The restoration of the golden funerary mask of King Tutankhamun has begun after last year’s botched attempted to reattach the false beard left it with a thick, ugly layer of visible epoxy glue and scratches on the gold. The mask was removed from public view on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum two weeks ago and moved to a laboratory. A team of German and Egyptian conservators led by Christian Eckmann examined it thoroughly, using a microscope to assess its condition and figuring out how best to approach the removal of the epoxy without damaging the gold.
“We have some uncertainties now, we don’t know how deep the glue went inside the beard, and so we don’t know how long it will take to remove the beard,” [Christian Eckmann] said on the sidelines of a news conference with the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, and Tarek Tawfik, director-general of the still-under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids.
“We try to make all the work by mechanical means … we use wooden sticks which work quite well at the moment, then there is another strategy we could implement, slightly warming up the glue,” he said. “It’s unfortunately epoxy resin which is not soluble.”
The process of removing the beard by scraping away the glue with wooden sticks could take at least a month. Once the thick glue layer has been removed, the team will study how to reattach the beard. The beard has a pin that fits into a slot on the chin, but it’s been loose since Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. A 1941 restoration added a thin layer of adhesive to keep the beard stable. In the seven decades since then, the adhesive weakened, which is likely why the beard fell off when it was jostled last year during routine work on the display’s lighting. A joint scientific committee will decide the best method of reattachment.
There are two components to the restoration project: the detachment/reattachment of the beard, and a comprehensive study of the materials and techniques used to manufacture the mask. While the gold mask of Tutankhamun has been one of the most photographed artifacts in the world since its discovery, it has never been thoroughly documented and studied with modern scientific methods. Having to repair this reprehensible conservation disaster does therefore have something of a silver lining.
The funding for the restoration comes from the German Foreign Ministry which is donating 50,000 euros ($57,000) as part of its Cultural Preservation Program.