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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

The Giza Archives

Institution: 

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Designer: 

in-house

Category: 

Research | Online Collection

Why

The front page of the Giza Archives web site.

The Giza Archives web site of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has provided a spectacular resource for researchers by digitizing and offering online its vast holdings of early 20th century archaeological expedition records. The MFA excavations (1904–1947) at the tombs surrounding the great Pyramids created an incomparable body of scientific data on the history of ancient Egyptian art, monuments, life, and funerary practices which, until digitization and web publication by the Giza Archives, was nearly inaccessible to scholars and enthusiasts. Thousands of archival photographs, drawings, documents, and manuscripts are described and linked on a searchable web site that is completely free, non-profit, and accessible to all (www.gizapyramids.org or www.mfa.org/giza).

The Giza Archives team, led by Dr. Peter Der Manuelian, Giza Archives Director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard University, with the financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, undertook this massive digitization project beginning in 2000. To date the team has created digital reproductions of the MFA’s 21,000+ glass plate photographic negatives of sites and artifacts, all reproduced in high resolution allowing for magnification of the smallest detail; more than 3000 expedition diary pages, all transcribed; more than 21,000 object records that include the drawings made by excavators as artifacts were unearthed; 10,000 expedition maps and plans of the tombs surrounding the Pyramids, 500+ publications and thousands of unpublished Giza related manuscript pages available in PDF format—and integrated all these diverse digital materials in a searchable and cross-linked database keyed to records for more than 3800 individual tombs. Virtual archaeological exploration is a reality for scholars all over the world who now have access to primary research materials that previously had been difficult, and in some cases impossible, to examine.

The Search Results page of the Giza Archives web site.The Search Results page of the Giza Archives web site.

The depth of content of the Giza Archives web site of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is evidence of the MFA’s commitment to scholarship in the service of art. To explore, discover, and then curate one of the finest Egyptian Old Kingdom art collections outside of Egypt are only part of the duties of a major museum. Helping to understand the historical and intellectual context of the creation of that art is an essential mission. The Giza Archives and the web site which it created and now stewards on behalf of students of ancient Egypt is part of that mission.  

In addition to its commitment to scholarship, the MFA’s Giza Archives is committed to the preservation of the history of ancient Egypt as well as the history of archaeological exploration. The Giza Archives Project began with the digitization of the records of the Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts excavations held in the Egyptian section of Art of the Ancient World archives. Spanning the years 1904–1947, the meticulous records of the discoveries of Egyptologist and MFA Curator, Dr. George A. Reisner (1867–1942), represent some of the most valuable data ever compiled on the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Some of the maps and photographs available in the web site database represent the only records left of excavated tombs and artwork that have since been reclaimed by nature, robbed, or vandalized. And as the ancient monuments continue to deteriorate, the value of the documentation made accessible by the Giza Archives web site increases. The original state of some of the currently damaged tomb walls and carvings can now be seen only in MFA archival photographs.

MFA archival photograph from the Tomb of Meresankh III in 1927 and the same view taken in 1999.MFA archival photograph from the Tomb of Meresankh III in 1927 and the same view taken in 1999.

After the MFA’s own archival records became available to the world community, other institutions with significant Giza related archeological records were encouraged to add them to the Giza Archives, which now includes, or will include, archival photographs and documents from museums in Berkeley, Berlin, Cairo, Hildesheim, Leipzig, Philadelphia, Turin, and Vienna. Success at filling a need for such information with its own records inspired the world community of Egyptian scholars to work together to expand the mission of the MFA’s Giza Archives Project, broadening the depth of content and transforming it into the Giza Archives—a centralized online home for cross-linked data from all archaeological activity at the Giza Necropolis in Egypt.

Beyond trail-blazing international cooperation within a discipline, the Giza Archives web site has inspired researchers to create new uses for archaeological data and experiments in exploration. Provenance research for antiquities ownership is simplified for many. Renderings in virtual 3d of reconstructions of tombs using archival records are in the works with the goal of creating a walk-through experience of the entire Giza Necropolis as it looked 4000 years ago. One example of a reconstruction puts together, for the first time since antiquity, wall carvings currently scattered at many museums around the world. Geophysical surveys and remote sensing fly-overs, with the goal of mapping as yet undiscovered geographical features and hollows beneath the Giza plateau, are in the planning stages thanks to the clarification of the known topography and underground chambers detailed in the many existing maps and plans that can be found in the Giza Archives web site. Experiments are underway in augmented reality that will allow viewers to pull up data from the archives via their mobile devices and see original plans and outlines, objects in situ, and other information as they gaze at a specific monument.

The web site, www.gizapyramids.org, is the public face of the Giza Archives. Please examine the site to understand the creative approach to organizing and making meaningful such a vast archival resource. Try searching for G 7530-7540 to look at the especially interesting tomb of Queen Meresankh III. Or try searching for 25-3-241 for a look at the famous bust of Prince Ankh-haf in the MFA collection.

Example of a Search Results page for a specific object.Example of a Search Results page for a specific object.

Under “Search the Archives, and then “Search Giza from Above” you will find one of the most creative entry ways to the Giza Archives. The visual search feature allows novices as well as experienced researchers an easy way to zoom down, in high resolution, from an aerial view of the Giza Necropolis to any specific area of interest. Clicking on a tomb or monument in the picture will bring up a categorized list of its related documentation available for detailed examination. Additionally, the glowing dots on this aerial view represent viewpoints—clicking on one will bring up a QTVR 360 degree panorama of the view from that location on the map as it looks in this century.

"Search Giza from Above" user interface."Search Giza from Above" user interface.

The scale of this ongoing project is unprecedented. An Egyptologist and a technology pioneer in his field, Dr. Manuelian’s enthusiastic leadership has marshaled the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, MFA staff, and students using the advanced tools of our modern civilization to bring to light ancient Egyptian civilization during the Pyramid Age (ca. 2500 BCE). The Giza Archives web site is currently serving researchers worldwide.