The secrets of Tutankhamun's decaying tomb

Scientists mount inquiry into how millions of visitors to Egyptian boy king's chamber are destroying the wonder they came to see, reports Guy Adams

Given the peace and quiet Tutankhamun enjoyed for three millennia, it has been a rough 87 years for him since he was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. He was immediately relieved of his treasures; his tomb became one of the world's best-known tourist attractions, and finally, in 2005, his mummified corpse was hoiked out of its final resting-place to be studied by scientists.

The "boy king's" fame did not just cost him his privacy. His underground tomb, in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, is now suffering from the wear and tear caused by tens of thousands of sweaty visitors who each year make a pilgrimage to the underground chamber where he once lay sheathed in the solid gold death-mask that has become his trademark.

Most day-trippers come to soak up the atmosphere at the spot where Carter famously made a "tiny breach in the top left-hand corner" of a hidden stone doorway, before chiselling his way inside and declaring: "I see wonderful things." But in common with most mass tourists, these visitors have begun to threaten the very monument they come to admire.

Strange brown spots, apparently mould, have appeared on the walls of Tutankhamun's burial chamber. Its elaborate murals, which tell the story of his journey into the after-life, are now covered in dust and have begun to peel in places. The king's wooden coffin is losing flakes of gilded paint and may also be in the early stages of decay.

Now, in an effort to stop the rot, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has called in the experts. For the next five years, a team of scientists and Egyptologists from the Getty Conservation Institute in California will intensively study, then attempt to preserve this great archaeological wonder of the world.

Getting Tutankhamun's tomb to surrender its secrets is a painfully complex process. The project will, for the first time, map every inch of his burial chamber, establishing every substance that went into the paints and mortars with which it was constructed and decorated, and shedding precious light on the construction techniques used by the ancient civilisation that built it. "King Tut's tomb has very specific problems," says the team's director, Jeanne Marie Teutonico. "One is flaking [of paint], in a lot of places. The other is the brown spots on the walls. They've been there since Carter excavated, but some people think they're growing. And no one knows what they really are. Could they be fungus? Bacteria? Are they still alive? Can they cause harm? We need to find out."

The Getty team, which last week showed The Independent around its Los Angeles laboratory, talk like bookish versions of Indiana Jones, and dress in white coats. Having established exactly what the burial site contains, they hope to create a plan to conserve, rather than restore or retouch it.

Tutankhamun, who died about 1324 BC, was a long way from being Ancient Egypt's most powerful or important ruler, but his tomb is famous because of the sheer quantity of treasure discovered in it. Larger and more elaborate nearby tombs, which may originally have held more loot, were more easily discovered and, by and large, fell victim to looting a couple of millennia ago.

Adding to public fascination with King Tut is both the enduring mystery about how he died so young and the infamous "curse", which is supposed to have killed several members of the 1922 team that discovered the tomb, including Lord Carnarvon, the 1922 expedition's sponsor, who died shortly afterwards from an infected insect bite.

But popularity comes at a price. About six million people a year visit the Valley of Kings, about an hour outside the desert city of Luxor. For many of them, the highlight of the trip involves joining the crowds who troop inside the tomb, sometimes standing four rows deep on the viewing platform overlooking his former resting place.

This, so far as researchers can tell, is contributing to the decay. "The amount of visitors affects humidity inside," says Shin Maekawa, one of the research team, who is mulling over pages of data from within the tomb. "It's a small space, maybe 100 metres square, and each person in it will emit roughly 100ml of water vapour in an hour and produce the same amount of heat as a 100-watt bulb.

"We've been monitoring humidity levels inside, and they can range from 20 to 70 per cent. In the past it got up to 90. At higher levels, we get seriously worried about fungi activity. There's also a problem with dust; you can't vacuum the tomb, because it would damage it, so it has never been properly cleaned. But dust comes in through visitors' skin, hair and lint, so we need to work out what to do about it all."

On the team's initial visit to Egypt last month, they used state-of-the-art X-ray machines and lighting systems to analyse the exact substances present in the paint on the walls of the tomb, so they can work out how best to clean and conserve its murals. It is a painstaking process, in warm, muggy conditions. Analysing a single small section of wall can take hours.

The second part of their remit involves turning Tutankhamun's tomb into a more visitor-friendly attraction. Many visitors to the Valley of Kings, having fought through the crowds, feel underwhelmed at the burial chamber, because almost all of its contents – including all of the golden treasures – are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The crowded, poorly-lit underground room, which can be accessed by just one narrow staircase, contains just his mummy (broken when Carter removed its death mask) and a stone sarcophagus containing one of the four coffins he was buried in, Russian doll-style (the other three are in Cairo).

It makes few concessions to educating visitors and is frequently criticised in tourist guides. From 2011, when the initial stage of the Getty Conservation Institute project is completed, they will try to give the tomb an air of pizzazz more commonly seen at Western museums and monuments.

"We could certainly improve on the visitor's experience," adds Ms Teutonico. "It's not great. We'll look at the lighting, installing railings on the stairs, and work on helping the presentation of the whole area. It also needs some kind of ventilations scheme: it's hot, and the air exchange is not very good. "

But all the changes, and arguably the monument's entire future, are dependent on the American interlopers sidestepping the famous yet long-disproved curse that is alleged to have befallen other foreign visitors who have tried to get to the bottom of the mysteries of King Tutankhamun's tomb.

"Some of the technical imaging we recently did had to happen in the dark," she says. "We had to get special permission to stay after the tomb was closed. It's completely black, completely silent, and very hot.

"But there is an incredible presence, this incredible feeling of time passing. It's an evocative place. The guards stayed upstairs, and they thought we were out of our minds. But so far so good: we've lived to tell the tale."

The boy king His life, times – and afterlife

*Born: 1341 BC, died: 1324 BC.

* Family: King Tut's genealogy has been a subject of debate, but he is most commonly thought to be the son of Akhenaten and Queen Kiya. Incest was not a problem then – he is thought to have married his half-sister Queen Ankhesenepatan (or Ankhesenamun as she was later known) with whom he probably had two daughters who died at an early age.

* Career: under his reign, which began at the tender age of 12, he oversaw big changes. As well as some personal transformations – in his third year as king he changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun – he reversed his father's revolution by lifting a ban on the old gods and temples and moving the capital back to Thebes from Akhenaten. He also tried – and failed – to restore diplomatic relations with neighbouring kingdoms.

* Death: Tutankhamun's temple was small compared to those of other Egyptian monarchs. His and his wife's bodies were mummified with two small coffins believed to be their children.

* Afterlife: quiet until he was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. His temple was swiftly pillaged and in 2005 his mummified corpse removed from his tomb. Has since prospered as a tourist attraction – despite his reputed habit of cursing foreign visitors.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all