Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: A Sarcophagus Party

Further Insights

A Sarcophagus Party

Some background information will help better understand the reasons behind our addition of the sarcophagus to our simulation. The original sarcophagus used for the “regenerated” model was at the center of a controversy regarding its legitimate ownership between Belzoni, who claimed it belonged to him because he had discovered it, and the aforementioned British consul in Egypt, Henry Salt, who maintained that Belzoni merely worked for him as hired help and therefore could not claim any right to its possession. As mentioned earlier, the Salt collection was displayed at the British Museum in 1823, two years after the show at Egyptian Hall. Yet, the sarcophagus was not part of this display either: only after Belzoni’s death, in the same year—he disappeared, killed by dysentery on his way to Timbuktu, where, in Thornton’s fiction, Don Juan once ruled—the controversy surrounding the artifact finally reached a resolution, although not the one that either Belzoni or Salt would have desired.84 The sarcophagus found its final home not in the austere galleries of the British Museum along with the gigantic head of the Memnon and other relics gathered by Belzoni, but in Sir John Soane’s residence at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, jam-packed with the latter’s extravagant archaeological collection. Its final resting place is on the mansion’s lower floor, outfitted as a crypt with various archaeological fragments and relics—visitors can still admire it there. As Helen Dorey writes, “Soane always referred to his greatest treasure as ‘the Belzoni’s sarcophagus’ and obviously regarded it as a sort of shrine to its discoverer,” in character with the rest of his home museum “that can be read as series of shrines to those admired by its creator throughout time.”85 A high-resolution photogrammetric scan of the Belzoni’s sarcophagus, executed by Factum Arte, can now be examined on the website of the Soane Museum.86

The excitement that Egyptian antiquities and the memory of the show at Egyptian Hall could still provide in Regency London is well reflected in a letter written by the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon that describes one of the “sarcophagus parties” held a few years later at Sir John Soane’s house in March 1825. This party, meant to showcase, by lamp light, the sarcophagus in question, was attended by royalty and prominent artists such as Coleridge and Turner (fig. 29). 87 Belzoni’s widow Sarah Bane was also present—perhaps she wore her Mamluk “custom,” the dark blue caftan and white turban that she often donned at home as well as in public outings.88 Indeed this soirée was in her honor, to help her advertise the imminent replay of the Egyptian Hall exhibit scheduled to be set up later that year in Leicester Square, which would hopefully secure the widow of the Great Belzoni some badly needed income. London’s best society crowded around the diaphanous marble object on display, in the electric atmosphere of Sir John’s private museum. As Haydon’s letter vividly reports:

It was the finest fun imaginable to see the people come into the Library, after wondering about below, amidst tombs and capitals, and shafts, and noseless heads, with a sort of expression of delighted relief at finding themselves among the living, and with coffee and cake. Fancy, delicate ladies of fashion dipping their pretty heads into an old, mouldy, fusty hierogliphicked coffin, blessing their stars at its age, wondering whom it contained.89

Lady Blessington and even Don Juan would be welcome in with the crowd—after all, as Thornton writes in his novel, the Spanish libertine himself once descended into a mummy pit back in Egypt and found there “a large sarcophagus of pure alabaster sculptured within and without with the most delicate figures.”90 In his description of Don Juan’s sarcophagus, Thornton even mentions the mellow light emanating from its interior which, “resembling the effect of magic, lighted up the entire [underground] saloon.” This is the same impression made on Sir John’s guests by the elaborate lighting system devised for the lamp light parties: a red glowing effect produced “by placing a light adjacent to the stone without the need for any coloured filter” while “candles were placed inside the sarcophagus (rather than lamps full of oil).”91 And, albeit not physically there, Pharaoh Seti’s mummy is also symbolically present in the ghostly glow of its empty resting place—completing the aura emanating from Belzoni’s sarcophagus with its virtual presence.

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