Future’s Past: How the Theban Mapping Project’s Effort to Document Ancient Egypt Has Also Documented the Contemporary History of Technological Innovation



The dominant picture of an archaeologist is that of a khaki-clad explorer, probably “intrepid,” outlined in the setting sun of an exotic local, patiently brushing the dust away from a pot partially embedded in a grid of stakes and strings, occasionally taking a break to pot a twisty-horned ungulant, then bedding down in a tent, with or without a comely companion.

But archaeology has changed. Oh, there are still vests with many pockets, notebooks, and pencil stubs. But these days you are as likely to find a 3D scanner and ground-penetrating radar onsite as you are a mesh-bottomed sifting screen.

The fedora though, is timeless.

The Theban Mapping Project is a perfect emblem of archaeology’s past, archaeology’s future, and the Venn diagram of where the two intersect, what remains eternal and enduring in an age of technological revolution.

The TMP was begun 36 years ago by Professor Kent Weeks, an American Egyptologist who has been with the American University in Cairo since 1988. It currently contains two three-dimensional online atlases, an 8,000-image database with Zoomify technology, an archaeological site database with 5,000 monument locations, and educational materials including a glossary, bibliography, and timeline.

When this project to create a “detailed map and database of every archaeological, geological, and ethnographic feature” in the ancient capital of Egypt began, it used technology no more complex than a surveyor’s theodolite and graph paper (though the great monuments of Egypt were created using roughly analogous tools) and a camera.

However, in the last decade, the Project shifted to focus primarily on the Valley of the Kings, the post-pyramid burial place of the pharaohs. A seismic revolution in technology – including ground-penetrating radar, lidar-based 3D mapping toolsets and mapping software – dovetailed with the discovery of KV5, the largest tomb ever found in Egypt, with 130 rooms.

Back in 2010 I asked Cornish archaeologist Tom Goskar of Archaeovision in the U.K. what new technology his colleagues were using. Archaeologists are very resistant to change, Goskar said back then, with few eager to experiment.

But the situation on the ground is very different now, with archaeologists like the University of Alabama’s Sarah Parcak using software to interpret satellite photos and in the course of doing so finding 17 new pyramids; with others like Colorado State’s Chris Fisher using LiDAR to radically raising the profile of lesser known civilizations like that of Western Mexico’s Purepecha people and even rewriting our picture of indigenous American life at the time of contact; and the work on archaeoacoustics at Stonehenge and elsewhere by Dr. Bruno Fazenda and his team of the University of Salford in the U.K.

Because of its scope, the way new technologies have carried on old work and how it has enabled a new kind of sight for archaeologists traditionally hampered by the hardscrabble realities of dirt and rock and time,The Theban Mapping Project is a poster child for the way new technology has changed the difficult into the everyday and re-infused the everyday with the cosmic glow of light from new planets.

The History of Now

“Barriers to the adoption of technology are rapidly falling,” Goskar told me by email from Cornwall. His group, Archaeovision, based in the UK and Estonia, focuses on “computer vision in the heritage sectors,” utilizing 3D capture, analysis, reconstruction, and surface analysis, of historical and archaeological sites. One of the members? A former Skype employee turned archaeologist.

In half a decade, archaeology has become as willing to investigate the technology of the here-and-now as they were to understand the ancient tech that powered the historical world.  An increasing number of archaeologists are actually becoming programmers and developers in order to develop tools to solve specific problems.

“One such example,” said Goskar, “is the complex beast that is archaeological recording systems. This is how we record artefacts as they come out of the ground, plan and record their context and relationship to other things, record ‘features’ (pits, post holes, other marks in the ground), and eventually build up the big picture of what happened on that particular site.”

This information consists of ID numbers, spatial data (plans, sections, surveys), photographs, entity relationships, phasing (temporal order), soil samples, expert reports, and field reports

A surprising number of archaeologists Goskar knows have returned to university to take PhDs in computing-related subjects. Some of them are involved with the Web Science department at Southampton University, having been instrumental in the development of ARK (the Archaeological Recording Kit), an open source system to help archaeologists make sense of their data as they create it.

“Dan Pett of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the British Museum single-handedly developed an entire web application for dealing with metal-detector and other finds reported by the public,” Goskar noted. “He learned PHP/Zend and other stacks to get the job done. He’s even built an API.”

Digital Modeling and Hand Signals

Rarely is technology ardently applied to anything, a company, an institution, an industry. It is used because it answers a persistent question. It helps to overcome an obstacle to the mission. The Theban Mapping Project was no exception, as its director, Dr. Kent Weeks, told me.

“The TMP’s adoption of new technology was not the result of deliberate, organized planning,” he said by email from Egypt, “but the fortuitous discoveries of techniques that seemed applicable to current questions, or that generated new questions that seemed important to answer. We were the first to fly hot air balloons in Egypt because they seemed an affordable way to get photos of unsurveyed parts of the Theban necropolis and better monitor modern incursions into archaeological zones.”

