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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?).