that builds on the earlier work and, in a sense, picks up where the Nefertari project left off. By developing a conservation and management plan for the valley as a whole with the tombs in their mountainous desert setting, the project will address a full range of issues, including tourism, site presentation and interpretation, tomb conservation, flood mitigation, and training for conservators and site managers.
The Dilemma of Mass Tourism
What threats need to be addressed in holistic planning and implementation in the Queens Valley? Tourism, certainly—although the Queens Valley is far less visited than the nearby Valley of the Kings (approximately four hundred thousand per year compared to nearly two million). But as elsewhere on the Theban West Bank, there is no means of controlling the daily timing of visits or number of visitors—a situation that results in chaotic ebbs and flows of tour groups. Nefertari's tomb was the main draw of the Queens Valley, but since 1995 access has been limited because of concerns about the impact of visitors on the wall paintings. At present only high-paying groups may book and enter the tomb, and only for ten to fifteen minutes. While effectively limiting visitors, this privileges those who can afford the price; some means is needed to compensate the majority of visitors for lack of access. Other than building a replica of the tomb off-site—a difficult and costly undertaking—the best way to do this is to provide the visitor with information and an understanding of why things are as they are. At present there is no explanation of why the Nefertari tomb is closed, no interpretation at Queens Valley as a whole, and, sometimes, misinformation from commercial tour guides.
Only three other tombs in the valley have sufficiently preserved wall paintings and the structural stability to allow public access. Many of the other ninety-five or so tombs have factors that preclude visitation: either they are shaft tombs, inaccessible because of their configuration (deep vertical shafts that lead to the main chamber); have degraded decoration (some from post-pharaonic use); or are subject to rock collapse. Safety aside, however, the rationale for opening tombs to the public has been based on narrow historic and artistic criteria for what visitors want to see: well-preserved, colorful wall paintings depicting pharaonic funerary rituals. Damaged tombs—as well as other site elements at Queens Valley, such as the Coptic monastery overlying a Roman sanctuary—could be creatively interpreted to reveal the site’s multilayered significance, including its extensive reuse during the Roman and Coptic periods. It is an inescapable reality, however, that it is unfeasible to develop for mass market tourism engaging and meaningful interpretive material and tour options involving small spaces (such as tombs) and fragile remains (such as mudbrick). But there is scope for offering a more enriching experience for independent travelers and Egyptian nationals who currently constitute less than 3 percent of visitors to the Valley of the Queens.
Large-scale tourism requires infrastructure: visitor centers, shelter from the sun, bazaars for local vendors, parking areas for buses, toilets, and kiosks or restaurants. At present, amenities at Queens Valley are few and basic, although parking areas, bazaars, and security apparatuses confront the visitor upon arrival. Since there are no design standards or guidelines for buildings and interpretive signage (as exist, for instance, in the U.S. National Park Service), there is a lack of coherence and uniformity in the way West Bank sites are experienced. Thus, in considering interpretive signage and other visitor installations, the Queens Valley project team is looking to recent infrastructure and signage at the Valley of the Kings in order to provide a degree of uniformity between the sites. This is but one way an overall planning framework would benefit the whole West Bank.
Flooding, Structural Instability, and Bats
Less visible to a casual visitor are sitewide threats in need of urgent attention. Flash flooding—an ancient hazard with the single most catastrophic impact (other than tomb robbing)—has never been fully addressed at Queens Valley. The most recent flood, in 1994, caused considerable damage. In its aftermath, ancient debris from centuries of flooding was cleared from the valley floor by archaeologist Christian Leblanc, who began archaeological investigations of the Queens Valley in the 1970s. Leblanc’s work was an important step in preparing for future floods, but more must be done to protect the tombs from the next deluge, which surely will come. The limestone and shale—high in clay minerals—into which the tombs are cut present a great stability risk if exposed to water through flash flooding. In numerous shaft and chamber tombs, rock instability and collapse from past floods already present a serious problem—one that requires engineering interventions to remedy.
Bat colonies in many of the unvisited tombs pose another challenge. Bats have damaged a number of the remnant wall paintings by depositing urea and uric acid on the walls, with the guano also posing a health hazard. Though bats threaten preservation of the tombs, they contribute to healthy ecosystems and benefit local agriculture. In collaboration with the GCI, an SCA team is studying means of relocating the colonies—a solution sensitive to the ecology of the area.
