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The Getty and Tutankhamun
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2019

The Getty Conservation Institute has completed a significant conservation and management project for the tomb of Tutankhamun. The project included a new lighting system, new floor for the tomb, a new air-ventilation system and the cleaning as well as stabilisation of the wall paintings.
I am happy to have been the one who signed the contract with the Getty for this project in 2009. It took about 10 years to finish the work to the end of January 2019. Jim Cuno, the president of the Getty Trust, came to Egypt to witness the work that the Getty was doing under the leadership of Timothy Whalen. The project was supervised in situ by Neville Agnew.
A symposium has been organised at the Mummification Museum to explain all the processes involved in the work, and many members of the Getty attended the event. I consider the project to be the most important for the preservation of the tomb that has been carried out thus far on this tomb which was the most important archaeological discovery in Egypt of the 20th century. This important work will be remembered because conservation preserves history.
Let us take a moment to reflect on the history of this great discovery, the damage that has occurred to the tomb from mass tourism, and when the Getty took over the conservation work. We will then need to assess the 10 years of scientific work inside the tomb and finally to address the question of what we can do now to preserve this essential work and ensure its continuation.
Should we close the tomb to the public and have tourists visit a replica, or should we limit the numbers of visitors to the tomb?
The finding of the tomb of Tutankhamun was the most important archaeological discovery yet made in Egypt because the tomb was found completely intact on 4 November 1922 with 5,398 objects inside it. The day of the discovery was the most momentous for British archaeologist Howard Carter, the man who found the tomb. He wrote the following description in his excavation diary: “hardly had I arrived on the work next morning than the unusual silence, due to the stopping of the work, made me realise that something out of the ordinary had happened. I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered… this seemed too good to be true.”
I can identify with Carter's feelings because I am now excavating in the Valley of the Kings with Fathi Yassin, my assistant in the excavation in the western valley. I always keep silent because I expect that they will tell me that we have found a tomb. When I sit inside my tent in the valley and look towards the mountains, I also imagine that there is a tomb waiting to be discovered in this vast area.
Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon, who was funding the excavations. He told him that “at last we have made a wonderful discovery in the valley, a magnificent tomb with seals intact, re-covered same for your arrival: congratulations.”
Carter opened the tomb with Carnarvon and a few others in attendance on 27 November 1922. The most famous quotation that many remember regarding the discovery was when, at the moment of the opening, Carnarvon asked Carter what he had seen and the latter answered, “wonderful things!”
The Valley of the Kings is one of the most romantic places on earth. Twenty-six tombs of the most famous kings in the history of the world, the rulers of ancient Egypt during its golden age, have been found there. What really amazes me is the fact that Carter arrived in the valley knowing that since it was his fifth year of work there, he would have no more chances to excavate because Carnarvon's funding was coming to an end.
One of the interesting stories recounted in the many books surrounding his work is that Carter had brought a canary in a cage with him. When the workmen saw it, they said that it would bring good luck, and it did in the form of the discovery of the tomb.
However, when Carter went to his tent after sending the telegram to Carnarvon, a snake had eaten the bird. I talked to Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rassoul, the last member of the Abdel-Rassoul family who found the cache of royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari in 1881. I asked him if this was true, and Abdel-Rassoul said that he did not see a snake, but that he did hear that the bird had died.
Other people think that the bird lived and was left with the wife of Carter's photographer Harry Burton. But whether it was heralded by the death of this bird or not, there was trouble in store for Carter.
ANALYSIS: I myself carried out interesting work with Tutankhamun when I received a CT scan machine as a gift from the US magazine National Geographic and the German Siemens Company.
I proceeded to scan the mummy, and when I took the lid off and removed the third coffin that topped the mummy, I had a wonderfully memorable moment: meeting the golden king Tutankhamun face to face.
The CT scan revealed that he had had one club foot and one flat foot, so blood had not reached his toes. This is why in his tomb there were around 130 sticks and staves that aided him while walking. He also suffered from malaria.
