An exact 3D facsimile of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Wednesday. This ground-breaking approach to heritage preservation and sustainable tourism has been a long time in the making. Zahi Hawass was still in charge in November of 2008 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a project to thoroughly document and reproduce three endangered tombs in the Valley of the Kings, those of Seti I, Queen Nefertari and Tutankhamun. Seti’s and Nefertari’s were already closed to the public due to their precarious conditions. King Tut’s was and is in grave danger from the changes in temperature and humidity caused by up to 1,000 tourists visiting the tiny burial chamber daily. For its own good, Tut’s tomb is going to have to be closed too, and in fact should already be closed. Only its value to the tourist trade is keeping it open right now.
Madrid-based Factum Arte, which as early as 2001 was studying the tombs and developing technology specifically for scanning them, began work on the tomb of Tutankhamun in March, 2009. Over the course of five weeks, the FA team scanned the walls, ceiling and sarcophagus using a low intensity red light laser 3D laser scanner that captures the surface at 100 micron resolution with 100 million independently measured points per square meter, the highest resolution ever reached on such a large scale. The mechanics of this scanner made it impossible to record the entirety of the cramped tomb with it, so a white light 3D scanner with a resolution of 250 to 700 microns was brought in to scan the entire burial chamber and sarcophagus. The space was then photographed using low level cold lights to take pictures of the reliefs at a 1:1 ratio. The last step was a close analytical observational study of the surface.
When the recording of the tomb was complete in May, Factum Arte took the data back to its facilities in Madrid where the team set to work analyzing the 3D data and the high resolution images, running routing tests and ensuring exact color matching using samples from the tomb. The reliefs were routed out of panels made from low-density polyurethane resin. The tiles were then put together in sections and cast with a rigid backing. The paintings on the tomb surface were applied with an adhesive transfer. The first attempt failed because the elastic material resisted settling into the 3D surface, so in 2012 the team devised a new thinner elastic material that is held in place with a low contact adhesive and then cured under pressure in a vacuum bag. The result was not only perfectly sealed, but the print quality improved significantly.
Meanwhile, political upheaval in Egypt blocked the final implementation of the plan. The facsimile tomb would be stuck in limbo in Madrid until November of 2012 when it finally made its way to Cairo to mark the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The facsimile was set up in a covered outdoor space in Cairo’s Conrad Hotel. You can see the walls go up in this video:
Now the final stage of the project has been completed. The replica tomb of Tutankhamun has been built next to the house of Howard Carter at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.
“We are not talking virtual reality, it is a physical reality,” Mr Lowe told The Independent from Egypt. “To have an emotional response to something you know to be a copy is an extraordinary moment.”
The hope is that tourists will have the same reaction so they won’t mind having to make do with the facsimile when Tut’s real tomb is closed. There are great advantages to the replica, like museum-style information and the ability to get close to the surfaces. A replica of the pre-historic Lascaux cave in France has been a smashing success, attracting 10 million visitors since it opened in 1983, and it doesn’t have the benefit of high resolution, 3D laser-scanned reproduction. Egyptian authorities plan to ease into the replacement, keeping the original tomb open for now but gradually reducing the number of people allowed in.
A 30-minute special on the replica tomb will air on BBC2 Friday and BBC News Saturday. Here’s a video explaining the scanning and printing process from Factum Arte:
This is raw footage of the production of the replica, from software combining the laser scanning data with the digital photography to the printers carving out panels of the tomb with a router:
Here is a very long, silent video journey through the photographic data, but if you’d like to explore the high resolution photography of the walls without having to sit through all that, Factum Arte’s website has an excellent Flash viewer that allows you to zoom in wherever you’d like and even compare the photography to the laser scanned relief. Click the up arrow at the bottom of the window to navigate between the four walls, the pictures and the scans. The level of detail is truly something to behold.