Star Gazing: Digitally Drawing the Bark Shrine Ceiling of the Small Amun Temple

Nov 9, 2020

Written by Dominique Navarro, artist at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, with a contribution by staff photographer Owen Murray

Looking up at the ceiling of the bark shrine, facing west (Photo by Dominique Navarro)

History of the Bark Shrine

The Theban Necropolis, west of the Nile River in modern day Luxor, is a trove of fascinating ancient temples and tombs, some better known than others. Passing through the Eastern High Gate to enter the Medinet Habu temple complex, one is confronted with the massive and majestic pylons of Rameses III’s grand mortuary temple beyond. But turn right past the entrance and one finds a comparatively modest structure that is no less fascinating and significant. 

View from the Eastern High Gate of the Medinet Habu temple complex; the temple pylon is in the distance on the left, and the Small Amun Temple is on the right with ceiling roof blocks visible (Photo by Dominique Navarro)

Known as the Small Amun Temple, its origins predate Rameses III’s construction of the larger temple complex surrounding it. Beneath its foundations, traces of an older structure have led archaeologists to believe that this monument dates back to as early as the Middle Kingdom, and inscriptions reveal that it was a place of worship and the mythological tomb of the Ogdoad: primeval Gods and Goddesses associated with creation. In fact, the site of the Small Temple was known as the “the Exact Mound of the West,” or the primordial mound that rose from the waters at the beginning of time.

Reconstruction illustration appearing in OIP 41. “The Excavation of Medinet Habu, Volume 2: The Temples of the Eighteenth Dynasty” by Uvo Hölscher, The University of Chicago Press, 1939

The surviving structure of the Small Temple comprises the original Eighteenth Dynasty construction begun by Hatshepsut—including the sanctuary, “Holiest of Places,” containing six chambers—and a hall and bark shrine completed by Thutmose III; exterior decorations were added by Ramses III, and major structural additions were done in the Late, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods.

Architectural plan of the small temple appearing in OIP 41. “The Excavation of Medinet Habu, Volume 2: The Temples of the Eighteenth Dynasty” by Uvo Hölscher, The University of Chicago Press, 1939

Thutmose III is credited with the construction of the ambulatory adjoining the sanctuary, which is enclosed by pillars and surrounds a shrine in the center: the room for the sacred bark of Amon. Built mostly out of sandstone, the bark shrine includes a number of reused limestone blocks, and the reliefs throughout are well preserved with extensive traces of paint, considered “some of the finest Eighteenth Dynasty bas reliefs extant” (W.J. Murnane). On the exterior of this room, Thutmose III is shown participating in foundation ceremonies for the temple, including the king excavating the trenches for the masonry walls himself. 

Historic diagram of the small temple appearing in “United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu”, by William J. Murnane, The University of Chicago Press, 1980

The bark shrine was in such ruinous condition by the second century B.C. that it was partially dismantled, and new blocks were inserted by Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, requiring re-carving and other restorations. According to Uvo Hölscher (1939), “To the Ptolemaic reconstruction must be attributed the roof slabs also, on which can be detected ornamentation bearing the names of Ramses II and which were therefore doubtless taken from the Ramesseum.”

This reconstructed roof of the bark shrine is composed of great stone slabs, about 60 cm thick and 3 m long, at a height of about 5 m. When this was done during the Ptolemaic period, the entire roof of the 18th Dynasty temple was also waterproofed with a thin stone pavement laid in gypsum and was given a shallow channel to conduct rainwater.

Historic photograph of the roof of the Small Temple looking south-east, appearing in OIP 41. “The Excavation of Medinet Habu, Volume 2: The Temples of the Eighteenth Dynasty” by Uvo Hölscher, The University of Chicago Press, 1939

It is unclear when the bark shrine lost the majority of its ceiling, but today only two long rectangular slabs remain, both at the western end of the room. (One of the slabs does not complete the distance across the room and is composed of two blocks joined, appearing as a long crack in the ceiling.) Looking up from inside the shrine, one sees the massive stones perched high above with the outspread wings of the vulture and snake goddesses, Nekhbet and Wadjet. They soar in the shadows, black from ancient smoke, among colorful hieroglyphs and painted stars, protected from the open sky. These divinities are separated by cartouches containing the name of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II.

Epigraphic drawings to document the ceiling of the bark shrine — identified as MHB 194a — on behalf of the Epigraphic Survey were begun in the Spring of 2019. It was determined that the ceiling would be documented throughout using the Chicago House method and all digital technology, including the photography and initial “pencil” drawings on site. 

Preparing the Digital Photograph Background for the Drawing

The first step to creating the epigraphic drawings requires a photograph to work with. Owen Murray — photographer at the Epigraphic Survey — prepared the background photo of the ceiling and adjoining lintel and upper panels of the west wall in the Spring of 2018, using the photogrammetric software Agisoft Metashape and two cameras: a Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID and 50mm Mamiya-Sekor Z f/4.5 lens, mounted with a Hasselblad CFV-50c digital back, as well as a Nikon D800 with a Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens. 

