Asian Surveying and Mapping-Mapping Ancient Egyptian Sites

Here is an interesting and fun article I found at the Asian Surveying & Mapping website about Egyptologist using surveying techniques and equipment to map ancient Egyptian sites. It's great to see when land surveying is used in ways beyond  boundary determinations by a Professional Land Surveyor.

Reprinted from, copyright 2009 ASM.

A team of Egyptologists used GPS, total stations and imagery to solve mysteries in the Western Desert.

C. Jason Smith is an associate professor at the City University of New York, LaGuardia and founder of the freelance writing collective Discipline & Publish. Visit ae.htm for more information on Yale's archaeological activities in Egypt.

Hundreds of viper trails covered the sand before them. The Egyptologists could only hope that the serpents themselves were long gone as they made their way off the ancient desert road towards the limestone cliffs.

The first person to the wall, Dr John Coleman Darnell of Yale University, was surprised to find the surface covered with rough hieroglyphic inscriptions in seemingly random patterns. What could they be? What were they doing there?

Rock inscription, outlined for clarity. Darnell’s team used a reflectorless total station to survey the ancient graffiti site at Ghueita Temple.

Rock inscription, outlined for clarity. Darnell’s team used a reflectorless total station to survey the ancient graffiti site at Ghueita Temple.

Ancient Egyptian graffiti Rock inscription, outlined for clarity. Darnell's team used a reflectorless total station to survey the ancient graffiti site at Ghueita Temple.

Based on his past experience in the field, Darnell thought he knew what the markings were: graffiti. The wall was close enough to an ancient campsite to serve as the common latrine for caravan drivers, merchants and guards. The inscriptions, more than 500 of them counted so far, were the ancient equivalent of writing on the bathroom wall. Darnell was the first person to see that graffiti in perhaps 5000 years.

Using standard archaeological methods to measure, record and interpret the inscriptions on this wall could, by itself, be the work of an entire career. But Professor Darnell, who likes to wear the traditional pith helmet of the explorer, was not planning on using traditional methods in this survey. His team was packing a technological edge that would make quick work of this fascinating new find.

When most people think of Egypt, they think of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, Queen Cleopatra, King Ramses II and, of course, the boyking Tutankhamen. In the popular imagination, thanks to famous explorers like John Carter and classic films such as The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra, Egypt is generally understood to be an ancient land of mystery whose roots run back to the very keystones of human civilisation. It is the Egyptologists who dedicate themselves to uncovering the hidden past of this magnificent land.

Professor Darnell is the author of several books on Egyptology including the recent Tutankhamun's Armies, with Colleen Manassa (J. Wiley and Sons, 2007). He is also the co-director of the joint Thebian Desert Road Survey and Yale Toshka Desert Survey.

Darnell's team is working in the Western Desert, which is northeast of the Sahara. About 700,000 square kilometres in area, it is a harsh environment of extremes that lies to the west of the Nile in Egypt, Libya and north western Sudan. Depending on the time of year and the location, the temperature can rise to over 40 degrees in the midday heat and drop towards zero at night.

The varied terrain includes shifting sand dunes in the Great Sand Sea that can reach hundreds of metres high, vast, featureless plains of rock and stony plateaux, the tallest of which approaches 2000 metres.

While it is certainly possible to get hopelessly lost in the vastness of the Western Desert, modern satellite imaging and mobile GPS locators mean it is no longer possible to stray completely off ‘mapped' terrain. However, Professor Darnell says the archaeological map for the region is still quite bare.

Archaeologists are the most meticulous and versatile of explorers. They may cover vast distances in a few days or mere inches in a month. Their discoveries can range from massive temples or burial sites to tiny shards of pottery scattered across an endless desert plain. With enough patience, they might even be able to construct a complete urn.

A good archaeologist is never short on patience. It is often backbreaking work on hands and knees with shovels and trowels. Other times, it means lying on the ground for hours looking for the smallest shards of pottery amid the pebbles, bits of bone and offal that were cast away millennia ago. But is a goldmine of information about a world long gone.

One the most tedious jobs for the Egyptologist - as for any archaeologist - is the measuring and recording of sites. The usual methods take an inordinate amount of time and meticulous record keeping, both on-site and back in the office. Intensive surveys, for example, involve teams of archaeologists walking slowly side-by-side across a site marking every possible find with a small flag. Each one is then individually recorded and described in detail. The records are then packed off for later review and interpretation.