The project to examine the royal mummies also revealed much about the family of Tutankhamun. With DNA analysis, we were able to determine that the badly preserved mummy found in tomb KV55 was that of Akhenaten, who was the son of Amenhotep III and queen Tiye, as well as the father of Tutankhamun. The mummy found in KV35 known as the “Younger Lady” was found to be the mother of Tutankhamun, but she had no name though she was the daughter of Amenhotep III and queen Tiye.
I found that the mummy of Tutankhamun had suffered a lot in modern times from the breathing of the tourists who visited the tomb, the temperature and humidity inside the tomb, and the dust. We arranged for a showcase to be made in Germany to preserve the mummy and moved the mummy from the sarcophagus to this new showcase.
Of course, millions of people have visited the tomb since it was found in 1922. The tomb has also suffered from this mass tourism; for example, in 2010 there were 10,000 visitors to the tomb every day. The tourists still used flash photography at that time, and we noted damage to the wall scenes due to the moisture in their breath. The scenes had begun to fade, the floors were in bad condition, and there were brown spots on the wall paintings that many thought could be dangerous to them.
Almost every film crew that comes to Egypt also wants to film inside the tomb of Tutankhamun, which accelerates the deterioration. I realised that the scenes on the walls could be damaged forever if this situation continued. I announced to the press that in fewer than 100 years it could be that all of those wonderful tombs would be gone because of the way we were treating them.
We could understand why some people asked for the tomb to be sealed again. Others made other suggestions, such as limiting the number of visitors per day.
When I had observed these problems, I found a reputable institute to save the tomb: for me, it was clear that the Getty would be one for the job. Before I made this decision, I looked at the history of the Getty and recalled the incredible work that the Institute had accomplished at the tomb of Nefertari from 1986 to 1992.
Those who saw this tomb before the Getty did the restoration work saw that it had suffered tremendously from the salt that was leaching from the mountain rock and damaging the scenes on the walls. No one believed that the tomb could have been saved back then.
However, Luis Monreal was in charge at the time as director of the Getty Conservation Institute. This hired a great Italian restorer, Paolo Mora, who led a team of fantastic conservators with young Egyptians who were in training. When I saw the tomb after the work had been carried out, I could not believe that it had been saved and had become so beautiful.
I was recently in front of the tomb and saw a lady exiting from it. She was crying. I went to see what was wrong and was told that she was crying because of the beauty of the tomb. The Getty also achieved a great project to preserve the non-royal mummy of “X” that had been sent to Los Angeles. This was a non-royal mummy to be used as a control experiment for the project.
The Getty designed a showcase and equipped the machines to control the humidity and heat. It also later cooperated with me on the restoration of the Sphinx.
TUTANKHAMUN'S TOMB: In 2009, I met Whalen, who was and still is the director of the Getty Conservation Institute. He is a very nice man and is a scholar and scientist who is respected and knowledgeable about the organisation and supervision of a team on such projects.
The institute began the conservation of Tutankhamun's tomb in 2009 after the agreement with Whalen, who appointed Agnew to supervise the project. Agnew used to meet all the archaeologists who worked in the West Bank at Luxor to discuss the preservation of the West Bank and not just of Tutankhamun's tomb.
The Getty study indicated that the large spots on the walls of the tomb were not dangerous and had had no harmful effects on the scenes. The other issues of the lighting, conservation, and cleaning of the scenes, as well as the replacement of the floor, were carried out using the latest scientific methods to ensure that this work would save the most famous tomb in the world.
The major issue now is what we can do to preserve this tomb in the future. Should we close the tomb to the public and simply use the replica near Howard Carter's rest house?
The number of visitors to the tomb reached about 10,000 a day by 2010, and all of them visit the tomb at least once in the morning. This can damage the tomb and, again, I have to say that tourism is the enemy of archaeology in this case. We need to protect the tomb from tourism.
When I asked Whalen and Agnew to tackle the issue, they did not agree that the tomb should be closed completely. They wanted the Ministry of Antiquities to follow the rules and recommendations that they had written after the work on the tomb was finished and ready for the first visitors.
When the trustees of the Getty Trust came to Egypt, with them was my friend James Cuno, the president of the Getty Trust. I had met Jim Cuno for the first time at Oxford University two years before when we were attending a debate about stolen artefacts in a question-and-answer format. The issue debated was whether stolen artefacts should be returned to their original countries or not.
