For millennia Egyptians have understood the importance of preserving and transmitting culture in multimedia. Egyptian art is suffused with a deep understanding of the power and longevity that the merger of text, images, and architecture can deliver. Eternal Egypt, more than simply a technology project, extends and enhances this noble tradition by electronically documenting and presenting cultural artifacts for posterity. This "digital rebirth", while not offering the kind of timelessness that a sealed tomb provides, helps to ensure that future generations may know the importance of the treasures. Here is the story of one artifact and the path it has taken from creation to digital re-creation.
Fashioned during the 18th Dynasty of the pharaohs - sometime between 1347 and 1337 B.C. - the Throne of Tutankhamun is a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian artistry. Elaborately constructed of wood, gold, and silver and inlaid with semi-precious stones, glass, and faience, the so-called 'Golden Throne' was described by archaeologist Howard Carter's patron Lord Carnarvon as "one of the most marvellous pieces of furniture that has ever been discovered." Found by Carter in 1922 in the antechamber of the dazzling tomb of Tutankhamun, the throne has assumed a place second only to the burial mask of Tutankhamun as a symbol of the young king's authority and an example of the very finest of New Kingdom craftsmanship.
The splendor of the throne was no less true seventy-nine years after its discovery when IBM partnered with the Egyptian government to undertake the Eternal Egypt project. When the team of Egyptologists and subject-matter experts from the Egyptian Center for the Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CultNat) first began thinking broadly about the themes that would organize the content for the project, the throne was an obvious choice. In addition to being an artistic specimen of the highest order, the throne is also a visual record of the tumultuous political reality of the 18th dynasty (depicting, as it does, the heretical -aten forms of the names of Tutankhamun and his queen) and is a reminder that even a tomb as pristine as Tutankhamun's was not free from the prying hands of robbers (since the original grilles linking the legs had been forcibly removed). Thus, the throne was added to a list of high-priority content, those artifacts central to an understanding of Egyptian culture. Clearly no virtual collection of Egyptian artifacts would have been complete without its inclusion.
Once the throne was selected, IBM and CultNat evaluated the options for capturing its visual representation most accurately. A team of researchers from the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in New York had been developing new 3-D scanning technology and applying it to the documentation and study of works of art for several years. This technology was recently used to build an accurate digital model of Michelangelo's Florence Pieta'. By digitally capturing the shape and surface properties of an artifact, realistic renderings of the artifact can be generated. This allows an art historian to methodically inspect the artifact, interactively rotating and enlarging it on the computer screen. The digital 3-D model can also be made accessible to a large audience through a website. Even more importantly, the virtual model can be manipulated to generate representations that cannot be created by other means. For example, the model can be virtually restored, replacing missing parts, or bringing faded colors back to life. It can be immersed in a reconstructed environment, or included in an animation to show its use. Examples of virtual restoration and animations based on 3-D models are present in the Eternal Egypt website.
IBM developed a custom scanner to digitally capture Tutankhamun's throne and other large artifacts. The scanner was designed and built at IBM Research, and the suite of software modules used for acquisition and processing of the data was assembled into a unified graphical user interface by the IBM Cairo Technology Development Center. Mounted on a photographic studio stand, the scanner can be moved around the throne, and angled to capture every detail of its complex geometry. A combination of techniques is used to measure the surface shape and reflectance. From each scanner position, a range scanner captures the shape of a portion of the object, and five digital photographs record its appearance under various lighting conditions. To capture the entire surface of the throne, nearly 150 scans were made. Careful calibration was required to make sure that the many delicate pieces of the model would fit together properly. The shape scans were then combined to create a model of the shape of the throne, and any remaining holes were filled in. The images from each view were processed to eliminate the effect of the light sources, yielding the intrinsic colors of the object, which were mapped onto the model of the shape. The process was complicated by the shiny surface of parts of the throne, which introduced a great deal of noise into the shape data and made the process of eliminating light effects from the color images more complex. The result of the process was a 3-D model which could be used to render views of the throne from any angle under any lighting conditions.
Once the throne was captured digitally, CultNat undertook the task of documenting it. A crucial step in the artifact's digital translation, this task of associating descriptive data with the throne enabled it to become properly related to the thousands of other artifacts, people, places, themes, stories, and media on the site. Egyptologists categorized the artistic style, technique, and materials of the throne while also listing out key dates (such as when it was created and when it was acquired) and key places (such as where it can be found today and where it was created in antiquity) in its long history. Categorized like this the throne assumed its place in a rich contextual web of related elements. Once in the Eternal Egypt Content Management System the throne's record could then be used to illustrate the articles, stories, and tours that form the backbone of the project. For example, CultNat used the throne image and data to bring to life two story "modules" called Royal Marriages in Ancient Egypt and the Furniture of Tutankhamun.
The last step in the re-creation of the throne was the presentation of the now-virtual throne in a variety of ways. 2D images were created from the throne in different sizes for presentation on the Digital Guide at the Egyptian Museum and for high-resolution zooming on the Eternal Egypt website. In addition, 3D scans were turned into 360 degree views of the throne for presentation on the website. Lastly, the throne became part of the larger virtual reconstruction of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun. This complete recreation of the artifacts as they were found in situ in 1922 enables visitors to explore the contents of the tomb - including the throne masterpiece - as though they had unsealed the tomb themselves. No longer a part of the actual tomb intended as a final resting place for the earthly trappings of the young king Tutankhamun, the throne is virtually reborn in a new environment, one that recreates the splendor and wonder that must have greeted Carter so many years ago.
The Throne of Tutankhamun is but one example of the many artifacts captured and presented digitally. If you are interested in learning more, you can explore the technologies that make Eternal Egypt possible or explore the rich content that brings it to life.