Color the Temple - Using projected light to restore color on the temple of Dendur

Reading February 12. 2019

Visitors view Color the Temple, a tool that uses projected light to digitally restore color on the temple of Dendur (All photos by the creators of Color the Temple)

In this article we decided to showcase a project that is not within our usual scope, as we are not presenting an epigraphic method associated with a project documenting ancient Egyptian monuments. Instead, we would like to focus on the 2015 initiative at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts to build a virtual reconstruction of the original polychrome painted decoration of the temple of Dendur.

Project description

Color the Temple, created by Matt Felsen, Erin Peters, and Maria Paula Saba, is a tool that used projected light to digitally restore color on the temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts.

“The Temple of Dendur was originally located on an ancient site south of Aswan in the West Bank of the Nile, near the border between Egypt and the Sudan. Because the Nile flooded every year, the Egyptian government attempted to control the water through a series of dams. However, by the late 1920s, Dendur and the surrounding area was flooded for nine months out of the year. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government planned to construct a new dam that would have made this flooding permanent year-round. In order to save Dendur and numerous other temples in the area, UNESCO initiated a salvage campaign in which Dendur was documented and dismantled. In 1965, the Arab Republic of Egypt offered Dendur to the United States in recognition of the assistance they provided during the campaign… After being transported to the United States, the Temple was rebuilt in the [Met] and opened to the public on September 27, 1978.”

Research on Colors and Patterns

“To start the process of our digital recreation of the colors on The Temple of Dendur, we began by using a variety of sources—including the Temple itself, surveys of both Dendur and other temples, and objects from the Met's collection—to research the original colors of the Temple. Looking first to the Temple, we considered exploring several of the scenes. Ultimately, we focused on one scene in which the figures and glyphs were well preserved in the stone, because it would allow us to isolate various elements to tell the story of the scene. Logistically, we needed to be on the south wall, away from the direct sunlight coming through the windows, so that the natural light wouldn't wash out the projected light.”

The scene chosen was in which Augustus presents offerings to the goddess Hathor and the god Horus.

“We looked for remnants of color on this scene, both with the naked eye and a technique known as visible-induced luminescence (VIL) imaging, but, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, we found none… However, early reports regarding the Temple before it was flooded provided some key insights. In his 1906 survey, Aylward M. Blackman recorded some of the visible paint in various scenes on the Temple's interior walls,” which provided a good starting point for the colors of the chosen scene. 

“We consulted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century surveys that reported on other temples as well, specifically the Napoleonic Description de l'Egypte, which included two temples illustrated with color. The two illustrated temples were the Temple of Isis at Philae and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, both of which had recently been cleaned, revealing brilliant paint. The inner portion of the portico at the Temple of Hathor dates to the same early Roman period as Dendur, so it served, along with Blackman's record, as an example that helped us choose the colors for our digitally recreated projection.”

Making It Digital

“The first step in the process of projecting colors onto the Temple was to create a digital version of the scene we chose. We used high-resolution photographs of the south wall, where our chosen scene was located, as a reference for our recreation. Our goal was to create a type of image that we could use to easily switch the colors of different parts of the scene, so we decided to make a vector-based image instead of a raster, pixel-based image because this type of image would allow us to easily change the style of each shape independently. We imported the photographs in Adobe Illustrator and added a layer to the image so that we could trace the original lines of the scene.”

“Once we had an initial version of our line drawings as Illustrator files, our next goal was to get the basic projection-mapping workflow in place.”

“Projection mapping, also known as spatial augmented reality, is a technology that can turn physical objects and buildings into a surface for projected light. This technique creates an enhanced experience for the audience by combining digital information with real objects.”

“We opened the drawings in openFrameworks as SVG files, which allowed us to easily change the outline, fill the shapes with color, and draw the shapes in our application window. We were then ready to send them to a projector and get them to align with the physical carvings. We used MadMapper to align our drawing with the Temple because it allowed us to modify the graphics on screen such that they would appear correct if the projector was not facing the Temple straight on, or if we needed to make small adjustments to align with the carvings on the irregular surface of the stone. We bridged openFrameworks and MadMapper with Syphon, a plug-in that enables image sharing across applications in real time.”

Making It Interactive

“Projecting our digital recreation onto the Temple worked great, so we wanted to take advantage of this success by experimenting with different media. Technology opens up many possibilities, and we were dealing with the best medium for video, so we asked ourselves: How can animated scenes add to the process of learning about the Temple? Using our solid-color and patterned images as a base, we developed a series of animations that explored elements of emphasis and storytelling.

In the scene on the Temple, Emperor Caeser Augustus, depicted as Pharaoh, arrives and offers wine to the deities Hathor and Horus, so we created an animated version of this. In the original scene, the glyphs represent the dialogue between the emperor and the deities, so we highlighted the glyphs and made them larger. We also used the animation to explain how seemingly flat figures in Egyptian art actually represent 3D scenes, like in the case shown below, where Hathor seems to be behind Horus, but in reality they were side by side.”

Visual examples

Scene on the south wall, in which Augustus presents offerings to the goddess Hathor and the god Horus

The process of making vector-based images on top of photographs  

The result

The highlighted hieroglyphs that represent the dialogue between the figures in the scene (left) and the animated emperor Caesar Augustus arriving at the scene (right)

Former MediaLab intern Matt Felsen adjusting the projector on top of the scene

The result projected onto the temple

What we like

  • Leaving traditional routes for digital technology can be particularly rewarding in terms of virtual reconstruction, especially when applied directly on the ancient monument’s wall surface.

  • The bright colors projected onto the wall help visualizing the original color scheme that would otherwise be hard to imagine based upon the current state of the monument.

  • One can create an entire virtual tour around a temporary installation, as was proven by the Metropolitan Museum’s 2015 presentation, offering instant access to a broad spectrum of information for the general public.

Additional reading

For the original context of the above material, go to the Metropolitan Museum's website.

To get a closer look at the projection process of Color The Temple, we recommend watcing the short video below:

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