Conservation of Tutankhamen’s tomb complete

Ten years after it began, the conservation of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings is complete. Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute worked together to make a thorough study of the site, assess its long-term conservation needs and train a new generation of conservators even as they cleaned and stabilized the elaborate wall paintings in the inner chamber. They also created a new entrance space and viewing platform that will allow visitors to see the most famous pharaonic tomb ever discovered while protecting it from the barrage of damage that inevitably accompanies human intrusion.

Discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the tomb of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamen was tiny but mighty. It is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings and of the four rooms, only the burial chamber was painted, but the small space was crammed to the gills with treasure. A fluke of nature had protected it since the king’s premature death around age 19 in 1323 B.C.: debris from a flood blocked the entrance shortly after the tomb was sealed. Grave robbers made several attempts to break into the tomb, but were thwarted by the blockage and soon the short-lived king was forgotten.

The discovery of so immense a treasure in the small tomb of a so inconsequential a king caused a cultural sensation that is still ongoing. It took a decade to remove and document all the riches of his tomb. In the 1930s, it was opened to a public hungry to see the find site and for decades the tiny space was filled with thousands of dirty, moist, carbon dioxide-exhaling mammals.

Humidity and CO2 feed microorganisms that can damage the paint, and fluctuating moisture levels can cause flaking and bubbling. There were also areas of physical damage to the paint, scratches and scrapes caused by tourists and accidental contact from film equipment squeezed into the tight space. Abrasive dust brought it by countless feet coated the walls, dimming the colors of the paint and putting it at risk of even more loss.

Concerned about the delicate condition of the tomb — particularly the brown spots on the paintings known to be microbial growths — in 2009 the Ministry of Antiquities requested the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute in developing a program of conservation and management.

The GCI-Egyptian project went on to carry out the most thorough study of the tomb’s condition since Carter’s time. The team of experts included an Egyptologist to conduct background research; environmental engineers to investigate the tomb’s microclimatic conditions; microbiologists to study the brown spots; documentation specialists, architects, and designers to upgrade the tomb’s infrastructure; scientists to study the original materials of the wall paintings; and conservators to carry out condition recording and treatment.

“As in all of our collaborative projects, the GCI has taken the long view, with the intent to provide sustainable conservation and site management outcomes,” says Neville Agnew, senior principal project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “This involves systematic planning, documentation, scientific investigation, personnel training and a sensitive approach to treatment.”

The project team found the wall paintings to be in relatively stable condition, apart from localized flaking and loss of paint that was caused by both inconsistencies in the materials used and their application, as well as damage caused by visitors. Newly designed barriers now restrict visitor access in these areas to reduce the risk of future damage. The paintings were stabilized through dust removal and reduction of coatings from previous treatments, and condition monitoring was also established to better evaluate future changes.

Also addressed were the mysterious brown spots on the wall paintings. They were already present when Carter first entered the tomb, and a comparison of the spots with historic photographs from the mid-1920s showed no new growth. To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and confirmed the spots to be microbiological in origin but dead and thus no longer a threat. Because the spots have penetrated into the paint layer, they have not been removed since this would harm the wall paintings.

Restored, stabilized and with new lighting, ventilation and information panels, the tomb of Tutankhamen offers a much improved experience for visitors as well as more secure, controlled conditions to preserve the priceless archaeological material. That includes a few important pieces on display as well as the tomb itself: Tutankhamen’s mummy on view in an oxygen-free display case, the stone sarcophagus and the outermost coffin made of gilded wood.