Tomb of Tutankhamun Rescued From Its Fans

Ten-year conservation job by Getty with Egyptian authorities stabilizes unique 3,350-year-old murals, protecting them from germs and dust of the hordes

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File photo: People admire the third and innermost of the three anthropoid coffins of Tutankhamun at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, April 5, 2003.
File photo: People admire the third and innermost of the three anthropoid coffins of Tutankhamun at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, April 5, 2003.Credit: Denis Doyle/AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Having fans is one thing. Having hordes stampede your tomb not only breathing but bringing germs and clouds of dust is another.

Bust of Tutankhamun.
Bust of Tutankhamun.Credit: Jon Bodsworth

After a 10-year project, the Getty Conservation Institute announced Tuesday it has finished the job of conserving the all-too-popular Tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. The immense project was done in collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, Getty said.

A section of the south wall in the burial chamber of Tutankhamen.
A section of the south wall in the burial chamber of Tutankhamen.Credit: Carleton Immersive Media Studio

The boy ruler’s tomb had been discovered in 1922 and – a rarity for antiquities – even after nearly 3,350 years was almost entirely intact and replete with grave goods. The media frenzy that followed its discovery by the British archaeologist Howard Carter was unprecedented, Getty says. Everyone from scientists to journalists to the curious began to throng the tomb, and never really stopped.

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There were so many things in the tomb Carter and his people spent a decade clearing them. The objects were then displayed in various major Western museums. (There is a plan to regather and show thousands of “King Tut” objects together, at the future Grand Egyptian Museum of archaeology; its opening is now planned in part for this year.)

Still in situ is the mummy of Tutankhamun (also spelled Tutankhamen) himself, lying in an air-free case. His sarcophagus is still in the tomb too, with the lid next to it on the floor. Also still intact are the extraordinary wall paintings depicting Tut’s life and death. Oh, and baboons galore, which were deified at the time.

The burial chamber’s west wall depicts an extract from the Book of Amduat or “What is in the Underworld”. The upper register depicts the solar barque preceded by five deities. In compartments below are twelve baboon-deities, represent-ing the twelve hours of the night through which the sun travels before its rebirth at dawn.
The burial chamber’s west wall depicts an extract from the Book of Amduat or “What is in the Underworld”. Credit: Carleton Immersive Media Studio

The beautiful wall pictures are where the rub lies. When people enter a sealed space for the first time in thousands of years, they instantly start to cause change. Their breath is humid. They bear bacteria and fungi. The result can be that in very little time the walls start to disintegrate and their paintings, preserved for thousands of years, start to decay – though one might not notice immediately thanks to the dust one brings in, which settles on the walls.

Conservation work in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun's tomb, in the spring of 2016.
Conservation work in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun's tomb, in the spring of 2016.Credit: Vincent Beltran / Getty Conservation Institute

On top of that is damage caused by incautious cameramen – Getty’s note that the space to work and maneuver in is tight.

Interestingly, brown spots on the wall paintings turned out to be old too, not the result of the tomb’s discovery and exposure. They were there when Carter first entered the tomb and haven’t grown since, based on photos from the 1920s.

Conservators using a portable microscope linked to a tablet to monitor the paintings on the west wall of Tutankhamun's Tomb, Egypt, February 2009.
Conservators using a portable microscope linked to a tablet to monitor the paintings on the west wall of Tutankhamun's Tomb, Egypt, February 2009.Credit: Robert Jensen/Getty Conservation Institute

“To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and the spots were confirmed to be microbiological but dead and thus no longer a threat,” Getty stated. Its restorers left the brown spots untouched, on the grounds that they ran deep, into the paint, so removing them could cause other damage to the spectacular murals.

In short, the project addresses the problem of the tomb’s vulnerability and the disappointing experience for the tourists who do visit. They may romantically expect to be alone with the memory of the great if short-lived pharaoh, but find themselves jostling for space and oxygen with dozens of people, and unable to see much because of the lousy lighting.

The Tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Tomb of Tutankhamen.Credit: Sara Lardinois/Getty Conservation Institute

New barriers have been built to keep visitors off vulnerable spots. While the new restrictions may frustrate some people, Getty describes improvements to the site: new walkways and a viewing platform, finally some signs and lighting, and an air filtration and ventilation system to mitigate the unwanted emissions from their lungs, the undesirable germs on their persons and the entirely undesirable dust on their feet.

The north wall of the burial chamber depicts three separate scenes.
The north wall of the burial chamber depicts three separate scenes.Credit: Carleton Immersive Media Studio

While Getty worked painstakingly on the restoration and conservation, other scientists have been busy investigating other aspects of Tutankhamunm, even after all these years. High-tech scans of the tomb showed that, no, there were no secret burial chambers as people had fondly hoped.

Enironmental monitoring, Project Specialist, GCI.
Enironmental monitoring, Project Specialist, GCI.Credit: Lori Wong/Getty Conservation Institute

It is true that pictures in his burial place show Tut riding off to war. However, modern analysis of his mummified remains indicate that the pharaoh was a sickly, limping young man with a deformed foot, who, among other things, also suffered from malaria. Some archaeologists argue that it’s impossible to say who exactly wore the leather armor found in the tomb; it may not have been him and should not be seen as evidence of the teenage king's military prowess. Also found in the tomb were canes that the young leader seemed to have needed in order to walk.

The pharaoh would die aged just 19 in about the year 1323 B.C.E., and some suspect the combination of inbreeding, bone deformity and malaria parasites proved fatal. But nearly 3,350 years later, even molecular forensics hasn’t figured out exactly why.

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