The World

Building a Modern Partnership on Relics

For the first time, a team of archeologists from Mexico has been invited to work on restoring an Egyptian tomb from the days of the pharaohs.

August 13, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexico and Egypt share a rare historical distinction: a superabundance of monumental pyramids and other relics of ancient civilizations. But although foreign experts have helped lead the exploration of Egypt's rich archeology for more than a century, specialists from Mexico have never been invited. Until now.

For the first time, a Mexican archeological team has been selected by Egypt's top antiquities authorities to work in the famous Upper Nile Valley.

The group was chosen to refurbish the so-called Tomb of Puimre, or TT39, one of the country's most important unrestored burial chambers.

The team, selected by the Egyptian government's Supreme Council of Antiquities and made up mainly of scientists from the University of the Valley of Mexico, in March will begin a five-year renovation project to make the site suitable for the public to visit. (It has been closed since the 1920s.)

They will apply techniques that Mexico's archeologists have developed in their effort to preserve and understand their nation's 5,000 pre-Columbian sites, as well as myriad Spanish colonial churches, convents and palaces.

The benefit for Egypt is clear. The Mexican team will restore a tomb in the so-called Theban Necropolis that is in danger of collapsing and being lost forever. The restoration of the extensive tomb could shed light on the reign of one of Egypt's few female pharaohs, Queen Hatshepsut. It was built for one of her high-ranking priests around 1450 BC.

For Mexican archeology, the effect will be the intangible one of adding to its prestige on the global stage, said team leader Gabriela Arrache Vertiz, an Egyptology professor.

"This project will show the relevance of Mexico's academic excellence, that it can be applied not only in our own country but beyond our borders," said Arrache Vertiz, whose team made a preliminary visit to the Luxor site in May.

The invitation grew out of a professional friendship developed over a decade between Arrache Vertiz and Zahi Hawass, now director of the antiquities council. Arrache Vertiz and her team spoke to Hawass about the possibility of working in Egypt. This year, the council decided to ask the team to work on restoring the Puimre site.

Mexican archeologists believe they can bring unique expertise to the project.

"The tomb has problems similar to those of our pyramids and churches in that it was made with limestone," said Manuel Villarruel Vazquez, an architect whose specialty is structural restoration. "That rock is strong like glass but can break as easily, and several ceilings are cracked." He currently is restoring a Toltec pyramid that dates from AD 600 in Queretaro, about 100 miles north of Mexico City.

Villarruel Vazquez said his team may inject substances such as resin or epoxy into the ceilings of the Egyptian tomb that will expand and unite the different parts. The technique has been used successfully to save pre-Hispanic monuments and colonial buildings, he said.

Lead archeologist Anjelina Macias Goytia will excavate vertical shafts inside the tomb that once led to other crypts and are filled with centuries' worth of trash. Experts will try to restore the tomb's hieroglyphics and inscriptions, most of which are carved into stone. Some, however, are painted onto stuccoed surfaces, just like wall paintings at many of Mexico's historic sites.

Mexican archeology is little known outside the country because scientists seldom venture out to foreign digs for prolonged periods, Macias Goytia said. Most work for the government's National Institute of Anthropology and History and are paid to focus on Mexican relics. "The thinking is that there is plenty in Mexico to occupy us," she said.

With the project, the Mexican team will become the first from a Latin American nation to manage a major Egyptian dig. Of the hundreds of projects underway around Luxor, an ancient religious center about 400 miles south of Cairo, most are managed by European and U.S. scientists.

Willeke Wendrich, an associate professor of Egyptian archeology at UCLA, said the necropolis, an area of rock-cut tombs that stretches for 10 miles on the west bank of the Nile, was part of Thebes, Egypt's most important religious center in the time of the pharaohs. Analyzing and preserving the immense site is a daunting task for Egypt.

"The task at hand is so enormous that any support from foreign countries is important," Wendrich said. The Mexican project could become a "model for the globalization of culture," said Jose Ramon Perez Accino, a Spaniard and expert in Egyptian hieroglyphics who teaches at the University of London.

"Both countries were victims of colonization," he said, "have both been extensively looted and now have a scientific patrimony of high value to offer to the world."

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