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Harvard Semitic Museum 3D scans ancient Egyptian sarcophagi

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A team from the Harvard Semitic Museum has 3D scanned a series of three sarcophagi from Ancient Egypt, which are now viewable through 3D modeling platform SketchFab. The effort is part of a broader project that aims to digitize artifacts from Ancient Egyptian civilizations to be shared online for “study and enjoyment.”

The recent 3D scanning undertaking was carried out by a team this past January. Over the course of about a week, three sarcophagi were digitized using 3D scanning technologies. The ancient coffins belonged to three members of the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak: Padimut, a man who was a priest and metal engraver; Ankh-khonsu, a doorkeeper at the temple; and Mut-iy-iy, a woman who sang at the temple. All three sarcophagi date back to the the “Third Intermediate Period” between 945 and 712 BC.

The Ancient Egyptian caskets were originally excavated in 1901 by Theodore Davis and Percy Newberry, and were subsequently donated to the Harvard Semitic Museum. The museum, for its part, has been open since 1889 and today houses over 40,000 artifacts from the Near East region. Though the three sarcophagi have been in the museum’s collection for a long time, the chance to 3D scan them offered a new perspective to see and learn about the ancient coffins.

Harvard Semitic Museum sarcophagi

For the 3D scanning process, the team used an Artec Leo scanner as well as a Sony RX100 VI camera to capture high-resolution photos for photogrammetry. Excitingly, the team was given the opportunity to scan not only the outside but also the insides of the coffins (no mummies). Most of the coffins had not been opened in decades, so being able to see and capture the interior was something special for the researchers.

In addition to 3D scanning and photogrammetry, the team also conducted more traditional processes, such as photography, measurements, pigment and residue analysis and wood sampling. Throughout, the biggest challenge to the team was handling the nearly 3,000-year-old sarcophagi.

As Peter Der Manuelian, the director of Harvard Semitic Museum, said: “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.”

Once the 3D scans and photogrammetry images were taken, a colleague from Indiana University, Bloomington, processed the data using Agisoft Metashape, Zbrush, xNormal and 3DS Max to create 3D models of each coffin. The 3D models, now accessible on SketchFab, are also animated, enabling viewers to move the lids to see the inside of the ancient cases.

The Harvard Museum is also planning to use the 3D models of the sarcophagi to create an interactive exhibit, comprising a wall monitor in the gallery space showing the 3D models and an accompanying app or website with more in depth information, such as translations of the hieroglyphic inscriptions, or identifications of the scenes on the coffins. 

“Beyond this, exciting augmented reality applications await,” added Der Manuelian. “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.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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