Karakhamun’s Ceiling Project (TT 223)

This summer, Taylor became the new project leader of the Karakhamun Ceiling Project in the South Asasif necropolis. An international team directed by Dr. Elena Pischikova is restoring and reconstructing three Late Period tombs to their original splendour, including the tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223) which completely collapsed in recent decades. The Nile Scribes are grateful to the South Asasif Conservation Project for letting us share Taylor’s update from their on-going 2019 season in Luxor. See this post in its original location on their blog here.

Scribe: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock

The South Asasif Conservation Project began clearing, restoring and reconstructing the tombs of Karabasken (TT 391), Karakhamun (TT 223) and Irtieru (TT 390) in 2006 – now the team is reaping the rewards of over a decade of hard work and tremendous skill, usually despite unbearable heat. It has been a huge honor for me to participate in several of the on-going projects at the SACP since I started in the summer of 2013.

Getting acquainted with Karakhamun’s ceiling fragments in 2015 (Photo: Katherine Piper)

This season I became the new head of the Karakhamun Ceiling Project, which I had assisted Katherine Piper with briefly in 2015. The monumental tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223) contained the earliest painted ceiling from the Kushite-Saite period, borrowing from the corpus of brilliantly painted New Kingdom ceiling patterns in the Theban Necropolis but also contributing unique designs to the landscape.

Many of the ceiling patterns are variations of a ‘bead-net’ design (Photo: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock)

The decorative programme in the tomb of Karakhamun incorporated a vast painted ceiling in the First and Second Pillared Halls, decorated with patterns in red, blue, white, pink, orange, and yellow. When the tomb collapsed in the 1990s as the result of poor quality limestone, extensive quarrying, and heavy flooding, the decorated ceiling broke into thousands of painted limestone fragments which now give us a tantalizing glimpse of how the ceiling appeared over two thousand years ago. The ultimate goal of the Karakhamun Ceiling Project is a partial reconstruction of Karakhamun’s beautiful patterns, but even in its fragmented state, his ceiling has much to tell us about tradition, innovation, and symbolism in Kushite-period tombs.

One of the main goals of the 2019 season was to sort the ceiling fragments by pattern (Photo: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock)

This year thousands of ceiling fragments were moved to the Open Court of Karabasken to allot them the space they needed for study and reconstruction. This season, the Ceiling Project team (myself, along with Scott Allan, Laura Chilvers, and Aimée Vickery) sorted and documented over seven thousand painted limestone fragments, which granted us a preliminary understanding of the patterns from Karakhamun’s ceiling and of the possible surface areas that each pattern was allotted in the tomb based on the size and number of preserved fragments. We hope that similar find locations for fragments of the same pattern will help us to identify their original placement within the monumental pillared halls.

Variations of checkerboard patterns are popular for ceilings in Egyptian tombs (Photo: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock)

Ancient artists incorporated twenty painted patterns into the tomb’s two pillared halls: eight bead-net patterns, four checkerboard patterns, three floral patterns, two rhombus patterns, and several others. The patterns vary greatly in degrees of detail and in pattern consistency – some were clearly designed to cover a large surface area with easily-defined shapes, while others featured smaller, more delicate designs.

Sorting the fragments by pattern will allow for their reconstruction in the coming seasons (Photo: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock)

Next year, the reconstruction process of the Ceiling Project will begin in earnest and we hope to eventually display Karakhamun’s vibrant ceiling patterns at the site so that visitors can appreciate their color and design for generations to come. In the meantime, there is much that Karakhamun’s ceiling has to reveal about the origins and meanings of its patterns, and the behaviors of the individual artists who painted them.

Scott Allan, Aimée Vickery, and Laura Chilvers documenting Karakhamun’s ceiling fragments (Photo: Taylor Bryanne Woodcock)

Even though the numerous ceiling patterns of the Theban Necropolis have impressed visitors for centuries, they remain largely unstudied and unpublished. The ceiling patterns in the North Asasif tombs, such as Pabasa, may be better known but Karakhamun’s ceiling set the precedent for Kushite-Saite tomb ceiling decoration, acting as the bridge between New Kingdom and Late Period traditions. This new project at the South Asasif allows us the opportunity to study Kushite-Saite ceiling décor in the context of the Theban landscape through the need for careful preservation and reconstruction.


Featured image by Nina de Garis Davies – “Eight Ceiling Patterns, Tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky”

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