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New exhibition reveals the story behind Sir John Soane's Museum's most treasured possession
Video installation of ultra-high resolution 3-D scan of the sarcophagus of Seti I in Sir John Soane’s Museum. © The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.


LONDON.- To coincide with the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I by the Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778–1823), Sir John Soane’s Museum presents Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I – a new exhibition revealing the story behind the Museum’s most treasured possession.

Known as ‘The Great Belzoni’, Giovanni Battista Belzoni was one of the most famous and pioneering explorers of his age, and played a crucial role in the development of Egyptology as a scientific discipline. A former circus strongman based in London, in 1815 Belzoni took up the role of engineer in Egypt, charged with the removal of large and heavy antiquities. This included the seven-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II, taken from the king's memorial temple at Luxor that now sits in the British Museum.

On 17 October 1817, Belzoni made his finest discovery: he found the tomb of Ramesses’ father, Seti I comprising ten vividly painted chambers decorated with thousands of hieroglyphs, and Seti’s elaborately carved white alabaster sarcophagus.

Seti reigned for 13 years (BC 1291–1278), and was a great military pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, pursuing campaigns in Syria and Lebanon. Seti’s reign marked a period of re-birth for Egypt, during which art and culture reached a sophistication rarely equalled in subsequent centuries. This is evident in the quality of the reliefs in Seti’s tomb, which were among the most sophisticated in the Valley of the Kings. Belzoni found the wall paintings in excellent condition with some of the artists’ brushes and paints even left on the floor. Belzoni and his assistant Alessandro Ricci meticulously copied the reliefs in a series of stunning watercolours, a number of which, on loan from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, feature prominently in the exhibition.

The huge alabaster sarcophagus which originally held Seti’s mummified remains was removed by Belzoni and eventually purchased by John Soane in 1824, who gave it pride of place in the Sepulchral Chamber at the heart of the Museum. According to Belzoni, the sarcophagus ‘merits the most particular attention, not having its equal in the world, and being such as we had no idea could exist.’

The exhibition brings the story of the sarcophagus up to date. Alongside Belzoni’s accounts of its discovery and tales of the high profile ‘sarcophagus parties’ Sir John Soane held in 1825 for ‘distinguished fashionables and literary characters’ to celebrate his purchase, the exhibition also presents more recent conservation and research into the object. In addition, the exhibition features a new high-resolution 3-D digital scan of the sarcophagus by Factum Arte, which is being displayed adjacent to real fragments of its broken lid.

Bruce Boucher, Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum says: ‘The Sarcophagus of Seti I is Sir John Soane’s Museum greatest treasure and has captivated visitors since its installation in 1824. The exhibition will feature wonderful loans from Mougins Museum of Classical Art, the Daniel Katz Gallery, the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and the British Museum, as well as objects from our own collection. It offers an opportunity to mark an important bicentennial and to explore the fascinating stories around this exceptional work of art.’






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