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King Tut mask restoration might lead to major discoveries

Kristen McTigheDecember 8, 2015

German expert Christian Eckmann is leading the restoration of King Tut's famous mask, which was damaged by a botched repair job. DW met him in Cairo to find out what's hiding behind that clumsy layer of glue.

King Tut's mask, Copyright: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Image
Image: Getty Images/H. Magerstaedt

Since the golden burial mask of King Tutankhamun was unearthed nearly a century ago, visitors from around the world have flocked to the Egyptian museum to view the famed relic. An icon of ancient Egypt, it has become one of the world's most famous works of art.

So in August 2014, when the beard attached to the 3,300-year-old mask was knocked off while being returned to its display case after workers replaced a burned out light, panic set. In a hasty attempt in the early morning hours, workers glued the beard back on with insoluble epoxy resin. That proved to be a major error.

"They did not attach it in its original position, the beard was slightly bent to the left side," Christian Eckmann, the archaeologist tasked with restoring the artifact, told DW in an interview in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

"They also put some glue onto the chin and beard, so it was visible. It was not adequately done, and then in January 2015 the press found out, and the whole case was a scandal somehow," Eckmann explains. He is a renowned restorer from the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Archaeological research institute in Mainz.

Botched glue job leads to new findings

It was feared irreversible damage to Egypt's prized artifact had been done, but Eckmann was called in and said it could be fixed.

Now, as he and a German-Egyptian team of specialists work to repair the mask, what could have been a disaster has turned into an unparalleled opportunity to carry out an extensive study of the mask that could help unlock some of ancient Egypt's oldest mysteries.

"The beard didn't break, it was already broken when Howard Carter found the mask," said Eckmann, taking a break from his workshop inside Cairo's Egyptian Museum. "After excavation, when they brought the mask to the museum, they never reattached the beard until 1946."

English archaeologist Howard Carter
When Howard Carter discovered the mask in 1922, the beard was already brokenImage: Imago

King Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who died at the age of 19, was propelled to fame when his almost completely intact tomb was discovered in Luxor by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Unlike other royal tombs which were looted over the years, some 3,000 artifacts were recovered from the young King's tomb, including the 11-kilogram (over 24-pound) mask.

After months of preparation, the team began working directly on the mask in October. The first challenge they faced was removing the beard. Using small wooden rods in order to preserve the gold, they began carefully scraping away layers of glue. As they did so, the team discovered there were different older types of glue in addition to the epoxy resin used in August.

First restoration rule: Make reversible changes

"It's not yet clear to us whether there was just this one attempt to fix the beard, or whether there were several measures between 1946 and today," said Eckmann.

After two weeks of meticulous work, the team of restorers successfully removed the beard. Now Eckmann and his team are searching for a safe method to reattach it.

Christian Copyright: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The German restoration expert Christian Eckmann first needed to carefully remove the crust of dried glueImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Desouki

"The basic idea behind all of the possible methods to reattach the beard is reversibility, this is the basic principle of restoration," Eckmann said. "Whenever you make an intervention, you try to do this in a way that is somehow reversible in the future if needed, and that is distinguishable from its original attachment or materials."

Rule number two: Restoration should be teamwork

While the damage to the mask shocked many, Eckmann said accidents like this one are common and "could happen anywhere in any museum around the world," particularly with ancient relics that previously underwent restoration, like King Tut's mask. The real problem, he said, was the "hasty reattachment of the beard."

"I can understand very well that they thought they had to very quickly attach the beard because they were afraid that all of a sudden people would see the mask without the beard, and that everyone would ask what happened," said Eckmann.

"I think the problem was that it was restored by one person, and any restoration should be done by the restoration team under the supervision of the head of the department," said Khaled Anani, general manager of the Grand Egyptian museum.

After the accident, a committee of officials from the museum made of top experts and archaeologists from around the world determined in March last year that each step of the restoration process would be researched and decisions would be made by consensus.

A 'golden opportunity' to study King Tut

The museum not only learned from the mishap; the mishap will allow further research on the burial mask itself. Eckmann and his team are carrying out the most extensive study of the materials and ancient technologies used to create the mask since its discovery in 1922.

"This is really a golden opportunity for us to further our knowledge not only about the mask of Tutankhamun, but about the 18th dynasty in Egypt, technology and trade links, and the expertise of gold workers as well as glass workers during this time period," said Salima Ikram, an archaeologist and professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo.

King Tutankhamun's burial chamber, Copyright: picture-alliance/robertharding
King Tutankhamun's burial chamber: What is hiding behind those walls?Image: picture-alliance/robertharding

"The materials that have been used, whether they were imported or locally produced, the technologies available to the ancient Egyptians to come up with what they did, can all be understood," she added. "And of course, if the mask was changed or altered during the course of its history, this should be visible."

A step closer to Queen Nefertiti

Last August, British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves sent shock waves through the archaeological community when he published evidence indicating that the young pharaoh's tomb contained hidden doors that could lead to another royal burial tomb, likely that of King Tutankhamun's contentious stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, whose whereabouts have puzzled Egyptologists for years.

At the end of November, after two days of radar scans in the tomb in Luxor, Egypt's minister of antiquities announced that there was a 90 percent chance that such hidden chambers existed.

Nefertiti bust in Berlin, Copyright: Michael Sohn/dpa
Alterations on the mask may be way older than the latest glue job. What if Nefertiti's name was also once erased?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Along with this hypothesis, Reeves has purported that King Tut's burial mask and many of the tomb's other treasures were originally made for the queen but later altered when the king died unexpectedly. Reeves even believes that Queen Nefertiti's name was first written the cartouche, or royal name plate, of the mask and that it was covered up with Tutankhamun's. If true, Eckmann's study could reveal that modification.

Eckmann said that as a restorer and not an archeologist, he could not speculate on whether or not the mask was made for someone else, but that his job was to provide new data for others to interpret.

The world is waiting for results

When the restoration of the mask is complete, Eckmann said the findings from the study will be released in a new publication. And whatever the findings may be, he said the opportunity to work on a relic of such importance has been "a great responsibility and a great honor" that he will not forget.

Used to approaching such relics with professional subjectivity, Eckmann admitted being touched in the presence of this impressive ancient relic: "But you don't have much time for emotions because you have to determine how to solve problems to bring back the mask to the exhibition," he said. "Tourists are waiting for it, and the Egyptian people are waiting for it too."