Watch the story of nearly 10 years of research, conservation, and improvements to preserve the Tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.

This multiyear project was a collaboration of the Getty Conservation Institute and Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. It focused on conservation and the creation of a sustainable plan for continued management of the tomb.

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Transcript

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If you were to make a list of the most important archaeological discoveries in human history, certainly, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb ranks up at the very top.

King Tut, the Golden Boy. The boy that ruled Egypt at the age of nine, and he died at the age of 19.

Nothing captured the imagination of the general public as much as King Tut’s tomb did. And it has never stopped being among the most popular archaeological sites of all time.

King Tut has magic, mystery. This tomb is unique. When you enter inside, it captures your hearts.

Tutankhamen’s tomb has just been the focus of so much attention since its discovery.

It was felt that the tomb was under threat.

There were just millions of visitors coming to Kings Valley. So it was a concern of the Egyptian authorities.

There has been a persistent perceived problem with the brown spots, with the fungus spots. It’s pretty clear that things were left unfinished. So that’s been the nature of the Getty’s project, to tackle some of those issues.

Probably the most important individual on a modern archaeological excavation in Egypt is not the philologist, not the art historian, not the architect, but the conservator. And the reason for that is fairly simple. The job of the conservator on site is to protect and preserve these monuments so that they can be photographed, recorded, studied. All of these objects have to be protected, because they are the results of an excavation that, by the very definition of archaeology, has destroyed an archaeological site in the process of digging it up.

The thing about conservation is it has to be meticulous. It has to be precise. There’s no room for sloppiness.

Objects that we get out of that site are only as useful to us as the context that we have recorded them having been found in. Only useful to us if we have recorded, cleaned, and conserved them in a way that future generations can learn from them and study them and restudy them.

There are probably as many as 20 different people and at least a dozen or so specialties—scientific, wall paintings conservation, environmental, environmental monitoring, documentarian, photographic, librarians—a lot of people. And that’s the wonderful thing about it, because it creates an extraordinary esprit de corp in which we’re all working towards a common goal.

And there’s the excitement. And there’s the challenge of discovery. And there’s the excitement of actually making discoveries and putting the pieces together.

You have very sensitive scenes. You have very sensitive and very fragile walls. And you have to take good care of it. So conservation is something very important inside this tomb.

The conservation part is really focused. It covers three different phases. So the first phase was background research and assessment. So it’s really studying the situation. It’s looking at, what are the condition of the paintings? What are the materials that compose the paintings? How were they made? It’s all about previous treatment, the history of the tomb.

And there’s nothing like, to start off with, just a visual examination of the paintings. We can gain so much from a close visual inspection. Because that’s never actually been done before. And our next step from there is always non-invasive investigation, trying to see what more information we can get from the paintings without having to physically intervene on them.

We used microscopy. So using a handheld microscope connected to a computer, we were able to look in great detail about the different layers that make up the painting.

We did a technical imaging campaign. So this is looking at the paintings under different light sources. So ultraviolet, infrared. This allows us to understand the materials, because the different materials will respond differently under different light sources.

The second phase focuses on understanding what the problems are. What are the main threats to the paintings? Are there active forms of deterioration?

The tomb suffered from some spots that no one never know why these spots occurred in the tomb.

This is unusual. We have no other tomb that we know of that has this issue with microbiological growth. So I mean, why is that? And I don’t think we know 100%, but it could very well be because of the circumstances of the burial.

But there’s something about the conditions of this tomb that makes it different, makes it unique from other tombs that survive in Egypt. So I think there’s also some argument that could be made that one should preserve the archaeological significance of these spots.

The most of the conservation work– I could say restoration work– there was to treat these spots, to stop it. Because they were thinking it’s active, and it’s growing.

This photograph doesn’t have—it’s that one down there. Just looking at this and looking at that one there, there’s absolutely no difference, visually, between—

Part of the microbiological investigation that was undertaken in the tomb was to take the high-resolution photographs that were done at the time of excavation by Carter. We printed those out on a one-to-one scale and actually went in and compared those images with the brown spots today.
The tragedy is that they ignored the fundamental evidence that was available, the photographic record from the past. Simply putting the one against the other, you could see that there was no change.

What is their interaction with the surfaces below? Can they be removed? And what we found is that they actually grow into the paint layer. So it isn’t possible to remove the brown spots without damaging the paintings. So for us, there’s no question. We cannot remove them.

It’s always been a concern, a growing concern, amongst Egyptologists, the conservation community, the Egyptian authorities what type of impact rising tourists’ visitation is having on the tomb.

All these losses that you see here—we have historic photos from the 1920s during the time of Carter when he first opened the burial chamber up through current day. And you see an increased amount of loss happening here. And I think the only way to explain it is through visitor access.

There’s the graffiti—modern. There’s physical damage due to film crews, who come in with cables and lights and in a great hurry and do damage, as well. There’s the issue of dust intrusion into the tomb coming in, in association with visitors on their clothes, on their shoes. And then there are potential indirect effects in terms of altering temperature, humidity, raising humidity levels and the impact on the delicate original technology of the paintings.

The installation of the new ventilation system was designed to prevent this. So when visitors come into the tomb, we have installed a push, pull system so that we are actually bringing in filtered air and then extracting that. So the idea is that any air that is being brought in when visitors come in is now being filtered so that we are not encouraging as much dust from entering the tomb.

And the third phase is because at the Getty, we’re a nonprofit. A large part of what we do is about taking the information that we’ve learned and disseminating that information.

Our projects do come to an end. They do. They have to. We can’t continue forever. But actually, they never end completely.

Training is a major component of everything we do. And the reason for this is that we’re not coming in and doing a conservation project in isolation and then leaving. We’re trying to build capacity.

We have to hand on the baton to the Egyptian authorities, to the Supreme Council of antiquities and their staff. They have responsibility. They own the site, after all.

But we have to. It builds capacity, as we say. It allows us to invest them in the knowledge and enthusiasm and commitment and, actually, obligation to take care of their own heritage.

As an Egyptian, I am very proud to be a part of the work here, because it’s our cultural heritage. And it’s good to keep it for the next generation.

Conservation and preservation is important for the future, for this heritage, and this great civilization to live forever.

Our mission is to improve the way conservation is practiced. How do we make things better? How do we conserve these monuments in a better way so that they’re better preserved for the future?

Once it’s lost, it’s gone forever.

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If you were to make a list of the most important archaeological discoveries in human history, certainly, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb ranks up at the very top.

King Tut, the Golden Boy. The boy that ruled Egypt at the age of nine, and he died at the age of ...