Photographer Owen Murray on scaffolding below the ceiling (Photo by Dominique Navarro)

For such a scene, multiple photographs are shot from various angles and then “stitched together” using the photogrammetric software Agisoft Metashape Pro to create a 3D spatial dataset. This 3D model ensures that the final photograph (and subsequent drawing) has highly accurate measurements and does not suffer from distortion unavoidable in a single photograph taken from one angle. 

Bark Shrine 194/194A notes: target positions and measurements (left) and resulting 3D model (right) by Owen Murray

To create accurate measurements, a series of 10 coded targets (referred to as ‘markers’) were placed in the four corners of the ceiling, as well as 6 positions on the lintel and adjoining wall panels. They were affixed using a minimal adhesive to cause the least amount of damage to the wall, then measured and recorded. The scene — including the ceiling, lintel and adjoining wall panels — was shot handheld 1/125-1/180 @ f/11, using a Profoto studio strobe moved to various positions to create optimal and even raking light relief throughout the scene.

Owen Murray photographing the ceiling, west lintel and adjoining panels of the bark shrine. Photo by Dominique Navarro

A challenge with the ceiling was the position of the raking light, which could come from no other place than the open eastern half of the shrine, corresponding to the lower, bottom edge of the drawing. The Chicago House method for drawings utilizes an imaginary raking light that falls from the top left corner, creating the illusion of sunlight falling across raised or sunk reliefs, differentiating sun lit lines and shadow lines. If possible, the photographer tries to capture this in the background photograph to aid the artist, but sometimes it is not feasible. In this case, the final digital photograph has heavy shadows raking from the lower part of the ceiling to the top across the sunk reliefs, and this requires reversal by the artist in the final drawing to maintain continuity with the Chicago House method. 

(1) Extracted orthomosaics for photo documentation and drawing enlargement: ceiling (194a) by Owen Murray

(2) Extracted orthomosaics for photo documentation and drawing enlargement: lintel with adjoining panels (194) by Owen Murray

Owen describes his technique, writing “The photos were imported into Agisoft Metashape and coded targets were automatically identified; their positions refined in each photo as required. Scale bars were created from these target measurements and camera stations were optimized resulting in very low error margins.”

“Photogrammetric models and the process of producing an orthomosaic image suitable for epigraphy can be thought of in terms of a body analogy. Two sets of photos are required: the first set, a series of overviews taken from up to double the optimal distance, provide the skeleton and musculature onto which the second set — a series of facing textural photos, the skin — are draped.”

More about Owen’s process to prepare photogrammetric digital backgrounds can be read about in his original tutorial, as well as in his latest article, both written for digitalEPIGRAPHY.

Preparing to Work Onsite 

Reis Badawy Muhammad Abd el-Rahman and his workmen built the sturdy scaffolding with thoughtful precautions including a separate, tall ladder to reach the topmost deck. Badawy found a clever solution to get me as close to the ceiling as possible in a comfortable position for drawing, by using one of the scaffolding planks at an angle so that I could lay on a diagonal, with my head just inches from the ceiling. He also provided a thick foam cushion, and indeed it was very comfortable despite the conditions. 

Photo by Dominique Navarro taken with the iPad

Black fabric was draped off the roof to limit the sun glare and allow controlled lighting with a lamp (secured to the scaffolding), and sometimes a strong flashlight for difficult details. I had access to electrical cables for the lighting, and to provide power to my iPad if necessary. 

Due to the height, I kept my iPad in an Araree Drawing Desk with added tabs to hold the iPad in place in the wood frame, with a rope tied to the board for extra security. I also secured my Apple Pencil with a long tie secured from a rubber pen sleeve to the wood frame, because dropping any equipment off the scaffolding was not an option. (There are no Apple Stores in Luxor, Egypt!)

The bark shrine and scaffolding to the ceiling (Photo by W. Raymond Johnson)

Creating the Digital Penciling

Once the color photograph was prepared in Photoshop using 1:4 ratio @ 1200dpi, separate smaller files were prepared for the “penciling” stage. Penciling was created on site using an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and the Procreate app. Since there is a limit on the size of the files brought into Procreate, I prepared two smaller color photo files reducing the size to 300 dpi and divided the original photo in two with a top and bottom portion of the scene, and some overlap.

The Apple Pencil in Procreate has numerous brushes one can customize, and for the penciling I chose a graphite simulating line that is a light grey and can be applied softly or with more pressure to create a darker tone. Digital drawing with an iPad is fantastic for the purpose of sketching at the wall. Because we are creating facsimile drawings of the reliefs, it is of utmost importance to get the shapes accurate, and it often requires a careful study onsite and reworking until one is satisfied. The penciling phase is the time to get the drawing right. Later on, the inking will simply follow the pencil lines exactly. Digital sketching allows for endless “erasing” and corrections, with the added benefit of turning on and off layers.

Procreate allows several layers in a drawing, so that you can turn on and off photo backgrounds, create templates, and keep details of your drawing separated. 

Photo by Dominique Navarro, with my digital camera

During penciling, I relied on another app call iDStretch—the iPad version of DStretch—which allows for enhancements of pigments especially in rock art. I used it on its own layer in Procreate, turning it on and off as needed. This significantly helped not only to define paint detail, but also to enhance the relief lines (by using the layer opacity and levels to alleviate the dark contrast of shadows in the photograph and help determine the placement of carved lines more clearly.)

