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Poor Choices

ARCE’s Poor Choice And Administration of its Own Conservation Projects-Some Examples - Part One


ARCE has supported and funded any number of conservation projects in Egypt, with funds made available by the US Government, through direct grants and USAID funds. It has also carried out and administered its own, or other, independent projects, i.e., projects not affiliated with another institution, university or museum.

Most institutional projects have achieved fair results, being free to staff their projects with appropriate, professional staff. ARCE has had less success in its choice, implementation and administration of some of its own or independent projects, or alternatively, where they have succeeded, has afterward allowed the projects to flounder, failing to reach the goals which could have been achieved. The question arises as to why this is so. What follows below will outline some of those projects, their deficiencies and failures and why the failures occurred.

Unfortunately, some of the most significant failures have occurred in major sites. To focus on one, we should examine the record of interventions in and around Luxor, turning first to the Valley of the Kings. Every reader knows the importance of this site. It is simply the most concentrated repository of Royal burials anywhere in Egypt and contains some of the most striking examples of ancient Egyptian artwork still extant.

The Valley is under threat and has been ever since the tombs were constructed, principally from water, in the form of periodic flooding of the Valley originating in cloudbursts in the nearby desert, which spill immense quantities of water onto the desert floor, which rush to find lower levels, using the Valley as their exit channel.

Such flooding was known to the ancient builders and has been documented more recently by those who have worked there. Visitors can still see layers of flood debris evidencing numerous floods in the baulks left by excavators of the tombs. Writers, such as John Romer, have detailed their effects on the Valley. The problem is a given. The question remains what to do about it.

As a result of severe flooding in the Valley in 1994, The Valley of the Kings Research Group (VOKRG) was formed with the idea of studying the problem and coming up with a solution. It studied the site and prepared a “Master Plan”, of considerable complexity, to safeguard the Valley and its tombs from flooding. That project was funded by USAID and carried out and administered by ARCE as part of its Egyptian Antiquities Project. (

Though well meaning, the group was not staffed to effectively deal with the problem. It included archaeologists, an anthropologist, a geologist, a photographer, several architects, a civil engineer and construction consultant. Though water was the principal problem, no hydrologist was included, not any conservator with experience in site management.

VOKRG concluded that it should take large scale protection measures and construct prototypes of them in the Valley. It proposed “a new entrance walkway structure that will provide access to two tombs (Seti I and Ramses I) while diverting floodwaters in the adjacent walkways away from the tomb entrances.” This was based on the tombs having “high preservation priority”. (

By September of 2003 the prototype was built, consisting of a massive concrete wall intended to divert water from around the tomb entrances. It did not remain in place and was removed, in part because it was completely out of character for the Valley and inconsistent with the original landscape.

As stated in a review of Saving Egypt’s Antiquities-Dispatches from the Front (ARCE 2009) Randi Danforth, Ed. ( “Following a review in 2003 of the prototype, once it had been completed on site it was decided that for aesthetic and for conservation reasons it should be removed”, this by Michael Jones of ARCE. Readers with any perspicacity should now be asking themselves some questions.

First, couldn’t anybody figure out that this prototype was going to be a massive intrusion into the natural setting of the Valley, would be completely out of place and disrupt the visual and aesthetic integrity of the site before it was actually built? Second, if removal was based in part for “conservation reasons”, these should have been evident to any professional conservator with any significant experience in Egypt, so why weren’t these reasons considered before building the prototype, rather than afterward, when significant sums of money and a lot of time had been spent, only to be completely wasted by its dismantling?

Modern conservation, of which site management is a branch, emphasizes as one of its basic tenants the concept of minimal intervention so as to minimize the effects and consequences of any conservation intervention and interfere as little as possible with the object or site involved, keeping it as close as possible to its original state before the intervention. This prototype clearly paid no attention to this basic tenant, not surprising as there was no professional conservator included in the project, either in the original VOKRG, or at ARCE as part of its administration of it.

But there were other reasons militating for the removal not stated in the publication or the review. These were not obvious, but could be ascertained by old fashioned detective work, asking the local laborers who built the prototype and the SCA personnel who were there then, about how it was built. They told a different story, which has never been officially published, but is common knowledge in Luxor.

The prototype was built directly on the surface of the Valley floor, which consisted of sand and gravel, not tied into the bedrock. As any one who has experienced a cloudburst and flash flood in Egypt knows, the force and velocity of flowing water will carry away large amounts of sand and gravel. Any structure above it will be undercut and collapse. It is a common occurrence where such practice is employed. We experienced it at Hierakonpolis, where part of the exterior compound wall was undercut and collapsed as a result of such flowing water.

The prototype is gone, so can no longer be checked. Do I believe the local workmen and SCA staff? I do. They have no reason to fabricate or dissemble, are knowledgeable about local building practices and know what they see. Even if not accepted as true, the fact remains that the prototype was built at significant expenditure of time and expense and almost immediately demolished. Explanations given for removal are not satisfactory and raise significant questions about the project and its administration by ARCE.

One could chalk this up to a lesson learned, but not here. Despite the considerations which justified the demolition of the prototype, incredibly enough, another diversion wall was built in its place, this time built of limestone, rather than cement. Saving Egypt’s Antiquities-Dispatches from the Front (ARCE 2009) by Randi Danforth, ed. (

As stated by Michael Jones therein, “Although the new installations are not as massively constructed as the concrete prototype…they are designed to withstand the kind of torrent that may be expected in the side wadi where these tombs are located.”