Training in Conservation and in Management
Conservation as a reactive, interventionist activity often does more harm than good, particularly when it is dependent on recipes for treatment rather than on careful diagnosis and monitoring of problems. In Egypt, conservation is often accompanied by inadequate understanding of the technology of wall paintings and their susceptibility to damage from cleaning (especially when damaged by fire). Analytical techniques, in conjunction with careful in situ observations, can provide powerful insights into the materials and techniques of paintings and their causes of deterioration and can lead to development of appropriate treatments.
Training in modern concepts and principles of conservation is crucial to preserving the authenticity of sites and the information embedded in them. For this reason, the GCI's Queens Valley project includes a program of theoretical and practical training for seven SCA wall paintings conservators, aimed at improving participants' understanding of current conservation practice and risk assessment, as well as their judgment about when intervention is necessary. Participants are also given the opportunity to attend an international conference to afford them exposure to current thinking in conservation and the chance to exchange ideas with other professionals. Emphasized in the conservation training is use of the records of previous condition and treatments for purposes of monitoring and decision making. Urgently needed for the Theban West Bank is a functional archive or documentation facility, with condition records and photographs accessible to researchers and SCA conservation and management personnel. In the absence of such documentation, decisions on conservation treatment tend to be based on opinion rather than evidence.
Site management problems are significant in the Valley of the Queens; underlying many of them are inadequate training, entrenched practices, and poor wages. Maintenance and monitoring regimes are rudimentary at best, and basic facilities for site staff are lacking. The notion of dedicated site managers responsible for daily operations at individual sites within the West Bank is just beginning to take hold. The current management structure relies on a cadre of rotating archaeological site inspectors and site guardians. Strong hierarchies and compartmentalization of responsibilities do not encourage teamwork of the sort necessary for good site management. SCA archaeological inspectors, who would be the source of managers, are well versed in Egyptology but require training in current concepts to equip them to face the emergent problems of archaeological sites. Some of these problems have nothing to do with archaeology per se—such as trash collection, security arrangements, and souvenir vendors at the site. Dealing with these problems requires skills not taught by archaeological faculties.
To address this need, the Queens Valley project also involves training for seven SCA archaeological inspectors in site management and planning concepts. In addition to regular teaching sessions and on-site work, each participant spends a month at the GCI in Los Angeles working with the Queens Valley project team and gaining experience with international practice. Training includes discussion and mentoring sessions held jointly with the GCI wall paintings conservation group to foster communication and better understanding of these two teams' complementary roles. The SCA's appointment of one of the site management participants as a dedicated site inspector at the Queens Valley is a positive move toward establishing management responsibility.
Developing a Plan for the Future
Midway through this two-phase project to create an integrated vision for the future of the valley, the GCI has completed a three-year assessment that will lead to the development and implementation of a conservation and management plan for the site. Achievements so far include tomb condition surveys, geological and geotechnical studies and mapping, laser scanning of the valley's topography for study of the drainage and creation of a GIS, comprehensive visitor questionnaires and stakeholder focus groups, and assessment of the management context. In development are a strategy for the bat problem, designs for a comprehensive approach to visitor routing, new shelters and interpretative signage, and methods for stabilizing dangerous tombs and mitigating flood damage. Insofar as possible, expertise within Egypt is being tapped to contribute to the planning.
The sustainability issues and technical challenges of the project are great, but support and help from colleagues and archaeological missions has been encouraging: Christian Leblanc has been unstinting in providing detailed knowledge and photographic records that can only come from decades of working in the Queens Valley; the Theban Mapping Project has supplied CAD tomb drawings from their 1981 survey to be integrated into the Queens Valley project's GIS; the Egypt Antiquities Information System has been generous with advice and geographical and mapping information; and discussions with the American Research Center in Egypt on their management training initiatives on the West Bank have led to better coordination and understanding of complementary activities.
The GCI's Queens Valley project and other West Bank initiatives (as described in this publication) are all playing a part to catalyze change. As Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the SCA, has noted in this publication, there remains the challenge to harness these individual efforts and to integrate them within a wider vision for the whole West Bank.
Neville Agnew is principal project specialist and Martha Demas is a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects.