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Egypt calls in Germans to fix pharaoh's beard

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Egypt calls in Germans to fix pharaoh's beard
Tutankhamun's death mask was discovered in 1922. Photo: DPA
14:36 CET+01:00
It was the stuff of nightmares for workers at Cairo's Egyptian Museum when they broke the beard off Tutankhamun's death mask while changing a light bulb. One rushed repair job and over 13 months later, German specialists have been asked to step in and lend a hand.

When a light bulb blew in the cabinet housing Tutankhamun's death mask in August 2014, museum workers knew they had a tricky job ahead of them.

The 12-kilogram mask of Egypt's most famous pharaoh was carefully removed, the bulb changed and the mask brought back.

But as workers handled the mask, disaster struck: Tutankhamun's beard fell off.

Panic broke out, as museum workers hurriedly – and messily - glued the beard back in place, perhaps hoping nobody would notice.

“They tried to fix it overnight with the wrong material, but it wasn’t fixed in the right way so the next day, very early, they tried to fix it again;" one museum official told the Guardian in January.

“The problem was that they tried to fix it in half an hour and it should have taken them days.”

Museum director Mahmoud el-Halwagy denied the claims, telling Guardian that nothing had happened to the beard – and that curators in previous years must have applied the adhesive as a precaution to make sure it stayed in place.

Either way, the result was far too conspicuous – so German specialists have been drafted in to examine the mask and see how far it can be restored.

Restoration work began on October 20th. Photo: DPA

Undoing the damage

"Shit happens," Christian Eckmann, a restorer from the Roman-German museum in Mainz, told dpa.

Artefacts like this can be damaged wherever they're kept in the world, he said – whether that's in Berlin, New York or Cairo.

Eckmann and his fellow conservator Katja Broschat are currently in Cairo trying to restore the mask.

The pair's first job is to remove the glue that has been holding the beard in place since August - an insoluble epoxy resin.

"The glue has to be removed mechanically," explained Broschat.

Milimeter by milimeter, the pair use limewood rods to scrape away the resin between the beard and chin, carefully preserving the gold.

In a few days, the pair hope to have separated the beard from the mask. Only then can they begin to restore this ancient artefact.

What is inside the beard?

There are several possible ways of re-attaching the beard.

But whether the team opt for magnets, a plug-like fitting or special adhesive, it could take until the end of the year before the mask is back in one piece.

But the unplanned repair job could prove useful, as Eckmann and Broschat also plan on carrying out an expert examination of the death mask.

Amongst other things, this could provide clues as to a widely-held theory that the mask was originally made for a woman, rather than Tutankhamun himself.

Eckmann and Broschat will also be the first in modern history to discover what the inside of the mask's beard looks like - and what it is filled with.

Broschat and Eckmann examine the mask. Photo: DPA

Priceless

Tutankhamun's  tomb in the Valley of the Kings was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

An extraordinary discovery, the nearly intact tomb received worldwide press coverage.

Between the mask's priceless value and the importance of Tutankhamun in Egypt's identity, Eckmann and Broschat have a monumental task ahead of them – something the pair know all too well.

"I have to admit, it was a remarkable moment in my professional career when the mask first lay there in front of me," Eckmann said.

"I would sleep better if this beautiful piece was back in its cabinet."

 

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