While the use of limestone is less visually jarring than concrete and the size of the structure is somewhat reduced, the structure is still of huge proportions, unlike anything else in the Valley and certainly unlike any ancient structure in it. It sticks out of the landscape like a sore thumb and grotesquely alters the topography and landscape of the Valley unnecessarily. Without question it violates the rule of minimum intervention as enunciated and practiced in modern conservation.

Jones goes on to say, “It must be stressed that this work is a pilot project aimed at presenting a solution to the problem faced by the entire valley system in which the royal tombs are cut…it needs to be extended to include the entire Valley of the Kings.” It is not clear from Jones’ statement whether he is referring to protective measures in general, or the monstrously ugly intervention at the tombs of Seti I and Ramesses I. One can only hope it is the former, not the later.

There are two more points to make here. The first is that the prototype and its successor structure were inappropriate and unnecessary. Neither the tomb of Ramesses I, or that of Seti I, has a history of flooding or flood damage. If one studies the tombs threatened by flooding, or evidencing serious flooding, these are under rock ledges or overhangs, such as Tuthmosis III, near to choke points in the Valley, such as Horemheb and Ramesses III, or sit directly in the path of flood waters draining down the Valley, such as Ramesses II and to a lesser extent, Horemheb, again. Tuthmosis III has fortunately escaped any major damage, but Horemheb was flooded in 1994, the water completely filling the well. Ramesses II has been reduced to rubble by repeated flooding.

If a structure was to be built to safeguard tombs, why pick two that have no history of flooding, as opposed to those that do and are in clear and present danger of flooding again? Why were Horemheb and Ramses III not the subject of attempts at flood control, when they sit at the narrowest choke point in the Valley, are accordingly more endangered and have flooded before? (Note, however, that the flood destroyed burial chamber in Ramesses III is not the result of flooding from the outside of the tomb, but from inside out, that is the flooding originated from within the burial chamber.)

As to the second point, less intrusive alternatives were available. Ted Brock, one of the archaeologists with the original VOKRG, was on the right track when he excavated areas in front of and above the tombs to create a channel to drain water away. But this was a mere adjunct to the building of the massive diversion structure, which remained the primary goal of the project.

It has always been obvious to conservators who have worked in and are familiar with the Valley that the most simple and effective flood control measure is to just lower the present Valley floor to a level closer to that which existed in ancient times. There is no question that the present floor level is significantly higher than the ancient one.

Excavations in the Valley by the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, directed by Geoffrey Martin and Nick Reeves, in the early first decade of this century, hard up against Horemheb and just before reaching the entrance of Ramesses III, confirmed this. More recent excavations undertaken by the SCA in 2008 and 2009, unfortunately now backfilled, uncovered features several meters below current levels, e.g., numerous workmen’s huts, stone cut water diversion channels and the like which were in ancient times surface features of the Valley. These were covered over by the detritus and debris of subsequent millennia, much of it flood borne, which now composes the current floor.

Lowering the present Valley floor to levels more accurately approaching that of ancient times will lower the escape route of incoming flood waters, raise the tomb entrances safely above flood water levels and return the topography and appearance of the Valley to something much more closely resembling its ancient form, rather than to do violence to that topography and appearance effected by building the huge modern structure that was put in place. So why wasn’t this done, particularly at the tombs most in danger?

There are several answers. The composition of the original VOKRG was mostly composed of engineers, architects and construction consultants. As such they were predisposed to build things, just as a surgeon is predisposed to cut. It’s what they do. Given that fact and the absence of a professional conservator skilled in site management with some experience in the Valley it is little wonder that the recommendations were to build huge, out of place structures, or that they were built.

Significant time and money were wasted in building the original prototype, which was quickly demolished, and its replacement, but change orders and cost overruns are common in the engineering, architectural and construction business. Nothing new there. But why didn’t ARCE, which was charged with administering the project, step in, point out these problems and prevent the waste of time and money, to say nothing of the blot on the landscape?

It failed to do so because it, too, lacked proper professional staff and management to see the problems. It had and has no professionally qualified conservators, site managers, or the like to oversee and administer this, or similar, projects. If it had, this project would not have resulted in the huge structure that today sits athwart the tombs of Seti I and Ramesses I, guarding them from an event that didn’t occur and is not likely to.

Additionally, lowering the floor of the Valley, while clearly the alternative that would be most effective, preserves the natural landscape best and does as little violence to it as possible, is much more difficult to see and harder to claim credit for. It would not result in a large monumental structure to point to as evidence of conservation efforts, no place to hang a sign or plaque, no splash of publicity, and no pretty photo ops. But it was the right thing to do.

What was needed to avoid all this was professional staff with the ability to spot emerging issues as these plans were proposed, the guts to raise questions about them with ARCE’s management and to stick to their guns because of the ethical, conservation and aesthetic issues involved. That didn’t happen because ARCE’s management was less interested in professionalizing its staff, than in defending its turf. It didn’t want to be questioned or criticized because then it might have to answer those questions, or explain its actions, thereby foregoing the broader professional view and, as a result, repeatedly experienced the same kind of failures again in the Valley and elsewhere. It’s still the case today.

Where ARCE should have exhibited leadership in these areas and on these issues, it failed. It failed because management was too ignorant, fearful, insecure and timid to deal with questions, criticisms and advocating for the sites and monuments as it should have. And the failure was intentional, because it never bothered to get qualified staff which would consider ideas, or support alternatives, that made more sense, economically, archaeologically and from the perspective of sound conservation. If it contends it did, the decision to go forward with the structures that were built is all the more inexcusable. In these respects ARCE badly administered the project, failed to act as a good steward by allowing the waste of time and money and failed to take positions that appropriately protected the monuments most in need of protecting. That conduct calls into question its entire record of stewardship on such projects.

In the Part II of this section, which will be added soon, additional such failures will be explored.

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