Conservation image

Documentation traditionally has had a quiet but central role in the work of archaeologists, architects, art historians, and conservators. A pioneer in modern documentation is the Epigraphic Survey of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which for over 70 years has been recording reliefs and inscriptions on ancient Egyptian monuments, many of which are eroding away. Because of its importance, the Epigraphic Survey in 1989 received funding from the Getty Grant Program—a sister program of the GCI—for the conservation and cataloguing of the photographic archive at Chicago House, the Survey's field headquarters in Luxor, Egypt. More recently, the Grant Program gave an additional donation for assistance with the publication of a new series of volumes entitled The Reliefs and Inscriptions of Luxor Temple, containing the results of the Survey's work at Luxor.

Since 1989 Peter Dorman has served as the Field Director of the Epigraphic Survey, spending part of each year working out of Chicago House in Luxor, supervising the Survey's staff of photographers, artists, and Egyptologists. He is also Associate Professor of Egyptology in the University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Prior to his present post, he worked for 11 years as a curator in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Some months ago Dr. Dorman spoke with Margaret Mac Lean, Director of the GCI's Documentation Program, about the mission and work of the Epigraphic Survey.

Margaret Mac Lean: The Oriental Institute has held an important place in the history of archaeology and scholarship. How did it come about?

Peter Dorman: The Oriental Institute was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of James Henry Breasted, the first Egyptologist to be hired by any American University. In the 1890s, he came to the University of Chicago as a professor in the Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures. Despite his focus on Egypt, Dr. Breasted was very interested in the entire ancient Middle East. He wanted to establish a research institute within the university that would examine the ancient cultures and languages of the Middle East, which he considered the cradle of civilization.

The Oriental Institute was founded under the patronage of John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1919. Excavations were undertaken at a number of places that figured importantly in ancient and biblical history, such as Megiddo and several sites along the Euphrates River. Institute projects brought scholars of diverse expertise together at a single location so that they would have daily contact, forming a community able to reconstruct the early development of civilization. Part of this work, of course, involved the careful recording of ancient documents.

What about the Epigraphic Survey? What were its origins?

In 1894, after he had received his degree in Berlin, Dr. Breasted traveled up the Nile with his fiancée, and as she sketched in the shadows he worked in the sun, making hand copies of historical inscriptions. His interest developed into a project to translate all the major historical inscriptions from the ancient monuments in the area. The initial sources for his studies were publications of the Napoleonic expeditions of the 18th century and works by 19th-century travelers to Egypt.

During his forays into the field, Dr. Breasted was alarmed to discover that some of the inscriptions he was hoping to recopy and perhaps to correct were missing. In the course of only 50 or 60 years, many of these monuments were damaged or destroyed, no longer existing as sources for Egyptian history and religion. In 1905 and 1906 Dr. Breasted traveled to Nubia [in present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt] to make sure that the lesser-known monuments far up the Nile Valley were recorded in some form. The methods developed in that survey eventually led to the techniques we still use at Chicago House.

The idea for the Epigraphic Survey itself was hatched in the fall of 1922, when Dr. Breasted was laid up at the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor with malaria—just as Howard Carter was discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. At the very time when Egyptian archaeology was celebrating one of its great triumphs, Dr. Breasted was formulating an idea to found a permanent expedition that was essentially anti-archaeological—one that would have nothing to do with laying bare stratified sites or recovering objects. While most expeditions went to explore and excavate, this one would exist solely for the purpose of epigraphy—that is, recording and studying inscriptions already visible. Essentially, this is what the Survey has been doing for the last 72 years, since its founding in 1924.

Could you describe the methods that Dr. Breasted developed and that are still used in the Epigraphic Survey?

We combine the talents of photographers, artists, and epigraphers skilled in all aspects of the Egyptian language. Once we select a monument for study, the photographer captures a complete set of rectified images of every aspect of the monument. We use 8 x 10 field cameras for much of this, but we also do smaller-format photography for difficult areas.

The artist pins an enlarged print to a drawing board, goes to the wall itself, and in front of the monument pencils in all the visible traces of relief directly onto the photograph. When the penciling is finished, the artist returns to the studio and inks in the pencil traces directly on the emulsion of the photographic print. The inked photograph then goes back to the photo studio, where the photographic image is bleached away, leaving intact only the inked lines.

From that drawing we make a series of blueprints. One of these blueprints is cut up into maybe 12 or 15 bits that isolate small portions of the drawing. The epigrapher, who is also an Egyptologist, then takes these to the wall and, line by line, compares the artist's rendering to what can be seen at the wall.

The views of both the artist and the scholar are necessary. The artist is primarily a technician who often has little formal knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs or iconography and none of the expectations or assumptions of the Egyptologist. The role of the Egyptologist is to verify that everything the artist put on the drawing is actually there. Particularly in damaged areas, the Egyptologist questions everything, looking for bits that the artist may have omitted or misinterpreted as damage. All the corrections and alterations to the drawing are noted in pencil in the margins of the collation sheet.

Next the annotated sheets are given to a second epigrapher, also an Egyptologist who goes to the wall to verify or disagree with the comments of the first epigrapher, and to add further corrections—rarely does the first epigrapher see everything. The first epigrapher then must agree to all the comments added by the second. When all of these comments are agreed to, the artist comes back to review the corrections and also must agree with each one made. If there is a serious disagreement, the issue often goes to the field director for resolution.

Technologically speaking, this method developed by Dr. Breasted is outmoded, but in terms of the judgments that we bring to this kind of documentation, it's absolutely up to date.

This is a labor-intensive process, but it clearly yields valuable information. Could you talk about the choices that you have made regarding technology and the decision to carry on with this method?

Many people who come to Chicago House are surprised to learn that we do not use computers to hasten the very laborious manual process of our work. In the future we will certainly be using scanners, both for photography and final drawings. This will assist us not only in the publication phase but in the enlargements the photographer makes. Once an image is scanned and we can manipulate the size of the original drawing, as we can easily enlarge or reduce the digital image.

As for the methodology, there are problems. The artist's drawing is a subjective transposition from a three-dimensional stone surface to a two-dimensional paper surface. It contains an enormous amount of distillation and subjective judgment. Decisions are made every time pen goes to paper to edit out certain things and accept others. It is difficult to see how computers would facilitate this complex interpretive process, which relies extensively on human perception.

This brings us to the issue of the "objectivity" of photographs. One very often finds an excess of faith in the camera's ability to capture reality free from interpretation. This seems to have been recognized when your method was being worked out, or you wouldn't have built in these layers of iteration and consensus.

That's right. We recognize the ability of the camera to capture a very precise basis for the artist's drawing, and it provides wonderful information. But for the definitive version, we opted for this more elaborate process. Producing our final facsimile documentation is, in effect, editing a wall and a photograph together, getting across to the reader the essentials, and little else. A photograph may seem to pick up everything, but it will tend to conceal parts of everything, too, just because it contains shadows.

At the same time that you are preserving the information in the carved inscriptions, you are also creating an extraordinary record of their physical condition.

One thing we hope for is that we are recording the monuments, the reliefs, and the inscriptions in such a way that questions asked in the next century can be answered with all these drawings. We are also very much aware of the possibility of using photography as a monitoring device. The archives now hold about 18,000 images, and they can and should be used for that purpose.