Seti’s sarcophagus: recording and facsimile

Sir John Soane's Museum, London

In 2016, Factum Foundation began a project to record and create a facsimile of Seti’s sarcophagus, which is currently located in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The project has made possible the close examination and analysis of an object which can usually be viewed only in the confined setting of the crypt on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as well as the recontextualisation of the sarcophagus within a larger facsimile of the Tomb of Seti.

Facsimile of the sarcophagus of Seti I exhibited at ‘Scanning Seti: The Regeneration of a Pharaonic Tomb’, Antikenmuseum, Basel © Factum Foundation

The hall in the tomb of Seti in which the sarcophagus was originally located © Factum Foundation

From Luxor to London

Sealed into the main chamber of the tomb, Seti’s sarcophagus was intended as an entryway into the afterlife for the deceased pharaoh. The imposing box is made of Egyptian alabaster, a translucent stone tinged and veined with white, ochre and sienna, and is carved with scenes from the Book of Gates, which describes the passage of the deceased through the Duat (underworld) in the company of the sun god Ra. Stretching beneath the mummy along the floor of the coffin is Nut, the goddess of the sky and the heavens.

In 1817, the tomb’s first excavator Giovanni Battista Belzoni removed the sarcophagus from the tomb and shipped it to London. After an attempted sale to the British Museum fell through, the collector and architect John Soane bought the sarcophagus for £2000, turning it into the centrepiece of his collection in his house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1825, Soane invited London society to a series of three parties at which lamplight was used to dramatically light the sarcophagus and the crypt in which it was placed. The sarcophagus remains in Sir John Soane’s Museum to this day, and still forms a part of the candlelit tours of the museum which once every month recreate Soane’s original staging of his new acquisition.

In addition to this extreme change in context – it is now as much an artefact of early-19th-century (and subsequent) egyptomania and of the history of collecting practice as it is the memorial of a dead pharaoh – the sarcophagus has undergone substantial material change since its excavation. It no longer houses Seti’s mummy, which is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. The alabaster, once white, has turned a honey colour through contact with London’s pollution. And the Egyptian blue paste which once filled the carved lines on its surface has fallen out; where traces of blue remain they are mainly 19th-century additions.

Joseph Gandy´s watercolours show the sarcophagus in its current location in the crypt of Sir John Soane’s Museum, as a white alabaster form with blue inlay

Recording the sarcophagus in Sir John Soane’s Museum

Photogrammetry was used to record the sarcophagus in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Using a motorized rig incorporating a camera and two flashes, over 4500 images were taken over the course of a week using a high-resolution digital camera. This data was then processed using RealityCapture software to create a digital model composed of 2.7 billion polygons.

Aliaa Ismail, Otto Lowe, and Pedro Miró record the sarcophagus using photogrammetry © Factum Foundation

Recording the sarcophagus with photogrammetry at Sir John Soane’s Museum © Factum Foundation

© Factum Foundation

Manuel Franquelo recording the sarcophagus using photogrammetry © Factum Foundation

Pedro Miró recording the lid of the sarcophagus in Sir John Soane’s Museum © Factum Foundation

The 3D render of the sarcophagus was shown at the Sir John Soane Museum in the 2017 exhibition Discovering Seti’s Sarcophagus, 200 Years On.

3D render of the sarcophagus © Factum Foundation

3D render of the sarcophagus © Factum Foundation

Making the facsimile

Making the facsimile of the sarcophagus involved two main processes. Firstly the overall shape of the box was routed in sections in high-density polyurethane using a 7-axis CNC robot and joined together by hand.

Secondly, the surface was printed out on skins and attached in sections to the routed form. The skins were printed using the elevated printing technique developed by Canon Production Printing (previously Océ – A Canon Company), in which UV-cured ink can be used to print out a low-relief surface at high-resolution. The maximum depth to which Canon Production Printing prints is usually 5mm, but a combined effort on the part of CPP and Factum engineers enabled the printing of sheets up to 15mm thick for this project. It was also necessary for Factum’s engineers to manipulate the relief information provided to Canon Production Printing using a variety of algorithms in order to create skins which could be fitted to the 3D routed form.

Allowing for re-printing where corrections were needed, the process of fitting the skins to the routed box took six weeks. The surface was finished by hand, with the joints between skins retouched using an acrylic putty which was blended using a mixture of watercolour and acrylic paint. The facsimile was then finished with natural wax in imitation of the sheen of alabaster.

Finishing the sarcophagus © Factum Foundation

Colour reintegration and retouching. The filled joints need to be integrated into the surface.

© Factum Foundation

© Factum Foundation

The sarcophagus was shown next to the facsimiles of Rooms I and J from Seti’s tomb at the exhibition Scanning Seti: The Regeneration of a Pharaonic Tomb at the Antikenmuseum Basel, and in the exhibition Images of Egypt at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. It will form part of future installations of the tomb facsimile.

The facsimile at the Basel exhibition © Factum Foundation