Tomb of the aq Priest Karakhamun (TT 223)

The results of the first season in 2006 proved that sizable areas of the collapsed tomb of Karakhamun still remained intact but it took the Project eleven years to clear all the spaces of the tomb. Excavation of the tomb of Karakhamun was completed in 2016. Uncovered features include the entrance staircase, vestibule, large open court, two pillared halls with side rooms, and a multi-room burial compartment with a painted main burial chamber.  Clearing of the mud brick superstructure of the tomb is nearly completed but is still a work in progress.

The tomb of Karakhamun presents a special case and the biggest conservation challenge. The ceiling, pillars, and large areas of the walls in both pillared halls have collapsed, leaving only outlines or small remains of the architectural features. The southern section of the east wall, featuring an offering scene, was the most intact part of the First Pillared Hall.

Despite such severe destruction, the number of decorated fragments found during the tomb’s excavation allowed for its reconstruction to commence from the very first season of work. Close to 20,000 fragments of the limestone relief decoration, 8,000 fragments of the painted ceiling and 6,000 fragments of painted plaster in the burial chamber of Karakhamun were recovered from the debris of the shattered tomb. Based on these fragments, all the architectural features were identified as well as most of the texts and images of the original decoration. Every fragment went through the process of conservation and consolidation.

The next step was to choose a method for reconstructing the tomb and its decoration. The decision in favor of a monumental reconstruction in situ instead of restricting ourselves to only a digital method was made for a number of reasons. Recreation and preservation of the monument in situ will present every found fragment as part of a scene or text in its original context. This will bring modern visitors closer to the point of view of the ancient artists and observers. The recreation of a tomb restores the meaning and function of even the smallest fragments, including undecorated ones, by finding their original locations. Matching the shape of broken bedrock with the backsides of carved fragments plays an important part in the process of reconstruction in the original space, especially in cases where the remains of carving on a fragment are unclear or damaged. Connecting the broken surfaces of fragments to each other and joining them into larger compositions in sand boxes is sometimes the only way to find the context for fragments where carving is not easily identified. Fragments with single hieroglyph signs, the titles and name of Karakhamun, or elements of offering scenes may have many potential locations. In these cases, the shapes of their breaks and positions of veins and spots on the broken stone are more important in finding their original location than the carving itself. A digital reconstruction cannot provide solutions to all these technical problems and reflect the original decoration adequately. A digital version of Karakhamun’s reconstruction and the 3D-model that will be part of the final publication of the tomb will be based on the physical reconstruction in situ.

The main challenge of rebuilding Karakhamun’s tomb lies in the task of reconstructing the architecture of a ruined rock-cut structure. Initially, the underground part of the tomb was carved into the limestone bedrock. The architectural features of the tomb were sculpted in the process of removing excess stone. The space of the tomb grew organically as a negative sculptural body shaped by the stone removed rather than added. All the features were sculpted in the local bedrock. Casing was used only in the Tornische area, and even then, with local slabs of stone.

The sculptural quality of the architecture is reflected in all its features. Plans and sections executed by the architect Dieter Eigner reveal numerous deviations from correct geometrical shapes and angles. The surfaces of floors and small remaining sections of the ceiling show that they were not parallel in many areas and the floors and ceilings themselves were not leveled even when cased. The south and north halves of every room (to the right and left of the axis line) are not entirely symmetrical, affecting the height of the columns, thickness of the architraves and lintels, etc. When carving such a large element as a false door positioned on the axis, the architects encountered numerous problems trying to level the north and south part of the doorframe. This is reflected in the decoration of the central panel. All these inconsistencies were visually softened by the slight ‘ripples’ on the surfaces of the walls and the general organic look of the space. Carving allowed discrepancies in floor and ceiling levels, softness of the edges, and approximation of the angles. These irregularities did not affect the stability of the tomb as its balance was rather sculptural than architectural. All the detected irregularities cannot be blamed exclusively on the unfinished state of the tomb. It is possible to assume that Karakhamun died prematurely when his tomb was still unfinished, but construction methods for creating underground spaces and organization of work should be taken into consideration. Arnold discusses what he called a ‘strange method’ of dividing the workmen cutting underground spaces into the right and left crew. This organization of work could be responsible for the asymmetry of the right and left part of any given room. Another important issue is the direction of bedrock stratification and the necessity of avoiding areas of ‘unsound material’ It could account for changes in the direction of carving from evident to barely noticeable. Precision of work also depended on the lighting and ventilation conditions. The shortage of breathable air and necessity of oxygen for the oil lamps and torches in deeper corridors and spaces could explain why they were ‘only poorly finished or were never finished at all’ (Arnold, D., Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. New York, 2008, 213-218).

Recreation of the tomb demanded a change in the method of its construction. A collapsed underground space could not be re-carved from east to west and top to bottom, the way it was originally created. It had to be constructed from bottom to top. Every element must be built out of blocks of new limestone with ancient fragments merged into a new structure. Reliable reference points were determined through joins with the bedrock and between the fragments. Although the dimensions of the elements are always based on re-mains of the original features, it is impossible to reproduce the irregularities of a carved form in a built structure that is by nature more geometrical. In some cases, not enough fragments of a certain feature are preserved to analyze all the deviations from geometrical form on a pillar, wall, or doorframe. The reconstruction will always remain considerably more ‘correct’ than the original, more irregular, organic monument. The primary goal of the reconstruction is to provide surfaces for every inscription and scene in their original location by recreating the architectural elements using their original dimensions.

The first reconstructed room in the tomb of Karakhamun was finished in 2016 and presented to the participants of the Thebes in the First Millennium BC conference. Although the placement of the fragments is still a work in progress, the architectural features of the hall, including walls, four pillars, four pilasters, architraves with cavetto cornices, and door frames of three side rooms were fully realized.

The decoration of the Second Pillared Hall consists of twenty-five chapters of the Book of the Dead on the pillars and western wall, and Pyramid Texts on the eastern and northern walls. The imagery includes two offering scenes of Karakhamun, one positioned on the south wall and one on the north wall. The rear side of the entrance door is decorated with two seated figures of Karakhamun on the bottom of the doorframe and an offering scene on the lintel. The doorframe of the entrance to the side room V.A, which is cut into the western section of the south wall, features two seated images of Nesamenopet, the brother of Karakhamun, and his offering scene on the lintel. He is the only relative mentioned and represented in the tomb of Karakhamun.

The false door, the main feature in this room, consists of three superimposed door frames that enclose the statue of Osiris in the central niche. It is flanked by three registers of offering bearers. Two architraves crowned with cavetto cornices top the pillars creating a high central aisle emphasizing the passage from the entrance to the false door. It is a unique feature in a pillared hall of a private tomb. The height of the cornice shows that the ceiling level in the central aisle of the Second Pillared Hall was higher than the side aisles (3.39 m as opposed to 2.65 m in the side aisles). Even large contemporaneous tombs did not demonstrate such a direct parallel with divine temples.

Reconstruction of the decoration of the Second Pillared Hall is still a work in progress.

The construction of the First Pillared Hall was completed in 2019. Reconstruction of its decoration, consisting of the texts of the Ritual of the Hours of Day and Night and Book of the Dead and offering scenes started in 2010 and is still an ongoing process.