Egyptian Museum Employees Face Fines for Botched Repair on King Tut’s Mask

An accident knocked the beard off the boy king’s distinctive mask, prompting a hasty repair

King Tut's Mask
2/Hisham Ibrahim/Ocean/Corbis

The splendid, solid gold burial mask of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun is one of the most widely recognized artifacts from the ancient world. Now eight employees from the Egyptian museum displaying the mask face a disciplinary tribunal for a hasty, poorly-executed repair job that did lasting damage. 

King Tut has long fascinated Egyptologists and the public—his parentage, life and early death remain cloaked in mysteries. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 led to decades of experts poking and prodding the 3,300-year-old remains and artifacts. The stunning mask is one of the biggest attractions for the country and is held at the state-run Egyptian Museum in Cairo, reports Peter Apps for The Independent

In August 2013, however, museum workers accidentally knocked off the mask's the distinctive braided beard while repairing a light fixture. A tourist visiting the museum at the time snapped photos of two men apparently repairing the mask. "The whole job did look slapstick," the tourist Jackie Rodriguez, tells Robert Mackey at The New York Times.

The repair job included a quickly applied glob of epoxy glue to reattach the beard. Then, epoxy that leaked out at the join was scraped off with sharp metal implement, scratching the gold mask.

At first, the museum director, Mahmoud al-Halwagy, asserted that the repair work had not damaged the artifact. By January 2015, however, it was clear that there was still a visible ring of glue and scratches. Fortunately, German experts were able to remove the epoxy using wooden tools after warming up the adhesive, reports Maram Mazen for the Associated Press.

Then, they reattached the beard using beeswax—a natural material that would have been used by ancient Egyptians themselves. "It was prepared well and the beard was attached very successfully," Egypt's Antiquities Minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, tells Mazen. 

The mask went back on display in December. The scratches are still there, but won't be noticeable to most visitors says Monica Hanna, an archaeologist and member of Egypt's Heritage Take Force, in a New York Times story by Declan Walsh.

The eight employees, including a former director of the museum and a former head of restoration, have all been suspended and could be fired from their jobs. They also face heavy fines. The administrative prosecution authority leading the inquiry says in a statement that the employees are charged with "gross negligence and blatant violation of scientific and professional rules," reports Walsh. 

Hanna points to changes in the museum that have led to declining standards. "There’s been a shift in the people working there," she tells The New York Times. "The experienced people have retired, and the new ones do not have adequate training." Perhaps the debacle surrounding the young king's priceless mask will set the museum to rights once again.

It could be just in time: Archaeologists are growing convinced that there is another chamber hidden in Tutankhamun's tomb. What ever lies behind the northern wall just might include more artifacts worth of protection and display.

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