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Ancient Egyptian Relic Broken, Repaired With Glue

The funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is seen during a 2011 tour for the press in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. Officials say the mask's beard broke off last year, and was hastily glued back on.
Tara Todras-Whitehill
The funeral mask of King Tutankhamun is seen during a 2011 tour for the press in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. Officials say the mask's beard broke off last year, and was hastily glued back on.

The gold and blue mask of King Tutankhamun, perhaps the most famous piece of Egyptian art in the world, has glue on its face.

Multiple sources are reporting that during a routine cleaning last year, Tutankhamun's long blue beard snapped off the mask. Curators rushed to fix it, and epoxyed the beard back on. But the fix was bad. The glue shows, and the mask is scratched.

There are differing stories of how it happened. The Guardian got this version from anonymous museum officials at Cairo's Egyptian Museum, where Tutankhamun's mask is stored:

"What happened is that one night they wanted to fix the lighting in the showcase, and when they did that they held the mask in the wrong way and broke the beard," alleges one museum official, who asked not to be named for fear of being fired. "But 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.

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

But The Guardian also says that other officials at the museum claim the break never happened. Elham Abdelrahman, the Egyptian Museum's head of conservation, says the glue on Tutankhamen's beard was actually a precautionary measure, to prevent it from becoming loose in the future. But Mahmoud el-Halwagy, director of the museum, who's been telling the same story, admitted to the Guardian that whatever way the glue got there, it still doesn't look good. "This is the problem," he told The Guardian. "It's too visible."

News sites CairoScene.com and Al Araby Al Jadeed claim to have photos of the damage on their site, and they say the damage, and the glue job, definitely occurred:

"...the head of the renovations team, Elham Abdelrahman, is alleged to have panicked and called her husband — also working on the renovation of the Egyptian Museum — who decided he'd repair the mask himself, using epoxy glue which can be purchased at any DIY store, and cannot become unstuck. To make matters worse, the glue was used abundantly, and spilled over, drying visibly on the left-hand side of the beard and chin. To "fix" this glaring evidence that the mask had been tampered with, the team attempted to scratch off the residue, only damaging it further."

NPR spoke with William H. Peck, an Egyptologist and historian who most recently authored the book, The Material World Of Ancient Egypt. Peck noted that it will take time to figure out what really happened, as sources are still anonymous and photos of the potential damage need more verification. But he does say that if, in fact, the mask was treated with epoxy, it was a bad move.

"Normally in conservation activity, it's almost a standard rule that you never use anything that's irreversible, that cannot be taken off," said Peck. "And epoxy is a pretty difficult thing to remove. It can be done, but it's very difficult."

Peck says the mask can be repaired, but it can't be a rush job. "It's fixable, but it will take a very careful and very meticulous team of craftsmen to fix it," Peck said. "Certainly not overnight."

And Peck says the mask should definitely be repaired. "There is no more recognizable, stellar object than the golden mask of Tutankhamun," Peck said. "Nothing that compares to this one... It's like the Mona Lisa. What can you compare it with?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.