The golden beard broke loose, panic broke out. After a dollop of glue failed to mend the ancient Egyptian treasure, it now lies on the operating table as German restorers take on the challenge of a dynasty.
Cairo (dpa) – It took only a moment of inattention for the unthinkable to happen to one of the world’s most fabulous cultural artefacts.
As staff at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo lifted the 10-kilogram solid gold death mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun back into its display case after changing a light bulb, the effigy’s long elegant beard bumped and snapped loose.
The feature was crudely glued together before the museum called in German specialists to undo the botched repair job and restore the mask in a manner befitting the deceased boy king and this symbol of Egyptian national pride.
“Shit happens,” is the stoical view offered by Christian Eckmann, a conservator-restorer from the Romano-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, as he takes a break from the nerve-racking task under a palm tree outside the museum.
Priceless exhibits can get damaged anywhere, be it Berlin, New York or Cairo, Eckmann says as an Asian tour group scurries past him to the entrance. Inside they will now only see a hologram of the legendary death mask, while he and his colleague Katja Broschat work their restorative magic.
First though, they have to undo the botched repair job on the beard, which the experts ominously warn is “starting to wobble”.
“The adhesive must be removed manually,” says Broschat as they use small wooden spatulas to painstakingly scrape away every trace of the hardened insoluble epoxy resin smeared between the beard and chin.
The German specialists now sit daily in a room at the museum that more resembles an operating theatre, packed with spotlights and equipment like the microscope that is trained on the recumbent ‘patient’ and his broken beard.
In a few days, they aim to separate the beard from the mask, reverting it to the damaged state in which it originally came to the museum: British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the treasure in 1922 in the 14th century BC burial chamber of Tutankhamun located in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. By the time it was passed over for display in Cairo, the mask had suffered one beard accident already.
Scroll back 3,300 years, to the time of the boy king’s death, and evidence suggests that the beard was originally only attached to the mask by a releasable connector. After the Second World War, the two parts were glued together for the first time, and it was almost 70 years later that what Eckmann calls “the mishap” occurred.
It could take until the beginning of 2016 until the king’s blue and golden mask is satisfactorily reassembled. But whether this will be done with a plug-in connection, magnet or special adhesive, is still unclear.
Meanwhile, the accident has also produced a valuable opportunity. The restoration work will be used to carry out parallel investigations into the composition and structure of the death mask. Among other potential discoveries, this might support one theory that the mask was originally intended not for Tutankhamun, but for a woman.
Moreover, nobody knows what the inside of the beard is composed of or filled with. Eckmann and Broschat will soon be the first living people to be privy to this mystery.
Until they finish the task, the pressure and expectations are enormous, but also a source of great professional fulfilment.
“I must admit that it was a very remarkable moment in my career already, when I saw him right there in front of me,” Eckmann says. “But I would sleep better if this beautiful piece were already back in the display case.”
Despite the major upheavals that have affected their country in the past few years, the Egyptians seem especially disquieted by the damage to the mask.
A few months ago, when the German expert first beheld the piece while it still stood in its bullet-proof case, a visiting family made a beeline for the relic, he recalls.
“Look what they did to our mask,” the father lamented to Eckmann, not knowing who he was, and pointing in dismay to the visible glue line around the damage.
His relief and joy were palpable when he learned that expert help had arrived to restore the pharaoh’s outfit for the afterlife.