By William Harms
Photo Courtesy of Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute

There are literally kilometers of inscribed wall surfaces and wall fragments that have never been recorded.”
—W. Raymond Johnson
field director of the Epigraphic Survey

Documenting the remnants of an ancient civilization is a race against the ravages of weather and city expansion, and few places pose more challenges for preservation than Egypt’s rapidly changing environment.

At the Chicago House, UChicago’s outpost in Luxor, Egypt, a team of Oriental Institute archaeologists and other specialists has traditionally used a 90-year-old process to create precise line drawings of the inscriptions and reliefs. Though the Epigraphic Survey team captured details too slight to show up clearly on photographs, it was difficult to account for complications such as repainted walls, ancient graffiti, or even ancient attempts to rewrite history.

“Sometimes there are surprises, such as when we found traces of a figure of the 18th Dynasty female King Hatshepsut (1508–1458 B.C.), and her cartouche (her name in hieroglyphs) emerging from a wall erased by her coregent and successor Thutmosis III, who, long after her death, attempted to suppress all memory of her reign,” says W. Raymond Johnson, field director of the Epigraphic Survey.

Using a new digital, layered approach, Oriental Institute researchers now are able to better record ancient Egyptian, while preserving the survey’s rigorous standards for accuracy. This new method of documentation aims to uncover the entire history and evolution of a certain scene through the ages, which can quickly be shared digitally with archaeologists in the field and across the world.

When the Epigraphic Survey was founded, its purpose was to systematically document Egyptian inscriptions and share its findings with the world, Johnson says. “This enormous, open-ended project continues to be our primary mandate in Luxor today. There are literally kilometers of inscribed wall surfaces and wall fragments that have never been recorded that preserve all kinds of information about life in the time of the Pharaohs.”

A process nearly as old as the Oriental Institute

Famed Egyptologist James Henry Breasted founded the Oriental Institute in 1919 and established the Epigraphic Survey in 1924. A skilled photographer, Breasted guided the development of the Chicago House method, but even at the time, noted how weather and looters damaged the fragile stonework.

Conservation and restoration have become priorities of the Epigraphic Survey team as well, but city expansion and rising humidity levels in a historically arid climate made it clear that efficient and quick documentation is key to saving valuable cultural details.

The Chicago House team includes an architect, librarians, artists, photographers and epigraphers, and graduate students who document the rich history of Egypt. The knowledge gathered by the survey helps broaden the story of ancient Egypt, to clarify the role of rulers whose memories their successors tried to erase, and show how even graffiti contained important information about daily life.

Epigraphy helps scholars understand how Egyptian nobility expressed their ideology, culture, and worldview. “By studying the inscriptions and archaeological information, scholars can better understand how the stratified social order is demonstrated in the different ways the culture is expressed in the lives of workers and rulers: The king exists to support the peasants and the workers are bonded to the ruler,” says Lanny Bell, associate professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute and former director of the Epigraphic Survey.

The specialists’ drawings are precise enough that they can be used to study the condition of a monument over time, Johnson says, “and the new digital drawing technology that we are incorporating...is allowing even greater accuracy.”

An electronic stylus replaces the pen

The new process begins with a digital capture of an inscription. The artist then uses an electronic stylus and a Wacom digital drawing tablet to make a preliminary digital drawing of the inscription directly over the image using Adobe Photoshop software. After the drawing is digitally “inked,” a scholar takes the drawing, often up a ladder to reach the higher inscriptions, to check against the original and make any additional corrections.

“Since most of our temple walls have more than one painted layer on top of the carved decoration, the traditional Chicago Method didn’t give enough depth to cover the amount of data one can gain from these paint studies,” says Krisztián Vértes, a Chicago House epigrapher.

The digital approach allows epigraphers to develop rich images with layers that capture the complexity of the inscriptions. Scholars who study the digital images then can easily sift through specific elements of the original walls.

The move toward digital technology is part of a broader effort in the study of the ancient world, says Janet Johnson, the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute and editor of the Demotic Dictionary, a project that took great advantage of computers to study that Egyptian language.

Digital technology is now heavily used in archaeological recording by Oriental Institute researchers in Jericho and in Edfu in Egypt “where everything is recorded on iPads in the field, transferred to a laptop in the dig house, studied and processed digitally, ready to be put on line on the digs website, or published in an article or final report. This makes ongoing reports from the field easy and much more comprehensive than was possible just 10 years ago.”

The transformation is being shared with other scholars through a free iBook manual, “Digital Epigraphy,” written by Vértes. Since it was posted last summer, its PDF version has been downloaded more than 2,200 times.

Preserving the story of the New Kingdom

Many of the inscriptions recorded by the Chicago House team come from Egypt’s New Kingdom and later, a period that included famous Pharaohs like the boy king Tutankhamun (about 1332-1323 B.C.).

As Pharaohs fell out of favor, their images were sometimes chiseled away. Buildings were used as quarries as their inscribed stones were reused in new construction, including many groups the survey team is studying.

“We make new discoveries practically on a daily basis. Our diligence is rewarded with details that are invisible to the casual observer, especially when wall surfaces are damaged or were re-carved in antiquity,” Ray Johnson says.

Originally published on May 4, 2015.