The on-site work is just a small part of the vast machine that records, analyses, and archives thousands of observations, measurements and locations. A massive web of record keeping work surrounds each field expedition and binds them together with the larger archaeological record. Without this painstakingly detailed work, pieces of the puzzle could be misplaced or misinterpreted. Whole sites could even be lost in the vastness of the desert.

More than a few archaeological expeditions have turned up finds that cannot be properly placed in the historical record, due to poor or unclear record keeping. At the opposite end, wading through even the most meticulous of records can be a daunting project.

For example, after more than 70 years of study, the legendary City of Troy records of the Heinrich Schliemann, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, and Carl Blegen expeditions are still being examined and new data uncovered.

Making the task even more complex is that archaeologists need to think in three dimensions. Generally, the farther down into the ground you go, the farther back in the historical record you are seeing. For centuries that work has been accomplished with the same basic technologies: rulers, plum-bobs, photographs and maps.

More than a few sites have been lost only to be rediscovered years later. Most recently the King Menkauhor pyramid was relocated after 166 years (German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius' reported discovery in 1842 went unconfirmed.)

Darnell was hoping industrial GPS technology could help his team to speed up the process and the accuracy of their work.

One understandable concern was the learning curve. The professors and their graduate students needed to be able to use the equipment with limited support in the field. After all, these are people who have spent the major part of their life learning about long-gone cultures and the ‘dead' languages spoken and written. They are not professional engineers or surveyors, although their fieldwork does require a specialised understanding of surveying techniques appropriate for their work.

In the event, the team went into the field with a Topcon GPT-2005 reflectorless total station. The professors and students underwent training, both in the classroom setting and out in the field. This training was essential to prepare the group for their upcoming expedition.

The team uses the equipment in three ways. First, they spend a great deal of time mapping the ancient desert caravan roads that run from Thebaïd to Kharga Oasis. But surveying the road involves much more than just drawing lines on the map.

Along the way they identify ancient campsites and military outposts, some dating back 5000 years. That means finding buildings and, of course, potshards - lots and lots of potshards. As Darnell explains: ‘Broken pots were seldom recovered by their original owners, as the shards could not be reused. They often were left where they fell.'

With the total station, Darnell's team was able to place-capture potshards almost instantly. Gone was the meticulous record keeping on-site that must be interpreted months or even years later, and often by a completely different team. With GPS technology, a simple point-and-shoot process replaced an immense record keeping apparatus and allowed the Egyptologists to see almost instant results.

They also used the total station to situate the ancient graffiti site - which they named Kom Hefaw, meaning ‘mound of serpents' - and the specific inscriptions at the sites (more than 500 inscriptions so far).

The ability to produce a 3D record, again with a simple point-and-click, saved countless hours of measuring, situating and recording the inscriptions. And, of course, they can find their way back to an exact inscription with ease.

The total station transformed the archaeologists' efforts, from laborious manual measurements with tape and plum-bob. This allowed for precise measurements in a fraction of the time. They were able to lay in their own specific grid pattern of the site. Even more importantly, the site could be revisited at any later date. This allowed for future expeditions to continue the efforts of the previous groups.

Darnell has been using computerised surveying equipment since 2003. In 2007, he began using a total station - a GPT-7005i - that provides a digital image to correspond with points shot on the ground or a vertical surface, such as a building. This made it possible to combine digital imagery and measurement for the first time.

They could immediately see the difference on the ground. At Tudenab, the team located an ancient deep well and was able to produce a 3D digital plan of it practically on-site.

The well was not a complex project, but they had another surprise coming. After assembling their data from the Ghueita Temple site, they were able to generate a 3D model of the temple that could be examined from any angle, all while sitting in a hotel room in Cairo.

‘We were really surprised,' said Darnell. ‘We knew it was possible to use the software that way but really never imagined it would be so easy. In the models, you can "walk" right through the building and see the placements of all the major architectural elements. It's really impressive.'

Using the 3D images - combined with satellite linkages and other technologies - archaeologists from around the world will soon be able to work simultaneously ‘on-site' from any internet connection.

And this is only the beginning. Darnell hopes that the future of GPS technology will continue to help us understand our past and, thereby, better understand ourselves.

Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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One comment on “Asian Surveying and Mapping-Mapping Ancient Egyptian Sites
  1. wirklich super, was ihr hier auf die Beine gestellt habt