The mummies return

By , csmonitor.com

When I first started writing reviews for this space, about seven years ago, one of the first websites I covered was the Theban Mapping Project. This online record of the excavation of "KV 5" (the largest Pharaonic tomb ever found in Egypt, with over 100 corridors and chambers) became such a popular destination for virtual Egyptologists that it was receiving some 18 million hits per year. Since that time, the Project launched a major revision of its site - expanding its focus from a single tomb to the entire Valley of the Kings, and coincidentally, illustrating just how far the Web has come as a teaching tool in a relatively short time.

If you visited the original KV 5 site, you'll find a very different presentation in the new version - so different that it is, to all intents and purposes, an entirely new creation. Even the domain name has been changed from kv5.com to thebanmappingproject.com, reflecting the wider mandate of the new site. (In fact, the old site did include some exploration beyond KV5, but the coverage is infinitely more complete now.) If you've never seen the original site or would like to refresh your memory, and are sufficiently curious about the differences between new and old, you can still, shall we say, 'unearth' the original kv5.com, with the kind assistance of the WebArchive.

(So what do you call it when you can use a virtual archaeology site to conduct virtual archaeology on a virtual archaeology site? Webeology? Archwebology? Toomuchfreetimeology?)

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But for the present, let's concentrate on the more recent survey of Egypt's past. Front and center on the current index page is the new Atlas of the Valley of the Kings - a Flash-based masterpiece that allows surfers to explore every known tomb in the Valley in staggering detail. Upon launch (taking a little less than two minutes on a dial-up modem), the Atlas takes the visitor through an animated zoom which situates the Valley's location within Egypt, and opens the first page of the Atlas with a map marking every tomb located to date. An introductory movie awaits newcomers (along with the option of a transcript and still images for those hampered by high traffic or slow connections), and visitors can move on to specific tombs by clicking on the map.

The Atlas window uses a tabbed interface, so that at any time during explorations, the visitor can switch between an Overview of the chosen location (whether that be a specific tomb, or the Valley as a whole), a more detailed Description of the area, or a Maps and Plans view of the current selection. The Description tab offers click-and-zoomable 3-D wireframes of the selected spaces, a text liberally hyperlinked to an illustrated glossary, an extraordinary Image & Media collection, and Related Links. The Maps and Plans tab features interactive, three-axis, blueprint-style renderings with drag-and-zoom capabilities - and for a sense of scale, the ability to measure the distance between any two points onscreen. (In meters, feet, and of course, cubits.)

Choose a specific tomb, and the Atlas centers it on the main screen and loads a new introductory film, a cartouche complete with translation of the owner's title, and a new set of data behind the various tabs. In fact every time you choose, not just a tomb, but any specific part of a tomb, subsections under the Description tab recalibrate themselves to only include data from the areas visible in the wireframe window.

At any time while surveying a Descriptions page, a square button on the upper left of the window will allow you to take a step back in your explorations. (Mouseover zooms out temporarily for a quick reorientation - clicking reloads the previous image.) More extensive leaps are provided via pop-up menus at the top of every window and at the bottom of detailed maps. And if you're afraid of accidentally missing something in your explorations (a very real possibility given the amount of information and features here), you also have the option of simply clicking on Forward and Back arrows on either side of the pop-ups, and touring the site step by step. (Visitors can also search for specific tombs using such criteria as Period, Ownership and Architecture.)

For something even higher-tech, TMP offers an animated 3-D 'walkthrough' tour of tomb KV 14 (where a queen was 'bumped' by a pharaoh who died before his own tomb was ready). Complete with a detailed narration, this tour takes the visitor through a wireframe representation of KV 14, onto which black and white images of specific works and artifacts are overlaid. Click on an image, and the site pauses the tour while it loads a full-screen, full-color version of the photograph - complete with a Java applet that allows you to magnify and move the image to your curiosity's content. On the right of the screen, a map marks your progress (and allows you to jump from point to point), and, as with other Atlas animations, a transcript with links to images is also available to accommodate slower connections.

And this is just the Valley of the Kings tour. Visitors are also offered a stunningly clear Atlas of the Theban Necropolis - an interactive aerial photograph (with links to the KV Atlas, though I couldn't get them to work on my browsers) which allows visitors to zoom in or out, and click-and-drag the image to choose between detailed examinations of specific sites or wide views of larger areas. (Think satellite Google Maps for Thebes.) A collection of Articles covers topics ranging from the excavation of KV 5 to tomb robbers and "Thebes in Film," while Sites offers a low bandwidth and printable alternative to the KV Atlas, as well as PDF drawings for each of the tombs.

Finally, a Search page invites visitors to explore "images, sites, tombs and tomb components" under such categories as Architectural Features, type of Decoration, Sarcophagi, and Graffiti. (Yes, even ancient Egyptians felt the need to 'tag' great monuments.) Other information includes an Egyptian Timeline, Glossary, and information about becoming an Egyptologist.

When I first viewed and reviewed the original Theban Mapping Project, I was genuinely impressed, and even now, though the first site is technologically basic in today's context, it still doesn't look dated. But in its current incarnation, TMP is nothing short of spectacular. If you have any interest in ancient Egypt, for personal interest or teaching purposes, you really can't do better without being there in person. (And frankly, if you were there, chances are that most of the areas available onsite would be off limits to tourists.)

I only wish that everyone viewing this site had a high-speed connection. While the Flash construction means that access to individual components is equal after those components have been downloaded, and despite the site's admirable practice of providing lower bandwidth alternatives whenever possible, there is still material here that will require patience for some visitors. At one point, the Project had considered releasing this collection as a CD-ROM, and that would have solved the bandwidth problem - but as a website, the information is infinitely updatable...and free. For that, I can spare a few minutes.

The Theban Mapping Project can be found at http://www.thebanmappingproject.com/.

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