Digital Projections Show the Vivid Colors That Once Decorated an Egyptian Temple

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is adding a bright flourish to the Temple of Dendur

color temple
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Filip Wolak

When it comes to ancient Egypt, the color most associated with its monuments today would likely be a sandy beige. Egyptologists, however, have long known that many of its buildings were actually covered in vividly colored paintings that brought the stone structures to life. Now, through the magic of projection-mapping technology, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art can catch a glimpse of what one of these buildings, the Temple of Dendur, may have looked like more than 2,000 years ago.

For thousands of years, the Temple of Dendur stood on the banks of the Nile, where its once bright wall drawings were dulled by annual floods. As recently as 1906, the British Egyptologist Aylward Blackman noted that the temple’s interior still retained some of its paintings. By 1920, the temple was flooded for nine months out of the year and in the mid-1960s the now-beige building was relocated to the Met as part of a Unesco-sponsored salvage campaign, Joshua Barone writes for the New York Times. But once it arrived in New York, the centuries of flooding had stripped away any traces of the original paint job, leaving curators to guess at what the temple originally looked like.

“We tried to find paint,” curator Marsha Hill tells Barone. “But so far, nothing.”

By examining earlier surveys of the temple and other similar structures like the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt, a team of researchers from the Met’s MediaLab compiled a full-color projection that is mapped onto a carved scene depicting the Roman emperor Augustus making offerings to the Ancient Egyptian deities Hathor and Horus. The display is called "Color the Temple."

As the Met MediaLab’s Matt Felsen, Erin Peters, and Maria Paula Saba wrote in a blog post:

Through rigorous research, prototyping, discussion, and iteration, we have managed to cast new light on the Temple by presenting it in a fashion much closer to its original form for the first time in many millennia. Using relatively recent advances in software, we were able to experiment with restoration using nondestructive means (projected light rather than a material like paint) to temporarily display content without presenting any challenges for conservation.

The software projections allow for a degree of interactivity, allowing tour guides to switch between several possibilities for how the scene might have been originally colored, as well as highlight specific aspects of the scene, such as dialogue carved into nearby hieroglyphics. The MediaLab hopes that this project will be a template for future research.

The projection covers just a single scene at the moment, but the MediaLab’s manager, Marco Castro Cosio, says to expect similar projections to start appearing in other exhibits throughout the museum. For visitors curious to see how the Temple of Dendur may have been painted, they can stop by the MET to view the projections after sunset on Fridays and Saturdays through March.