By Neville Agnew and Lori Wong
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The conservation and management of cultural heritage sites pose many complex challenges. Archaeological sites in particular are vulnerable to the environmental effects of weather, flood, and wind, and to these must be added vandalism, looting, and even tourism. For safekeeping, objects excavated from archaeological sites are typically taken to secure storage facilities where they can be conserved under controlled conditions. This is in stark contrast to in situ immovable structures and remains, which require great ingenuity to protect and make available for public display, when the significance of the site and general interest warrant the expenditure. Other excavated sites may be reburied or even abandoned to a fate of inevitable destruction from the onslaught of environmental and biological factors.

This has not been the case with Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the site of one of the most spectacular discoveries in the annals of archaeology. With Tutankhamen’s tomb, the primary interest has been the magnificent artifacts it contained, and much less attention was paid to the tomb itself—that is, until tourism in the Kings Valley increased to the extent that threats to the physical integrity of the tomb became apparent. That concern prompted a multiyear collaboration between the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and Egyptian authorities, principally focusing on the integrated conservation and management of the tomb and its wall paintings, to ensure a sustainable future.

The Tomb and Tourism

Because ancient Egyptians believed so profoundly in the afterlife, one might imagine that the boy king Tutankhamen (r. 1332–1323 BCE) was luckier in death than during his time on earth, which was probably shorter than twenty years. Not only did his mummy survive the depredations of tomb robbers, the bane of royal graves throughout pharaonic history, so did his grave goods, although archaeological evidence suggests that attempts were made to rob his tomb. Ironically, it appears that flood, the other destroyer of subterranean tombs, saved it from being plundered. Flood debris buried the entrance soon after it was sealed, and the tomb was lost to memory for over three thousand years.

When the tomb was discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon in 1922, the media frenzy that followed was unprecedented. Carter and his team took ten years to clear the tomb, so great was the density of objects—golden treasures that Carter himself described as “wonderful things.” Carter must be credited for the pioneering documentation and stabilization of the tomb’s contents. These incredible grave goods, now on display in Cairo, continue to draw dense crowds, and Tutankhamen exhibitions travel the world.

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While the objects Carter’s team so assiduously catalogued and stabilized were housed and secured, the tomb itself became a “must-see” attraction for visitors willing to pay an extra fee. Since its discovery, the tomb of Tutankhamen has been open to the public and has been heavily visited. The tomb still houses a handful of original objects, including the mummy of Tutankhamen himself (on display in an oxygen-free case, provided by Glasbau Hahn), the quartzite sarcophagus with its granite lid on the floor beside it, the gilded wooden outermost coffin, and the wall paintings of the burial chamber.

The great demand for entry to the small tomb gave rise to concerns among Egyptian authorities about the condition of the wall paintings. It was thought that the brown spots—microbiological growths on the burial chamber’s painted walls—were growing and threatening to engulf the paintings. “Your last chance to see Tutankhamen’s tomb,” read a news blog from The Guardian. “Visitors are causing so much damage to the tomb of Tutankhamen that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities wants to close it and open a replica instead.”

The apprehension over the impact of visitors on the tomb is well founded, since visitors introduce humidity and carbon dioxide, as well as dust and lint. Humidity promotes microbiological growth and may also physically stress the wall paintings when the amount of water vapor in the air fluctuates, while carbon dioxide creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for visitors themselves. But perhaps even more harmful has been the physical damage to the wall paintings. Close examination of the condition of the surfaces shows an accumulation of damage, including scratches and abrasion in areas close to where visitors have access, and from inadvertent damage likely caused by film crews with equipment, operating in the tight spaces of the burial chamber. Dust is also a serious problem in the tomb. The visitors constantly pouring through carry dust on their shoes and clothing, which settles on the floor and horizontal surfaces. A more serious consequence is that the dust forms a grey veil on the uneven surfaces of the walls, obscuring the brightness of the paintings and necessitating cleaning, which increases the risk of loss.

The effects of high humidity (a concern for the paintings), excessive carbon dioxide, crowding, and poor presentation have also made for an unpleasant visitor experience as tides of humanity flow in and out of the tomb. Like the golden treasure that the tomb formerly held, ticket sales have been a golden egg—at least prior to the collapse of the tourism industry following the turmoil of recent years. Undoubtedly, visitor numbers will swell again when stability is reestablished, and when they do, the tomb’s inherent fragility will remain a concern.

