Tutankhamun coffin to be restored

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 15 Aug 2019

The outer gilded coffin of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun is being restored for the first time almost a century after its discovery in 1922, writes Nevine El-Aref


Tutankhamun, known worldwide as the golden boy king, was an 18th-Dynasty king of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom. He is best known for his intact tomb and treasured funerary collection, and his mysterious death at a young age has continued to fascinate millions over the years.

He was buried in his tomb (KV62) located in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, which was discovered in November 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. The discovery received worldwide press coverage, capturing the public’s imagination.

The king’s burial chamber is 6m by 4m wide and housed his outermost rectangular-shaped quartzite sarcophagus. The four corners of this are decorated with figures of the four deities of protection whose outspread wings safeguard it and the mummy of the king. It contains three anthropoid coffins nesting within each other and depicting the king in the Osirian position.

The innermost gold coffin is mummy shaped and made of solid gold weighing 110.4kg. It was found wrapped in linen inside the middle coffin. Both are now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Inside it lay the king’s mummy whose head was covered with the iconic gold mask of the boy king.

The middle gilded coffin is made of gilded wood inlaid with multi-coloured glass. It was found inside the outer gilded coffin. The large outer gilded coffin is made of gilded wood portraying the king with arms crossed upon his chest and holding the insignia, the flail and the crook of ancient Egypt ornamented with blue and red glass. The coffin has silver handles used to move the lid. It measures 223.5cm in length, 83.8cm at its widest point and 105.5cm at its highest.

On 12 July this year, the outer coffin was transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) for restoration and preservation after 97 years laying inside the quartzite sarcophagus. And last Sunday, the GEM was buzzing as people flocked to the conservation centre to catch a glimpse of the large gilded outer coffin of Tutankhamun.

Inside the lab for wooden objects, the coffin was placed inside a plastic incubator with state-of-the-art equipment to fumigate it as a first step in its restoration.

“The coffin is finally under restoration for the first time since its discovery inside the tomb in November 1922,” said Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany. He pointed out that soon after the discovery of the tomb, both the innermost gold coffin and the middle gilded wooden coffin were transferred to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, while the large outer gilded coffin was left inside the tomb with the king’s outermost quartzite sarcophagus.

He continued that the outer coffin had now been transferred to the GEM for restoration and preservation in order to be exhibited on the museum’s opening in 2020, together with the boy-king’s treasured collection and the two other coffins.

“The golden Pharaoh’s three coffins will be displayed together for the first time since their discovery, and as Tutankhamun wished them to be, too,” El-Enany said. He explained that the coffin had been in a poor conservation condition as it had never been restored and had been simply left inside the tomb where it was subject to humidity, heat and erosion.

“It is the only royal coffin to be found in the Valley of the Kings carved in the organic material of wood, since all the others are sarcophagi carved in stone,” El-Enany said.

FIRST AID: Eissa Zidan, director of first-aid restoration and transportation at the GEM, told Al-Ahram Weekly that preliminary examination carried out on the coffin inside the tomb had revealed that it had developed cracks in its gilded layers of plaster, especially those on the lid and base. 

“Immediate intervention to restore the coffin in a suitable environment is now required,” he said, adding that the coffin was transported from the tomb to the GEM amid tight security in cooperation with the Tourism and Antiquities Police, with anti-vibration units and the coffin packed with acid-free materials that absorb humidity.

“The coffin was suffering from problems that we could not have imagined until lifting it out of the large quartzite sarcophagus for packing before transportation,” Eissa said. He added that upon lifting the coffin, it was found to be resting on a layer of cotton which was one of the main reasons for the damage. The cotton had absorbed humidity and lifted the base of the coffin and led to its deterioration.

At the GEM, the coffin was isolated for seven days prior to fumigation. “The restoration of the coffin will continue using non-invasive equipment to carry out analysis and scientific investigations,” Al-Tayeb Abbas, director of archaeological affairs at the GEM, told the Weekly.

Abbas explained that mechanical and chemical cleaning would be carried out and that any layers of plaster that had broken away would be replaced in their original location. The restoration work is expected to last at least eight months.

Tutankhamun has always held the world’s attention. In 2005, his mummy was subjected to a CT scan, an intense medical check-up and forensic analysis that was the most comprehensive since its discovery. The tests took five years, and in 2010 1,700 high-resolution CT-scan images were published.

As a result, an Egyptian scientific team concluded that the boy-king had died of natural causes at the age of 19 and had not been killed by a blow to the back of his head as had been traditionally believed. They discovered no indication of violence, discounting theories that he had received such a blow.

Instead, the team theorised that the open fracture at the back of the mummy’s head had most likely been used as a second route through which embalming liquid was introduced to the lower cranial cavity and neck via the back of the upper neck.

At the same time, they noted a fracture above the left knee that may have occurred a day or two before the Pharaoh’s death, suggesting that this could have become fatally infected.

With the help of medical anthropologists from Germany, the Egyptian scientific team said that the real causes of Tutankhamun’s death were malaria and other pathogens. The team concluded that a sudden leg fracture might have led to a life-threatening condition when the malaria infection occurred.

DNA tests also showed that the Pharaoh Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father and not his brother as some had claimed. 

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