By Jeffrey Levin

He became pharaoh when he was only about nine years old. His was not a reign distinguished by great conquests or domestic achievement. Dominated by elder officials, Tutankhamun died at around the age of nineteen and was buried in a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings, in Thebes. Several hundred years later his tomb was lost completely when it was covered over with rubble dumped from above by workmen cutting a tomb for Rameses VI. He was among the most forgotten of pharaohs.

Yet now, perhaps no pharaoh is better known. In 1922 archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed his tomb and made the name of Tutankhamun synonomous with the power and the glory of ancient Egypt. Within the tomb's three chambers Carter found thousands of masterpieces of jewelry, furniture, and art objects.

The burial place of Tutankhamun remains the only royal Egyptian tomb discovered in modern times virtually intact. The rubble that consigned the tomb and its occupant to obscurity also protected it for over 30 centuries, preserving its treasures from the grave robbers of antiquity who looted so many other tombs.

Today the tomb's priceless artifacts fill several galleries in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But the tomb itself has not been emptied of all its treasures. The boy king still lies in his sarcophagus in the tomb's burial chamber. Surrounding him is art. The walls of the chamber are covered with images and hieroglyphic texts of unusual proportions, colored in bright tones over a muted yellow background. Among the images are ones of Tutankhamun himself.

Since its discovery and scientific excavation, the tomb has been subjected to intense visitation by tourists. Unfortunately, human presence in the tomb may have exacerbated problems in the wall paintings, including cracked and flaking paint and dark patches on the pictorial surface. Because of these problems, the tomb was recently closed to the public.

Now action is being taken to preserve this most famous of pharaonic tombs. The Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) recently launched a collaborative program of scientific study, conservation, and management for the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The project was announced at a Cairo press conference on September 23, 1992 by EAO Chairman Mohamed Ibrahim Bakr and GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzo. "The tomb of Tutankhamun is a singular example of our country's rich and extraordinary heritage, with wall paintings of the utmost importance for the insights they provide into the use of art as an instrument of historical change," said Bakr. "We are very pleased to embark on this endeavor with the Getty Conservation Institute to preserve the tomb for future generations."

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"The Egyptian government," Mr. Corzo told the press conference, "is showing foresight and courage in taking on the challenge of protecting its irreplaceable ancient monuments and sites from the multitude of threats facing them today: mass tourism, urban development, pollution, time, and the elements. We welcome the opportunity to assist our colleagues at the EAO in this important effort."

The joint project will include three phases over several years. During the first phase, a project team will assess and document the tomb's present condition, as well as compile a history of deterioration problems and previous treatments. Team scientists will analyze the causes of the wall paintings' deterioration. This analysis will include: (1) identification of the materials of the wall paintings and substrate; (2) identification of materials used in past interventions; and, (3) the response of these materials to the tomb's past and present environment. A diagnosis of the causes of deterioration will be developed on the basis of this information.

During the first phase, the EAO and the GCI will discuss the management of the tomb and its eventual availability to visitors and scholars. Plans for the tomb's ultimate use will help determine the nature and extent of the conservation effort. Once decisions concerning use and access are reached, an appropriate program of conservation treatment and maintenance will be prepared.

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Phase two of the project will include the planning and implementation of the tomb's conservation, which will be documented photographically before and after each campaign. The project's final phase will involve the development of a program for the long-term maintenance and monitoring of the tomb, including physical protection measures if necessary.

Conservation of the tomb's wall paintings will be led by Paolo and Laura Mora, who supervised the conservation of the tomb of Nefertari. However, unlike the Nefertari Project, most of the work will be performed by Egyptian conservators.

"We see the Tutankhamun Project as building on the success of our conservation efforts in the tomb of Nefertari, and as the realization of one of that project's primary goals: to provide Egyptian conservators with hands-on training and experience that they can apply to the preservation of other ancient sites and monuments in the region," explained Neville Agnew, GCI Special Projects Director. "This, perhaps, is the most valuable contribution we can make to the long-term welfare of Egypt's cultural treasures."