Virtual Malqata, the Amenhotep III Palace 3D Reconstruction Project – Accuracy Versus Authenticity

Aug 1, 2021

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

The Throne Room (Franck Monnier, 2021)

Franck Monnier and Paul François began the digital reconstruction of the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata in 2016, as part of a collaboration with the Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeological Fund. They used digital technologies and 3D software to recreate the columned hall and the throne room of the King’s Palace, relying on contemporary sources as well as fragments discovered on site. Recently, the reconstructions have been updated to show a more ambitious decoration scheme, opting for the sense of authenticity rather than strict scientific accuracy.

The site

The palace complex of Amenhotep III (1386-1353) at Malqata is situated in southwestern Thebes, south of the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. The festival city, called “The House of Rejoicing”, was built south of the king’s funerary temple at Kom el-Hettan for his thirtieth jubilee, and included several residential palaces, ceremonial structures, administrative buildings, and villages established for housing the workers, artisans, and servants. The King’s Palace was built on the edge of the cultivation on higher ground, overlooking the nearby artificial lake and harbor of Birket Habu.

Today, the site is marked only by low mudbrick ruins and large mounds. It has been known since the end of the 19thcentury. The first archaeological investigations were conducted by Georges Daressy and the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1888, then Percy Newberry and Robb De Peyster Tytus spent a season surveying the area in 1901-1902. Next, the Metropolitan Museum Expedition excavated the site between 1910 and 1920 under the direction of Herbert E. Winlock. They uncovered the palace enclosure and much of the surrounding area, including the North Palace, groups of private houses, the “great festival hall”, and a mudbrick Amun temple. Half a century later the University of Pennsylvania conducted a re-examination of Malqata between 1971 and 1977, under the direction of David O’Connor and Barry J. Kemp. The team was able to determine that the town associated with the palace was far larger than originally thought. In the 1970s, a Japanese Archaeological Mission of the Waseda University excavated the barque way station at Kom el-Samak in Malqata South. 

Since 2007, the Joint Expedition to Malqata (JEM) of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeology Fund has been working at Malqata, under the direction of Diana Craig Patch and Peter Lacovara (until 2018). The expedition carried out several mapping and restoration projects, including in the King’s Palace, parts of the Amun Temple, the North Village, and the West Settlement and the Industrial Site. 

In 2016, as part of a collaboration with the Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeological Fund, Franck Monnier, with the aid of Paul François (research engineer at the Laboratoire d'Archéologie Médiévale and Moderne en Méditerranée), undertook The Amenhotep III Palace 3D reconstruction project to partially recreate the King’s Palace at Malqata. 

Project description

The intention of the Amenhotep III Palace 3D reconstruction project was to realistically illustrate what the greatest known Egyptian palace could have looked like upon its construction. Beginning in 2016, the creators first reconstructed in 3D the central columned hall leading to the throne room in the King’s Palace, “then focused on 3D colored drawings of an aerial view of the palace and a three-quarters view of the royal canopy with its throne, combining 3D to image processing software.” As the initial step, the creators “had to gather all the existing documentation more or less closely related to this part of the palace. Archaeological surveys that were undertaken in the early 20th century provided a precise layout of the walls as well as the location of the doors opening onto the adjacent rooms. Remains of limestone circular column bases show that the two rooms were hypostyle halls with two rows of columns. The column shafts were made of wood, probably painted red as it was generally the case. We chose to provide them with papyrus cluster capitals and added lotus buds.” “We also decided to raise the roof of the central aisle in order to position the clerestories which provide the lighting. Decorative fragments of the side spans roofs by the Japanese team of Waseda University allowed us to reconstruct its entire decoration. The space was thus divided into three long bays. As for the central alley, the Tytus and Metropolitan expeditions indicated that it was covered with a succession of winged vultures. Some fragments uncovered later by the Japanese mission have confirmed this assertion and allowed a full restoration.”

Since the decoration on the columned hall’s side walls is uncertain, the creators decided to leave them blank in the original reconstruction. “The paintings that covered the floor have been better preserved and were partially uncovered by the earlier expeditions to the site, and they confirm the similarity with Tell el-Amarna. The floor symbolized a garden on which everyone could walk from one end of the room to the other. Reed and papyrus thickets provided an environment in which various bird species like ducks flourished.” Foreign prisoners, with their hands tied behind their backs, were also depicted on the floor in the main alley towards the throne dais. 

The digital reconstruction of the platform with the throne and its canopy was largely based on contemporary representations of such structures, especially Nina de Garis Davies’s facsimile painting showing Amenhotep III sitting on his throne in TT 226.

In early 2021, the creators have updated the 3D reconstructions to include a largely hypothetical decoration scheme on the side walls of the central columned hall and the throne room. The inspiration behind the decision is explained by Monnier thusly: “The houses and palaces of Tell el-Amarna show that they were undoubtedly related to the surrounding environment (i.e. garden, pond) and that they celebrated the activities that took place there (i.e. dance, music, banquets).” 

The new 3D view also includes a pool representation on the floor of the central hall’s main axis and an elaborate doorway leading to the throne room (source: Facebook). 

Visual example(s)

Remains of the large columned room (photo by Franck Monnier)

Bringing to life the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata using a free and open-source 3D creation suite, called Blender

The large colonnade hall leading to the throne room, original view (Franck Monnier)

The large colonnade hall leading to the throne room, updated version (Franck Monnier, 2021)

The large colonnade hall leading to the throne room, detail (Franck Monnier, 2021)

Amenhotep III and his mother, Mutemwia, in a Kiosk. Facsimile painting from TT 226 by Nina de Garis Davies (left) compared to Franck Monnier’s 3D reconstruction of the royal baldachin (right)

Throne room being modeled (Franck Monnier, 2021) 

Canopy of the throne room (version 2021, Franck Monnier)

What we think

  • Virtual Malqata is an ambitious project that has a lot of potential in bringing the site back to life through 3D animation. It might help visualize a monument that would otherwise be hard to imagine based upon the current state of the site, and, at the same time, give access to a broad spectrum of information to the general public and a wider audience.
  • However, the creators’ decision to project scenes from non-royal funerary chapels onto the palace walls, especially murals as recognizable and iconic as the funerary banquet scene from the tomb of Nakht (TT 52), is somewhat questionable from a scientific point of view. To leave the walls blank would have been equally misleading; perhaps using more generic scenes to give an impression of how the rooms looked like might have been preferrable.
  • That being said, Egyptological research would profit immensely from the virtual reconstruction of a monument that showed the discovered fragments (in their original but enhanced color scheme) placed upon a 3D architectural frame, with the decoration complemented where it is possible to complement. 

Additional reading

This article was based on Franck Monnier’s draft paper titled “Scientific Reconstruction of the Palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata” in the Studies on The Palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata (edited by Peter Lacovara, forthcoming). For a brief summary, visit here.

To read more about the Amenhotep III Palace 3D reconstruction project, visit their website

You can read more about the University of Pennsylvania’s excavation at Malqata here, about the Joint Expedition to Malqata (JEM) here, and about the Waseda University’s work here.

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