During the Getty trustees' visit to Egypt, we all had dinner in the golden room at Mohamed Ali's Palace. We were accompanied by Khaled El-Enany, minister of antiquities, and Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Cuno asked me about the history of the beautiful room we were in. I smiled because I knew little about the palace's history except that it was built by Mohamed Ali Tawfik, the uncle of king Farouk, in 1903, and had been furnished in 1910 in a variety of artistic styles.
He had lived in it until 1936. The hall was built to be a throne room, and it has Ottoman-style decoration and paintings of the kings of Egypt. He used a throne covered with gold in the French style. We heard this information from the person now in charge of the palace.
We then discussed the ancient tomb and how to implement the Getty's recommendations, because I could see that Whalen and Agnew were really keen on the continuation of their efforts. They thought the ministry should appoint one person to be in charge of the tomb, recommending Ramadan Ahmed Ali who was working in the conservation effort with the Getty team. El-Enany agreed to appoint him, and the discussion happened in the presence of Louise Bryson, the former president of the Getty Trustees.
Cuno and the other members of the board were really happy to come to Egypt to celebrate and see the magnificent work that the institute had done. I met them on their first day in front of the Sphinx and gave them a lecture on the history of the Pyramids as well as the major discoveries that had happened on the site, such as the tombs of the Pyramid builders and the secret doors found inside the Great Pyramid.
I told the trustees about the great work of the Getty Institute in Egypt, especially in the tomb of Nefertari and how Paulo Mora, the restorer, had accomplished a miracle here, as well as the training of the Egyptian conservators. I even said that I had been in the Valley of the Queens doing a TV interview when I saw the lady who had cried because of the tomb's beauty. I mentioned another American tourist that I had met who had told me that he had not been able to believe that something like this tomb could exist and that the artists who created it should have had their names engraved in gold in history.
I could see that the Getty trustees were really delighted to see the Getty Institute's latest contribution to the conservation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The discussion of the future of the tomb took place between me, the minister, Cuno, and Whalen. We talked about the great project that the Getty had done in the site management of the Valley of the Queens.
The entrance of Tutankhamun's tomb
LOOKING FORWARD: A major project had also been launched to protect the Valley of the Queens from floods, and the Getty did a study to preserve the valley though a very comprehensive site-management plan.
The study was finished in 2010, but we could not implement its recommendations then because of the rise in the price of the dollar. I believed we needed to raise about $10 million, so we asked Cuno for assistance.
The other important project that we need to do, and I can see that Cuno and Whalen are really willing to fund, is the further conservation of the tomb of Nefertari. The tomb was completely restored, or maybe it is not good to use the word “restoration,” as Agnew said in his lecture in 1992 (restoration implies reconstruction, but conservation encourages maintenance).
However, since that time, nothing further has been done. We now need to install a ventilation system, lighting, and change the floors, among other tasks. The Getty will start soon on this project as well.
I think that the sort of wealth of archaeology on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor cannot be seen in any other place in the world. It has the most beautiful tombs on earth. How can we preserve these treasures? We cannot deal with each site alone. I hope that the ministry of antiquities can go back to the 12 projects that I wanted to do, but never got a chance to because of what has happened to Egypt over recent years.
Our plan was to build a site conservation centre on the West Bank. The location would be next to Carter's rest house at the entrance of the Valley. This centre should set out rules for each site, such as on conservation, excavation, and the number of tourists to be allowed to visit. Visits to the temples can happen at any time, but the tombs should be visited three times a day, once in the morning, afternoon, and evening. We did install a lighting system for the West Bank so that visitors could visit in the evening. This centre should be responsible for the conservation and the planning of the entire West Bank.
I think that if we continue to restore the tombs, we should do so with a vision for the future. If we do not do that, and if this centre is not built, I think that these tombs could still be destroyed in fewer than 100 years. Photographers should photograph the scenes on the walls inside them and the inscriptions inside the tombs and temples on a yearly basis, so that we can study their evolution.
Finally, the authorities also need to give scientists the opportunity to make decisions regarding the planning and safety of the monuments. These essential tasks should not be left to officials who may have little knowledge of archaeology or monuments.

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