The Battle of the Beard: Tut’s shave stirs controversy

I work in Cairo, and this week I had the interesting experience of being at the edge of a huge news story. Ancient Egypt is always popular but I’ve never seen anything like the media scrum that descended on the Cairo Museum last week. You all know why – the Minister for Antiquities and his colleagues were responding to allegations that the gold and glass beard on the funerary mask of Tutankhamun had been damaged by restorers. The truth was rather more prosaic than some of the wilder flights of fancy that had been circulating beforehand.

Beard Blog Media scrum

Courtesy J. Smythe

As most Egyptologists know, and had been patiently explaining to anyone within earshot since the story broke, the beard was made separately from the rest of the mask. Howard Carter detached it when he extracted the mummy from the solid gold innermost coffin in the 1920s. In fact the mask spent its first decade-and-a-bit on display in the Cairo Museum beardless.  It was re-attached in the 1940s.

Burton photograph p0751 Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Burton photograph p0751
Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

So, rather than the beard being ‘snapped off’, all that had happened was that the adhesive used to attach the 4 lb beard (that’s a LOT of beard … ) had weakened with age and lost its mojo. The beard needed to be stuck back on again. Cairo Museum has its own conservation department, where specialists and visiting researchers keep track of the objects in the museum. At the press conference Christian Eckmann, who is one of the world’s leading conservators of ancient metal, gave a professional assessment of what had happened and what it meant. A heavy lump of smoothly polished metal needs a heavy duty adhesive to keep it attached to another lump of smoothly polished metal. A blob of Elmers isn’t enough. The museum conservators employed an epoxy resin to re-attach the beard.

Although epoxy might sound like the nuclear option, it can be a valid solution for heavier-duty repairs. The obvious problem with the repair is that some excess epoxy squeezed up between the join and smeared over Tutankhamun’s chin. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this can be remedied. Polished gold is an inert, slippery surface; adhesives, generally, don’t bond well with it. Given careful attention and time, Christian Eckmann said, the excess can be removed mechanically, or the whole repair dismantled and treated again. Solid gold is one of the more forgiving materials.

If this has turned out to be perhaps a bit more than a storm in a shaving basin, there are some bigger take homes from it.

1) The media frenzy is (partly) a reassuring display of how much the mask, and Egyptian heritage, means to people in Egypt and worldwide. Now the facts are out, we know where matters stand. If you want to keep in the loop, and show your support for Egyptian history, subscribe to the Facebook page of the Patrons of the Egyptian Museum

2) People often think of museums as places where nothing changes. In fact, we curators, registrars, and conservators have to work hard to keep the effects of time from the objects in their care. Sometimes things don’t go quite as we planned. Every conservator will tell you that each treatment has a potential downside to it, and every curator and conservator had an “I could have had to deal with this” moment when they heard about the beard. At HMNS, we’re lucky enough to have Ron Harvey working as our consulting conservator. Ron has worked for HMNS on material ranging from Lucy, the early fossil hominid, to our Egyptian coffins.

3) And, last but not least, if you’d like to get face-to-face with Tut without taking an 18 hour flight to Cairo, come to the Hall of Ancient Egypt and feast your eyes on two objects in particular.

The first is a small head from a statue of the god Amun. The heavy lidded eyes and pouting mouth are pure Tut, and clearly date the head to his nine year reign.

Beard Blog Amun

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

The second is this slightly under life-size bust of a man. He’s wearing the long, undulating wig and short-sleeved pleated shirt in fashion for high officials at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1320 BC). Just like Amun’s, his face is very close to Tutankhamun’s.

Courtesy Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Courtesy Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Why do both god and commoner look like their king? The answer to this helps reveal how the Egyptians viewed their world. This revolved around the king, a god on earth and intermediary between man and the immortals. As the king was the only god who permanently took human form, it made sense for his face to be used on representations of other gods, binding him closer to them. For the king’s subjects, adopting some of his facial traits brought them closer to him, demonstrating their loyalty and obedience. In the case of our bust, this might be rather ironic. The inscribed base of the statue is missing, but some people have identified it as a representation of Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s army chief. Horemheb became king a few years after Tutankhamun’s untimely death. Perhaps his loyal expression was only skin deep (er, a mask…?).

Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry

Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this[picture of green “Crystals of India” crystal specimen] example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative (photo of white spikey crystal from Crystals of India), they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)



Unmasking Everyday Superheroes with HMNS Outreach!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by HMNS Outreach Presenter Sahil Patel.

Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it actually is a bird, flying faster than most cars.

Superpowers, such as the Flash-like super speed of the peregrine falcon above, are abundant throughout the natural world and specifically highlighted by several specimens in the HMNS Outreach collection.

Superhero Hamilton

Meet Hamilton the blue-tongued skink, who has the ability to regrow most of his tail should it be separated from his body!

In addition to a stuffed peregrine falcon that travels with our Texas Wildlife program, the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels lineup is full of noteworthy unlikely heroes. Like Wolverine of X-Men, traveling specimens such as our blue-tongued skink from Reptiles & Amphibians or starfish from Invertebrates exhibit regeneration after loss of tail and limb, respectively.

Ed Bugs 3

Vinny the vinegaroon has an awesome superpower, the ability to spray acid with his abdomen!

Our newest LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels program, Awesome Arachnids, gets your Spidey-Sense tingling with a few undercover superheroes. The program will bring out specimens such as an emperor scorpion, which glows electric blue under ultraviolet light, and a vinegaroon, which sprays an acetic acid and caprylic acid mixture from its abdomen when threatened. And don’t forget about the wall-crawling creatures that spawned Spiderman! Awesome Arachnids also features two tarantulas, who can climb with special retractable claws! 

Superheroes like Batman and Iron Man use science and technology to their advantage when fighting crime, and after a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage presentation, your knowledge of chemistry or physics can rival theirs! Learn about the super heat used to produce colors in fireworks with Cool Chemistry, or explore the tricks anyone can use to acquire super strength through simple machines with Motion Commotion!

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 5.13.21 PM

Stepping back in time 70 million years could have brought you face to face with these supersized T. rex teeth!

Very few superheroes have the ability to travel through time, but kids can harness this ability through Chevron Earth Science On Wheels! Shift back millions of years and explore the characteristics and adaptations of prehistoric life with Dinosaur Discovery, or combine time travel with super smarts in Know Your Rocks, in which students save the day by classifying different types of rocks.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 5.14.22 PM

Children and adults alike love the Discovery Dome for its superb selection of shows, available in English and Spanish!

We certainly can’t forget about the superhero qualities of the men and women working in outer space. With hazards ranging from freezing temperatures to rapidly moving matter to a lack of air, outer space is a place fraught with danger. Learn more about the extremes of life in space and much more with our Discovery Dome, which features a wide selection of shows from the Burke Baker Planetarium!

Every hero has a story, and you can unmask your own with HMNS Outreach, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood science museum.

Contact us at or (713) 639-4758 to book your HMNS Outreach program today!

The Secret Handshake: Presenting Business Cards in Japan

Editor’s Note: This post was provided by Kuraray, local sponsor to the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior on display now at HMNS.

“Do you have a card?” is a phrase uttered daily in American business. To us, it’s a piece of paper. We take notes on them, stuff them in our pockets and hopefully file them for future easy access.

But, in Japan, business cards are considered extensions of the individual — formal self-introductions that are treated with the utmost respect.

As such, “meishi koukan” (the exchanging of business cards) commands a distinct level of etiquette, complete with its own process:

  • Remove cards from an actual business card case prior to the meeting and place them on top.
  • Beginning with visitors, highest-ranking attendees exchange cards first. This helps the Japanese learn who is in command.
  • Hold card on the top corner with right hand and offer it with the information facing out. Left hand holds the case.
  • Briefly introduce yourself as you present the card, stating your name and company.
  • When other person reciprocates, receive card with your left hand. Carefully read the information. Restate the person’s name and thank them.
  • Display cards received during the meeting, arranging them from left to right in the order of seating (from your point of view). Learn the names of the people you are speaking with and show respect.

Other tips to remember:

  • Never stuff a card into your pocket – it’s considered extremely rude.
  • It is a direct insult to bend, damage or write on the card in front of the owner.
  • Always maintain an ample supply of cards. You may distribute dozens in a larger meeting, and give multiples to the same person.

Despite these rules, every situation will be slightly different and your Japanese counterparts may have another understanding of what is considered protocol. When in doubt, always err on the side of showing respect and politeness.

 Want to learn more about Japanese culture and traditions? Visit HMNS to see Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, on display through September 7, 2015. Local support for this exhibit is provided by Kuraray.