Digital epigraphy

Digital methods in Egyptology pt. 1

For a while I’ve been wanting to write about the various digital methods that have been developed in the last few years to make our Egyptological lives easier, and more importantly, more exciting. As 3D modeling and scanning used to be costly enterprises, cheap alternatives have cropped up in the form of photogrammetry, free apps and cardboard VR. How do these methods work and how can they be employed in excavations, documentation projects and museums? That is what this series is all about. Throughout, I’ll give examples derived from the practice of Egyptology and Archaeology. First up: digital epigraphy.

We are all familiar with the painstaking work of the Oriental Institute Epigraphic Survey in Luxor, recording the relief decoration of temples and tombs since 1924 using the so-called ‘Chicago House Method’. This method used to entail taking large-format photographs, producing prints, sending an artist up a ladder to pencil what’s visible of the wall decoration on top of these prints, inking these drawings in a studio using rigid conventions, dissolving the underlying photograph in an iodine bath, blueprinting the drawing, cutting it in sections, sending two Egyptologist epigraphers up a ladder to pencil corrections on the blueprints, sending the artist back up the ladder to correct his drawing based on their advice, etc. etc. ad infinitum. The resulting drawings are splendid, but the entire process takes up 20 years of 6-month seasons to complete the recording of a small-sized temple. In the meantime, the rest of the monuments in Luxor are slowing sagging, absorbing ground water and releasing violent salt crystals that cause irreparable damage to the wall surface.

Fortunately, the modern Chicago House Method employs digital photography and a drawing tablet, allowing the artists and epigraphers to draw and collate in situ, and alter the digital vector lines as often as they like, without depending on costly drawing material and studios. Of course digital SLR cameras come with their own technology and know-how, as well as digital drawing does. But the process is sped up and more cost-effective, and drawing conventions can be applied or changed also after the process of recording has finished. Furthermore, the vector drawings (that consist of polygons rather than pixels) can be printed on whatever resolution is required, and layers containing damage or other information can be turned on and off at will.

digital_epigraphyThe Oriental Institute has published a great ebook about the method of digital epigraphy, in which they go through all the steps in the process. A lot of pages are devoted to the various drawing conventions, but also the basics of Photoshop are explained. Personally I prefer using Illustrator, but the institute likes the more ‘artistic’ feel of Photoshop above the more ‘technical’ approach of Illustrator (my words). Furthermore they use an awesome drawing tablet that I’m still trying to get my hands on for my work on the mastaba chapel of Hetepherakhet: the Wacom Cintiq 22HD. Drawing using a tablet requires a whole other technique than drawing with pencil or using the mouse. But the tablet allows you to draw directly on top of the digital photo, while sitting in front of the monument itself, which in the end will greatly speed up the drawing and collating process.

The ebook provides many tips and tricks, drawing (pun intended) on the wealth of experience of the Epigraphic Survey. Although (digital) drawing in the end requires a bit of talent, it is an acquired skill to a certain extent. I can’t draw something from scratch for the life of me, but copying relief scenes is going quite well. Whether digital or by hand, my resulting ‘style’ is similar. So pick up a pencil, stylus or mouse (careful you don’t get RSI) and get drawing!


Digital drawing (using the mouse) of a scene in the mastaba of Hetepherakhet

2 thoughts on “Digital epigraphy

    1. Good question! Usually the relief scenes are quite detailed and shallow (especially with raised relief) and the lighting conditions inside tombs far from perfect. That is why we complement photography with facsimile drawings. The drawings allow a 3D object to be ‘flattened’ into a 2D drawing, which requires both an artistic and Egyptological eye. Preferably, both photographic and epigraphic documentations are made, that highlight different aspects of the original relief scene. Also, on a drawing you can choose to include or exclude features such as block edges or damage, and present a clearer picture of what is represented in a final publication.

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