Egyptian Writing "Scanned" Using High-Tech Methods

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
September 8, 2006
Jean Revez studies old things, but that doesn't make him wedded to old ways.

The professor of Egyptian history at the University of Montreal in Canada is developing one of several emerging techniques for electronically recording and interpreting ancient stone inscriptions.

Today most archaeologists record writing and other architectural details using pencils, pens, and paper, "tools that are really quite ancient," Revez said.

In his vision of the future, epigraphists—archaeologists who study inscriptions—will rely instead on digital cameras, specialized computer software, and their dexterity with a mouse.

The new techniques will enable scientists to study ancient writing in unprecedented detail—and possibly preserve monuments that are being steadily eroded by the sands of time.

Lighten the Labor

The first site that might feel the impact of Revez's efforts is the Temple of Karnak, which stands on the banks of the Nile River near the modern city of Luxor (map of Egypt).

Karnak's great hypostyle hall, Revez said, "is perhaps the most spectacular courtyard in all of Egypt." (Related wallpapers: the Temples of Luxor.)

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis in Tennessee leads an archaeology team at the hall.

"We use the traditional method of pen and ink" to record inscriptions, Brand said. "It's a laborious process."

On polyester tracing paper placed over photographic enlargements, Brand and his team draw shapes first in pencil and then, after corrections have been made, in pen.

Drawing software that's already on the market can substitute for pen and paper, Brand says, but the task is no less arduous.

"I've tried this myself," Brand said. "It's still quite time-consuming to draw something on the computer."

Newer programs, by contrast, do much of the work by themselves.

Revez and his collaborators have developed a software package by adding their own functions to a popular architectural-design program called AutoCAD.

The retrofitted software can combine several partially overlapping images of a wall or support column, for example, into a digital model of the whole object.

Epigraphists can then electronically trace the outlines of hieroglyphic characters and other ornamentation visible on the models.

Revez and colleagues borrowed ideas from photogrammetry, a technique used by topographers and aerial surveyors to create three-dimensional views from two-dimensional images.

"We can use photos from different angles and make a mosaic," explained Élise Meyer of the National Institute of Applied Sciences in Strasbourg, France.

Meyer and Claude Parisel at the University of Montreal took the lead in refining the AutoCAD program for the project.

The researchers describe their program and its capabilities in a paper that will appear in the November issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Meyer notes that a picture doesn't need to be taken from the front of an object for it to be displayed that way in the modified AutoCAD program.

"You can take it obliquely [at an incline], and our program will make it like a front view," she said.

That trick, co-author Revez said, enables users "to 'unroll' a column by straightening the pictures, so cylindrical forms appear to be flat."

All the sides of a column can then be viewed simultaneously, giving archaeologists a whole new appreciation for the object, he says.

Digital Egypt

Dimitri Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium and his colleagues are working on another computer-aided archaeology technique.

His team is developing an optical device that they hope will be able to create a 3-D digital model of the landscape of any archaeological site.

"The basic idea is to capture and save the monuments as they actually are now, without disturbance," Laboury said.

"We scan or survey and capture a hieroglyphic inscription, which, for the computer, is like a landscape.

"Out of this objective digital reproduction," he said, "the specialist can read the inscription in 3-D as if he was in front of the real object and not via a photograph."

Both new techniques would facilitate data-sharing among researchers—and would effectively preserve ancient sites for future generations.

"The idea is to allow the whole scientific community to view the decorations and the signs without going on-site," Revez said.

Meyer, of the French applied sciences institute, notes that "the monuments are endangered. Because of pollution and so on, the inscriptions can be lost."

(Related news: "Rising Water Table Threatens Egypt's Monuments" [May 2002].)

Soon, she said, archaeologists will be able to "take a lot of pictures of all the columns and walls, and all the inscriptions will be somewhere in the memory of the computer.

"They will be able to draw the inscriptions later even if the monument is lost."

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