This is one of the pharaohs best known to the general public: Tutankhamun saw his tomb in the Valley of the kings, near Luxor, in Egypt, to be the victim of its own success to the point of being seriously threatened. “100 years of the tour, after having been sealed for 3000 years! Can you imagine the impact on the state of the grave?”, explained Thursday at the AFP Neville Agnew, the manager of the project conducted by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles.

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“Visitors, humidity, dust…”, listed Mr. Agnew Thursday at a symposium to present the work of the GCI in Luxor, not far from the Valley of the kings. Since 2009, the scientist has gathered under its authority a team of some 25 specialists in the field: archaeologists, architects, engineers, and microbiologists. Interrupted some time after the egyptian revolution of 2011 and the political instability that followed, the project has resumed after, and just barely ended.

“If we let the mass tourism enter the tomb, it will not last more than 500 years ago”

The egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, former minister of Antiquities

The first step was to undertake a comprehensive study about the status of the famous wall paintings and yellow ochre to adorn the burial chamber of the boy king Tutankhamun, who reigned there more than 3300 years. Lori Wong, curator, specialist in mural paintings, in particular, sought to understand “the material composition of the paintings, how they have been applied”. The objective: “to understand the current state of the paintings, whether they are in danger, and establish a plan to save for the future,” she told AFP. Introduced in the tomb, called by the archaeologists “KV62”, the microscopes of the scientists have even been able to scrutinize with the utmost precision of the mysterious “brown spots”, features of this royal tomb.

Think of the future

The fear was that they do not become a threat to the mural representations of Tutankhamun, depicted particularly in the face of the goddess Nut, who welcome him into the kingdom of God. But the scientists were able, thanks to this conservation project, to establish that it was organisms microbiological dead for a long time. Only problem: impossible to remove because they are deeply embedded in the paint. “We have done the conservation, not restoration,” said Mr. Agnew.

The carbon dioxide, humidity, and dust are some of the many threats lurking on the mummy. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

“attempts of restoration have been done before”, he said, stressing that the mission of the GCI was to stabilize and preserve the site. “And then the brown spots are part of the history”, philosopher-t-he adding that they have not evolved since the discovery of Carter. At the same time, the architects have redesigned the platform where visitors stand, in order to keep the fragile wall. And engineers have developed a new ventilation system to limit the devastating effects of carbon dioxide, moisture, and dust.

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If the most beautiful pieces of the treasure of Tutankhamun are visible at the egyptian museum in Cairo, the tomb still houses the mummy of the pharaoh himself up in a box of glass drained of oxygen and the sarcophagus outside the gilded wood. According to egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, former minister of Antiquities, the initiator of the project in 2009, “the GCI has saved the tomb of Tutankhamun”. “However, I still believe that after this great work, we should limit the number of visitors,” he assured the AFP on Thursday. “If we let the mass tourism enter the tomb, it will not last more than 500 years,” he warned before advocating a total cessation of tours to preserve the scene. “We must think of the future”, has hammered Mr. Hawass.

A replica of the burial chamber was built not far from the Valley of the kings, near the house of Howard Carter. This is where visitors should go, according to Mr. Hawass, “but a lot of people will not accept this idea,” says the archaeologist.