In 1997, following decades of research and excavation, Egyptologist Edwin Brock applied for funding from the American Research Center in Egypt to reconstruct the shattered remains of the inner sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian king, Ramses VI. With assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, ARCE provided Brock with the necessary resources to carry out the restoration (2001–2003) over three intensive seasons that focused on documenting, cleaning and reassembling the 370 fragments Brock identified as belonging to the sarcophagus.
The project was largely fueled by Brock’s professional and personal passions. A former director of The Canadian Institute in Egypt and a previous member of the Theban Mapping Project, Brock dedicated much of his professional life to working on the ground in Luxor, excavating royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and documenting their remains. His first excavations of tombs in the Vally of the Kings in 1985 were most notably those of Merenptah, Ramses VI and Ramses VII. The remains of the inner sarcophagus of Ramses VI fascinated Brock due to the severely shattered condition that he found it in during this excavation period.
Following many years of research, Brock concluded the sarcophagus had been smashed into pieces during a pre-modern attempt to cut up and recycle the outer sarcophagus that once encased it, causing the fragments to fall below into the burial pit the sarcophagi once rested above. The condition of the smashed sarcophagus worsened over the centuries as European explorers poured into Egypt looking for personal souvenirs and items to sell. One of these items was the mask of the inner sarcophagus, which was extracted from the pit by notorious Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni for Henry Salt, who was then the British consul-general in Cairo. Salt, in turn, sold it to the British Museum in 1823. This event, among others, informed Brock of the extent to which the sarcophagus remains had been tampered with over time.
Reconstructing the sarcophagus was an incredibly complex process. Much of the initial fragment assemblies in 2001 were greatly facilitated by digital renderings that Brock’s wife, archaeological illustrator Lyla Pinch-Brock, created based on sketches and photos she had taken of the individual fragments in the early 1990s. This was especially valuable given that much of the decoration of the sarcophagus – which would have aided in identifying joining fragments – was obscured by a black resinous layer. Brock later tested and discovered the resin was, in fact, a ritualistic oil that had been poured over the sarcophagus at the time of burial, subsequently blackening as it oxidized.
Aided by Pinch-Brock’s digital reconstructions, the team focused much of the first season on assembling the fragments belonging to the sides, base and foot end of the sarcophagus. Brock reasoned that by starting with this step, the dimensions of the sarcophagus would be clear and the base would provide a much-needed guide for the assemblies of the sides and foot end. In preparation for assembly, all fragments were cleaned manually with brushes and scalpels to remove dirt and dust build-up. The fragments were then affixed with a combination of epoxy adhesives and arranged on 4-inch-thick (10 mm) stainless steel dowels inserted through the centers.
The 2001 season concluded with the base of the sarcophagus complete and the sides and foot end only partially assembled due to the many missing fragments. Brock partnered with the Conservation Department of the British Museum to deliver a fiberglass replica of the sarcophagus mask in time for the 2002 season.
The first two weeks of the 2002 season were dedicated to completing the reconstruction of the sides and foot end of the sarcophagus. Reconstruction of the right and left sides was also completed using epoxy adhesives, tinted lime mortar and a combination of internal fiberglass and stainless-steel stability dowels. The project conservator, Lotfi Khaled Hassan, also conducted a test cleaning on the right side of the sarcophagus, removing the black resin and revealing an image of a ba-bird with raised arms. The season ended with the delivery of the mask replica produced by the British Museum, which arrived in Luxor in early August 2002 after an eight-hour journey from the Cairo airport strapped atop a Peugeot station wagon.
The last season of reconstruction in 2003 focused on filling in gaps in the restored sarcophagus with tinted lime mortar, consolidating the lid with epoxy adhesive and arranging the newly restored sarcophagus and lid inside the burial chamber. During this season, Pinch-Brock spent several days drawing the final arrangements and fragment placements of the lid and the sarcophagus box, using a mix of digital photography and hand tracings. At the end of June 2003, Brock’s photographer, Francis Dzikowski, wrapped up the project by photographing the entire chamber and the newly restored sarcophagus and lid.
Nearly two decades after he began his initial excavations in Ramses VI’s tomb, Brock was able to finally able to see the fruits of his labor. While the physical reassembly of the sarcophagus was an impressive feat in itself, the significance of the project went much deeper for Brock. “Restoring the mummiform sarcophagus of Ramses VI was largen driven by my desire to provide an overall understanding of the archaeology of the cemetery,” he explained in his project notes, adding that the project highlighted the millennia of interference and damage that had been caused by looters, explorers and pre-modern tourists in the Valley of the Kings.
On March 21, 2004, the tomb of Ramses VI was officially re-opened by then-Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, and then-Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (the predecessor of the Ministry of Antiquities), Zahi Hawass. Today, the tomb of Ramses VI, with its impressively restored sarcophagus, remains one of the most popular sites in the Valley of the Kings. It serves not only as a legacy to Edwin Brock and his career, but as a testament to ARCE’s commitment to, and impact on, the preservation of Egypt’s irreplaceable cultural heritage.