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The Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities

By Douglas Haldane

From the INA Quarterly 23.2 (1996) 3-6

We were in a quandry during INA-Egypt's 1994 Red Sea Survey. Our permit allowed us to find shipwrecks and raise and record artifacts but made no provision for the transport and storage of objects. Because the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) already faces many persistent conservation problems, it rightly avoids temporary solutions. And so the concept of the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities was born.

The first step in making the laboratory a reality was to get permission from the SCA's Permanent Committee - its governing body - to create it. In October, 1994, INA-Egypt submitted a plan to convert five outbuildings in the Egyptian National Maritime Museum into a complex for the conservation of antiquities from INA-Egypt projects and training for Egyptian conservators.

The National Maritime Museum was originally a villa complex built in 1912 for Prince Youssef Kamal, King Farouk's uncle. After the 1952 revolution, the villa became the property of the Egyptian government and, in 1986, was commissioned as a maritime museum. The spacious grounds include a greenhouse, three-car garage, laundry, and other structures at the rear of the property.

The Permanent Committee decided to appoint a sub-committee to study INA-Egypt's proposal. In consensus-building meetings with sub-committee members, I explained the renovation plan and the laboratory's objectives. The subcommittee finally met in the Maritime Museum in February, 1995, and its chairman, Dr. Shawky Nakhla, General Director of Conservation and Restoration for the SCA (who eventually named the lab) agreed that the buildings would make a first-rate laboratory. The Permanent Committee granted INA-Egypt permission to proceed with the renovation on April 15, 1995.

The consensus-building process was so successful that when the Permanent Committee approved INA-Egypt Sadana Island Shipwreck Excavation proposal, one of the conditions was that a fully renovated and equipped laboratory exist in the Maritime Museum before the excavation began. I was able to work out a compromise for a staged process, since a complete laboratory would take two to three years to create. The first stage included providing access to and wet-artifact storage tanks in the laboratory area.

Stage 1

I met with Thomas Thomason, Regional Manager for Bechtel, who put Bechtel's considerable expertise behind the laboratory project by loaning us an architect to pilot us through the estimate/tender/bidding process. From my experience in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, I could roughly define the uses of the buildings, but I was not qualified to define the mechanics of a full-scale renovation. With Bechtel's assistance, we created a renovation plan and identified the contractor for the job.

But we were still not `in the door' - there was no door.

The old gate leading to the outbuilding area fell down some years ago and the SCA replaced it with a wall to maintain security. On March 28, we installed an iron gate generously provided by Kamal Sayyid Ahmed in the name of the Alexandria Business Association. We were in, just. We still needed to clear away accumulated rubbish, including rubble from the gate installation. The Arab Contractors - Alexandria Division remedied this situation with the loan of two very large dump trucks that we filled brimful as we cleared the lab grounds. Now the renovation could begin, but there was one hitch - no money.

At this point, Billings K. Ruddock stepped in and provided funds for two large water tanks with rolling, locking lids and drains so we could guarantee compliance with our excavation permit conditions.

The common thread that runs through conservation of all artifacts from marine environments is desalinization - removing salts from the objects. Desalinization is the reason we built the tanks first. A salt crystal forming at the surface of an artifact has an explosive power of 40,000 lbs./square inch. A single tiny salt crystal probably will not do a lot of damage, but many -and the Red Sea has one of the highest salinity rates in the world - will turn an artifact to dust.

A suggestion from prospective INA-Egypt conservator Howard Wellman prompted us to install electrical outlets and water taps in the water tanks. As artifacts in freshwater give off their salts, a cloud of highly saline water forms around the artifact, and the delsalinization process slows. A small sump pump in the tank will circulate the water and dispel the cloud allowing desalinization to continue. Moreover, it is possible to put electrodes into the tank and pull the negative and positive salt ions, in solution, out of the artifacts (i.e. "turbo-charged desalinization").

Stage 2

While excavating at Sadana Island last summer, we learned that the USAID-funded Egyptian Antiquities Project, headed by former INA President Chip Vincent and administered by the American Research Center in Egypt, had awarded us a grant to renovate four of the five buildings. We filled the storage tanks with the Sadana porcelain and other objects at the end of August and started the renovation at the end of October.

The contractor tackled the three-car garage first, finishing in early December. This building will be used for the conservation of large objects (ship timbers), storage, and as a workshop to maintain the laboratory. By early January we had transformed the former greenhouse into the main laboratory and the toolshed into the compressor/X-ray facility. The main lab has some curious features about it.

