ARCE – 2009

 

ARCE stands for the American Research Center in Egypt and runs a number of projects throughout the country, primarily with funding from USAID. Holding the concession for Khonsu temple at Karnak in Luxor, ARCE teams work on different projects focused around conservation and preservation at the temple and surrounding complex.

 

As ARCE photographers for the 2008 season, myself and Sara, the other ARCE photographer, shoot pretty much everything pertaining to the comings and goings at Khonsu. The fair explanation would be that Sara shoots a series of talatat blocks while I run around photographing everything else, from small flecks of gold no more than 3mm across, to large wall sections 20m by 10m. So far it’s involved scrambling up scaffolding, lots of creativity, imagination and patience. It’s also involved just plain getting dirty, so my inner 4 year old has been well satiated, and looks to continue to be so well into 2009.

 

The existing Khonsu temple dates to Ramses III, a new kingdom construction devoted to the child god Khonsu (son of the god Amun-Ra and goddess Mut). However, multiple inscriptions to subsequent rulers and high priests hint at different construction phases, while reused blocks in the bark sanctuary area date to Amenhotep III, providing clues as to how the temple was built and with what materials. The complete complex is roughly 70m long by 27m in dimension. To north lies the great temple of Amun, while a smaller temple built to the hippopotamus goddess Opet, borders directly to the west.

 

It appears many of the blocks used in Khonsu’s construction were borrowed and/or pillaged from other temples; those built under the reign of previous rulers. Thus blocks used in the foundation of Khonsu may have, in an earlier phase, belonged to a lintel on the west bank of the Nile dedicated to Amenhotep III. Figuring out what blocks come from where and what inscriptions they hold is of great interest to a team of epigraphers from Chigago House, working in conjunction with ARCE.

 

Egyptian temples are generally constructed to mimic a primordial creation myth — or so I’ve been told. Land rising from a swamp supporting the first means of human life, or perhaps in this scenario, sustained agricultural practices allowing a transition from hunter-gather societies. In addition to leaving mineral rich soil deposits suitable for crop production, the annual Nile flood inspired those who depended on it for life. Receding waters would leave a series of high ground islands on which temples were built, mimicking and paying tribute to the entire flood process. On entrance to any number of temples, one would find themself in an open air series of colonnades, full of light, extending upwards to the sky, signifying the present. On procession through the temple, space would gradually recede in scale, and the light in intensity, finally breaking into a series of small dark rooms at the heart, or back, of the complex. As one moved through the temple, they moved not only from front to back, open to closed, light to dark, but in time, from the present to the primordial origins of life. Or so the interpretation goes. How old are we again? And how do we measure that? One death, fossil records, rock, sun, moon? (The truth of the matter is that “we” — whatever you take/interpret “we” to be — can’t/don’t exist without out stories and myths… It’s part and parcel. Alexander had a handle on this when he arrived in 331 B.C. One doesn’t just rip everything down, and build from the ground up — one subverts, matches God for God, builds bridges between systems of worship, societies, and peoples, redefining the us/other relationship… But even then, divided up and cut into neat little sections, one section compared to another, but how does one, or perhaps, how do we, divide one thing, that through being that very one thing, is indivisible? And so the paradox reveals itself. The truth Ruth, begins with a “t”, but that “T” don’t mean jack without it’s 25 friends.)

 

Wall engravings, carved reliefs and statues within the temple generally depict, or establish which ruler built the temple as well as what god the structure is dedicated to. Additional carvings may record historical moments of significance within a specific pharoh’s reign. Unfortunately, or fortunately – depending on your position, time and place – the means of erasing a ruler who fell into disfavor, while at the same time establishing one’s dominance, consisted of chiseling off the engravings specific to said ruler, re-mortaring the surface, and then inscribing one’s own name and achievements.

