The Tomb of Nefertari

Sponsors: The Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO), the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing (BU/CRS).

Nefertari 1


The tomb is that of the favorite wife of Pharaoh Ramses the Great, who ruled Egypt for 67 years (1304-1237 BC). When it was unearthed in 1904 by an Italian expedition, it had lost some of its magnificent wall painting because of salt crystallization behind the plaster layer on which the artisans had applied the paint. Fear of further damage resulted in the closing of the tomb to visitors for the past 50 years.

Nefertari closeup

Project Summary:

The objective of the study was to establish the origin of the water that had caused the mobilization of salt and its recrystallization in order to recommend a treatment to conserve the paintings. Dr. Farouk El-Baz planned the application of remote-sensing methods and techniques to:

  • Map the region in the immediate vicinity of the tomb for the establishment of a hydrologic model of the area;
  • Establish whether the deterioration was a onetime event or a continuous process;
  • Study the state of various segments of the tomb’s walls to locate areas needing emergency treatment.

To establish the drainage pattern in the Valley of the Queens, where the tomb exists, an image obtained by Landsat was studied. It showed the fracture pattern in the region and revealed that a two-kilometer long escarpment separated the valley from the main plateau to the west. This setting allowed the study of the hydrology of the Valley of the Queens as a separate unit. The basic topographic features of the area had been shown in a French map made in 1926. Additional details were mapped by Swiss Air Photo from balloon and aircraft photographs. Also, profiles of dry valleys and hill slopes were obtained through the help of Earthwatch volunteers. All such data were integrated in the computer-generated hydrologic model of the area.

To establish the sequence of the deterioration of the wall paintings overtime, the author and his colleagues used software that was designed to aid in the study of Landsat images. Photographs of the same wall taken at different times were digitally compared. This indicated that the recent deterioration was mostly physical rather than chemical—pieces that were already separate had fallen down with advanced age. On the basis of this information, it seems unlikely that the chemical deterioration has continued to this day.

The study of the state of various parts of the wall was done with multispectral photography. Instruments were used to obtain photographs in visible, near-infrared, and ultraviolet light. These images indicated which parts of the wall had deteriorated without visible signs. Pockets of air or salt not visible to the human eye were detected and helped in locating areas that required emergency conservation.