King Tut's death mask glued together in botched repair

King Tut's death mask glued together in botched repair
Artefact from Tutankhamun's tomb damaged and apparently glued back together with epoxy after routine cleaning goes wrong at Cairo's Egyptian Museum.
4 min read
22 January, 2015
Damage to Tut's mask (left, inset), and the mask in 2009 [Getty/al-Araby]

At the Egypt Museum, in the centre of Cairo, lies one of the world's priceless artefacts. Proudly displayed in a room of its own is the golden death mask of Tutankhamun, the famous boy-king of Ancient Egypt.

But on a visit to the museum this week, al-Araby al-Jadeed found the lighting in the room to be uncharacteristically subdued, and something not quite right with the 3,000-year-old artefact. 

Al-Araby visited the museum on information that the mask had been damaged in an accident, and someone had tried to fix it with a pot of glue.

A thick shiny substance appeared smeared between the blue and the gold of the mask's beard and face. Scratches could be seen on the left side of the gold face.

Comparing the current state of the mask to pictures of when it was discovered in 1922 indicated a clear deterioration in the mask's condition.
Tut, tut...

A member of the conservation department, who did not wish to be identified, told al-Araby that the mask was sent for cleaning last October. During the cleaning process, the beard was damaged.

Management of the department then ignored procedure, according to the staff member. After the head of the restoration department, Elham Abd al-Rahman, was notified of the incident, the museum director moved the mask to the conservation laboratory. It was here where it was stuck back together.

"Abd al-Rahman's husband, Hatem Abd al-Latif, who is also an expert in the restoration of antiques, used a paste called epoxy, which is irreversible and cannot be detached," said the staff member.

"Epoxy is used with stone because it powerfully solidifies and once applied cannot be separated again, no matter how much time has gone by.

"I couldn't stay and watch what was happening so I left the laboratory because I would have lost my temper if I stayed," the source said. 

Al-Araby spoke to another member of staff present at the "restoration" process.

Glued on 

"After the expert restorer Abd al-Latif glued on the false beard it was obvious that it no longer appeared the same. The adhesive had spread to the sides of the mask and it was clear that there was further damage," the witness said.

"A couple of weeks later the adhesive on the mask was noticed and a number of curators complained about what had been done.

"So the head of the conservation department removed the glass display case, with the approval of the museum director, and removed the epoxy resin from the sides by using a metal scalpel. This is what scratched the mask." 

     The director of the museum reportedly ordered the lights in the room holding the gold mask to be dimmed.

The source says that after this, the museum director Mahmoud al-Halwagi ordered the lights in the mask room to be dimmed.  

The official response

Halwagi denied that the mask had been damaged, telling al-Araby: "All of this talk is not correct, and whoever wants proof should come to the Egyptian Museum."

He said the claims made by staff were "due to disagreements because of changes in the museum's administration".

"There is a new system that many people do not like," he said. "They would rather continue to work the wrong way."

Yusuf Khalifa, the head of the Egyptian antiquities department, said the mask was "all right and nothing has happened to it, and whoever wants to make sure of this should go to the exhibition hall".

He said pictures obtained by al-Araby of the damaged mask could be from a replica.

"Replicas are widespread in Egypt's markets. Some of the news that spreads through the biased press or through Facebook is fabricated.

Restoring the damage

Mohammad Abd al-Hadi, a lecturer on the restoration of ancient buildings, said the damage could cause international uproar. "International heritage organisations view the mask as being an integral part of world history, and not just Egypt's," he said. "They will not remain silent."

Malik Adly, a lawyer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, said that there are laws against the sabotage, tampering or damage of Egyptian antiquities.

"The antiquities law has simple punishments for such situations. Article 42 of the law states that anyone who destroys or intentionally damages an artefact or historical site, or defaces it and changes its characteristics, or anyone who takes part in such actions, shall be jailed for five to seven years, and fined between 3,000 ($400) to 50,000 ($6,700) Egyptian pounds," he said.

The tomb of treasures

Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered Tutankhamun's burial mask in the pharaoh's nearly intact tomb in 1922 in Luxor's Valley of the Kings, where the powerful nobles of the New Kingdom were buried.

King Tut was the son the "heretic king" Akhenaten who tried to change Ancient Egyptian religion by worshipping Aten, the sun disc, over the traditional pantheon of gods. 

Tut ruled for about 10 years and died at the age of 19. His relative unimportance and the nearby construction of other kings' tombs covered the entrance of his small and hastily built tomb with rubble, meaning it was left untouched by grave-robbers before Carter's discovery.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. 

Al-Araby al-Jadeed's Arabic edition broke the story of the damage to the mask on 18 January. This report was picked up by the AP news agency and has since been verified by the BBC.