When Howard Carter unsealed the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, he set off a series of discoveries with the brightly painted 3,300-year-old burial chamber of the boy king and his golden treasures, which continued for decades.
One of the hallmarks of the tomb is the brown freckles across all of the wall paintings. Present when Carter opened the burial chamber, and exhaustively documented in photographs of the time, the mystery spots have endured as a source of curiosity and concern.
A study of the spots revealed high concentrations of malic acid, a metabolic byproduct of some fungi and bacteria, which confirms that the spots are microbial in origin. DNA analysis of swabs taken from the tomb walls turned up modern organisms including Bacillus and Kocuria, but electron microscope imaging of the spots showed no remnants of the original organisms that created them.
The conservators theorise that because Tut died unexpectedly, the preparation of his tomb was likely a rush job, and the freshly plastered and painted walls would have retained enough moisture for microbes to thrive in the tomb’s dark, warm environment after it was sealed.
However, the spots are quite dead, have been so for a very long time, and are not growing. Since they are considered part of the history of the tomb, the mystery spots won’t be painted over or removed.
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