The Tomb of Tutankhaten, as ancient Egypt’s boy King Tutankhamun was originally known, has been the focus of an extensive conservation study by a team from the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) who were called upon to help investigate the tomb’s condition.
The first since the tomb’s discovery by Howard Carter in 1922 with its door seal still intact, the project originally began in 2009 when Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities asked the GCI to enter into a collaboration to create a sustainable plan for continued conservation and management of the tomb.
This included conservation of its outstanding wall paintings, both environmental and infrastructure improvements, as well as training local conservators for future care of the site.
With considerable experience working in Egypt, first on the Tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens (1986–92), and later on the planning for the conservation and management of the Valley of the Queens beginning in 2006, the GCI team was well placed to take on this key role.
This project has greatly expanded our understanding of one of the best known and significant sites from antiquity, and the methodology used can serve as a model for similar sites,” says Tim Whalen, John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
“The work at Tutankhamen’s tomb is representative of the kind of collaborative effort the GCI undertakes with colleagues internationally to advance conservation practice and to protect our cultural heritage” said Mr Whalen.
Tutankhamun’s tomb today still houses a handful of original objects, including the surviving mummy of the King, which is displayed in an oxygen-free case. The quartzite sarcophagus and granite lid is placed on the floor beside it.
Also in the very small space for an ancient royal tomb, is the gilded wooden outermost coffin and all are set off by the remains of the stunning wall paintings of the burial chamber.
King Tutankhamun reigned for only eight years from 1339 to 1337 BCE. Buried with him were bread, fruit, wine, ointments and other materials of plant origin, which have since been identified.
Soft branches of olives were intertwined with willow to create wreaths. Wild celery, lotus, cornflowers and mandrake fruits were all present.
Native trees were used for making King Tut’s furniture with ebony from further south and cedar from Lebanon. Cypress, juniper, fir and pine were used, while for hardwoods, the Egyptian woodworkers used box, oak and ash, decorating their work with birch bark.
On the back of the golden throne of Tutankhamun his Queen Ankesanum is wearing a collar of pomegranate leaves, strips of date, berries of golden nightshade, blue waterlily petals, cornflowers and fruits of the Persea.
Immediate concerns regarding the tomb are about the humidity and carbon dioxide levels, as well as the amounts of dust introduced by visitors.
Dust particularly on the walls is known to obscure the brightness of the paintings. This necessitates cleaning, which increases the risk of additional paint loss.
In the Valley of the Kings in the tomb “Humidity promotes microbiological growth and may also physically stress the wall paintings, while carbon dioxide creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for visitors themselves,” says Neville Agnew, the GCI senior principal project specialist who has led the project. “But perhaps even more harmful has been the physical damage to the wall paintings” Agnew said. Careful examination showed an accumulation of scratches and abrasion in areas close to where visitors and film crews have access within the tomb’s tight space.
At a symposium planned for early 2019, to examine and discuss the conservation and management of ancient Egyptian sites in Luxor, the team from GCI will present their findings. Also, a book will be produced to better inform the public about the intricacies of working in such a small space and the abilities of its conservators to assist the preservation of one of the most valuable ancient sites for future generations.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018