In 1898, a team led by French archaeologist Victor Loret excavated the tomb of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose III. It was given the number KV34, though it had originally been one of the first tombs to be cut into the bedrock of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings over 3,400 years ago. The tomb is found in the furthermost wadi, and to enter it one must first ascend 30m up the cliff face, which thankfully today is done by a purpose-built staircase. Loret found that the inaccessibility of the tomb had not stopped ancient Egyptian tomb-robbers, who had pulled it apart and carted off its riches, many of which were stored in four small rooms adjacent to the burial chamber.
Although much of its glitz had been stolen in antiquity, the tomb contained something altogether different and equally spectacular. The walls of the final room, the oval burial chamber, are covered in an unusual style of decoration, more akin to inscriptions done by a scribe with their pen and ink. The yellow-tinged walls, with stickman-like imagery, are believed to imitate a scroll of papyrus. The tomb’s inscriptions are the first complete version of the amduat, or ‘that which is in the underworld’. Divided into the 12 hours of night-time, it ends in rebirth with the rising of the sun in the morning. This ‘scroll’ is effectively Thutmose III’s A-Z, his guidebook for the afterlife, a journey in which he must follow the sun god each night.
Much easier to access is the replica burial chamber housed in northern England, in Bolton Museum’s newly refurbished Egypt galleries. Constructed between 2004 and 2010 by international digital production company Factum Arte, it formed part of a touring exhibition of ancient Egyptian objects from the collections of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Luxor Museum, and latterly Bolton Museum.
It is an exact 3D copy of the original burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, made by digitally enhancing photographic scans of the original, removing distortions, and matching colours and dimensions so that it is accurate down to the millimetre. The master images were printed onto gesso plaster panels, some several metres in length, and then each was hand-finished. Particular attention was paid to recreating damage effects; scans of the tomb allowed for a faithful etched reconstruction of damage on the plaster replica, giving the walls their aged character.
The replica is the only copy of this tomb in the world, and is one of only three copies of Egyptian tombs made by the company: Seti I and Tutankhamen, both of which are in Egypt, and Thutmose III in Bolton. This makes it not only a spectacular installation for visitors, but an important resource for all those wanting to study the tomb’s inscriptions.
Exploring the Bolton Thutmose tomb, you enter through the same route as the original, from the antechamber doorway, albeit with a less arduous initial trek. The space is intended to be experiential, a way for Boltonians and visitors to have the feeling of standing in an ancient Egyptian tomb. No prior warning is given before entering the space, adding to the effect of being overwhelmed.
No objects are displayed in the burial chamber, but Bolton’s mummy of the ‘Unknown Man’ is respectfully placed in the same position in the chamber as Thutmose III himself was originally placed. He is broadly contemporary with Thutmose, less than 200 years apart, and believed through scientific study to be related to Ramesses II. Although his identity is lost to history, his placement in the tomb allows reverential contemplation of ancient Egyptian treatment of their dead, away from displays of artefacts.
Following an unenforced cyclical flow of Bolton’s displays, visitors exit the burial chamber through one of the side storeroom doorways. Through this doorway shines the bright natural daylight of the entrance gallery, a celebration of ancient Egyptian daily life, and so the visitor – like Thutmose – is reborn and set on the journey to explore Bolton’s Egypt all over again.
Ian Trumble, curator, Bolton Museum
All images: Bolton Museum