When we moved into our current house a little more than three years ago, we gained more than a new home and a lovely new set of neighbors. We also got a new family mascot. A wooden bear guarded our front walk, carved from half a log so that it appeared as if his bottom portion were tucked down inside a hollowed out stump.
Though it was perhaps not something we would have chosen ourselves, we admired the craftsmanship and our bear quickly became just one of those quirky things that made our new house our home. So I was a little sad when about a year after we moved in, my youngest son came inside one day to tell me that through no fault of his own, the bear’s snout had fallen clean off its face.
I wasn’t exactly shocked at the news. We knew the bear had been around a while. The previous neighbors had left it obviously, but we suspected they weren’t the first. Over the years our bear had grown a nice crop of lichen, provided ample wood pulp for a slew of paper wasps, and had added a fair bit of rotted off bark to our landscaping. It honestly wasn’t in the greatest of shape when we found him.
When my husband got home that evening, he shrugged and secured the poor bear’s snout back on his head with a nice big screw through the middle of its nose. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but we still had a bear, and from a distance it worked.
For a while.
I would hope that the staff of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which houses more than 120,000 artifacts from Egyptian antiquity, would have a slightly less cavalier attitude when their most famous artifact, the 3,300 year-old death mask of Tutankhamun, lost its beard.
It happened during part of routine maintenance performed by museum staff in August of 2014. It turns out this wasn’t the first time King Tut had gone clean shaven. When Howard Carter opened the young pharaoh’s innermost coffin on October 28, 1925, the beard, previously attached to the mask with beeswax, had come loose. In 1944, it was secured in place with wooden dowels and eventually solder.
But when it came loose again in 2014, the panicked museum staff, evidently concerned about the effect of taking arguably the world’s most recognized Egyptian artifact off exhibit, decided to fix it. Fast. They applied a quick-drying epoxy, scraping off the extra with a spatula that left a mark. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but they still had a golden death mask and from a distance, it worked.
For a while.
But pretty soon pictures began to surface that showed a clearly visible yellow glue ringing King Tut’s beard, and three anonymous curators came clean to the press.
Fortunately there’s a happy ending to the story. After much angst, a team of restoration experts managed to remove the damaging epoxy residue and attached the pharaoh’s royal facial hair with beeswax, just as the original artists did. Though there still may be some legal entanglements for some of the parties originally involved in the hasty repair and cover-up, the mask is once again on public display, as good as old.
I wish I could say the same for the fate of our bear. After a few more months, the reattached snout became too decayed to hold into place with the screw. For a long time, lacking a replacement, and unwilling to go without, a bear with no face stood guard over our front walk. Then a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on another bear. It’s not handcrafted or as nice as our first bear probably originally was. But it has a face, so it’ll do.
Now I realize that on the scale of significant works of art, our old guard bear has nowhere near the importance to the world that the death mask of King Tut does. I was, nonetheless, sad to see him go. On a still, somber evening last weekend, we lit a bonfire and said a respectful goodbye.