When the Egyptologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, it was the brilliant gold of the funeral mask and other artifacts that awed the world. But the tomb also contained wooden chests filled with the boy king's clothes and footwear.
Along with most of the rest of the treasures, the bulk of the textiles, some reduced to dust, ended up in a storeroom at the Cairo Museum.
When Carter died in 1939, his Tutankhamen archive, including 1,500 photographs, many drawings and 2,500 note cards documenting the textiles, was deposited at the Griffith Institute at Oxford University in England. And there the materials sat for more than five decades, virtually forgotten by all but a few scholars whose general opinion was that nothing could be done because of the supposed poor state of the textiles and the difficulty in obtaining access from the cautious Egyptian authorities.
But in 1991, a friend urged Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, a textile archaeologist in the Netherlands, to take a look at Carter's notes. At the time she was writing a book on Egyptian clothing and how to identify it. When she began examining the material, she was incredulous. Here was outstanding documentation of the only surviving clothes of the most famous Egyptian king and yet nobody was working on it.
"I went out and demanded a cup of tea," she recalled in a phone interview. "Then I walked around Oxford for a couple of hours thinking, 'No, I'm not going to do this.' "
But she is doing it. She and her students at the Stichting Textile Research Center at the National Museum of Ethnology at Leiden in the Netherlands have identified and cataloged about 80 percent of the surviving wardrobe of Tutankhamen, the boy who became the ruler of Egypt at age 9 and died unexpectedly and inexplicably just nine years later in about 1324 B.C.
Among the many textiles are 145 loincloths, 12 tunics, 28 gloves, about 24 shawls, 15 sashes, 25 head coverings and four socks, which had separate places for the big toe so that they could be worn with the 100 sandals, some worked in gold. There are also one golden and one beaded apron, real leopard skins and even one faux leopard skin woven of linen with appliqued spots. The tomb also contained a belt and tail of gold and lapis lazuli and sleeves with winglike flaps that Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood thinks were worn to imitate the wings of gods and goddesses. The catalog is to be published next year.
"The project itself is of tremendous importance," said Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and assistant curator at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.
"The Tutankhamen clothing is really the only major group of royal clothing we have. It is one thing to look at the many paintings of these people, but knowing the type of the fabric, how the clothing hung and the colors is going to tell us a tremendous amount about how these people looked."
Rosalind Janssen, an assistant curator at the Petrie Museum at University College London, said the main importance of the work was that it would provide a counterpoint to what was already known about the wardrobes of ordinary people in ancient Egypt.
Early in the project Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood went to the Cairo Museum to try to see the king's garments, a few of which had been on display there for decades. After earnest discussions with her Egyptian colleagues, she was led into a storeroom filled with chests and boxes of the clothing.
There, she said, she found many of the clothes still in the boxes in which Carter had placed them. A few fragments of clothing lay on a copy of the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language newspaper dated Dec. 22, 1922, six weeks after the discovery of the tomb.
Though encouraged by the state of preservation of most of the clothes, she is also distressed by their worsening condition. Some had decayed considerably by the time Carter discovered them. The weight of the gold and beads on the clothing had torn some apart; other textiles were probably damaged by the messy repacking done by the ancient necropolis guards after the tomb was twice penetrated by robbers shortly after Tutankhamen's death. Primarily because of a lack of money and other priorities at the Cairo Museum, the textiles have not yet been properly conserved.
"I'm scared that if nothing happens soon they'll be gone in 15 years," said Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood, who is trying to raise money for a textile conservation laboratory at the museum.