Four thousand years ago, a member of Egypt’s elite was buried on the Giza Plateau in an elaborate stone tomb, complete with several rooms and underground chambers.
The wall, housed at the MFA, is inscribed with images of the deceased, an official named Akh-meret-nesut, and his family in various poses — sitting, leaning on a staff, throwing a lasso.
Today, more than a century later, Harvard doctoral student Inês Torres wants to know as much as she can about Akh-meret-nesut: who he was, what he did, and why he was buried on the Giza Plateau in the shadow of the pyramids long after pharaohs’ burials there had ceased.
But Torres faces a problem familiar to many scholars studying ancient Egypt: getting access to what she’s studying. With part of the tomb in Boston and part in Egypt, she’d have to time travel to see it intact. Other scholars may face different hurdles, but the problem is the same: Documents and images are held in faraway archives, artifacts and other relics of ancient Egypt have been dispersed, stolen, or destroyed, and tombs and monuments have been dismantled, weather-worn, or locked away behind passages filled in when an excavation closes.
Hurdles can also be economic: The object of study may be intact, but the plane fare and expenses of living for weeks in the field or lodged in the cities — Cairo, London, Berlin, Paris, Boston — that are home to museums with large Egyptian collections hard to come by.
It was with scholars like these in mind that Digital Giza Project was born.
The project was created in 2000 by Peter Der Manuelian, who at the time was on the curatorial staff at the MFA. A scholar of ancient Egypt, Manuelian said his initial vision was to create a digital record of the work of Harvard’s legendary Egyptology Professor and MFA curator George Reisner and the Harvard-MFA Expedition he led. The expedition was one of the major academic archaeological efforts at Giza and other sites in Egypt during the early 1900s.
Reisner, who led the expedition for more than 40 years, dug at 23 sites, and Manuelian soon realized that just digitizing material relating to the vast finds on the Giza Plateau — which includes not only the pyramids and the Sphinx, but also associated temples, nearby cemeteries, and even a workers’ village — would be a career-long challenge. In 2010, he moved to Harvard to become the Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, and he brought the Giza Project with him.
The project staff’s ambition has since expanded to include not just Reisner’s work at Giza, but that of other archaeologists at the site as well, making it a comprehensive resource for Giza archaeology. It contains some 77,000 images, 21,000 of them Harvard University-MFA Expedition glass-plate negatives, and 10,000 of Manuelian’s own images. It has published manuscripts as well as unpublished expedition records, dig diaries, object record books, and sketches and drawings made by the archaeologists doing the digging. In January, during Harvard’s winter recess, Manuelian visited Egypt and collected another 5,000 digital images — including panoramic photos — of Giza and related objects in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
A key feature of the Giza Project is the fact that the material it holds is cross-referenced online, allowing a researcher to seamlessly move from a 3D image of an object to scholarly articles about it to diary pages by the archaeologist who discovered it.