The Tragic Ballad of Amateur Restoration

Artifacts are what form out connection to the ancient world.  Suits of armor belonging to kings, famous generals’ swords, viking warships, samurai helmets, even basic things like pots and cups, all those things form the most basic and clearly appreciated link to the human past.  In the world of artifacts, one object ends up being head and shoulders above the rest, King Tut’s burial mask.  The boy-king’s burial mask is loosely considered to be the most famous object ever found in the realm of Egyptology, and possibly the most recognizable archaeological treasure in history.

Since King Tut died when still very young, he would not have had an actual beard.  Egyptians Pharaohs would wear fake ones for appearance’s sake, likely because of the images of Osiris and his pointed beard in the Book of the Dead.  Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut was generally depicted with a similar beard.

Not too long ago, curators at Egypt’s main museum in Cairo were cleaning King Tut’s mask.  Somebody accidentally smacked the beard on something hard and knocked the gilded blue barb clean off the mask.  As would be expected of a curator, they freaked out and tried to do a repair on the mask.  This is where the issues began, according to news reports the curators quickly gathered some Epoxy (permanent glue) and slapped the beard back on the young lad’s face.  As professional restorers are now stating, Epoxy is designed to hold industrial products together, not to seamlessly patch a multiple millennium old object together.  Sadly, some glue got on the cheek of the mask during the repair process, and in the spirit of professionalism, the curators tried to pry it off with a spatula (causing more irreparable damage).

This isn’t the first time that restorations have gone exceptionally haywire.  In 2012, an 80 year old woman in Spain took it upon herself to fix the slowly disappearing fresco “Ecce Homo”.  Undeterred by her total lack of professional restoration training, Cecilia Gimenez “repaired” the 200 year old masterpiece fresco in 2 hours.  Leaving behind what some news articles have called “a hairy monkey in a baggy velvet suit sporting a rolled up carpet for an arm.”  The repair was so godawful that professional restoration efforts have the backup plan of simply hanging an photograph of the original piece over the space it once occupied.

Ecce Homo, by Elias Garcia Martinez; original through Potato-Jesus state.

The interesting nature of restoration and proper care of ancient artifacts is that it has become a political issue in the past.  In Germany, several of the museums are loaded with spoils of war, temples from Greece that were loaded on trains during Nazi occupation in the 1940s, portions of Roman arches, Arabian city gates, even a massive piece from the Ishtar Gate from Babylon.  There is no denying, the German museums take impressive steps to keep the artifacts in good condition, but the question has been raised: Is it right to keep a cultural artifact looted from another country simply because you have more money to take care of it?  One side of the argument says that the artifacts are a piece of human history and should be kept documented and protected for as long as we possibly can.  The other side argues that it is wrong to take culture from another land and that the claim of being able to better restore or contain the artifacts is an Imperialist and “first world” approach at museology that favors the developed and wealthy world over nations who are not as rich; allowing the strongest economy to ride roughshod over the cultures of less powerful ones.


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