In Horemheb's hands

The British Museum double statue EA 36

Statue of Horemheb in British MuseumA finely executed limestone statue in the British Museum shows a seated couple dressed in their finest clothes. The statue was never completely finished, as it does not have any inscriptions which would allow the identification of the two portrayed figures.

The statue was probably acquired by the British Museum in 1837 following the division of the Anastasi collection to various European museums. However, it arrived in London with little to nothing in the way of provenance, only that it was presumed to have originated from Thebes or Saqqara.

With many academics favouring Saqqara as its area of origin, stylistic studies were undertaken on the basis of comparisons to similar statuary, like that of the double statue of Maya and Merit in Leiden. The outcome pointed to a date towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty or the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

Ever cautious regarding speculation, the British Museum's Department of Ancient Egypt decided to keep the statue remaining anonymous, preferring to refer to it only by its museum accession number EA 36. Without question, though, everyone agreed that the dyad statue must have come from a funerary context, and therefore was a representation of the tomb occupants, but who were they?

The depicted pair is seated on chairs with legs featuring those of lions. Both figures wear large elaborate wigs and are dressed in long pleated garments. The male figure is positioned to the statue's right hand side. His right hand rests on his lap in front of his right knee, clasping a long folded cloth. His other hand (although partially missing) is poised on the right knee of the female figure. She is seated to his left, bridging or cupping the male's hand with those of her own.

Although the general posture is not uncommon in the representation of married couples, many scholars failed to notice the subtle difference between the statue and those of a comparable style. The British Museum statue is unique in showing three joined hands instead of the usual two. It is therefore somewhat ironic that this very feature should suffer from an impact which resulted in the hands becoming separated from the main sculpture at some stage before the removal of the statue from the tomb.

Discovery of the Saqqara hands
The limestone fragmentDuring the season 1976, the Anglo-Dutch expedition discovered an unusual small find while working within the newly discovered tomb of general Horemheb at Saqqara. The limestone fragment drew the attention because it showed part of three hands held together.

The fragment continued to puzzle the excavation team, and it was only thirty years later that Dr René van Walsem, the now retired field director of the Leiden expedition, considered the possibility that the fragment might belong to the statue in the British Museum. In order to confirm his suspicion, a positive join would need to be achieved between the two objects.

The current embargo on the exportation of Egyptian antiquities made it impossible to consider taking the fragment to London for comparison. So an alternative solution was conceived: to seek permission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities to make an accurate cast of the fragment on-site in Saqqara. The copy would then be free to travel out of Egypt without compromising any official legalisation.

Permission was sought, and kindly granted by the Egyptian authorities. After an offer of further assistance was received from staff of the British Museum, the idea could finally be put into reality.

Mike Neilson, a replication specialist from the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, agreed to join the Leiden team during the season 2009 specifically to safely produce a mould and cast directly from the surface of the original fragment.

Making the mould
Before a mould could be made the condition of the ancient fragment was inspected to ascertain the object's condition and suitability to withstand the mould making process. This assessment was made by Mike in the presence of an SCA inspector and joint field director of the Leiden expedition Dr Harold Hays. Surface stability tests were carried out by simply applying localised pressure to several areas of the object's surface. Although the tests revealed that the limestone substrate was very stable, Mike considered the object was too vulnerable to be moulded directly without some form of physical barrier.

Pre-moulding barriers are essential in preventing damage caused by chemical staining into an object's surface. Staining is caused by the object's own absorption of the oily substance which is present in all room temperature vulcanising (RTV) silicone rubber systems. Applying an impervious layer therefore prevents any direct contact between the object and the material.

Considering all options, Mike concluded the best protective coating for this particular limestone object would be the use of Laboratory Film. This is a malleable plastic film which can be stretched to the object's shape. The object was lightly cleaned of surface dust, and squares of the film were applied like patchwork over the object with the aid of a small wooden modelling tool. After a few hours spent carefully applying the film, Mike could begin making the mould itself.

Making of the malFirstly, the fragment was attached to a small board with the use of a small amount of plasterline (modelling material). This allowed the object to be moved or carried without any disruption to the process.

The object's form only presented minor difficulties regarding protruding and recessed areas (undercuts). These types of areas can cause the mould to lock around the object, making it very difficult to remove without applying unnecessary force. To avoid this the mould was made in two sections: plasterline was used to create a dividing wall which split the object into two halves with this wall running along the leading edge of any protruding or recessed feature.

Into this wall was embedded a series of 8mm diameter brass pins and short sections of 10mm round wire. The pins had sharpened ends; these would form holes by protruding themselves through the many layers of applied material. This method is preferable to drilling holes for obvious object safety reasons. These holes would later receive the bolts used to hold the mould together. The short lengths of wire were also partially embedded lengthways into the plasterline. These would form the important location keys used to align the joining of each section.

Coating of catalysed liquid siliconeThe first coating of catalysed liquid silicone rubber was carefully brushed over the protected surface of the object, and allowed to cure. When totally dry, this thin rubbery layer acts as further protection against any subsequent layers of potentially harmful material. Thixotropic agent was also added to the final mixes of silicone. This thickens the mix, allowing the uncured rubber to be buttered into position. Once the desired thickness of mould had been reached, plaster bandage was applied over the cured rubber and protruding pins to make a solid support case. The casing was needed to retain the shape of the otherwise flexible rubber mould; when dried this completed the first section of mould.

With the mould remaining in place the object was taken off the board, together with the removal of the plasterline wall and embedded wire. This exposed the newly made mould wall or rubber flange which now held the protruding brass pins and the negative image of the trough-like groove from the removed round wire.

Making the mallBefore commencing the second section, all exposed areas of silicone rubber were lightly coated with petroleum jelly. This prevented any bonding occurring between the first mould during the applications of liquid silicone used to make the second section. Here, the detail present on the first mould wall is copied in reverse image. Together, the negative and positive impressions of wire create a interlocking trough and furrow key. These keys aid mould alignment, preventing movement between the two which would result in inaccuracies in the final cast.

With the fragment now totally cocooned in film, cured silicone rubber and plaster bandage, the task to removing the object from the mould could begin. Firstly, the brass pins were fully withdrawn, revealing the bolt holes. The two support cases were next to being removed from the silicone rubber, followed by the carefully teasing apart of each rubber section to reveal the pre-moulding barrier. Finally the protective film was easily peeled free from the fragment by hand.

Following the removal of the protective barrier the original fragment was once again closely inspected. The film had done its job well. There were no signs of stain damage and the fragment maintained its dry, but perhaps slightly less dusty appearance. The object was delivered back to the chief inspector of the storage facility for his close inspection, after which it was returned to the storage magazine and Mike and the mould returned to London.

Later, in the familiar surroundings of his British Museum studio, Mike produced the cast from the mould using white pigmented polyester resin filled with marble dust. Any traces of fine lines on the cast caused by the overlap of the protective film were easily removed with the use of a scalpel or abrasive paper.

A perfect match
Some weeks later, in the British Museum's Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, the protective screen surrounding the statue was removed. In the presence of the object's curator John Taylor and a small assembly of inquisitive museum staff, Mike attentively offered up the cast to the statue... It was immediately obvious to all present that the cast matched! Not only did each break-edge match precisely, so did fingertips, severed so many years before, unite perfectly to those on the statue.

The anonymity of statute EA 36 had ended with the joining of the missing link, therefore proving without any doubt the statue's attribution to Horemheb and his first wife, Amenia.

The sculpture is sure to have been yet another funerary statue that once stood in the general's Saqqara tomb. The find will be published in The Memphite Tomb of Horemheb V, a volume which is now in preparation and will come out before the end of 2009.