At the Garstang: first session photographing the Book of the Dead

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A camera in a room with black walls and electric sockets on nearby. The camera's on a tripod, looking down at a piece of ancient Egyptian papyrus held between two sheets of glass


Last week, I had my first proper session in the photographic suite. I spent the day in near darkness, photographing a couple of pages from the Book of the Dead.

But why were you in near darkness?, I hear you cry. Because of my arch-nemesis: reflections.

The papyri are encased in sheets of glass, which were cleaned beautifully by some of the museum interns before I photographed them. However, the now extra-clean glass was was extra shiny, and therefore extra reflective. Although the walls and ceiling in the suite are painted black, even low amounts of light were reflecting off the light fittings in the ceiling back down onto the glass.


Three women in an office. Two are sitting by a trolley, cleaning the glass containing a piece of papyrus, using cotton wool. The third woman is standing next to them, overseeing them
Two of the interns – with the Overseer of Works, Gina – cleaning the glass plates with cotton wool and deionised water


The best solution I found was to turn my panel light down almost to its dimmest setting – to minimise the amount of light bouncing around in the space – and have a thirty-second exposure on the camera to compensate for the very low light.

Once I got my lighting and camera set-up working, I could get into the swing of things.


Photographing the Book of the Dead

The two pages I photographed were Spells 110 and 125 of the Book of the Dead.

Spell 110 depicts the Field of Reeds, a place in the afterlife based on real life. The illustrations show scenes such as people with oxen, tilling the land and growing crops.

Spell 125 is the famous judgement scene, where the deceased has their heart weighed against the feather of truth to see if they’ve led a good life.

I photographed both pages in full. However, instead of photographing each one in a single shot, I got much closer and photographed them over several shots. I can then stitch them back together in Photoshop, giving me a much bigger, more detailed final image. An initial play in Photoshop has given me files which can be printed out at about a metre in width.

As well as photographing the papyri in their entirety, I was getting shots of individual elements in greater detail. The advantage to working with a macro lens is that I can photograph tiny, tiny areas of the papyri which can then be printed out many times larger.


The camera on the tripod photographing the papyrus. This time, the camera's very close to the surface of the glass to get a detailed shot of part of the papyrus
Working up close with a macro lens


Looking down at the camera and the papyrus. You can see the detail of the papyrus on the digital screen on the camera
Here, you can see the hieroglyphs I was photographing on the LCD display on the camera. The actual size of these glyphs is around two or three cms. I will then be able to print them out at least at A3 size


The day took a little while to get going, having to mess around getting the lighting arrangement set up properly. However, I got some lovely photos, both for the Garstang’s upcoming exhibition and for my own personal project. Here’s a couple of photos of details I got for myself:


A closeup of the face of the god Osiris on the papyrus. His face is in profile, he's wearing a tall crown with a cobra above his forehead
The god Osiris


The name 'Osiris Wennefer' in hieroglyphs on the papyrus
The name ‘Osiris Wennefer’. I just love the recumbent hare
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2 Responses

  1. […] out to play any more. (Of course, one major advantage of the papyrus not being in glass is that I didn’t have reflections to deal with. This meant a brighter light and a faster shutter speed, making my workflow much […]

  2. […] numerous hours in the photographic suite, many more vying with Photoshop, followed by several weeks of nail biting, hoping my photos would […]

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