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A story of ignorance
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 09 - 2018

The recent incorrect restoration of the golden mask of Tutankhamun raised many important issues that should be discussed in order to find reasonable solutions. This will also demonstrate that Egypt is more than capable of properly restoring its monuments and heritage, as has been done over the last 12 years, despite the attacks of those who criticise without suggesting appropriate solutions.
The spectacular golden mask of Tutankhamun represents an idealised portrait of the king. Intrinsically beautiful due to the precious materials and masterful workmanship that went into its creation, it was an essential item of the royal burial equipment, serving as an image that the soul could enter and occupy during the afterlife if something happened to the body.
The artisans who crafted this masterpiece began by hammering together two thick sheets of gold, thought by the ancient Egyptians to echo the flesh of the gods. They then shaped this metal into a likeness of the king wearing the striped nemes headcloth of ancient Egypt and using inlays of semi-precious stones and coloured glass to add colour and detail. The whites of the eyes were inlaid with quartz, and obsidian was used for the pupils. Red paint was lightly brushed into the corners of the eyes, subtly increasing their realism.
When British archaeologist Howard Carter first saw the mask in 1925, he discovered that it was stuck onto the chest and head of the king's mummy. He tried to remove it but was unsuccessful because of the resin that the embalmers had applied to the coffin. He then used knives heated over a fire to detach the mask, damaging the mummy in the process. In spite of this checkered history, the golden mask has since become an icon of ancient Egypt.
Last month, and after much media attention to the restoration problem, the Ministry of Antiquities announced that the mask had been poorly restored. Epoxy resin should not have been used, it said, and the techniques used had not followed accepted scientific practice.
The first rule in any restoration is documentation, including of an object's condition, previous treatment, and any other relevant details. Then a written plan for the proposed restoration and the materials and techniques to be used is drawn up, and finally the work is implemented. It is of the utmost importance that a restorer does not work alone. All of these steps must be performed by an archaeologist, a conservator and a chemist working together.
The restorer at the Cairo Museum who worked on the mask worked alone, and she did not know how the mask was fashioned. The ancient Egyptians never used any adhesive materials in the construction of an object. For example, the mask was made of two pieces: the head and the beard. The ancient artisans made a hole on the bottom of the chin of the mask and another on the top of the beard. They then prepared a thin piece of wood, or dowel, to hold the two pieces together. The only repair that might be needed would be to replace this dowel if it deteriorated. If the conservators had known this about the mask's construction, they would never have made a mistake in repairing it.
Ignorant people began to attack the Antiquities Ministry without proposing a solution. What I heard from them on the television or read in the newspapers only indicated that they were after the job of minister of antiquities. However, the position of minister cannot be taken by someone who is not qualified. I found that the press had given the title of “Dr” to someone who did not have a PhD, and another person was given the opportunity by experts in the ministry to speak to the press, even though she does not have any expertise in archaeology. When the Malawi Museum in Upper Egypt was damaged some years ago, the then minister did not want to appear on the scene. But this person did go and became something of a heroine as a result.
It was wrong to give the mask's German conservator the opportunity to talk to the press. He should have written a report to be submitted to the then minister, Mamdouh Al-Damati, and he should have been allowed to stand beside the minister at the press conference if there were questions. However, instead the German restorer incorrectly announced that Carter had brought the mask to the Egyptian Museum in 1924, when in fact Carter first saw the mask in the tomb in 1925. This conservator may be brilliant at restoration, but it was not his role to speak at the press conference.
The most important point that should have come out of the press conference was to admit that there had been a problem and that the mask had been improperly repaired. It should have been stated that the conservator who had made this mistake would be reprimanded. A second point that should have been made was that the mask had not been destroyed or lost, and a final point should have been that it would be restored in the proper fashion.
Egypt has many great conservators, and most foreign expeditions in Egypt employ their services. When we needed to remove a very delicate fresco from the walls of the Coptic Museum to restore it, for example, the American Research Centre in Egypt asked Lutfi Khaled to do the work, and he did a wonderful job.
Unfortunately, the problem in the restoration of the mask of Tutankhamun was broadcast all over the world and became a scandal to us as Egyptians. It was a scandal for those who are now in charge of the country's antiquities. There should have been a team consisting of an Egyptologist, a restorer, and a chemist to carry out the restoration of the mask, and every step should have been documented by Egyptian and international television.
We need the world to understand that the problem of the restoration of Egypt's antiquities is one that needs to be solved not by foreigners but by Egyptians.

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