After almost a decade of painstaking work, conservators in 2019 revealed the revamped tomb of Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut.
In addition to cleaning and restoring the paintings that adorn the walls of the tomb, the combined efforts of the Getty Conservation Institute and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities focused on combating the wear and tear sustained through decades of tourist activity, and protecting it from further decay and deterioration.
The 12th pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, Tutankhamen (or Tutankhamun) became king of Egypt when he was only nine years old. He ruled for less than a decade, from approximately 1332 to 1323 B.C., before dying mysteriously at the age of 19. Experts now believe he contracted gangrene from an infected leg wound.
Despite his short reign, King Tut has become the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs thanks to the splendour of his tomb, which was first discovered in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. The entrance to the tomb, located in the famous Valley of the Kings, had been concealed by debris, and remained hidden for 3,000 years after the pharaoh’s death.
When Carter and his fellow archaeologist, George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon, entered, they found the tomb and its contents largely intact, including marvelous paintings, grave goods such as jewelry, statues, oils and perfumes and three coffins nestled inside each other, with the innermost gold coffin containing King Tut’s mummy.
King Tut’s tomb quickly became one of Egypt’s top tourist attractions, welcoming as many as 4,000 tourists a day by the late 1980s. By that time, experts had grown concerned about the effects of such heavy tourism on the burial chamber. In addition to carrying in dust from their clothing and shoes, some visitors even scratched graffiti on the tomb’s surfaces. Meanwhile, the flood of humid air and carbon dioxide into what had been a closed space for thousands of years had caused a large amount of what looked like microbiological or fungal growth, in the form of mysterious brown spots spreading across the walls.
Beginning in 2009, in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the Getty Conservation Institute undertook the multi-year conservation effort of King Tut’s tomb. The team of conservators cleaned and treated the wall paintings, removing years of dust that had accumulated.
When the conservators compared photographs of the tomb walls to historic images taken shortly after Carter’s discovery, they found to their surprise that the number of brown spots on the walls had grown little since the mid-1920s. Through DNA tests and chemical analysis they confirmed that though the spots were in fact microbiological, they were dead, and no longer spreading. Because they had already penetrated beneath the surface of the paint layer, they chose not to remove them.
According to Lorinda Wong, a project specialist at the Getty, the microbiological growth is completely unique to Tut’s tomb, and may have to do with the way in which he was buried.
Finally, the team of conservators also constructed additional barriers to restrict direct visitor access to the tomb’s walls and installed ventilation and filtration systems to help limit the effects of humidity and dust brought in by visitors.
"Conservation and preservation is important for the future and for this heritage and this great civilization to live forever,” said Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist and former minister of State for Antiquities in Egypt, in a statement.
King Tut’s tomb remained open to visitors during the project, and remains one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions. In general, public fascination with Tut shows no sign of letting up: In 2018, new evidence emerged that the Boy King (once thought to be weak and sickly) may have in fact been a soldier. Also, archaeologists confirmed that there are no secret chambers hidden in Tut’s tomb, squashing hopes of finding the long-lost tomb of Nefertiti, or some other Egyptian VIP.