The tomb of Tut -- what does Zahi Hawass intend to do?
But not quite entirely. Today's Sunday Times carries a story that has been going around for some months - that the Egyptian Archaeological Service intends to ban visitors from the Tomb of King Tut, and eventually from all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and to get us non-egyptologists visiting a series of clever replicas, rebuilt near the one-time house of Howard Carter. And so they hope to 'save' the monuments themselves.
I had vaguely noticed reports of these schemes before, but I paid more attention today as I had just visited the Tomb of Tut.
Two things to start with. First, there is obviously a big problem in the Valley of the Kings. If you have 60 odd tombs that for more than 3000 years were intended to be shut off from human contact, and you open them to widespread (though hardly "mass") tourism, you have a problem. Tourist sweat certainly erodes painting.
Secondly, I have never been much of an admirer of Zahi Hawass, the current supremo of Egyptian Antiquities . . . a master archaeological showman to be sure, but it is not yet clear how much more than that he is. It is apparently his brainchild to close off as many of the "real" tombs as possible to ordinary visitors. And it is certainly not clear how confident we should be in his proud claims to "know best". "I'm the guardian, I know what is good for their preservation" he is quoted as saying.
May be that's true. But we have, of course, heard that before -- from generations of expert, well meaning, highly-qualified conservationists charged with looking after the world's heritage. And as many disasters as successes have been the result.
I cannot quite work out the details of the Hawass scheme. But the particular arguments that the Sunday Times quotes really don't add up. He claims that the frescoes of the paintings are being ruined by flash photography. In fact, there is already a rigorous policy of banning cameras entirely from the Valley of the Kings: you have to leave them at the entrance to the whole site, and unusually for Egypt, this ban seems to be enforced. Over two hours last week, I saw not a single person using a camera there, flash or no flash.
He also claims that the tombs are inundated with people. Well, they are not -- for one simple reason. The Archaeological Service has already imposed the so-called 'plastic bouncer' on the big tombs on the site. It now cost 100 Egyptian pounds to visit the tomb of Tut (that is about £10-12 per head). When we were there, at about 9.00 a.m. on a big tourist day, we met perhaps 5 or 6 other people there over a perios of 10-15 minutes (it would be hard to spend longer in the tomb itself, there aint anything to see).
Quite what bit of Egyptian archaeological politics lies behind all this, I do not know, But it looks, from the outside, like much the same issue as Pompeii and Herculaneum, or Stonehenge for that matter. What exactly are we preserving these monuments FOR? Do we expect them to survive thousands, indeed millions of visitors intact? Should we be palming the average visitor off with a replica?
I can't be the only archaeological professional (well, in my case, semi-professional) who thinks that the "replica solution" for the average tourist is deeply patronising. Sure, if there is archaeological information still to be extracted, then maybe we should protect these sites from the uninitiated. But it Tut's case, there is surely nothing more to be got. Perhaps it is better to let the currently exposed monuments gracefully disintegrate, while leaving what is still undergraound remain there. (Not the current Egptian policy: the mayor of Luxor is, as I write, busy demolishing villages to excavate yet more tombs, to be as big a conservation problem as they will be a tourist draw.)
I found myself wondering whether (contrary to the Hawass scheme) we should be letting the public in free, and building an expensive replica for the archaeologists?