The American Research Center in Eygpt




What do the great expeditions of the early 20th century have in common with some of today’s digital projects in the field of archaeology? They both make use of large teams and require a passionate dedication and attention to detail. Today the Giza Project, based since 2010 at Harvard University, is a non-profit international initiative that assembles all available archaeological data concerning the Giza Pyramids and surrounding cemeteries and settlements. Using digital archaeology, the Project unites diverse documentation to produce powerful online and traditional academic research tools and new teaching technologies. It presents academic information about Giza at all levels of expertise for the world community, and strives to provide a model of archaeological information management.

The original Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition (1905–1947), headquartered at the Giza Pyramids, employed hundreds of Egyptians, Sudanese, Americans, and Europeans to excavate at twenty-three different sites up and down the Nile, all under the direction of George A. Reisner (1867–1942). More recently, the Giza Project, now completing its sixteenth year, has followed the HU–MFA Expedition’s example of teamwork and international collaboration.

Excavation of the Menkaure Valley Temple, looking north. 3/10/1910. Photo by Bishari Mahfud (A354P). HU–MFA Expedition, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Reisner’s work at the Old Kingdom site of Giza (late 3rd millennium BC) might be divided into several discrete phases. Originally named the Hearst Expedition, and deployed on behalf of the University of California (1899–1904), Reisner’s team began by clearing portions of the large cemetery west of the Khufu Pyramid. Moving steadily eastwards, with interruptions in 1908–1910 to excavate the Menkaure Pyramid and Valley Temples, the team racked up discoveries at a breathtaking pace. In 1924, the focus shifted to the royal cemetery east of the Khufu Pyramid, where among other finds the spectacular funeral furniture and other objects belonging to Khufu’s mother, Queen Hetepheres I, came to light at the bottom of a 90-foot burial shaft lacking any preserved superstructure. The team also documented Late Period reuse of the cemetery, dating to the seventh century BC. The 1930s saw the Expedition consolidating its work and preparing a series of ambitious publications. Then came the Second World War, and in 1942 George Reisner’s death at his beloved “Harvard Camp,” behind the pyramid of Khafre.

The Giza finds included tiny statuettes and colossal statues, slab stelae and so-called reserve heads, objects of daily life and specialized burial equipment. There were exquisite tomb wall reliefs and paintings, hieroglyphic inscriptions, ceramics and stone vessels by the thousands. The contexts ranged from mortuary architecture to settlement archaeology, from royal complexes to modest single-shaft burials. And despite the thousands of pages of scholarly publications by Reisner and his colleagues and successors, a daunting backlog of important material remains for scholars to process to this day.

George Reisner was a true pioneer and early adopter of responsible archaeological method. But with the exception of the Giza Mastabas tomb publication series initiated by William Kelly Simpson in 1974 (8 volumes to date), access to the massive archaeological archive he left behind in Boston was difficult at best. Fast forward to the year 2000, and the arrival of help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which offered the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the resources to convert the diverse archival Giza materials to electronic form and put them online. The concept sounds simple and obvious today, but in 2000 the idea of scanning dig photos, diaries, plans and sections, complete publications and unfinished manuscripts, notes, object register books and collections metadata, and linking them intelligently via each of their individual tomb records, was a radical one. Over the next ten years, Mellon Foundation support totaled $3.4 million, and provided training opportunities to hundreds of students, young Egyptologists, museum docents, and volunteers.

We might call phase 1 of the Giza Project the processing of the HU–MFA Expedition’s Giza archive, the largest one in the world. The first Giza website went live in 2005 ( Phase 2 began in the mid-2000s with the realization that a holistic approach to the Giza Plateau required not only the processing of Reisner’s HU–MFA expedition archive, but those of all of the early Giza expeditions as well (Ernesto Schiaparelli, Georg Steindorff, Hermann Junker, Selim Hassan, Abdel Moneim Abu Bakr, etc.). For more than a decade now, the Giza Project has enjoyed the international collaboration of our major Giza partners, the museums, universities and institutes in Berkeley, Berlin, Cairo, Hildesheim, Leipzig, Philadelphia, Turin, and Vienna. We are so grateful to our many Egyptological colleagues, curators and professors, who have contributed their materials to the Project. Phase 3 consists of incorporating Giza object data from museum collections that do not have a direct excavation connection to the site.

3D model of the chapel of Meresankh (G 7530-sub) with original excavators’ plans and sections superimposed. Image by David Hopkins and Rus Gant. Courtesy Giza Project, Harvard University.

Phase 4 moved the Giza Project further into 21st century technology. In partnership with Dassault Systèmes, we began building an archaeologically accurate, immersive 3D model of the Giza Plateau, and to date we have a large number of tombs digitally constructed in great detail (Figure 2). Some monuments display their condition in Dynasty 4, others at the time of excavation, and still others appear in their current condition; all these phases are valuable for teaching and research. A one-minute online summary is available here.

A decade of website use has taught us what improvements to make in order to best serve researchers, educators, and students. The Giza Project at Harvard is now preparing its new website version 2.0 for scholars and the general public. With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and several private gifts, we hope to launch a new, integrated website that merges the traditional archaeological data (photos, drawings, texts, etc.) with our 3D modeling efforts. Users, from K-12 students to PhDs, will then be able to access as little or as much Giza material as they need, and in a wide range of formats, from casual visual browsing to highly structured and filtered searches. These efforts have already found their way into the teaching curriculum at Harvard.

Experimental digital archaeology: the fabricated full-sized second chair of Queen Hetepheres, on exhibit at Harvard University. Courtesy Giza Project, Harvard University.

We also continue to explore new applications of the Giza archaeological data, such as with the recent full-size fabrication, in modern materials, of the previously unrestored second chair of Queen Hetepheres. We are currently finalizing development of an online Giza MOOC course (“GizaX”) as part of the EdX/HarvardX platform. We hope to create Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality apps for today’s stereo headsets that will allow for simultaneous immersive experience at Giza from anywhere on the planet. Our goal is to provide a centralized repository for Giza’s past, present, and future. To that end we have collaborated with Ancient Egypt Research Associates, currently excavating at Giza, and with our friends from the HIP Institute who at this writing continue with their muon radiography project #ScanPyramids at Giza. We are keen to continue our partnerships with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, and to forge new ones with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Grand Egyptian Museum, in order to make Giza data ever more accessible, in Arabic as well as English.

A recently published summary of the Giza Project, called Digital Giza: Visualizing the Pyramids, is now available and a byproduct of our Giza research will provide a biography of Egyptologist George Reisner. Watch for future announcements about the new and improved Giza website!

Article written by Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology

Director, Harvard Semitic Museum, Harvard University. Harvard University is an ARCE Research Supporting Member.

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