According Walton Chan, the project architect, the first step in the transition from paper to electronics, necessary for the launch of the project’s first website in 1997, was to prepare CAD drawings and models of the tombs using the Valley of the Kings survey’s original notes. First, a spreadsheet was created, converting the original azimuth, bearing, and distance readings in the notes into X, Y, and Z coordinates within the TMP base grid laid over the West Bank (of the Nile) back in the late 70s and early 80s. These points were then used for the drawings and models, which they rendered using the ArchiCAD program.

Sometimes changes in technology can produce changes in perspective, which result in the recognition of new patterns and in revelations and understandings that eluded observers inured to the old methods. That happened with the Theban Mapping Project almost right away.

“The (digital) modelling of the entire Valley of the Kings revealed 3D relationships between proximate tombs that were not clear previously,” said Chan, “and the model was used dramatically in animated fly-throughs.”

That was dramatic, an indrawn breath type of moment. But oftentimes it’s the solution to very prosaic problems that are the most obvious. According to Chan, the chief benefit of putting the tomb survey into CAD was to facilitate publication in paper and online.

In other words, digital technology helped to share the information, and the wonder, of the Valley of the Kings.

These days, the surveying technology is much more advanced, though not, said Chan, state of the art. The last survey he made used the Sokkia Total Station with hand-held reflectors (the latest tech uses laser sights). Sometimes, as any sysadmin can tell you, you don’t immediately upgrade just because you can. At the TMP sites, sometimes you have to use the most basic technology available due to considerations far outside your control.

“We tried using walkie-talkies to communicate between the surveyor and the rodman,” said Chan, “but Egyptian security forces denied permission so we had to rely on traditional hand signals.

The last set of drawings done for the Valley of the Queens (a nearby tomb-strewn valley the TMP project is also mapping) taken from original survey notes was in AutoCAD. From ArchiCAD or AutoCAD, vector drawings are imported into Adobe Illustrator for paper publications, with PDF files created for free download from the website. For the online interface, the vector files were converted to Flash.

Prior to the launch of the online atlas in 2000, the images needed to transition to a digital state as well.

“35mm slides were processed at the Cairo office in our self-built darkroom,” according to staff photographer, Francis Dzikowski. Slides were edited, mounted and numbered according to date, roll and frame number, then housed in a large cabinet with sliding racks and a light box behind the racks.

To scan the transparencies, the staff used a Nikon Super Coolscan 4000 with an SF-200 Feeder, initially using Microsoft Access for the database queries.

“The scanner is no longer in production today,” said Dzikowski, “and it’s so good that you can sell it on eBay for more than you paid for it originally.”

After the first iteration of the atlas launched, the team built a Zoomify function into the site. TMP webmaster, Brendhan Hight, discovered the magnification software and contacted the developers, who fell in love with the project and granted them a free license.

With communications so much faster and easier with the advent of the digital era, the creation of the Theban Mapping Project’s 3D atlas in 1999 and 2000 was done collaboratively over the whole of the globe. The processing of data points into Excel spreadsheets was done in Luxor,  the CAD work in Cairo, and the Illustrator files for the paper publication of the Atlas of the Kings were prepared in London. Since then, updates to the Atlas and the entire set of the Valley of the Kings drawings have been done in Toronto.

Technological innovation has now entered the TMP bloodstream. The project is currently working on an under-the-hood modification of Arches, software developed by the World Monuments Fund to record and monitor archaeological sites in Jordan.

It’s being redeveloped “to suit the needs of the country-wide database of Egyptian archaeological sites we have been working on for over a decade,” said Weeks. “The reason it has to be modified is due to the unique diversity and complexity of the Egyptian data.”

Stewards, Not Gatekeepers

“Archaeologists aren’t the gatekeepers of secret knowledge” said Goskar. “We’re expert stewards helping people find out for themselves. Archaeologists have a philosophical duty to share what their discoveries, and the data they gathered to make them.”

Thanks to current moment of explosion in the punctuated equilibrium of technical innovation, and the acceptance by archaeology’s practitioners of the tools that have followed from that explosion, that duty has been made fruitful, if no easier. The same insistent demands of knowledge culture that can exhaust the rest of us can sound even shriller to those who find new information for a living.

But, according to Goskar, the die is cast. In the future, he even imagines a GitHub type code sharing site for archaeological data and interpretation.

But to make that happen, the academy is going to have to follow those in the field, like Kent Weeks and his Theban Mapping Project. The de facto is going to have to alter the theoretical.

“Computing should become a mandatory subject within all archaeology degrees,” Goskar believes. “The next generation of archaeologists need to be highly computer literate, or at least many more than there are now.”

Weeks concurs, but with a caveat.

“The study of archaeological data is very much a study of human activity,” he said. “As such, it possesses variability and unpredictability that are difficult to quantify. As training in digital tech becomes more a part of an archaeologist’s education, it will certainly play a larger role.  But we are unlikely to do better with our use of such tech than art historians, sociologists or theologians are with theirs.”


Featured Image Giza by Hector on Flickr

Categories: Archaeology, Art, Communication, Crypto, Investigators, Long Reads, News, Science

5 replies

  1. Thanks ,really interesting😉


  2. The future’s PAST, indeed. Looks like the site is OFFLINE! What the hell happened?



  1. #40 – Rosetta Stone | Ancient Egyptian Newsletter

Well, tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: