Egyptian Queen Nefertari. Experts start project to restore wall paintings in tomb at Luxor

SHE was one of the great beauties of ancient Egypt, immortalized by the temple that her husband, the Pharaoh Ramses II, dedicated to her. The wall paintings in her 3,200-year-old tomb at Luxor in Upper Egypt depict her wearing elaborate jewelry, oozing with elegance. But, over the millenia, the elegance of Queen Nefertari's tomb has suffered cracks and damage, marring for posterity a monumental legacy of the pharaohs. Legions of experts have failed to put the pieces of the tomb's frescoes back together.

Now an ambitious Egyptian-American project aims not only to restore this unique tomb but also to study its decay so thoroughly that the conclusions drawn may be applied to other Pharaonic monuments in peril.

The project, financed by the Getty Conservation Institute, part of the J.Paul Getty Trust of Los Angeles, is one example of how new inventions in science and technology are propelling archaeological discovery and conservation in Egypt. As work begins on the Nefertari tomb in Luxor, another international team is ``jabbing'' at the Great Pyramid of Giza with remote sensing devices to understand further how the ancients constructed it.

A third team, sponsored by the American National Geographic Society, will drill into a hermetically sealed pit on the same Giza plateau to obtain a sample of 4,000-year-old air trapped inside and take pictures of an ancient wooden boat expected to lie there - all without disturbing the site and its contents.

``This is a scientific revolution for the profit of the antiquities,'' says Shawki Nahla, a director general of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. ``What we are interested in is scientific progress.''

But if the Nefertari project, an attempt at conservation rather than discovery, seems less dramatic than the other two, it is closer to the hearts of Egyptologists.

``Nefertari is an urgent case,'' Mr. Nahla says. ``It's in a very bad state. The pyramids are not urgent.''

``It has the most beautiful representations in all of Egyptian antiquities,'' says Ahmad Kadri, chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, speaking of the costumes and scenes in the wall paintings on Nefertari's tomb. ``It depicts the flourishing of the period and the importance of Ramses II. It's one of the greatest contributions to the history of art.''

The Getty project, which gets under way now, represents the first time that a broad range of scientific disciplines and technology will be used to discover why salt crystals have pierced through the painted surface, detaching and cracking about 20 percent of the reliefs.

Nefertari's tomb was discovered in 1902 by Italian archaeologists. It has since remained a mystery to scientists. When it was discovered, salt crystals had already protruded through the plaster surfaces, causing pieces to fall off. The tomb was never regularly open to tourists, although some visitors were allowed in until 1950. Now only VIPs - for example, United States Vice-President George Bush last year - and Egyptologists are allowed to view it.

The many attempts to save the tomb were aimed at restoring the plaster frescos rather than first understanding the deterioration. In the early 20th century, the Italians made an abortive attempt. They were followed by the French. The Egyptians themselves tried to restore two small panels in the 1950s. One of the panels lost all its color. UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural organization, sent two delegations to look at the tomb, but offered no plan. Polish and Swedish teams proposed grandiose schemes. The Swedes suggested they could cut the tomb from the mountain and insulate it from the outside environment.

Time passed, but the Egyptians did not accept the proposals offered. ``Until the salvage of the Nubian monuments, nobody had time for anything else,'' says Omar Arini, local director of the Getty project, referring to the UNESCO-sponsored salvage of the Abu Simbel temple in the 1960s.

Then in 1985, the Getty Conservation Institute, recently founded and seeking a high visibility project, proposed financing the tomb's restoration. The Egyptians insisted on a thorough scientific study before restoration was attempted, and a deal was struck.

``This is the first time we'll have a concrete fundamental scientific study that will tackle all the problems of the tomb and the most refined aspects of restoration,'' Dr. Kadri says. Six international scientists are studying the tomb for a year, analyzing its geology and the chemicals and pigments used by the ancients, the intensity of the colors, as well as the temperature, humidity, and micro-organisms inside. The scientists will also study environmental factors such as seismic activity, rainfall, and drainage channels nearby that may bring water to the tomb.

The aim is to find out what caused the salt crystals in the first place - either the application of wet plaster to the fractured limestone rock when the tomb was built 3,200 years ago or the introduction of new water sources over time that could have caused recrystalization. The growth of the salt crystals has never been monitored and so scientists say they don't know whether crystals are continuing to grow or the crystalization was a one-time thing. If it is found that rainwater is bringing new water to the tomb and causing new salt needles, new drainage channels could be dug.

In April, an Italian team is slated to begin ``consolidating'' some of the fallen plaster pieces. But true restoration will only begin after the team has drawn its conclusions.

If the tomb is successfully restored, not only will Queen Nefertari's portrait be preserved for posterity but other royal tombs, both in Luxor and in Saqqara near Cairo, could benefit. And it is likely even tourists would be able to see the beauty of Nefertari - thus constituting a much larger court than the Queen has held for the last few thousand years.

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