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Hopkins Egyptologist digs for clues on tomb artisans


Masons and wall painters invaded the place, made a mess of things and walked off the job. Then Betsy Bryan moved in.

But Dr. Bryan isn't upset. She's grateful for the chance to sift through the debris and scrutinize the unfinished paint job.

That's because feckless contractors bugged out about 3,400 years ago, in the age of the pharaohs. And this house was never a home. It's a tomb carved out of a limestone cliff on the fringe of the ancient city of Thebes, overlooking the Nile.

Most important, said Dr. Bryan, an Egyptologist with the Johns Hopkins University, the tomb's 18 walls hold frescoes abandoned in various degrees of completion, from first rough sketches through finished scenes. Each phase of the process is frozen in time.

"What she is doing is what no one has ever done before, " said Edna R. Russmann, an Egyptologist and art history specialist with the Brooklyn Museum. "She's using this tomb as a way of finding out how Egyptian architects and draftsmen and painters actually went about doing their work."

At the age of 10, Dr. Bryan saw her first mummy in a Richmond, Va., museum. Soon she was hooked, fascinated by the civilization's elaborate burials. Today, the 44-year-old scientist, who lives in Baltimore, can decipher hieroglyphics, holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Yale and knows seven languages -- most of them dead.

For Dr. Bryan, the past is very much present. Her husband and three children, ages 6 to 16, have all been to Egypt for digs. Once she hauled a mummy in the back of the family minivan to Johns Hopkins Hospital for a CAT scan.

Projecting a slide in a lecture hall on the Hopkins campus, she pointed to the eye of a goddess. "Here's a really good example of an extremely incompetent painter," she said. "See this guy who puts on the yellow? He slops paint over already completed figures."

In another slide, someone has used deft brush strokes to evoke rows of helmets, armor, chariots, gold and silver ingots and other treasures. The artist, Dr. Bryan notes, didn't inscribe a grid in the wall to guide his work.

"This guy was going freehand," she said. "It's the only place in the tomb. I think he must have been a specialist who was in huge demand."

Last winter, Dr. Bryan led a small expedition to Lower Egypt to study the tomb built for Suemniwet, who held the title "Royal Butler, Clean of Hands" to King Amenhotep II, who ruled in the middle of the 15th century B.C., boom times for the Egyptian empire.

Butler might not sound like an exalted job description, even if Suemniwet scrubbed under his nails. But he wasn't just a gentleman's gentleman. He ran the kitchen and held the keys to the master's larder. Brewers, winemakers and bakers answered to him. And the king apparently trusted him with more than his larder: Amenhotep II evidently sent him on diplomatic missions.

Like all prominent Egyptians of his day, Suemniwet's biggest concern -- after keeping the king happy -- was likely the construction and decoration of his tomb, needed to usher him into the afterlife.

Amenhotep II gave him a choice tomb site, near the Valley of the Kings. "He's in what the Egyptians would have considered a very classy neighborhood," Dr. Bryan said. Then the monarch probably dispatched artisans to build the tomb. Halfway through their work, crew members walked off the job.

They may have fled when part of the tomb's roof collapsed, Dr. Bryan said, or they may have taken longer on the project than their allotted time.

Unlike many of the 400 or so neighboring tombs, which were broken open and lived in over the centuries, Suemniwet's was sealed from ancient times until this century.

Dr. Bryan and a colleague, Ellen N. Davis, who teaches art history at Queens College, N.Y., first began talking about excavating the site several years ago. (Dr. Davis, a Dundalk High School graduate, is a specialist in Aegean frescoes.)

Last winter, the two scientists spent five weeks working in the tomb with Nancy Enneking and Sarah Teasley, two Hopkins graduate students, and Peter Sadow, then a Hopkins senior. The team erected scaffolds, brought in lamps and hung huge acetate sheets against the tomb walls. Then they carefully traced, with different color marking pens, various stages of decoration.

It was hot, dusty work. "Pens fell on heads," said Ms. Enneking, 25, a graduate student from Portland, Ore.

Dr. Russmann of the Brooklyn Museum said the work could answer a number of intriguing questions. Some scholars think, for example, that as few as two artisans would decorate a funeral suite.

But Dr. Bryan and Dr. Davis say that, in Suemniwet's chambers at least, swarms of workers were involved: as many as eight master craftsmen and a minimum of 40 assistants. Excavators worked just ahead of the wall painters. Master artists first sketched the difficult figures. Lower-ranking artists probably followed, sketching rows of humble servants or other standard, easy-to-draw figures. Novices or apprentices came last, applying paint -- perhaps one color per apprentice -- to the appropriate parts of each scene.

These estimates, Dr. Bryan said, are based on the number of different color palettes used and different drawing styles. She also carefully measured the proportions in human figures in the frescoes and looked for patterns -- figures, for example, that were consistently wider than average, or had longer legs.

Eventually, Dr. Bryan said, she hopes to go to other tombs built about the same time and identify works by Suemniwet's artists.

This winter, she plans to return to Thebes with a structural engineer to determine if further digging is safe.

If the ceiling is sound, she plans to dig for Suemniwet's remains, which, she suspects, may lie under the tomb's front door.

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