It took ten years to clear King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, the tomb and its grave goods—a veritable treasure trove—captured the public imagination like no other archaeological find before or since. Chests of jewelry. Ornate weapons. Thrones and beds. Disassembled chariots. A solid gold coffin. The gold death mask. All were comprehensively cataloged, photographed, and carted away to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they have been carefully preserved.
And still the tomb held plenty to marvel at. Opened to the public in the 1930s, tourists flocked to Luxor, queuing in the desert heat to see the stone sarcophagus, the fragile outermost coffin made of gilt wood, and the elaborate wall paintings in the burial chamber that provided instructions the boy king was to follow to reach the afterlife.
Over time, Egyptian authorities began to have concerns about the condition of the wall paintings. When the tomb was opened, the wall paintings were found to be speckled with mysterious brown spots, which had not been found in any other tomb. They were known to be microbial growths—but were they still growing? Areas of the wall paintings also showed flaking paint and other losses.
In 2009, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities contacted the Getty Conservation Institute for help conserving the wall paintings. Over the past ten years, they’ve worked together to develop and implement a site conservation and management project that addressed the host of issues that threatened the tomb’s survival.
Through its long history, Tutankhamen’s tomb has been altogether fortunate. While flood waters and debris have choked other subterranean tombs in the basin-shaped Valley of the Kings, flood debris hid the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamen soon after it was sealed. Archaeological evidence shows that attempts had been made to rob the tomb, although they were unsuccessful.
However, the flood of visitors to the tomb has created new challenges.
Every person who enters the tomb introduces humidity, dust, and carbon dioxide into the small space. Fluctuation in humidity may put physical stress on the paintings. Dust from clothing and shoes settles on the wall paintings, which are not perfectly flat, and obscures their brightness. Removing that dust requires touching the paintings, which increases the risk of further loss. Meanwhile, unchecked levels of carbon dioxide and humidity make the space uncomfortable to visit.
Some visitors have also not been able to resist touching the wall paintings where their curious fingers could reach, and the many film crews that have crowded into the burial chamber with their equipment have also inadvertently caused physical damage.
The Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute aimed to address all of these issues, from the conservation of the wall paintings to improving the tomb’s environmental conditions and the experience of visitors. They also made training of local conservators imperative so that proper maintenance of one of antiquity’s best known sites would carry on after the project’s end.
The first step was to do thorough research. The team of experts organized by the Getty Conservation Institute conducted the most comprehensive study of the tomb since it was discovered, resulting in a deeper understanding of how it was constructed and decorated, and allowing them to develop measures to counter the ongoing risks.
With only four chambers, Tutankhamen’s tomb is one of the smallest in the Valley of the Kings. Its size makes it unusual, but so does the fact that the burial chamber was the only room decorated. These features support the widely accepted belief that the tomb was completed in haste—adapted from one already under construction when Tutankhamen died suddenly at the age of 19.
The findings from the study support that idea, revealing that the paintings show technical inconsistencies from wall to wall, including differences in painting techniques and the lack of a ground layer on one of the walls.
It was also determined that the microbes that had formed the brown spots are long dead. A comparison of the current state of the spots to how they appeared in documentation photographs taken in the mid-1920s showed clearly that they had not grown. DNA and chemical analysis further confirmed the spots were no longer a risk, but they were not removed because it was found that they had penetrated through the paint layer.
All in all, the study showed that the paintings are in good condition for their age, though some areas have lost paint. And while some of those losses are due to visitors and treatments to remove dust, the research suggests that inconsistencies in the painting media and techniques, specifically with black and red pigments used on the east and west walls, were also a factor.
A visit to the Tomb of Tutankhamen today is now more comfortable for people and less compromising for the wall paintings.
A new viewing platform, lighting, and interpretive signage allow visitors to better see the tomb and understand its historical and cultural significance, while new barriers restrict physical access to the paintings.
Meanwhile, a new air filtration and exhaust ventilation system pulls dust and carbon dioxide out of the tomb, pushes in filtered air, and reduces humidity.
Recommendations to regulate the number of visitors in the tomb at any one time, as well as guidelines for film crews, have been made, and a maintenance manual in Arabic and English issued.
Staff from the Supreme Council of Antiquities—some of whom worked on the tomb for the entirety of the project—will implement the maintenance and management plan at Tutankhamen’s tomb. Conservator Ramadan Bedair, who worked on the tomb throughout the project, also intends to use it as a “model project” for other heritage sites across Egypt.
The creators of the Tomb of Tutankhamen could never have foreseen this stage in the life of their work, but the tomb is now posed to last even longer into the future.