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Artist's Techniques in the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I



Horus, from la Description de l'EgypteIt has long been wondered how the Ancient Egyptians acheived such startlingly realistic effects in nearly flat relief carvings on their temple and tomb walls. In 1817 Giovanni Belzoni discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes, Egypt. Along with some of the best examples of Egyptian relief work, Belzoni found an entire room in an unfinished state, a room that showed step by step the process the ancient Egyptians used to create their art, carved and painted on the natural walls of the rock-cut chamber. While we might wish it had been completed with even more masterpieces, this room has shed much light on ancient Egyptian artistic methods.

This excerpt from Giovanni Belzoni's story of the discovery of the tomb of Seti I is illustrated with examples from a number of New Kingdom tombs and temples.

Artist's techniques used in the Tomb of Seti I

by Giovanni Battista Belzoni (published 1820)
All the figures and hieroglyphics of every description in Seti I's tomb are sculptured in basso relievo, and painted over, except in the unfinished chamber, which was only prepared for the sculptor. This room gives the best ideas that have yet been discovered of the original process of Egyptian sculpture.

Seti drives his chariot over his foes.
Seti I at Karnac, from "la Description de l'Egypte".


The wall was previously made as smooth as possible, and where there were flaws in the rocks, the vacuum was filled up with cement, which, when hard, was cut along with the rest of the rock. Where a figure or any thing else was required to be formed, the sculptor appears to have made his first sketches of what was intended to be cut out. When the sketches were finished in red lines by the first artist, another more skilful corrected the errors, if any, and his lines were made in black.

When the figures were thus prepared, the sculptor proceeded to cut out the stone all round the figure, which remained in basso relievo, some to the height of half an inch, and some much less, according to the size of the figure. For instance, if a figure were as large as life, its elevation was generally half an inch; if the figure were not more than six inches in length, its projection would not exceed the thickness of a dollar, or perhaps less. The angles of the figures were all smoothly rounded, which makes them appear less prominent than they really are. The garments, and various parts of the limbs, were marked by a narrow line, not deeper than the thickness of a half-crown, but so exact, that it produced the intended effect.

When the figures were completed and made smooth by the sculptor, they received a coat of whitewash all over. This white is so beautiful and clear, that our best and whitest paper appeared yellowish when compared with it.

from the temple of Rameses II in Abu Simble.
Pharaoh Ramesses II smites the bad guys.
by Salvador Cherubini, 1832-1844


The painter came next, and finished the figure. It would seem as if they were unacquainted with any color to imitate the naked parts, since red is adopted as a standing color for all that meant flesh. There are some exceptions indeed; for in certain instances, when they intended to represent a fair lady, by way of distinguishing her complexion from that of the men, they put on a yellow color to represent her flesh; yet it cannot be supposed, that they did not know how to reduce their red paints to a flesh colour, for on some occasions, where the red flesh is supposed to be seen through a thin veil, the tints are nearly of the natural color.

Liquid offerings poured before Pharaoh.
by Prisse d'Avennes, 1877


Their garments were generally white, and their ornaments formed the most difficult part, when the artists had to employ red in the distribution of the four colours, in which they were very successful. When the figures were finished, they appear to have laid on a coat of varnish; though it may be questioned, whether the varnish were thus applied, or incorporated with the color. The fact is, that nowhere else except in this tomb is the varnish to be observed, as no place in Egypt can boast of such preservation, nor can the true customs of the Egyptians be seen any where else with greater accuracy.
G.B.B.

Read Giovanni Belzoni's description of the discovery and exploration of Seti I's tomb: Click Here


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 the famous harpers from the valley of the Kings   the other wall painting relief of a harp player 
Painted relief carvings of Harpers in the Valley of the Kings,
from "la Description de l'Egypte".