The Collaborative Project

In 2009 Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) asked the GCI to collaborate on a project to conserve the tomb and its wall paintings. The GCI had considerable experience working in Egypt on the Tomb of Queen Nefertari project in the Valley of the Queens (1986–92) as well as planning for the conservation and management of the Valley of the Queens Project (beginning in 2006). As with all GCI site projects, intensive study and documentation of the condition were the first order of business. The wall paintings were a focus, given the claims that they were in a parlous condition. The GCI—mandated to investigate the tomb’s actual condition—went on to carry out the most thorough study since Carter’s time. A team of experts included an Egyptologist to conduct background research; environmental engineers to investigate the tomb’s microclimatic conditions; microbiologists to study the brown spots; documentation specialists, architects, and designers to upgrade the tomb’s infrastructure; scientists to study the original materials of the wall paintings; and conservators to carry out condition recording and treatment and to train local conservators.

The objectives of this collaborative project were to conserve the paintings; improve environmental conditions; upgrade the infrastructure (lighting, walkways, viewing platform, and ventilation) and presentation (signage and interpretive materials); undertake training of staff; and devise a program for sustainable maintenance and visitation of the tomb. Because the project allowed for unprecedented study of the tomb and its wall paintings, its findings have provided a deeper understanding of tomb construction and decoration practices from the New Kingdom; they have also shed light on the tomb’s condition and the causes of its deterioration. These findings have helped the development of measures to counter ongoing risks.

Tutankhamen’s tomb is simple in comparison with other royal tombs in the valley. With only four chambers, it is one of the smallest. (In contrast, the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II, KV 5, the largest in the valley, has over 130 chambers and is still being excavated.) Even for a tomb of a historically insignificant king, its diminutive size is unusual, as is its location in the main valley, rather than in the neighboring Western Valley where other Eighteenth Dynasty rulers, including his successor, the pharaoh Ay, are buried.

These circumstances tend to confirm the widely accepted belief that after Tutankhamen’s untimely death, the tomb was hastily adapted from one already under construction. This might also explain why only the burial chamber was decorated; the other chambers were left with the bare rock walls exposed. Furthermore, technical inconsistencies in the paintings were observed from wall to wall, including differences in setting-out technique, the omission of a ground layer on one of the walls, and different layer sequencing of how the images were painted on the walls—again suggesting haste in the tomb’s preparation.

Findings and Conservation

The paintings were found to be in relatively stable condition, apart from localized flaking and loss of paint. Flaking was especially prevalent with the black and the red pigments on the east and west walls, but not on the north and south walls. Because of this irregularity, the flaking was likely due to inconsistencies in the materials used and their application. Other losses were attributed to mechanical damage caused by visitors. Newly designed barriers now restrict visitor access in these areas. Further losses can be connected to physical interventions on the paintings, such as dusting. The installation of a filtered air supply and exhaust ventilation system in 2015 and the implementation of recommendations to limit visitor numbers will help control humidity and carbon dioxide levels, as well as mitigate dust intrusion. These measures will lessen the need for dusting, thus helping reduce risk of damage to the paintings.

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Wall painting stabilization was undertaken, including paint flaking stabilization, plaster repairs, dust removal, and reduction of coatings from previous treatments. (Past treatments were not always based on thorough understanding of the paintings’ conditions and the causes of their deterioration.) Condition monitoring protocols were also established to better evaluate future changes.

Another major concern has been the mystery of the brown spots that mar the painted surfaces. Other tombs do not show the same phenomenon. Egyptian authorities wondered if the presence of visitors was causing spots to grow, so the project conducted research to identify the microorganisms and determine if they posed a continued risk to the paintings. The brown spots were already present when Carter first entered the tomb, and a comparison of the spots with historic photographs from the mid-1920s showed no new growth. To confirm this finding, DNA and chemical analysis were undertaken and physical samples of the spots were examined under magnification and then mounted in cross section. Analytical investigation confirmed the spots to be microbiological in origin but concluded they were dead and thus no longer a threat. Because the spots have penetrated into the paint layer, they were not removed since this would harm the wall paintings.

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The project will be completed in 2018. A bilingual maintenance manual for the installations in the tomb is being provided, together with training for SCA personnel. Recommendations for visitor numbers and management are also being put forward that include guidelines for filming inside the tomb. A symposium is planned for early 2019, during which the project will be presented. A project monograph will appear in due course, and an outreach publication for the general public is planned.

The Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen project carried out interventions to conserve the tomb’s wall paintings and put in place measures that can enhance both the preservation of the tomb and the visitor experience. Through its work, the project also expanded our understanding of this significant site from antiquity and employed a methodology that can serve as a model for similar sites.

Neville Agnew is a senior principal project specialist at the GCI. Lori Wong is a GCI project specialist.