Oh, the intrigue! A bit of a modern day whodunit is brewing these days at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that is part Indiana Jones, part Mr. Bean. The two mysterious questions that need to be answered are: Who broke the 3,300-year-old beard off the famed burial mask of the King Tutankhamun? And even more interesting: Who decided to simply superglue it back on?
If there were a straight answer to these questions this story might be over before it started. But, thankfully, museum conservators appear to be engaged in a fair bit of palace intrigue, pointing figures, and pushing alternative theories about the damaged artifact. As you can imagine, King Tut is a pretty big deal in Egypt. The exhibit is a tourist juggernaut and, as the BBC points out, when Tutankhamun’s intact tomb was discovered in 1922 it sparked a worldwide fascination with archaeology and ancient Egypt.
So what happened to the blue and gold mask? The Associated Press takes a shot at cracking the case. Here’s what they found:
Three of the museum’s conservators reached by telephone on Wednesday gave differing accounts of when the incident occurred last year, and whether the beard was knocked off by accident while the mask’s case was being cleaned, or was removed because it was loose. They agree however that orders came from above to fix it quickly and that an inappropriate adhesive was used. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals.
“Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn’t suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun’s golden mask,” one conservator said. “The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material,” the conservator added. The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. “Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow.”
Another museum conservator, who was present at the time of the repair, said that epoxy had dried on the face of the boy king’s mask and that a colleague used a spatula to remove it, leaving scratches. The first conservator, who inspects the artifact regularly, also saw the scratches and said it was clear that they had been made by a tool used to scrape off the epoxy…
Jackie Rodriguez, a tourist who witnessed the repair work on the beard in late August, provided a photo to The Associated Press showing a museum employee holding it in place as the glue sets. “The whole job did look slapstick,” she said. “It was disconcerting given the procedure occurred in front of a large crowd and seemingly without the proper tools.”
Mahmoud Halwagy, who became the museum’s director in October, said the damage had not occurred on his watch and experts were investigating the broken beard evidence and would be filing a public report, at some point. Not to tell anyone how to do their job, but might want to give Jackie Rodriguez a call.