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Archaeologists Want Egyptian Officials Charged for Damage to Tutankhamen’s Burial Mask

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    Photo A tourist visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo last August snapped an image of two workers who appeared to be doing impromptu repair work on the ancient burial mask of Tutankhamen. Credit Jacqueline Rodriguez, via Associated Press


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    Outraged over what appears to be serious damage to one of Egypt’s ancient treasures — scratches and a layer of glue on the golden burial mask of Tutankhamen — a group of Egyptian archaeologists said on Friday that they planned to file charges against officials at the state-run Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

    Monica Hanna, an archaeologist with the group, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, confirmed the damage during a visit to the museum on Friday and told Agence France-Presse that officials must be held responsible.

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    The Egypt's Heritage Task force @heritagetask is going to take all the evidence to the public prosecutor -10 #Tutankhamun

    — Monica Hanna (@monznomad) Jan. 23, 2015
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    Image showing the remains of epoxy and scratches by the sandpaper on the mask of #Tutankhamun -11 pic.twitter.com/ifaaDPpiAG

    — Monica Hanna (@monznomad) Jan. 23, 2015

    Three of the museum’s conservators confirmed to The Associated Press this week that workers had been ordered to do impromptu repair work on the mask some months ago, after the boy king’s blue and gold braided beard came loose as workers replaced a light bulb in its case, and a hasty decision was made to glue it back on using epoxy, which might be impossible to remove.

    “The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab,” the conservator said, “but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick-drying, irreversible material.”

    A conservator who witnessed the repair work said that the scratches on the mask were made by a colleague who used a spatula to pry off excess epoxy splattered on the chin during the process.

    Jackie Rodriguez, a tourist who visited the museum last Aug. 12, provided The A.P. with what she said was a photograph of two men carrying out the repair work while the gallery was open. “The whole job did look slapstick,” she said. “It was disconcerting given the procedure occurred in front of a large crowd and seemingly without the proper tools.”

    The director of the museum, Mahmoud el-Helwagy, dismissed reports last year that the mask had been damaged, but said to the BBC on Friday that an error in the application of the adhesive material might have been made during restoration work on the 3,300-year-old relic.

    Ms. Hanna, who studies the preservation of mural paintings in the Theban Necropolis, drew attention to the damage on Twitter this week, sharing what she said was a recent image of the mask in which the epoxy was plainly visible.

    Discussing the challenge of preserving Egypt’s heritage in 2013, Ms. Hanna suggested that the government of former President Hosni Mubarak was to blame for alienating the public. “The main bulwark to protect the monuments should be the Egyptian people themselves and not the laws, but the problem is that Egyptians do not feel a relationship with their monuments,” she said.

    “For more than 30 years, especially in the recent 10 years under Zahi Hawas, Egyptians were kept away from their heritage,” she added, referring to the former antiquities minister. “He used to order all museums and tourist attractions to be closed during feasts and public holidays to protect the monuments from being vandalized by Egyptians. During his time, the general public started to firmly believe that the monuments belong to the government and foreign tourists, but not to them. They started to believe that Egyptology is a foreign science they see on National Geographic, not a local one.”


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    Egypt’s current minister of antiquities, Mamdouh el-Damaty, also denied reports in the local news media late last year that the mask had been damaged.

    Ms. Hanna suggested on Twitter that the minister was aware of the damage at the time and had moved to cover it up.

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    Five young conservators tried to report what happened to the minister of antiquities and the press by the end of October -7 #Tutankhamun

    — Monica Hanna (@monznomad) Jan. 23, 2015
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    The minister visited the museum on November 17, 2014 and punished the five conservators and moved them out of the museum -8 #Tutankhamun

    — Monica Hanna (@monznomad) Jan. 23, 2015

    On social networks, Egyptian bloggers mocked the repair work and the government, sharing images of the golden-headed pharaoh asking for his beard to be shaved off, so as not to be confused for an Islamist. Bloggers also made a joke of the restoration work as it might appear in a conservation manual.

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    الحلاق:شعر ولا دقن؟ تون عنخ امون: دقن عشان القلق الي ف البلد اليومين دول #مصر #المتحف_المصري #قناع_توت_عنخ_امون pic.twitter.com/rY6nvGUUFc

    — Mohamed Soliman (@soliman91) Jan. 23, 2015
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    And here a manual in case it happens again or happens to any other important historical piece. You never know! pic.twitter.com/1OFZscl6PD

    — Catlady-Dee داليا (@PsycheDALIAc) Jan. 23, 2015

    The Cairene blogger who writes as Zeinobia, however, suggested that the incident might undermine efforts for the return of Egyptian artifacts held in museums in other countries.

    “I do not know what to say, but what happened to King Tut’s mask is just a symbol what is happening to Egypt now,” she said. “They claim that they are fixing whereas they are damaging it permanently. I feel more than sad.”


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