The Met Digitally Restores the Colors of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Using Projection Mapping Technology

Thanks to the tire­less efforts of archae­ol­o­gists, we have a pret­ty clear idea of what much of the ancient world looked like, at least as far as the clothes peo­ple wore and the struc­tures in and around which they spent their days. But we sel­dom imag­ine these lives among the ruins-before-they-became-ruins in col­or, despite hav­ing read in the his­to­ry books that some ancient builders and artists cre­at­ed a col­or­ful world indeed, espe­cial­ly when a spe­cial archi­tec­tur­al occa­sion like an Egypt­ian tem­ple called for it.

“As depict­ed in pop­u­lar cul­ture, ancient Egypt is awash with the col­or beige,” writes the New York Times’ Joshua Barone. “A trip to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art would seem to reflect that notion: The Tem­ple of Den­dur, with its weath­er­worn sand­stone, could fit in nat­u­ral­ly with the earth tones of Aida or The Mum­my.

But Egyp­tol­o­gists know that this tem­ple, like many oth­ers of the ancient world, was paint­ed with vivid col­ors and pat­terns. In ‘Col­or the Tem­ple,’ a mar­riage of research and pro­jec­tion-map­ping tech­nol­o­gy, vis­i­tors to the Met can now glimpse what the Tem­ple of Den­dur may have looked like in its orig­i­nal, poly­chro­mat­ic form more than 2,000 years ago.”

temple in color

Image via @Burning_Luke

While the rav­ages of time haven’t destroyed the var­i­ous scenes carved into the tem­ple’s walls, they’ve long made it next to impos­si­ble for schol­ars to get an idea of what col­ors their cre­ators paint­ed them. Orig­i­nal­ly locat­ed on the banks of the Nile, the tem­ple endured cen­tu­ry after cen­tu­ry of flood­ing (by the 1920s, almost nine months out of the year) which thor­ough­ly washed away the sur­face of the images. But after some seri­ous his­tor­i­cal research, includ­ing the con­sul­ta­tion of a 1906 sur­vey by Egyp­tol­o­gist Ayl­ward M. Black­man and the Napoleon­ic Descrip­tion de l’E­gypte, the Met’s team has come up with a pret­ty plau­si­ble idea of what the scene on the tem­ple’s south wall, in which Emper­or Cae­sar Augus­tus in Pharaoh garb presents wine to the deities Hathor and Horus, looked like in full col­or.

But it would hard­ly do to buy a few buck­ets from Sher­win-Williams and sim­ply fill the wall in. Instead, the Met has used a much more advanced tech­nol­o­gy called dig­i­tal pro­jec­tion map­ping (also known, more Wired-ly, as “spa­tial aug­ment­ed real­i­ty”) to restore the Tem­ple of Den­dur’s col­ors with light. You can get a sense of the result in the two videos at the top of the post, shot dur­ing the Col­or the Tem­ple exhi­bi­tion which ran through March 19.

For a clos­er look into the process, have a look at the video just above, cre­at­ed by Maria Paula Saba, who worked on the project. As you can see, the use of light rather than paint allows for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent col­or schemes, all of them quite pos­si­bly what the ancient Egyp­tians saw when they passed by, all of them fit­ting right in to the details and con­tours the ancient Egypt­ian artists put there — a thrill impos­si­ble to over­state for those of us who grew up with ancient-Egypt col­or­ing books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids Were Built: A New The­o­ry in 3D Ani­ma­tion

Try the Old­est Known Recipe For Tooth­paste: From Ancient Egypt, Cir­ca the 4th Cen­tu­ry BC

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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