2018 Seed Grants: Rita Lucarelli & the New Media of the Book of the Dead

28 May, 2018

2018 Seed Grants: Rita Lucarelli & the New Media of the Book of the Dead

This year, the Berkeley Center for New Media offered two faculty research grants to seed ambitious academic projects in the field. Our alumni voted on the applications and awarded $5,000 to Rita Lucarelli (Near Eastern Studies) to build a new platform designed to examine the Book of the Dead texts and imagery through photogrammetry. Read more about her research below!

Rita Lucarelli, Associate Professor of Egyptology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, aims to use 3D models as a way to open new perspectives for the documentation and analysis of ancient Egyptian texts and media.

The Book of the Dead is the name given to a corpus of ancient Egyptian magical, ritual and funerary texts, often accompanied by images and attested from the beginning of the New Kingdom (1500 BCE) to the Greco-Roman period. The objects where Book of the Dead spells and vignettes occur are part of the funerary equipment used for the burial rituals: mainly papyri but also mummy bandages, linen and coffins.

By focusing only on the strictly textual aspects of the Book of the Dead corpus as occurring on two-dimensional papyri, egyptologists have been ignoring the modalities of textual distribution on larger three-dimensional media such as coffins. There has been no comprehensive attempt, until now, to investigate how the texts are used on coffins and how they are selected and organized on the coffin surface and in relation to the object’s composite architecture (lid vs bottom, exterior vs interior.) Since 2015, by using the technique of photogrammetry, Lucarelli has carried out a project aimed primarily at building up a new platform for an in-depth study of the materiality of the Book of the Dead texts and images through the 3D visualizations of inscribed, anthropoid coffins produced in the First Millennium BCE, when magical texts and iconography were particularly en vogue on mortuary objects in Egypt. The main outcome of this project is to allow the scholarly community to work on the translation and on other metadata (transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic text, iconographic analysis, coffin typology, origin and whereabouts of the coffins’ owner, etc.), having as a basis this new media – the 3D model of the coffin.

The digital transposition of the coffins into three-dimensional models can also recreate the specific ancient Egyptian experience of death and hope for rebirth through magic (as symbolized by the decorated coffin), as well as allowing the user of the 3D model to step beyond the representation of the physical image and thus explore a different and more full conception of “visualization” in terms of immersion and data expansion of the spatio-temporal experience.

Her team has currently built seven 3D models, five from wooden coffins and one stone sarcophagus kept at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, one coffin from the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and one coffin from the San Diego Museum of Man (see the project website for the 3D models and information on these pieces: With the seed grant provided from BCNM, Lucarelli will be able to continue funding her current two graduate research assistants to advance this project. They plan to build new models of at least two coffins (one kept at the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose and another one from the Hearst Museum) and to develop the models in order to use them for the VR 3D display system “Cavekiosk” at the Hearst Museum, in cooperation with UC San Diego and RIT at UC Berkeley.

They aim also to integrate audio files into the 3D models, through which the magical texts on the coffins will be audio reconstructed and vocalized according to the ancient Egyptian spelling and pronunciation. This project will open new perspectives for the study of the ancient Egyptian texts, developing a new research methodology that provides the opportunity to use 3D models on a web-based platform for scholarly documentation and analysis of both the ancient Egyptian texts and their media. Such a platform could be also employed as teaching tool in a course on ancient Egyptian funerary literature, language and religion where students would learn to map texts on objects and to understand the relationship between written and material culture, spoken word, text and writing support and materiality thanks to an immersive VR presentation of the 3D models of the coffins.

Learn more about the project on its official website here.