Ceiling detail with iDStrech color enhancement on the left and the original photo on the right

Due to the amount of color in the ceiling, I kept a paint layer on a separate layer from the relief line work. At this stage, the only color documentation included is when the paint creates a separate line or shape from the relief carving, such as feather details in the wing, or stars in the sky which were not carved at all. In the final black and white inked drawing for publication, the paint line will be rendered as a dotted line. (The ceiling will likely be published with a color photograph, so additional detailed color documentation has not been included in the agenda at this time.)

My colleague and digital art mentor Krisztián Vértes also advised me on a trick to utilize the iPad camera and photograph difficult sections in the scene up close, then bring that photo into Procreate as an additional layer, format it to match scale of the master photograph, and find critical details that were otherwise obscured.

I must also give credit to William J. Murnane — an Egyptologist and senior epigrapher at the Epigraphic Survey until the mid-1980’s — who went up on scaffolding and wrote “hand copies” for the ceiling decorations to help with translations of the text. These elaborate notes also help as a guide for the artist to identify difficult hieroglyphs obscured by the peeling paint and crumbling plaster. Such an aid is greatly relied on, although not to be solely referred to.

Epigraphic Survey “hand copy” notes by William J. Murnane, circa early 1980s

Star Gazing

Sometimes, nothing works but looking at the wall itself to see the details that photographs just can’t discern. One of the trickiest aspects of the ceiling was the stars on either side of the scene. They were not carved, but painted using five simple brush strokes, and (occasionally) a red dot in the middle. The background of the stars appeared to be a dense blue pigment where it remained intact, and the stars themselves may have been a yellow ochre that has now faded to no visible color at all, often leaving only the ghost of a shape. One thing was consistent, however: the stars were always about the same size and angle and running in a formulaic grid. Therefore, in order to try to locate the stars in the burnt or disintegrating blue pigment, I experimented and created layers of template stars on a separate layer in Procreate, to try to make finding the star shapes more predictable. Ultimately, I used just one standard star that had an average shape and size, to help locate the ghost stars. 

Experimental templates for the stars, trying to find the average grid, shape, and size. These were placed in a layer in Procreate over the photograph to act as guides during penciling, and sometimes greatly helped

Ceiling with iDStrech color enhancement gradating into final digital inking of the stars and border detail using dotted lines for the paint

Producing the Digital Inking

Once the penciling was complete, I exported PSD layered files from Procreate off of the iPad and onto my MacBook Pro. In Photoshop, I converted the pencil drawings from 300 dpi back to 1200 dpi (the loss of quality on the pencil layer is not significant at this stage). I then transferred the pencil layers into my master file. Since both files are 1200 dpi, the penciling did not require resizing to fit, but just some adjustment to placement to make the layers match.

The digital inking follows the standard Chicago House method. However, personally I am still using a Wacom Intuos Pro for all my final inking of the drawings, unlike the majority of my colleagues at the Epigraphic Survey who use the Wacom Cintiq 22 HD Tablet. For my explanation and review of the Wacom Intuos Pro, you can read my article here.

Because I finished the penciling and inking at different stages between seasons in Luxor and offsite at home over almost 2 years, it was not until the final stage of inking that I was able to join the entire ceiling into one large file in Photoshop, mending the seams between lines, paint, and damage to make the two drawings entirely cohesive into one complete image. 

The digital inking for the entire bark shrine ceiling is now complete as of Summer 2020 and will proceed to the Egyptologists’ epigraphic checks for accuracy, further corrections, the director’s check, and eventually final publication.

Venerating the Past Through Documentation

One of the fondest aspects for me of working on site and copying artwork is the thoughtful reflection on the remarkable original artists who carved the reliefs and painted these scenes thousands of years ago. What did their scaffolding look like? What kind of tools did they use? How did they create these vivid pigments and apply them way up high on the ceiling? How did they train one another and collaborate to maintain a consistent style throughout their work?

To create this ceiling artwork alone took extraordinary dedication, creativity, and teamwork. I can only remark on the elegant details these artists tirelessly highlighted in colorful paint, throughout comprehensive carvings and dense plaster to create a seamless surface across immense stone slabs. Today, the color has deteriorated, the plaster is crumbling, and the remaining massive slabs are the lone remnants of a glorious tenacity. 

MH Ceiling photograph versus drawing detail - detail (Click photo to discover in higher resolution)

Ceiling photograph versus drawing detail (click to enlarge)

The facsimile drawings created by the Epigraphic Survey can’t restore what was, but they attempt to capture and honor all the detail and craftsmanship we can still discern under meticulous and loyal study. 

(Special thanks to W. Raymond Johnson, J. Brett McClain, Krisztián Vértes, Susan Osgood, and Ariel Singer for their greatly appreciated editing and suggestions throughout this article and throughout the drawing process itself.)

1 comment(s)

Henry D Slosser

Nov 10, 2020

Excellent article.

Nov 18, 2020

Thank you very much for your kind comment and support! Best, Krisztian Vertes

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