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Unlootable Egypt: Making the Ancient Immortal and Accessible

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Delighted by more and more confirmed news emerging of undamaged sites (for regular news updates from multiple sources, see the excellent Egyptology News, Egyptological Looting Database, and Talking Pyramids websites), many of which were guarded by heroic ordinary Egyptians and SCA officials.  Anyone who has worked in Egypt knows that the people there truly treasure their heritage and their stalwart protectiveness of it should surprise none of us.  I have several friends in the SCA working in Luxor and, although I have yet to communicate with them, have no doubt that they were in the core of the group of people that repelled the looting attempt at Karnak several days ago.  Knowing them, they simply could not do otherwise.  Yesterday, The Eloquent Peasant (a PhD candidate in Egyptology at Oxford) posted links to a number of accounts from those who protected these treasures and we are deeply indebted to them for their bravery and selflessness.  But it was what the Eloquent Peasant said next in her insightful post that caught me:

But can we now piece history back together again? Can the damage truly be undone, and can we ever recover what has been lost? Some people have been commenting, blaming Egypt for allowing this to happen, but we should also remember the damage done by early archaeologists in their often destructive hunt for valuable antiquities. In my current PhD work, I found that a number of the wooden models I’d wanted to study, similar to those of Meseti’s that were damaged in Cairo, no longer exist. They were housed in the museum at Liverpool, and during World War II they were destroyed by the bombing. All I have to work with is a couple of insufficient photos. Other models that were excavated in the 19th century do not have any recorded location and seem to have vanished without a trace. Objects that are lost are not not only lost in terms of something beautiful to look at, but as a source of knowledge for future generations.

People often think that once a tomb’s been discovered or an artefact’s been found and put in a museum, that’s the goal achieved, it’s purpose fulfilled. Someone must have thoroughly recorded and studied it at some point, right? Not necessarily. Especially with sites excavated in the 19th and early 20th century, so many tombs and artefacts were discovered in a short space of time with less than rigorous recording. Many objects in museums have barely been looked at, let alone been part of a focussed study. Even the treasures of Tutankhamun, which I expect people will assume are some of the best known artefacts from Egypt, many of them have not yet been properly published at all.

And even if objects and sites *have* been looked at in a number of detailed studies, focus of investigation can evolve over time and details that were overlooked in the past can become important for new avenues of understanding. What has happened at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a reminder to all of us to never take for granted what we already have in the glass cases and storage rooms of our museums. These objects are ripe for study and the stories they can tell us have not yet been exhausted. As tantalising as it is to find the next great discovery hidden in the sands of Egypt, we must not ignore what we already lucky to have.

As discussed in a recent previous post, this is THE primary reason the Art of Counting project was created, initiated by a 2006 research season in Egypt where I captured more than 15,000 high-quality digital images, including 6,000 of my core monument (the memorial temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu).  Between the massive efforts of the Epigraphic Survey at the Oriental Institute and other researchers at the site, my digital record of the temple, and the database built for it, which records the status of more than 130 variables for each scene, this monument has now been far better preserved digitally than most.   Even with this monument, however, there is no doubt that our file is still incomplete and becomes more so with each passing year as the salts and the environment ravage the relief.  Any loss of data, no matter how minimal, creates a gap in our potential understanding of the past.  It is our responsibility as scholars to record information in such a way that it can be easily accessible in an unfiltered, broad-spectrum way to those who follow us.  If no one else has access to the data one hoards on hand-written note cards tucked away in an office filing cabinet using a system only one scholar understands, then when they are gone it is as if that data never existed in the first place.  A scholar of the next generation wanting to investigate that topic would have to repeat all the work of data gathering, and, depending on the passage of time, some of the material may have been lost or significantly damaged in the interim.  What a waste!

There are many important efforts globally underway to record and provide broad access to such data.  For instance, there is the invaluable Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation website, run by the Griffith Institute at Oxford, which includes scans of all of the excavation material and a database of all the objects found in the tomb.  A wealth of information for a collection that, as Margaret pointed out in the above quote, has been studied far less than it should be.  Another excavation record that has been made fully digital, of course, is The Giza Archive, hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  This website provides a variety of tools to help explore the entire plateau and includes a large library of materials.  The Egyptian Museum Database project, headed by Janice Kamrin and aimed at systematically recording the handwritten registrations and thousands of objects in the collection, will certainly prove to be of immense value.  The Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale provides searchable access to the objects found in the Karnak cachette, including photographs and bibliography.  The Ägyptologischen Forschungsstätte für Kulturwissenschaft (ÄFKW) has focused on ritual objects.  Another example is the Animal Mummies Database, which allows a researcher to browse by animal, wrapping type, and museum location, and includes photographs where available.  In addition, there are the tomb archives, such as the Theban Mapping Project, based at the American University in Cairo, which provides detailed views of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, with plans and many images.   There is also OsirisNet, a site that has focused the majority of their attention on the elite tombs of Western Thebes and accompanies color images (digitally ‘restored’ when fragments of relief are confirmed to exist elsewhere) with in-depth commentary.

Some projects have aimed to record data so that one could search for images not only by reign/period, material, location, excavation site, etc., but also by the content of the image itself. This is the goal of a major initiative spearheaded by Maya Müller and Edward Loring (both now collaborators on the Art of Counting project) known as the Databank of Eastern-European Egyptology, which currently contains records for more than 10,000 objects.  Another example, the Leiden Mastaba Project’s MastaBase, has already shown its immense value for objective, quantifiable research on the decorative programs of Old Kingdom elite tombs.   It seems that the Giza tombs will be available for search by scene content as well.   The Getty Research Institute has been developing a new thesaurus to augment the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT)Cultural Objects Name Authority (CONA) is a structured vocabulary intended to provide a standardized terminology for recording data, an essential consideration for collaborative effort.  There are many other projects with similar aims; we mention here only a few.

The new Art of Counting master Egyptian database has been designed to capture information about any image, on any object or monument type, from any time period.  Once core construction is complete (expected in spring 2011), testing will begin within the Art of Counting team.  Each collaborator will enter a collection of their own research images to ensure that the model successfully records all the data that they desire.  The particular model used has been designed to facilitate directed research when a scholar has a particular line of questioning in mind and also permits the application of advanced statistical methods to the data.  Using multi-layered quantifiable approaches to examine a relief program (as I did at Medinet Habu for my successfully defended PhD dissertation) confirms a reliable framework of patterns of variable usage intuitively recognizable by the knowledgeable researcher while highlighting additional patterns not previously noticed.

Once this database is well populated, it holds huge potential for helping us understand ancient Egypt to a level we haven’t yet simply because of the traditional tendency to silo information.  This will be an open access platform that allows vetted members to upload records to the database from anywhere, permits anyone to search the many levels of information gathered about an image, and allows selected groups of records to be exported for statistical analysis.  Since introducing this approach at the annual American Research Center in Egypt conference in Oakland, April 2010, the Art of Counting project has gained 20 collaborators, including more than a dozen Egyptological colleagues, professional data analysts, and several graduate students.  This project will only improve with the input of more scholars and we foresee the team continuing to expand.

We were all very fortunate that the vast majority of the Egyptian people treasure their heritage enough to face unknown dangers, at the hands of a few opportunists taking advantage of an unlawful period, to preserve it for everyone’s descendants.  Scholars must honor that sacrifice and should learn from the swirling uncertainties of these chaotic days–these objects and monuments must not be taken for granted.  We must record them from many angles and with renewed vigor so that their ancient voices can be heard not only by current scholars but also preserved for future generations.

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.