A group of workers, archaeologists and architects is busy at work at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor, where the tombs of New Kingdom pharaohs and nobles are spread out within the surrounding mountains. They are constructing a new mud-brick structure containing panels for a full-scale facsimile of the burial chamber of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.
This will be the first replica tomb in the Middle East and one fit for a king. It is due to open to the public at the end of April near the rest house of the tomb’s discoverer, British Egyptologist Howard Carter.
Since its discovery in 1922, Tutankhamun’s tomb has been a centre of attraction for the countless thousands of visitors who flock to the Valley of the Kings each year and descend the tomb’s sloping corridor to catch a glimpse of the pharaoh’s painted burial chamber.
However, the large numbers of visitors have led to the deterioration of the tomb’s wall paintings. Their breath contains bacteria and moisture, which raise humidity levels inside the tomb and produce water vapour on the paintings. Visitor body heat and the warmth of the lighting have also changed the original climate inside the tomb.
The wall paintings, like some of the tomb’s other surfaces, have been marred by disfiguring brown spots as a result, these being first noted by Carter. Experts think that some of the spots could be the result of sealing the tomb before the plaster and paint of the walls had dried, allowing mold spores to grow.
In a bid to protect the tomb from further deterioration and keep it for all eternity as wished for by the ancient Egyptians, an exact replica was offered to Egypt by the Factum Foundation, Madrid, the Society of Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt, Zurich, and the University of Basel in 2012.
James Macmillan-Scott, President of the Factum Foundation, said that work on the tomb of Tutankhamun had been instigated in 1988 by the Society of Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt, with the full support of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which had long supported the idea of building replicas of the royal tombs that were either closed or needed to be closed in order to ensure their preservation.
The first phase included three tombs that were in particular danger due to the high levels of visitors, those of Tutankhamun, Nefertari and Seti I. The production of the replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb started in 2009 and was completed in October 2012. The Madrid-based Foundation used high-tech 3D scanners to produce a facsimile of the real tomb, and Macmillian-Scott explained that the replica tombs would provide a new opportunity for visitors to admire the ancient Egyptian royal tombs and learn about their history.
They would encourage the conservation of the originals and promote Egypt as a world leader in applied technology, he said. They would also promote an awareness of tourism as a positive force in the conservation of Egypt’s cultural heritage.
The Foundation’s chief engineer, Michael Ward, said the facsimile of the Tutankhamun tomb had taken three years to complete and the work had involved the creation of new technology in order to record every inch of the tomb and perfectly replicate it. The ensemble of Carter’s rest house and the replica tomb would relate the story of a very important discovery made in the last century, he said.
Adam Lowe, founder of Factum, explained that the facsimile would be part of a new visitor centre that highlighted the importance of the tomb and the effects of climate change inside the tomb on its conservation. It would also inform visitors of the problems of preservation and conservation of the archaeological site.
The aim of the project was to divert visitors away from the threatened original tomb, while giving them the chance to experience what was inside, he said. “The aim is to create a relationship between the visitors and the long-term management of the archaeological sites,” Lowe said, adding that the project had been carried out with the support of the Ministry of Antiquities.
When the “rematerialised” tomb is finished and opened to the public, it will offer a faithful representation of the burial chamber in its current state “down to the dust coating that was there in the weeks we recorded,” Lowe told the US channel NBC News. He added that “we’re hoping that we can set something up where visitors can say the experience of the facsimile was better than the original.”
For 3,300 years, the tomb was in perfect condition, but in the last 91 years it has suffered deterioration. “We don’t want people to stop going to the original tomb, but we want them to become aware of the contract that’s necessary to sustain heritage sites like this one,” Lowe said.
He told the UK newspaper the Guardian that “we want people going to both and tweeting and blogging and saying, this is a very interesting moment in the history of conservation, we understand the problem, and the facsimile is better than the original tomb.” After the completion of Tutankhamun’s replica tomb, Factum plans to rematerialise the long-closed tombs of Ramses II’s beloved wife, queen Nefertari, and the pharaoh Seti I.
Tutankhamun’s tomb is not the only case of such deterioration, since the Lascaux Caves in south-west France and the Altamira Cave in Spain have also suffered from increased visitor numbers. The original Altamira Cave and its replica, a model for Egypt’s project, lie near Santillana del Mar in Spain. Today, access to the original Cave, discovered by chance in 1869 by Marcelino de Santuola, is restricted as the carbon dioxide breathed out by visitors damages the ancient wall paintings.
Visitor numbers have been drastically reduced in order to save these unique masterpieces of human prehistory. Only 160 visitors are allowed into the Cave weekly, and tours are booked up for the next three years.
An artificial copy of the Altamira Cave has been built as part of the nearby museum, the Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigación de Altamira. The replica of the cave has been a great success, and in the first four months after its opening it received 200,000 visitors. As for the Lascaux Caves, these now receive around 100,000 visitors every year, but their replica receives around 500,000.
A mobile version of the replica is now on a world tour.