Hi-Tech Focus on Ancient Egypt

Museum display specialist uses computers and complex databases to enhance exhibits. COMPUTERIZED MUSEUM PRESENTATIONS

In an office crowded with videodisc players, precision audio recording equipment, and high-performance computer work stations, Rus Gant is trying to bring ancient Egypt into the 21st century. Mr. Gant, a self-employed museum consultant, returned earlier this month from an archaeological survey of the tombs near the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Now he is building a computerized database of ancient Egypt's architectural, linguistic, and historical heritage.

His hope is to use high technology to revolutionize the study of ancient history to make the wealth of information known about the Egyptians easily available to scholars and lay people alike, as well as to help preserve the relics still in existence before they are wiped away forever.

The site of this summer's work was a group of 20 tombs belonging to nobles and minor royalty that were buried about the same time the yramids were being constructed, with additions added for several centuries thereafter.

``It was like a town, in a way,'' Gant says. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which sponsored the expedition, has been excavating the area since the 1930s.

``We didn't find anything new,'' says Gant, whose enchantment with Egypt goes back more than two decades. Instead, the goal of this expedition was to make a final recording of artifacts already discovered.

``I can show you photographs that the Boston Museum did 60 years ago, and I can show you a photo (of the same wall) that I took a few weeks ago, and you will see that entire heads of figures are gone,'' says Peter Manuelian, a curatorial assistant at the Boston MFA who was also on the expedition. (See illustration at left.)

The past 60 years have been particularly hard on the carvings, explains Gant. While there have been some overt acts of vandalism - people carving their names in walls, for example - far more insidious is the damage caused by the mere presence of people in this dead city.

Changes in a room's temperature or humidity caused by a small group of people ``is enough to cause the flaking of the limestone,'' Gant says. ``In less than 10 years it will all be gone, and all that will be left is our photos and drawings.''

But excavating and photographing isn't enough: In Egyptology, as in other academic disciplines, work must be published - a task that is often far more time consuming than the actual excavating. A typical volume might contain 50 pages of highly detailed maps and technical drawings, and another 50 pages of commentary.

``The book is written in English with translated Egyptian and hieroglyphics,'' Gant says. ``Many of the references and footnotes are in French and German,'' many of which themselves quote Greek and Latin sources. Using typewriters, pencils, scissors, and tape, such a volume can easily take five years to produce.

Enter the computer. Although popular word processing systems are no match for hieroglyphics, says Mr. Manuelian, most desktop publishing systems are up to the task because of their ability to cope with a number of different typefaces simultaneously.

Such systems, however, are not without their critics. ``The hieroglyphics that I have seen printed I don't think are as good as one can draw by hand, and it takes a great deal of time to access each individual sign,'' says Catharine Roehrig, an Egyptologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Another problem, Manuelian acknowledges, is that he has had to spend a lot more time learning about publishing than his colleagues. ``All that time that I'm putting into the printing world is coming out of my academic work.''

But Gant's real hope is to supplement the printed volume with a computerized database and let scholars - as well as the interested public - access the wealth of Egyptian knowledge and even walk around the ancient city.

In a corner of Gant's Cambridge loft office is a prototype of such a system, which he is developing for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Controlling the computer with a trackball like an arcade video game, Gant can display a map of Egypt, select an archaeological site, and pull up a floor plan of the excavated building. He can then branch off to a historical summary of the person who was buried there, a history of Egyptian royalty, or display color photographs of artifacts found at the location.

At Yale University, Mark Lehner is the director of a project that is surveying the Giza plateau with state-of-the-art infrared transits, and should be finished within a year. Ten years ago, Mr. Lehner worked on a similar project mapping the Sphinx, which should be published shortly. ``We can feed this into computers and we can produce a three-dimensional image of the Sphinx that we can turn (using a computer graphics system).''

Gant hopes to use Lehner's data as the core of a computerized model of Giza that a visitor to a museum could instruct a computer to ``walk through.'' At first, most of the computerized display would look like a model made from ``wire frames,'' or just the outlines, Gant says. By adding digitized photographs of reliefs and carvings still standing - and using educated guesses for the places where only rubble remains - it should be possible to have a computer render a picture of how the site looked in ancient times.

Next, Gant wants to add into the database the commentary now published in books - each paragraph electronically tagged to the wall or the relic that it references. For more information about a drawing on a wall, or to see photographs of artifacts that were unearthed, viewers would click a button. Everything known about the site could be integrated into such a system.

This would all sound like science fiction, except that Gant has already completed a similar project for excavations outside the tomb of the first emperor of China. The system he built two years ago was an electronic archive about Chinese art and political history, containing more than 10,000 photographs, all recallable under computerized control.

One of the biggest advantages of Gant's vision for Giza, says Ms. Roehrig in New York, is that it has the potential for bringing together a lot of academic information that is currently scattered in libraries around the world and in many ``obscure journals.''

``Having a place where you could press a button and get all of the references and access all of the line drawings or photographs would really make life a lot easier for a lot of people,'' she says. Even when books are published, they typically have press runs of only a few hundred or a thousand, she says.

But, Roehrig adds, the cost of the computer systems is still out-of-reach for many Egyptology departments, and many academics are reluctant to release the information that they have built their careers on. ``When people have spent a huge amount of time doing research and they have an article that doesn't get printed for five years, it is often very hard to persuade people to give you any detailed information until it is actually out in print.''

If these problems can be overcome, says the MFA's Manuelian, the potential payoff for both scholars and the public will be enormous. ``I think that some of the things that Rus is working on are revolutionary ideas in multi-media kinds of presentation. These machines can make a lot of that information accessible very quickly.''

Although the computers are not about to replace the display cases, Manuelian says, ``I think that the two of them can open up room for a lay person to get much more feel for what Egypt is like if they haven't been there. More of a feel for what a temple might look like today in ruins, as well as what it might have looked like in ancient times.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.