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Three Ancient Egyptian Coffins at Harvard University

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I’m an Egyptologist who has been interested for years in digital humanities approaches to studying the ancient past. Some of my work centers around computer-typeset hieroglyphs, “digital epigraphy” (the creation of facsimile line drawings of Egyptian tomb and temple wall scenes), graphic design and book production, and 3D modeling as a research and teaching tool. Our Giza Project at Harvard, now in its twentieth year, aims to gather all the archaeological activity around the famous Giza Pyramids, just west of modern Cairo, and cross-reference it intelligently online for scholars, students, and the general public. In recent years, and in collaboration with Dassault Systèmes, we have added 3D modeling of the Giza Plateau to our approach.

At the Harvard Semitic Museum, we work to enhance our exhibits with virtual reality, augmented reality, and other emerging technologies to bring the ancient world to life (see, for example, “Dreaming the Sphinx,” a free app on the Apple App Store and Google Play Stores).

harvard egyptology

Students enjoy the free augmented reality app “Dreaming the Sphinx.”

One of our Sketchfab collections is called “Pyramid Schemes,” which gathers hundreds of downloadable 3D models of Egyptian antiquities, from our Museum and others, for study and enjoyment.

We use these models for a “virtual curation” assignment, where Harvard undergraduates choose their objects, then build a virtual museum gallery (in Unity or Cinema 4D), and finally, they must describe the story they are trying to tell about ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian Coffins Project

In January 2020, at the Harvard Semitic Museum, we devoted a week between semesters to comprehensive documentation of our three mummy cases. They belong to three ancient Egyptians employed in Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak: two men (Pa-di-mut, a priest and metal engraver, and Ankh-khonsu, a doorkeeper) and one woman (Mut-iy-iy, a singer), all from the “Third Intermediate Period,” or Egyptian Dynasty 22 (about 945–712 BC). They were excavated by Theodore Davis and Percy Newberry in 1901 and subsequently donated to our Museum. No bodies accompanied the coffins to America. Although they have been on view for some time, this was a rare opportunity, thanks to a Harvard Dean’s Competitive Fund grant, to study them in detail. Most had not been opened in decades, and in one case we had no idea if there was decoration inside the coffin or not.

harvard semitic museum coffin

Opening the vitrine with the coffins of Mut-iy-iy and Ankh-khonsu (from left to right: Dennis Piechota, Adam Aja, Adam Middleton, Joseph Greene).

In addition to professional photography, measurements, pigment and residue analysis, and wood sampling, we included photogrammetry and 3D scanning in our workflow. The goal was to create interactive 3D models of the coffins, inside and out, to display on Sketchfab, and eventually for an interactive exhibit for the visiting public and world community. We used an Artec Leo scanner for the scanning, and a Sony RX100 VI camera for the hundreds of photos that went into Agisoft Metashape for processing.

A three-minute video summary of the project is available here:

Challenges

The greatest challenge for us was the careful handling of these fragile and heavy coffins, for we needed to lift and turn them in order to document tops, sides, undersides, and bottoms. Day by day, a team of twelve specialists compiled their documentation and took their samples, in a complex arrangement of choreography: coffins rolling in from the gallery (which had become a temporary photo studio), lids turning over, bottoms being scanned and photographed, etc. All went smoothly, and the professional team members never got in each other’s way, despite the time pressure, the differing needs of everyone’s equipment, and the fragility of the materials.

egyptian sarcophagus analysis

Jessica Gebhard and Madeline Liberman measure one of the coffin lids.

There were four batches of images for each coffin: lid exterior, lid interior, bottom interior, and bottom exterior. Once these images were processed, our colleague from Indiana University, Bloomington, Mohamed Abd el-aziz, used Agisoft Metashape, ZBrush, xNormal, and 3DS Max to merge the various pieces together, remove the unwanted backgrounds, decimate the meshes, and animate the coffins, so that the lids move up and down, exposing the decoration of the interior. The results, with all three coffins side by side, may be viewed here:

Individually, viewers can also see the coffins one by one here:

Pa-di-mut
Ankh-khonsu
Mut-iy-iy

Sketchfab provided a convenient way to upload the models for instant and interactive viewing. Being able to rotate the coffins, stop and start the animation, and even “climb inside” are all welcome and useful features. Since museum objects are often difficult to access up close, Sketchfab provided an excellent virtual display. In our case, this is particularly welcome since two of our three coffins, for lack of gallery space, are displayed against a wall, which means one cannot view all sides except on Sketchfab. (An interactive 3D model of our Museum is available here, with the coffins on the second floor.) Moreover, the lids are now back in place on their respective coffin bottoms in the gallery, obscuring the interiors, which remain visible on Sketchfab. And finally, by zooming or manipulating the angle of the light source (alt+drag) in Sketchfab, users can highlight areas for detailed views that are impossible in the gallery.

