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Culture

Time for a Spring Cleaning in Egypt

There’s nothing like a good thorough cleaning to bring out the shine, especially when it’s a 3000 year old Egyptian statue, and the cleaning crew makes a startling archaeological discovery.

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The dirt of centuries covers the Memnon Colossi in Luxor Egypt

The Memnon Colossi in Luxor have stood the test of time, withering wind and weather for more than three millennia. Once the guards to the entrance of the temple of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, these 18-meter high (59 feet) statues are all that remains of a mighty kingdom on the Nile.

The two giant statues have witnessed wars, floods and destruction. Their once proud visages are battered and worn, and they are dirty – covered with the dust and grime of centuries.

A good thorough cleaning is exactly what the two colossal sentinels need to restore their ancient splendor. But how exactly do you remove three thousand years of dirt from an archaeological treasure?

Removing the dirt of ages

The German cleaning company Kärcher has the answer. Specialized in the removal of pollution from historical facades, the company has developed a high pressure air blaster for cleaning fragile buildings and monuments.

In the case of the Memnon Colossi, the cleaning crew sprayed the statues with very fine powder-like particles of calcium carbonate for twelve hours a day. Over five million tons of the cleaning agent were needed until the thick layers of dirt and sand slowly disappeared from the statues’ surface.

After eight weeks of careful cleaning, the Kärcher crew made a discovery worthy of an archaeology excavation. Underneath all the layers of grime they found paint. The statues, it seems, had originally been covered in paint.

The color of centuries

"We didn’t expect so much paint", said Thorsten Möwes of Kärcher, pointing to the queen’s jagged red crown at the feet of the left colossus.

"You couldn’t see anything of the sort prior to the cleaning; and now even the inscriptions are legible," Möwes said boasting of what he had uncovered.

The Kärcher cleaning team removed enough of the layered sand to reveal Greek and Latin graffiti. Most of it is love poetry, Möwes explained, but there’s also an inscription from the Roman emperor Hadrian at the basis of the right statue.

There’s still quite a bit of dirt and sand still covering the statues. Only about a sixth of it has been removed so far, but the cleaning crew wants to hold off on air blasting for fear of damaging the fragile paint layer. Archaeologists will take over the cleaning from here, said Kärcher’s spokesperson Frank Schad.

Careful cleaning crew

The Kärcher cleaning team is no ordinary janitorial staff. They are a group of highly trained engineers, architects and restorers. Thorsten Möwes, for example, is a certified master for cleaning and restoring historical buildings. Prior to the Memnon project, he was in charge of cleaning an ancient Roman bath house in southern Germany.

The Kärcher company can call on several years of experience when it comes to cleaning old facades. They are the recognized experts in the field, and have proven their careful skill in cleaning the Statue of Liberty, the Brandenburg Gate and the columns on St. Peter’s square in Rome.

The Memnon Colossoi, however, is the company’s "most interesting scientific project so far," said Schad.

The costs for cleaning the statues are estimated at 250,000 euro ($ 219,400), but Kärcher is footing the entire bill as part of its contribution to preserving one of the world’s great archaeological treasures.

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