American Scientists To Help Restore Tut's Tomb

The tomb of Egypt's Tutankhamen — more commonly referred to as King Tut — needs a little attention. Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the U.S.-based Getty Conservation Institute are teaming up to restore the wall paintings that line the tomb's underground chamber. Michele Norris talks to Jeanne Marie Teutonico, who will serve as the project's team leader.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

Even 3,000-year-old tombs need a little attention from time to time. For years, visitors and archeologists alike have been captivated by Egypt's most famous king, Tutankhamen, or King Tut as he's more commonly known.

NORRIS: The tomb is still in pretty good shape but the elaborate paintings on the walls of the tomb's underground chambers have started to deteriorate. So Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and a Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute have teamed up to launch a five-year, multimillion-dollar restoration project.

Jeanne Marie Teutonico is leading that group of specialists from the Getty. And she joins us now. Welcome.

Ms. JEANNE MARIE TEUTONICO (Associate Director, Getty Conservation Institute): Thank you very much, Michele. It's a pleasure to be here.

NORRIS: Now, for people who have never seen the tomb, could you do me a favor? Could you please describe it and tell me where and how it's starting to deteriorate?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Well, you know, it's in the Valley of the Kings, which is on the west bank of the Nile. It's a reasonably small tomb. You go down - as you do in many of these a long staircase. You come into an antechamber and then just adjacent to that is the actual burial chamber, which has wall paintings on four walls. And then, inside that burial chamber is still the sarcophagus that bears the one of the coffins. There were four coffins originally.

NORRIS: And where do we see the deterioration?

Ms. TEUTONICO: You know, it's not that significant, but you see in some of the wall paintings, you know, there is some flaking paint. They're obviously extremely dusty, you know, from years and years and years of, you know, of people coming in and out of the tomb. There are some bits of plaster that are, you know, are a bit crumbly, you know? So it's that kind of deterioration. The wall paintings are actually covered with these brown spots. In fact, they've been there since the tomb was excavated. Theyre thought perhaps to be some kind of fungus, but again, it's something that we want to make sure is not, you know, a continuing source of deterioration.

NORRIS: So how do you clean or restore the tomb without changing the appearance or the way the tomb looked when it was originally excavated?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Really, always, what you want to do is probably is as little as possible, you know, just to leave the artifact in a stable condition, but, you know, looking the way that, you know, it has been, you know, seen for ages and ages. In this case, the first thing you do is what you do in any conservation project is understand what you're dealing with. So, you know, extensive documentation, evaluation, study of the materials of the wall painting, the environment that they're in, the condition that they're in, what's happened to the paintings in the past because, of course, we're not the first people to touch this place.

And then with all of that information, you know, design an intervention which is as minimal as possible which stabilizes this artifact and also, you know, hopefully enhances its appearance so that the visitors to the tomb will, you know, enjoy it and understand it.

NORRIS: What kind of tools and techniques do you use?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Well, you know, in examination, some of the tools are quite simple. We actually did the documentation here with just basic rectified photography. And then the first examination, you know, you do with your eyes and some hand-held microscopes. But then, we're of course bringing some complex, scientific instruments. Things like portable x-ray diffraction and x-ray fluorescents which are, you know, just ways of understanding the materials that the tomb is made of. And then we're using various imaging techniques. For example, various types of light to see things you can't see in normal light.

NORRIS: So for all this now-wow equipment, is this a case where the best tool winds up being a toothbrush or a Q-tip, or a potato brush or something like that?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Well, to tell you the truth, in the end, when it comes to the actual physical intervention, it probably will be very simple tools - brushes and Q-tips and you can even use things like bread, you know? But very...

NORRIS: Bread?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Yes. In fact, it's a good kind of absorbent material, you know, depending on what kind of dirt, you know, you want to remove. And then, you know, materials very similar to the materials that we use to actually make the wall painting. So the bells and whistles are mostly in the analysis phase and the, you know, the actual conservation part is generally quite conservative and utilizes, you know, very compatible materials and as I said, things which are as minimally interventive as possible.

NORRIS: So is this work fun or is it absolutely terrifying knowing that youre working on a priceless treasure?

Ms. TEUTONICO: Its both, really. I mean, its a great privilege to do this work. Its fascinating. And again, I think the way that you try to mitigate that what can be that, you know, the hugeness of the responsibility, or that weight that you feel when youre entrusted with something like this, is by, you know, approaching things in an extremely methodological way and making all the decisions based on knowledge.

NORRIS: Thanks so much for talking to us. All the best with this.

Ms. TEUTONICO: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: That's Jeanne Marie Teutonico. She's leading a team of specialists from the Getty Conservation Institute. They're going to spend the next few years working to restore the tomb of Egypt's King Tut.

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