Lessons Learned

We found it relatively easy to produce the photography for photogrammetry work, with anywhere between 300 and 500 images per coffin section (lid, bottom, interior, exterior, etc.). Using the Artec Leo portable 3D scanner is liberating since it requires neither cables nor tethering to a computer, and the screen on the device provides instant feedback. Nevertheless, it proved extremely useful to check the scans on a nearby laptop during the course of the scanning, like “dailies” on a movie set. We were able to rescan areas missed and ensure that we had complete coverage. For sharp details and excellent color reproduction, the photogrammetry images worked best. For the underlying geometry, the Artec Leo is the way to go. Good file-naming systems, and accurately named folders and subfolders helped us keep the thousands of images organized.

Next Steps

Our next step is to take these 3D models and create an interactive exhibit, with a wall monitor in the gallery showing the animation, and an app or website that provides more information. For example, “annotating” the coffins, with popup texts translating the hieroglyphic inscriptions, or identifying the deities and describing the ritual scenes taking place, is certainly on our list. Beyond this, exciting augmented reality applications await. Users could virtually take the coffin out of its display case, lift up the lid and enjoy a walk-through or flyover of the interior. Using an Insta360 One X camera, we have already simulated such experiences, and a practice run can be seen here:

On the scholarly front, we hope to gather the scientific papers from all our collaborators into a single monograph on the three coffins, to be published in the series Harvard Egyptological Studies.

The potential for access to these ancient monuments is growing thanks to immersive 3D, VR, AR, and mixed reality technologies. In archaeology, however, where reconstructions are concerned, it is important to note the source documentation. We look forward to expanding the teaching and research potential of these new tools.

Admired Work

If you haven’t checked out the models on Sketchfab created by digital Mayanist and archaeologist Alexandre Tokovinine, you are in for a treat!

Our Thanks

The team working on the Coffins Project consisted of:

Harvard Semitic Museum

Peter Der Manuelian, Director
Joseph A. Greene, Deputy Director and Curator
Adam Aja, Assistant Curator of Collections
Adam Middleton, Museum Coordinator

Conservators
Dennis Piechota, Archaeological Conservation
Jane Drake Piechota, Archaeological Conservation

Photographer
Frank Graham, Exhibit Services and PhotoGraphics

Straus Center for Conservation, Harvard Art Museums

Katherine Eremin, Patricia Cornwell Senior Conservation Scientist
Kate Smith, Conservator of Paintings and Head of Paintings Lab (pigment)
Georgina Raynor, Associate Conservation Scientist (pigment, XRF)

Institute of Archaeology, University College, London

Margaret Serpico, Honorary Research Associate (residue analysis)

Wood analysis

Michaela Schmull, Director of Collections Harvard University Herbaria and Libraries
Madelynn von Baeyer, Research Fellow at the Harvard University Herbaria

Iconography studies

Cynthia May Sheikholeslami, Cairo

Students and Volunteer Interns

Madeline Liberman (Columbia University)
Eden Piacicelli
Lauren Wyman
Marija Tomoshevska
Jessica Gebhard

harvard coffins project team

The Coffins Project team behind the coffin base of Ankh-khonsu.

 

About the author

Peter Der Manuelian

Peter Der Manuelian is Barbara Bell Professor of Egyptology, and Director, Harvard Semitic Museum, at Harvard University.


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  • Those are exquisite artifacts, which give a very nice render in 3D: it must have been a great experience to work on their digitization.
    Thanks for the interesting read and sharing the technical considerations with us !

  • Avatar Fayza Haikal says:

    Magnificent work. I was extremely impressed by it when I visited the Semitic Museum last month. Thank you Professor Manuelian for all your work , vision and efforts in leading this wonderful project .

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