3D recording then
Since it was uncovered in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni, different forms of damage have left their mark on the Tomb of Seti I, the most invasive being those caused by the human hand. Attitudes to preservation at Belzoni’s time were vastly different from those that dominated one hundred years ago when Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun, or those that are emerging in today’s world of online and offline access.
The architecture and decoration of the Tomb of Seti I (1306 to 1290 BC) are considered the pinnacle of New Kingdom tomb art. It stands as the most extensively decorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and its burial chamber contains the first example of an astronomical ceiling depicting constellations as figures and animals. Attempting to preserve the Tomb of Seti I for posterity, Belzoni recorded it in a series of watercolours with the help of Alessandro Ricci, but also produced wax casts of its walls to create a facsimile of the tomb to present in London.
The exhibition opened at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, in 1821, with the plaster casts painted using the watercolours as a reference. Arthur Thornton’s ‘Don Juan: Life in London’ contains a detailed account and the only image of this exhibition. The sensation it caused at the time triggered a wave of Egyptomania that heavily influenced the tomb as we see it today, and unfortunately, at a heavy cost.
The first waves of enthusiastic tourists to Egypt were encouraged to make their own plaster casts, or ‘squeezes’, during their visits, in order to bring back an unforgettable souvenir. Squeezes were taken by pressing wax, paper or plaster reinforced with vegetable fibers to the surface so as to take a cast of the relief. Repeated squeezing of some parts of the tomb has totally removed the paint from the walls and the use of water or wax has left drips and residues. The small number of surviving moulds still contain the original paint that was pulled from the carved relief surface.
The walls of the tomb, I lament to say, have been literally knocked to pieces.
– Thomas J. Pettigrew, A History of Egyptian Mummies, 1834
In the video below Factum Arte’s Juan Carlos Arias illustrates the various types of squeezing process. The results of plaster casting can be astonishing: long before digital recording and rematerialisation techniques provided non-contact ways of replicating objects, plaster casts were able to replicate the precise contours of a relief surface or 3D object. But while common throughout the 19th century, the creation of near-perfect replicas through squeezing came at the cost of the integrity of the original object.
In the tomb, areas from which squeezes have been taken often have a visibly different colour profile to neighbouring sections. Some pigments change when they come into contact with wax or other varnishes – Huntite White, for example, becomes translucent. The worst-affected areas of Seti’s tomb have a polished-looking, stained surface, with only vestigial traces of paint.
Another major cause of damage has been the removal and attempted removal of sections of the tomb, some of which are now in public and private collections around the world. Most notably, a pair of door jambs were removed in the 19th century and are now in the Louvre in Paris and the Museo Archeologico in Florence.
The tomb paintings have also suffered from graffiti and from sooting caused by the use of torches or the lighting of fires in the days before electricity was installed.
3D recording now
In 2016, after nearly 30 years of closure for conservation work, the Tomb of Seti I was reopened to the public. The Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative, in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, embarked on a comprehensive digital recording project to document the tomb’s walls and structure using non-invasive, high-resolution technology. The Ministry recognised the potential of this approach for preservation, dissemination, and exhibitions, and entrusted the TNPI with the task of providing accurate digital data to safeguard a record of the tomb for future generations.
Today, conservation practices are supported by non-invasive technologies, such as 3D recording, and facsimiles can be made without ever touching the original surface. The facsimiles of the Hall of Beauties and the Pillar Room J made by Factum Foundation offer both a perfect replica of how the tomb looks to visitors today and, using Belzoni’s 1817 watercolours and Harry Burton’s 1920s photographs, a recreated section of how the tomb could have looked to its first visitors.
The digital recording endeavour also aims to include fragments of the tomb that are no longer in their original location. With the quality of the recorded data, it becomes possible to physically recreate the tomb as a facsimile, including these fragments.