First, as all of the buildings do, it has rainwater cutoff valves on the drainpipes. These valves symbolize the reason that Alexandria is the best place in Egypt to have this kind of laboratory. During the laboratory-planning stage, I learned that the chlorine level of Alexandrian tapwater is too high for conservation work and only increases during the summer with the influx of tourists. This was a significant problem as we are trying to get rid of chloride salts, not introduce them. Where were we to get large amounts of choride-free water for conservation?

Jane Pannell, INA Conservator at the Bodrum Museum, solved this problem for us when she told me that Tufan Turanli had renovated a derelict section of the Bodrum castle's rainwater cachement system to provide both the laboratory and the museum with an abundant water supply.

It rains a lot in Alexandria during the winter -- we have measured about 15 cm. (6 inches) in the water tanks so far, with only passive collection. With five roofs, all we need to do is catch the water that falls on them by diverting water to storage barrels via the cutoff valves. From the barrels, we will pump the water up to storage tanks behind the x-ray facility. From here, a pipe runs through a de-ionization filter to one of two large sinks in the main laboratory building. Most of the final de-salinization will be carried out under the former greenhouse plant beds (now workspace), and the runoff carried away by the renovated drainage system.

Mr. Vahan Alexanian, Chairman of Egyptian Textiles Industries, donated the funds for the storage-tank platform that provides head pressure for the water running to the main laboratory. Also, if we ever run short on rainwater, he has offered us, free of charge, the distilled water that comes as a byproduct of his dyeworks.

The main laboratory also features compressed air on tap. We placed the compressor room in the adjacent building, as I have learned through experience that nothing drives a normally placid conservator insane faster than the loud thump of an air compressor coupled with the high whine of a pneumatic chisel. Both 110V and 220V electricity available at wall outlets at six points around the walls ensures INA conservators will not be limited in the type of equipment they can use.

The renovation process continued as our illustrations studio and artifacts storeroom building received new interior and exterior finishings. We ensured sufficient natural light would reach the studio, and discussions with engineers helped solve a problem with storing objects on the ground floor.

The best way to keep Alexandria's high summer humidity away from conserved artifacts in the storeroom is not with a dehumidifier running 24 hours a day, but with a vapor barrier of thick plastic sheeting with a 60 cm/24-inch overlap, a suggestion from Bill Remsen of the EAP. Finishing the barrier with gypsum board was not as easy, but we found a supplier, then finished the process by sealing the floor with vinyl. And now, if somone does not tell you the vapor barrier is there, you will not know it by looking at the ceiling and walls.

The photodocumentation center was completed with assistance from the Amoco Foundation. On the roof we have renewed the privacy screen which will provide illustrators, conservators, and volunteers a place to work outside in the gentle sea breezes off the Mediterranean.

Plans for the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory

With the first two stages complete, the five buildings have now been renovated through INA-Egypt's labor and fundraising. In the third stage, we are seeking contributions and grants to equip these buildings and provide the laboratory's external workings: electrical wiring, water supply, and drainage. We are also in discussions with the SCA to add a sixth, and final building to the laboratory complex to serve as a conservation reference library.

The renovated buildings will be used in cooperation with the SCA for the conservation and preservation of waterlogged antiquities from both land and underwater archaeological sites. The Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities will also be a center for sharing information with Egyptian conservators about the special needs of wet objects. For example, our laboratory will work closely with the metals conservation lab provided by the French Navy team that explored Abu Kir, site of a Napoleonic battle with horation Nelson's fleet in 1798 and a land battle the next year.

Although INA-Egypt often receives compliments on the beauty of the buildings, we know that we are only the catalyst that brings conservators, archaeologists, architects and engineers together toward a common goal - the creation of the Egypt and the Arab world's first and, hopefully, foremost national maritime museum. Alexandria has once again become a world-class center of learning.

Acknowledgments. As always, funding projects like this requires the cooperation of many organizations and individuals. None of this work would have been possible without these contributors. Their names will be recorded at the entrance so all visitors will know who really created the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities.

The Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities and its dedicated staff spent long hours pouring over proposals and refining plans. We are particularly grateful to Bechtel Corporation, and especially Regional Manager Thomas Thomason, for assistance with architectural estimates for work at the Museum and consultations about the requirements of renovation. Thanks also go to Kamal Sayyid Ahmed of the Alexandria Businessmen's Association, which donated the new gate to allow passage for trucks carrying ancient cargo into a modern laboratory. The Arab Contractors Alexandria Division provided invaluable assistance by loaning trucks for hauling away construction debris from the buildings.

Major funding for the renovation has been provided by the Egyptian Antiquities Project, the Amoco Foundation, the Alexanian Foundation, Billings K. Ruddock, and Richard and Bari Bienia. In addition, the American Research Center in Egypt continues to provide us with support through sharing facilities, and through discussions with its Cairo Director, Mark Easton.