By Lori Wong
Since the discovery of the treasure-filled tomb of Tutankhamen by archaeologist Howard Carter in November 1922, the world has been captivated by Tut. Recent exhibits and news articles, such as those speculating on how the young king died, have continued to fuel interest around the world in King Tut and the spectacular funerary artifacts found within his tomb.
The tomb of Tutankhamen—located in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of Luxor and once the royal necropolis of ancient Thebes—is actually one of the smallest tombs in the valley. It is also relatively simple: only the four walls of the burial chamber are decorated with paintings. Typically, Egyptian royal tombs are complex, with multiple chambers, as well as walls and ceilings painted throughout. The texts and scenes painted in the tomb's interior were created to help the deceased king through his journey into the afterlife. The simplicity of Tut's tomb is due to his unexpected death, only a decade into his reign; Tut's sudden demise necessitated the hasty adaptation of a preexisting tomb for his interment and explains the limited painted scheme, the hurried execution of the paintings, and the tomb's unfinished chambers.
Today the tomb of Tutankhamen is one of the most popular sites on the West Bank, because of its celebrated history. It is the only tomb to have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings with its burial treasure virtually intact. Flocks of visitors descend upon it daily to view the site where Carter, having first laid eyes on the golden artifacts, famously uttered that he saw "wonderful things." The tomb is now empty—apart from the quartzite sarcophagus (containing the gilded-wood outermost coffin) in the burial chamber and the mummy of Tutankhamen, which in 2007 was moved from the burial chamber to the antechamber for display. The extraordinary objects found by Carter were systematically removed over the course of the decade following their discovery, and they are now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Recently the condition of the tomb and its wall paintings has been the subject of much concern. There are fears that the high number of visitors could be contributing to the tomb's physical deterioration, and worry remains regarding the disfiguring dark brown spots that mar the paintings, which were already present at the time of discovery and noted by Carter and his team. The nature and origin of these mysterious spots have never been fully ascertained, and it is not clear whether they pose a threat to the wall paintings.
In 2008 the Getty Conservation Institute entered into a five-year partnership with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to collaborate on a project for the conservation and management of the tomb. The objectives of the project are to establish a methodological approach to conserving the tomb through investigation of the causes of deterioration, and then to design and implement a conservation program. Special attention will be placed on establishing the causes and nature of the brown spots and assessing the physical and environmental impact of visitors on the preservation of the tomb, as well as creating guidelines for safe visitation. The project also aims to enhance the interpretation and presentation of the tomb and its contents for visitors.
The three-phased project follows a values-based conservation methodology, in which the historic and artistic values and significance of the tomb guide conservation and management decisions. The first phase (2009–10) is focused on research and assessment. So far, these efforts have included study of the literature; overall photography; investigation into the construction of the tomb and the technology of the wall paintings, sarcophagus, and coffin through visual observation and noninvasive analytical tools; condition recording; environmental monitoring; and initial analysis and diagnosis of the causes of deterioration. A program of limited sampling is planned for the fall 2010 campaign, to help identify the binding media of the paint and to carry out microbiological analysis of the brown spots, among other things. Based on the results of this first phase, the SCA and the GCI will consider needs for the tomb and together will develop a conservation plan.
The second and third phases will be conducted over a three-year period (2011–13). The second phase will focus on the implementation of the conservation plan for the tomb and its wall paintings and on the development of a program for longterm condition monitoring and maintenance. This phase will also create policies for presentation and interpretation, visitation, and other uses of the tomb; these policies will be put into practice during the third and final phase. Also as part of the final phase, the results of the project will be evaluated and disseminated to a wide professional and public audience.
Ultimately the Tutankhamen project seeks to provide a model case study that can enhance conservation practice and knowledge in the region. SCA conservators and scientists are participating in the project, and the project is providing training opportunities designed to increase conservation capacity and scientific expertise in Egypt.
The Tomb of Tutankhamen project is the GCI's most recent collaboration with the SCA in Egypt. Over twenty years ago, the Institute undertook the conservation of the wall paintings in the tomb of Queen Nefertari, the queen of the powerful ruler Ramses II. Currently the GCI is also collaborating with the SCA on the implementation of a conservation and management plan for the Valley of the Queens and on the local fabrication of GCI-designed oxygen-free display and storage cases to be installed at the Royal Mummies exhibit of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.
As with the GCI's other collaborations with Egypt, the Tutankhamen project has as its focus a remarkable part of antiquity. Completed in 1323 BCE during the Eighteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the tomb and its colorful wall paintings survive today in remarkably stable condition. However, the importance of this tomb—inextricably linked to its precious artifacts and the lasting fame of Tutankhamen himself—combined with the increasing pressures of tourism, warrants a comprehensive, multiyear conservation and management project to ensure the site's preservation for generations to come.
Lori Wong is a project specialist with GCI Field Projects.