Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Cover-up’ claims denied

What is the real story behind reports that Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask and its blue-and-gold beard have been damaged? Nevine El-Aref investigates

Al-Ahram Weekly

Glancing through the newspapers earlier this week and coming across a photograph of the damaged beard of the iconic gold funerary mask of boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, many people will want to know exactly what happened to the famous mask.

Was it damaged? Scratched? Was it unprofessionally restored using epoxy resin? Is the restoration reversible or is the mask permanently damaged?

Newspapers reported that the blue-and-gold beard of the mask was broken during cleaning at the Egyptian Museum and that conservators hurriedly glued the beard back on with epoxy resin, damaging the artefact.

They also published evidence that the colour of the mask has changed and that it has been damaged as a number of scratches are visible, perhaps made when someone tried to remove the epoxy resin with a spatula.

There was an immediate outcry over the condition of the mask and the museum’s treatment of the country’s archaeological heritage, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) asked questions regarding the condition of the mask.

Mohamed Sameh Amr, Egypt’s ambassador to UNESCO, the UN cultural organisation, said that the concerns were justified given the importance of the mask, adding that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb had asked for the way to be cleared for international experts to visit Egypt in order to evaluate its condition.

Amr said that if the mask is found to have been damaged, Egypt will work with ICOM to restore it.

Meanwhile, to calm the public’s concerns the Ministry of Antiquities held an international press conference on Saturday at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in order to show reporters the condition of the mask and its protruding beard.

Hundreds of photographers, journalists and TV anchors crowded into the museum’s second-floor exhibition hall, where the mask is housed. For one hour the media people were able to admire the priceless mask and take photographs of its condition.

Then the conference was held in the small hall in the museum’s garden. At the invitation of Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, German conservator Christian Eckmann, a specialist in conserving metal objects, examined the mask and wrote a detailed report on its condition.

Eckman previously restored the metal statues of kings Pepi I and his son Menenre, which had been severely damaged. He is currently involved in restoring gold fragments from the treasure of Tutankhamun.

Eckman told reporters that the mask is in a very good state of conservation and there had been no endangering of the mask. “The measures that have been taken are all reversible,” he said.

“The colour of the mask has not changed as reported, and up till now only one scratch is visible and its date of occurrence cannot be determined. It could have been made on the day of the mask’s discovery, during its first restoration in 1941, or more recently, in the last few months.”

He said that upon its discovery inside the tomb in the Valley of the Kings on Luxor’s west bank, Tutankhamun’s mask was found in two pieces, resting on the mummy’s face. These pieces were the mask of the king’s face and the protruding beard.

The mask and beard were transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they were exhibited as two pieces in one showcase for almost two decades. In 1941, the objects were glued together as one piece, and in 1944 the beard was loosened and reattached.

In August 2014, during repairs to the mask’s showcase, a worker accidently touched the beard and the beard was loosened again. “It was a regular accident,” Eckmann said, adding that the beard had most probably come off because the glue used in 1941 had dried and was no longer effective.

“Speaking as a conservator, believe me this case is very normal and it happens all of the time on objects not only in Egypt but all over the world,” Eckmann said. He confirmed that restorers then glued the beard back on with epoxy resin.

“I don’t know the kind of epoxy they used in the restoration. For that I would need to carry out a lab analysis,” Eckmann said, adding that although epoxy is a material that can be legitimately used in restoration it is not the best solution.

“Restoration has several schools, and I am from the school that prefers not to use epoxy in restoration,” he said. The glue was also applied improperly and remains were visible on the braided beard.

“It can be reversed. It has to be done very carefully, but it is reversible,” said Eckmann, who has been appointed by the Ministry of Antiquities to oversee the mask’s repair. He announced that a committee of experts consisting of conservators, archaeologists and natural scientists has been assigned to develop a plan for restoration of the mask.

One museum conservator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Weekly that epoxy is not a proper material to use to restore the mask, although it was a material often used to re-attach metal or stone because of its high strength. He said that the epoxy used had dried, leaving a gap between the face and the beard on the mask.

Eldamaty told reporters that the media had exaggerated the reports of damage to the mask. He claimed that a photograph used in the media had used Photoshop to change the shape of the mask and make the beard look damaged.

The ministry had not attempted a cover-up, he said, contrary to what was reported in the newspapers. The restoration work carried out in 2014 had been fully recorded, and in October 2014 another restoration committee recommended the removal of some of the epoxy.

“Tutankhamun is safe and sound, and all this brouhaha is unjustified. It has had a negative impact on Egypt’s reputation and its great desire to preserve and conserve its heritage,” Eldamaty asserted.

Egyptologist Monica Hanna described the restoration work carried out in August 2014 as unprofessional and told the Weekly that a scientific committee should have been appointed to select the best kind of resin to restore the artefact.

“Eckmann is a very professional conservator who restored king Pepi’s I statue,” Hanna said. There are other very skillful restorers, however, and the museum should have consulted them before attempting to restore the mask.

“Why all that hurry to restore the mask in August 2014? Why use so much epoxy?” she asked. “Any artefact can need restoration, but the important thing is to restore it professionally.”

The mask is 54 cm high and made of gold inlaid with coloured glass and semi-precious stones. The emblems — on the forehead, a vulture and a cobra, and on the shoulders, falcon heads — depict the symbols of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and of divine authority. The vulture Nekhbet and the cobra Wadjet were thought to protect the pharaoh.

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