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Getty's symphony for Tutankhamun
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 03 - 2019

When the tomb of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19, was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter, the media frenzy that followed was incredible and continues to this day. The tomb alone attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Moreover, the modern city of Luxor with its monuments of the Karnak and Luxor Temples on the East Bank, and the necropolis on the West Bank, together with the mortuary temples, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the tombs of the Nobles, nearly 1,000 in total, all attract an endless stream of visitors.
Almost every tourist to the Valley of the Kings enters king Tutankhamun's tomb, one of the smallest in the valley consisting of only four chambers and with only the burial chamber painted. All the other walls are bare, a unique situation in royal tombs and an indication that Tutankhamun's death had been unexpected, and his tomb had to be prepared in haste.
The archaeologist Neville Agnew was the maestro who led the team that performed the conservation work on the tomb of Tutankhamun. He exercised the most professional leadership throughout and was supported by Timothy Whalen, the director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in the US.
This is what we need in Egypt: conservation. We need to preserve our heritage, and the Getty carried out what we really need. The conservation work on the tomb of Tutankhamun was in my opinion the most important project ever done in the archaeology of Egypt, and it was led by professional scholars Whalen and Agnew.
I would like to thank them on behalf of Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, and Mustafa Waziri, director-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
I asked Agnew to write a brief summary of the Getty's work on the tomb. I do not think I need to change anything in the text he wrote, because it is important for the world to know all the steps of this conservation project that took 10 years to complete.
The text appears below.
“Rising concerns were expressed about the condition of the tomb and the impact of so many visitors all clamouring for entry. Day after day, year after year, visitors had flowed in and out of the tomb like the tide coming in and going out. Nobody knows how many people have been into the tomb since its discovery — it must be in the many millions.
“After 3,232 years of total darkness and quiet, seemingly safe deep below the valley floor, it was subjected to a dramatic and shocking change — lights, people, the shuffle of feet on the wooden viewing platform, and the sometimes loud babble of voices as excited visitors pointed and exclaimed. Then film crews made endless demands for access, and they swarmed into the tomb with even more powerful lights dragging tripods and cables, sometimes bumping into the walls and dragging against the beautiful quartzite sarcophagus.
“Some were even so thoughtless as to scratch graffiti on the walls; visitors picked at the paintings where they could reach out from the platform into the burial chamber; they shed lint from their clothes, dust from their shoes, sweat from their bodies, and carbon dioxide from their breath.
Conservators at work in the burial chamber
“Worse, what was the effect of all this on the disfiguring brown spots on the wall paintings in the tomb? These spots, up to a few centimetres in diameter, appeared only on the wall paintings. They had been noted with interest by Carter, who believed they were microbiological, fungi and bacteria. Unknown in other tombs in Egypt, there was no frame of reference to be certain that the change in environment caused by the visitors was not reactivating the spots. Were they growing and would they spread and destroy the wall paintings?
“Such changes to the ancient art of underground monuments are well known. For example, the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in France had been afflicted by aggressive fungus after the tomb was opened to tourists. Nobody really knew how to deal with the fungus, but it certainly resulted from the huge change in the microclimate. It seemed very possible that Tutankhamun's tomb might go the same way. A sort of panic resulted, and experiments were conducted to try to sterilise the spots and the tomb itself. There was no certainty that the treatments would be effective. Many news media kept up the clamour for answers. Some said the tomb had to be sealed again, while others called for fewer visitors or for access only by small numbers of visitors and so on.
“When Zahi Hawass took over as head of the Antiquities Organisation, he turned to the GCI, a trusted partner which had previously conducted a six-year conservation of the spectacularly beautiful wall paintings in the tomb of queen Nefertari, the favourite wife of Ramses the Great, the long-lived and one of the most powerful rulers in all of Egypt's history. Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens had suffered from a different kind of ‘disease' — natural salts in the wall paintings that were destroying them. The acclaim that the success in the conservation of Nefertari's tomb received gave Hawass the confidence to approach the Getty with a new challenge: that of dealing with the spots, but not only the spots, also the other threats to Tutankhamun's tomb.
“The GCI rose to the challenge, and in 2009 it began an intensive study with SCA personnel of the condition of the tomb and the wall paintings and, of course, the spots. The objectives of the project were to conserve the wall paintings, improve the environmental conditions, upgrade the infrastructure (lighting, walkways, viewing platform, and ventilation) and presentation of the tomb (signage and interpretative materials), undertake the training of staff, and devise a programme for the sustainable maintenance and visitation of the tomb.
“A big team was assembled: Egyptologists, conservators, engineers to study the environment and ways to improve it, designers, lighting experts, scientists to research the materials of the tomb, research librarians and photographic archivists. Many organisations generously shared their knowledge and resources. After 10 years, with unavoidable delays, the project is complete, and the tomb is in stable condition with a pleasant environment for visitors due to the new filtered air-ventilation system and the wall paintings cleaned and stabilised.
“No restoration was done — that is forbidden in modern conservation practice because restoration diminishes the authenticity of the original and that over time could lead to confusion as to what is real and what is new, and we do not have the right to do that.
“The good news was that the spots were definitely not growing — the micro-organisms are dead. This was shown in two ways by sophisticated micro-biological analysis and testing and more simply by a careful examination of historic photographs from Carter's time. Comparison of the wall paintings with the photographs showed no growth of the existing spots and no new spots. The result is conclusive.
“The less good news is that extremely fine dust cannot be totally excluded from the tomb when thousands of visitors enter daily bearing dust and lint on their clothes. While most of the dust will be extracted by the ventilation system that supplies filtered air, it is impossible to maintain a dust-free environment. After all, outside is the desert, with frequent dust storms and people walking into the tomb covered in dust. It is a bad situation for conservation because cleaning the wall paintings, which are fragile, inevitably leads to the loss of paint fragments that is irreversible and cumulative.
Conservators at work in the burial chamber
“A symposium was organised at the end of January 2019 in Luxor to present the project to the Egyptian authorities, archaeologists, and the press. Zahi Hawass spoke on behalf of the ministry of antiquities and expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the project and thanks to the GCI, which again had rescued one of the treasures of Egypt.
“In 2022, the centenary of the discovery of the tomb will be the occasion for renewed celebrations and more public interest and exhibitions on Tutankhamun's life and times and his untimely death. Ever more visitors will come to see the treasure in the Grand Egyptian Museum and to the tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Now that the Getty Conservation Institute and the Supreme Council of Antiquities have completed the conservation of the tomb and renewed and upgraded the infrastructure, lighting and ventilation, with new signs in English and Arabic, it is the obligation of the authorities to keep the tomb in the best condition possible.
“If neglect were to be the case, it would be noticed by international visitors and the press that the tomb's condition had deteriorated once again. Such an unfortunate situation would not bring credit to the authorities. At historic sites in Egypt, monitoring of the condition and maintenance of the infrastructure have not been strong points in the past.
“The joint GCI-SCA team has drawn up a manual in English and Arabic for day-to-day, weekly, monthly, and annual monitoring and maintenance. Though not exciting like archaeological discovery, the functions of site management cannot be neglected or a site will suffer irreversible damage. The site manager and the authorities in Luxor and on the West Bank have confidence that the tomb, with guidance from the manual, will be well protected and managed for the future, and the Getty stands by to provide advice and support should it be needed — after all, that is what partners and friends should do for each other.
“We all want the glorious tomb of Tutankhamun to continue to exist in the best possible condition for centuries to come.”


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