 

In the late 60’s, French and American teams realized that many of the monumental pylons at Karnak had been built on the back of previous temples, ripped down and used as fill for these structures. What made the construction/deconstruction process relatively easy was the size and shape of a standard block. One “talatat” measures approximately 54cm by 30cm, or roughly the measure of full length arm by the distance from hand to elbow. When the initial temples were finished, large sections of wall were inscribed and painted with various scenes depicting rituals, daily life and offerings. Their subsequent deconstruction and reuse, unknowingly began the world’s first (and potentially) largest 3-dimensional puzzle; the first step in recreating the pylon fill facades being the logging, photographing and stacking of talatat blocks that continues to this day. Several sections have been successfully pieced together and are on display in the Luxor Museum, but there are many, many, more blocks that have yet to be excavated.

 

Initial estimates of the talatat blocks that Sara, and a team of conservators working on the project had to photograph and record were 16,000. Divided by the 9 month time frame for the project, it meant roughly 100 blocks a day, at approximately 10 minutes a block. Unfortunately logistics never work as smoothly in the mathematically arena as they do in reality, and this certainty coupled with multiple faces on a 1/3rd of the existing blocks (5000×2) as well as more than a few crumbling facades in need of a little “TLC” has made for a slower pace than anticipated. They’ve just broken 1000.

 

On the linguistic front, ancient Egyptian gets eerily similar to Japanese in the way Hirgana, Katakana and Kanji are combined to form written communication — thus there are set of symbols with one phonetic reading which remains consistent regardless of context, combined with pictogram derivatives, that have different contextual readings. The large wall section I’ve been shooting at Khonsu has a number of symbols I recognize but have no idea of meaning or reading. Perhaps in time…

 

In addition to the work done by Chigago House epigraphers and the talatat project there are 5 other projects (give or take) on the go revolving around Khonsu. Ed Johnson runs a field school training a cadre of egyptian conservators in temple evaluation and preservation techniques, while Dany Roy heads up a team of stone masons cutting block and reassembling broken sections in situ. Pam Rose digs holes in the floor and fills them them pretty consistently, and a team of Italian conservators have just arrived to clean two rooms in the back chapel.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to run around photographing pretty much everyone. It’s kept things even keel so to speak. Since arriving at the end of October I’ve done everything from macro shots of gold flecks about 2mm across, to large wall montages on the south pylon facade of Khonsu roughly 20m by 10m. In addition I’ve started shooting for the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) on their recent excavations at Karnak as well as at Luxor temple on another ARCE project documenting salvage finds from sewer-line construction a few years ago.

 

Some of the work has been pretty challenging, and there are times I’m left scratching my head wondering about the best way to light a certain scenario, but at the same time these challenges are what make the work interesting. So far my favorite solution has been, flash-on-stick with the white underside of reflector shield used to bounce the flash and create high contrast relief lighting for inscribed surfaces. I’m not allowed to post anything I’ve been working on, but after the contract has finished and I’ve gotten written approval from the SCA there’ll be posts to the blog and updates to the portfolio section. My big hope is that ARCE will agree to let the Khonsu wall montages be published to the web using the same technology employed by google earth, thus allowing the viewer a comprehensive means of zooming in and out of the facades and really making the most of the resolution of the photographs…

 

Sara and I have wound up meeting a lot of other photographers working in the area. One of note is Yarko Kobylecky, who’s been affectionately dubbed the Obi wan Konobi of photography in Luxor (quite possibly all of Egypt) It’s like having a photographic great Uncle or Grandpa who comes along at all the right moments with all the right hints and suggestions. Although it’s never been voiced, at the heart of Obi wan Yarko’s teaching is creativity and imagination — transcend those limitations, and photographing at Khonsu becomes a game among games.

 

It’s been really nice to explore Luxor and Egypt with another photographer. Sometimes a little creepy how similar the thought process can be, and although we wind up with similar shots some of the time, there’s enough stylistic difference to make it complementary. There’s talk of a few projects/books in the works if we can ever find time away from work. Check out Sara’s work — she captures moments with the best of them, and her name leads me to believe she’ll be famous some day: www.saralafleur.com (http://www NULL.saralafleur NULL.com)

 

In the months to come there will be lots more archaeological photography and it’ll be interesting to see what lies in store. At some point I’ll have the opportunity to teach a class on photography basics and the premise underlying archaeological photography. So yes, more to follow; periodic and thorough I hope  — I don’t find writing easy, but will try.