You may have heard over the past few weeks about the news of the Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun being poorly restored after it had been allegedly damaged in August 2014 during cleaning. We have been to the Egyptian Museum to check the mask with our own eyes - all those images found on the internet failed to give a clear idea of what had happened. Well, the actual situation seems to be much worse than what we had imagined. Many things have been said in the past few weeks, about which it is better to avoid commenting, so we will concentrate on the facts.
The Golden Mask is a unique piece of antiquity and represents an idealised portrait of King Tutankhamun. It was crafted by hammering together two thick sheets of gold, which were then shaped into the likeness of the king wearing the striped nemes headcloth, using inlays of semiprecious stones and coloured glass to add colour and detail. The long curled beard on the king’s chin, emblematic of divinity, is made of blue glass laid into a golden framework.
To understand what happened in fact to this spectacular masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian art we just need to look carefully at the photographs below and to keep in mind that the Golden Mask is made of two separate pieces: the entire head and the beard. The Ancient Egyptians, master goldsmiths, had attached the beard to the rest of the mask through a joint mechanism, using a small piece, or dowel pin, of wood. You can see this by looking at the photographs taken by Harry Burton, Howard Carter’s photographer, who documented the various phases of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. In these photos, the head has no beard attached and we can clearly see the metal ring under the chin to which the beard was fixed. Looking carefully at the photos taken before the recent “restoration work” (the images date from 2006) it is clear how the beard is a separate piece, and, most of all, there is no trace of glue of any kind. As far as experts know, and as Dr Zahi Hawass confirms below, the beard was never glued to the chin, but fixed through the joint mechanism used by the Ancient Egyptians. We can observe how the position of the beard, before the August “restoration” (the date of this work is still to be verified), was slightly more advanced relative to the chin. In the photos taken in the past days, we can see however how the space between the chin and the beard has been completely filled with glue on all sides and the beard is slightly set back and leaning towards the right compared with its original position.
We asked Dr Zahi to comment on this episode and this is what he told us.
“The case of the Golden Mask of Tutankhamun that emerged recently raises a number of issues which I would like to address. We must find a solution for all of them, so that the world will know that Egypt is capable of protecting its heritage, as it has done for thousands of years.
The Minister of Antiquities has confirmed that a mistake was made in the restoration of the mask: epoxy was used and the restoration was not carried out according to recognised scientific standards. Despite the fact that restoration has established rules which can be applied to different objects, every object has its own characteristics and should be restored with a specific tailor-made plan. The responsibility for the restoration must not lie exclusively in the hands of the restorer; he should cooperate with others. In Egypt, there are many great restorers, who have also cooperated with several foreign archaeological missions.
Also, no one until now has explained clearly to the public how the Golden Mask is made. This makes me suspect that no one at the Egyptian Museum at the moment actually knows how it was made, because, if this had been the case, we would have never heard of this disaster that has occurred to the mask. The mask is made of two pieces: the head and the beard. The Ancient Egyptians all knew how it was made and knew that no particular material is needed for its restoration. To attach the beard to the chin, the Ancient Egyptians opened a hole under the chin and another one on the top of the beard and connected the two holes with a thin piece of wood, or dowel pin, which would hold them together. This piece of wood needs to be replaced every 10-20 years, depending on its condition. It is a very simple process.
It is outrageous to see a restorer using epoxy to attach the two parts together. It is completely wrong, it denotes absolute ignorance of the basic features of the mask, an ignorance that has caused highly avoidable damage to a unique antiquity.
I am sorry to say that some of the maladies of Egyptian society have surfaced on the occasion of this story of the mask. Many ignorant people, including some who are in fact running for the chair of Minister of Antiquities, have shed crocodile tears as they have attacked the Minister and Egyptian restorers. And the foreign press has used this event to claim that Egyptians are ignorant and are not capable of restoring their own monuments. One of these people, for example, became a hero since she went to the Mallawi National Museum in Minya, after it had been looted and damaged in August 2013 by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, while everyone else, including the authorities, was afraid to go. However, this aspiring protectress of Egypt’s monuments has no knowledge whatsoever of archaeology or restoration.
It is also a mistake when the authorities do not quell rumours as soon they arise by telling the truth. They always wait until the rumour becomes too big. In the case of the Golden Mask, I do not understand why it took the authorities so long to hold a press conference and why the Minister of Antiquities then invited a German restorer to talk about the mask. This person said that the mask was given to the Egyptian Museum in 1924. This fact is wrong, since Howard Carter only started working on the mummy of Tutankhamum only in November 1925. He also said that they attached the beard to the mask in 1941, which is again wrong since it happened in 1944. The German restorer may be indeed a brilliant restorer, but I do not believe it was appropriate to let him speak in the press conference. He may write a report with his analysis of the issue, but it should be the Minister who announces what went wrong and what are the next steps that will be taken.
In my opinion, there is one solution to this issue. Since it has been widely said that the case of the Golden Mask represents a huge scandal for Egypt and for the people in charge of antiquities, we should respond by forming a team of Egyptian archaeologists, restorers and chemists and create an entirely Egyptian project for the restoration of the mask. This project should be recorded by Egyptian television throughout all its various steps. It should be made into a film that will be shown to the world, and which international televisions may well be willing to pay a significant amount in order to broadcast. If we record this event, we can then show to the people that the mask is safe and that it was restored in the proper way.”
There is no need to add or do anything else at the moment. We should just observe carefully the photographs and wait for the findings of the evaluation which we hope will be undertaken as soon as possible by highly qualified archaeologists and restorers assigned by the Ministry of Antiquities. This is what the most famous masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian art deserves.