The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos - Amice Calverley’s Record of the Temple of Seti I

May 16, 2019

Plate 1. Sethos opens the door for Osiris

Project description

Commencing in 1933, a four-volume series entitled The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos, edited by Alan H. Gardiner, was published jointly by the Egypt Exploration Society and the University of Chicago, with the financial aid of John D. Rockefeller. The books were largely devoted to the exceptional copies of the temple’s wall paintings done by Ms. Amice Calverley.

Decorative program 

The Egypt Exploration Society began its activities in Abydos in the 1920s with the recording of the seven chapels of the innermost sanctuary in the temple of Seti I. The chapels of Osiris, Isis and Horus were published in Volume I, while those of Amun-Re, Re-Harakhty, Ptah and King Sethos following as Volume II. 

“The gods of the seven chapels are the divinities to whom the temple is dedicated, and the chapel of each is his own particular innermost sanctuary where the cult-image was kept and tended. The seven deities consist of the Osirian triad, the great gods of Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis respectively, and lastly King Sethos I himself. The scenes and legends in all the chapels except the last are closely parallel with one another, variations occurring only in so far as they are demanded by the nature of the deity, by the exigencies of the space, and (to a very limited extent) by the caprice of the designing artist. The theme is the daily ritual performed in these self-same chapels, consisting of a number of episodes recording the approach to the shrine, the purification and fumigation of the deity, and lastly his adornment with clean apparel and the appropriate insignia.”

The Osiris Complex was published in Volume III, and the Second Hypostyle Hall in Volume IV.

Documentation method

The methods used to produce the Plates are described by Ms. Calverley in Volume I as follows:

“The photographs prepared by Mr. Felton during the first two seasons’ work have naturally influenced the technique finally adopted by ourselves. In those early negatives the problem of lighting under difficult conditions and in constricted spaces had not been dealt with adequately, and much of the delicate detail of the sculptures was lost. It was mainly for this reason that pencil drawings were decided upon. The photographs were first enlarged to scale, and were then traced by hand over a specially constructed tracing-board, which consisted of a box furnished with a ground-glass top and containing powerful electric lamps. The use of such a tracing-board has a double advantage over the bleaching-out method often employed, inasmuch as the enlargements could be preserved for future reference, and also fine drawing paper could be used. The tracings were subsequently taken to Egypt, where the drawing was finished in front of the originals. Finally experts were called in to check the inscriptions. A convention had to be adopted for dealing with places where the surface had been damaged by natural action or by human destructiveness. All definite lacunae in the inscriptions are outlined, and indistinct areas are hatched. As regards the sculptures, a different plan has been followed. Here broken outlines are merely discontinued so that the flow of the drawing is interrupted as little as possible. No reconstruction has been attempted.

In order to exhibit the character and fine quality of the reliefs the line-drawings have been supplemented by photographs and coloured plates. As basis for the latter yellow sensitive negatives were employed. These rendered in soft tones all color values except red, which was held back by retouching the negative with a red solution. Enlargements were then prepared, a monochrome collotype print being made on hot-pressed Whatman paper. The ink used was of a pale golden-brown tone which worked in with the various colours. In this way much time was saved, no preparatory drawings being necessary and accuracy of line being assured. Other advantages were that the unpleasant quality of painted photographs was avoided, and we did not have the oily muddy-toned gelatin surface of photographic prints to contend with. This method enabled us to reproduce the brilliancy of colour and soft patina of the originals.

For the false doors and the thickness of the entrances line-drawings appeared insufficient, as they failed to give an adequate idea of the constructional peculiarities and the fine details of the hieroglyphs in low relief. To meet such requirements a process of drawing on photographs was evolved, whereby advantages of both techniques were retained.”

“Where curved surfaces had to be dealt with, as in ceilings and columns, rubbings were made on fine tissue paper with soft red carbons. The rubbings were then photographically reduced and drawings made from them.”

Visual example(s)

Plate 4. Chapel of Osiris, North Wall, Eastern section

Plate 5. Sethos worships and gazes upon Osiris

Plate 5. Sethos worships and gazes upon Osiris (detail)

Plate 10. Chapel of Osiris, South Wall, Western section

Plate 11. Sethos offers incense to the sacred emblem of Osiris

What we like

  • With the inclusion of color plates, the intention of the artist was to render the wall decoration as faithfully as possible on paper. As color photography was not yet widely used in documentation, it was up to the artist to capture the state of the monument as realistically as possible. This meant the accurate copying of lines, surface treatment, and also colors.
  • The natural appearance of the plates in the books lies, among other things, in the meticulous representation of the original hues – as seen by the artist at the time of copying. The faded and worn quality of some painted areas are depicted faithfully in the documentation, as well as the multitude of shades used by the ancient painters.
  • The line drawings, in comparison, aim for visual clarity. Therefore, wherever the carving is interrupted by damage of any kind, a gap appears to brake the single-weight outline drawing. In this manner, all the damage is omitted from the outline representation of the walls, as not to interfere with the overall lucidity of a scene. 

Additional reading

This article is based on The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos, Volume I: The Chapels of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Copied by Amice M. Calverley, with the assistance of Myrtle F. Broome, and edited by Alan H. Gardiner. Published by the Egypt Expoloration Society (London) and the University of Chicago Press (Chicago) in 1933. All four volumes are available to download for free from the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. You may find a convenient set of links gathered at the Ancient World Online

The entire corpus of Ms. Calverley’s paintings that were originally published in the four volumes of the “The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos” can be found as high resolution images at the website of the Ancient Egypt Foundation.

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

1 comment(s)

Charles Jones

May 16, 2019

It would be nice to not in excellent summary that all four volumes are available complete and at no cost from the Oriental Institute. A convenient set of links is gathered at:

May 16, 2019

Dear Mr Jones, thank you very much for sending us this indeed convenient link to AWOL. Present article was still under maintenance as we read your comment, we were just about to include four separate download links to the OI for the four volumes of Calverley's excellent publications. However, you made our work much easier! Thanks again and we hope you'll find many interesting articles on our site in the future!

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