Friday, January 30, 2015

Story of Tutankhamun mask (5): Experts quell rumours of damaged Tutankhamun mask

A soft winter breeze filled the evening air of Cairo as hundred of journalists, photographers, cameramen and media personnel flocked into the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to attend a press conference.

The Ministry of Antiquities called for the conference to address rumours of damage to the gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun and its blue gold beard.

The golden mask of Tutankhamun made headlines in newspapers worldwide when it was reported that its blue and gold beard had broken off during a cleaning process at the Egyptian Museum, and that conservators hurriedly glued it back on with epoxy resin, damaging the artefact.

Reports also mentioned that other parts of the mask were damaged. Rumours circulated that the mask was scratched and its colour had changed as restorers tried to remove the epoxy. On the second floor of the museum, where the priceless mask is exhibited, media people flocked in to try to catch a glimpse of the mask and the rumoured damages.

“The mask is in very good condition and there is no actual endangering of the artefact,” German conservator Christian Eckmann, an expert in metal restoration, told reporters during the press conference. He said that, after examining the mask, he concluded that the damage done during the restoration was reversible. He explained that the epoxy used can be easily removed and that another, more appropriate material could be utilised to restore the beard.

In fact, the beard was already detached from the mask when it was initially discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, and both the mask and beard were transported to the museum in Cairo as two separate parts.

Both artefacts were put on display at the museum separately until 1941 when they were glued together. In 1944, the beard had to be reattached after it had broken off. Since then, the mask and the beard were exhibited as one piece.

In August 2014, however, the beard was broken off yet again when a museum worker accidentally touched the mask as he was repairing the lighting in its showcase.

Restorers at that time used too much epoxy resin to repair the beard. “Although epoxy resin is a debatable material, it can be used in restoration work but is not the best solution,” Eckmann said, adding that there are other materials that are much more efficient.

“So far I don’t know exactly what kind of epoxy was used, although the specific type can easily be determined through analysis.” “A committee of natural science experts, restorers and archaeologists is now assigned to develop a plan for the conservation of the mask,” Eckmann said. He asserted that the colour of the mask did not change as reported. Only one scratch was found and this could be dated back to the day of its discovery.

A museum conservator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the mask fell during a cleaning process for its showcase last year and that the beard broke off by accident. “The epoxy was not a proper material to use to restore the mask, although it is a conservation material with a very high strength for attaching metal and stone,” the conservator said. He added that, as the epoxy dried, it left a gap between the face and the beard where they were previously directly attached.

Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damati told reporters at the conference that reports published in newspapers are highly exaggerated and that photos showing extensive damage to the mask were artificially manipulated.

The mask, which stands 54cm high, is made of gold inlaid with coloured glass and semiprecious stone, and was contained in the innermost mummy case in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The vulture and cobra on the forehead are symbols of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and of divine authority. The vulture Nekhbet and the cobra Wadjet protected the pharaoh.

When the tomb was initially discovered, the mask was found placed over the young pharaoh’s face. Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb that was small relative to his status. His death may have occurred unexpectedly, before the completion of a grander royal tomb, and his mummy may have been buried in a tomb intended for someone else.

Tutankhamun’s mummy still rests in his tomb, but in 2007 it was removed from its gold sarcophagus to go on display in a climate-controlled glass box.

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