A step up for the Louvre’s mastaba chapel

Renovation

Posted on 18 March 2021

During the winter of 2016–2017, the Louvre launched a major online fundraising campaign to conserve and reconstruct the tomb chapel of Akhethotep, a high official of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The reconstruction project is almost complete and the ancient Egyptian masterpiece will soon be back on display for museum visitors. Here’s how it happened.

After lengthy research and excavation at the archaeological site of Saqqara, south of Cairo, a team from the Louvre found the mastaba (funerary structure) that had originally contained the chapel now in the Louvre. The mastaba is a monumental block 32 metres long, 16 metres wide and over 6 metres high. The team’s discoveries have impacted the design of the museum display, which now presents the mastaba chapel at a height of several metres, as it must have appeared to the deceased’s family. 

illustration
Le chantier du mastaba

‘It will completely change the way we see the chapel, as we’re now very close to the architectural reality’, enthused Vincent Rondot, the Louvre’s head of Egyptian antiquities.

In the Egypt of the pyramids, a monumental tomb was a privilege reserved for high-ranking officials such as Akhethotep, a high dignitary of the Old Kingdom and a member of the pharaoh’s inner circle. His 4,000 year-old funerary chapel is a star exhibit of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre, where it arrived in 1903 after its purchase from Egypt. Just as the deceased’s family once did, visitors can enter the chapel of the mastaba, made of large limestone blocks richly decorated with images and inscriptions. The low-relief carvings on the inner walls show nature in bloom, farm life, banquets, dancing, processions of offering bearers, etc.

« Greetings from the ancestors. Farewell »Marble workers, 1932

This ambitious and challenging project entailed dismantling the chapel block by block. Each block was then cleaned, restored, photographed and digitised. There was a surprise in store for the restoration team: their predecessors, who had reconstructed the chapel in 1932, had hidden little pieces of folded paper between the blocks, bearing their signatures and the phrase ‘Greetings from the ancestors. Farewell’.

illustration
Les marbriers-poseurs, 1932

A stone base was added to restore the monument to its original height, which means that the relief decoration will be seen as originally intended, at the right height and in the correct proportions. The blocks are currently being restored and reassembled and the project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2021. The Louvre’s camera crew has accompanied the teams of scientists and restorers and filmed the project every step of the way. A web series will be released shortly… stay tuned!


Photo credits
© Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

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