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By W. Raymond Johnson, Field Director of the Epigraphic Survey
and Assistant Professor, The Oriental Institute and the Department
of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 164, Winter 2000, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

Breasted in Egypt

This year the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago celebrated 75 years of documentation work in Egypt, but the story actually begins more than a century ago. The year 1894 was a momentous one for James Henry Breasted, the University of Chicago, and the field of Egyptology. Breasted completed his degree in Germany, was offered the first chair in Egyptology in the United States here at the University of Chicago by William Rainey Harper, and decided that this was an opportune time to get married. He and his young bride Frances spent their honeymoon traveling on the Nile River, photographing and studying Egypt's spectacular Pharaonic monuments for the first time.

Breasted's excitement at "reading" the temples, tombs, and hieroglyphic inscriptions firsthand was tempered by his dismay at the inaccuracy of some of the copies of those inscriptions that had been the basis of his studies. He was further alarmed at the serious deterioration the monuments had suffered since earlier expeditions had copied them, due to the depredations of nature and man. Some temples, such as Amenhotep III's shrine to the god Khnum on Elephantine Island in Aswan, published in Napoleon's groundbreaking Description volumes, were even wholly missing, quarried away for reuse in the construction of modern sugar factories and cotton mills throughout the country.

Breasted realized that the threat to Egypt's priceless pharaonic heritage was grave, but he also believed that precise documentation and publication could counter the destructive forces of nature and man, preserving precious material from the past against an uncertain future. In 1919 he founded the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago to be a center of Near Eastern studies in America and became its first Director. He was determined to create an arm of the Oriental Institute that would be permanently based in Luxor, where lay the highest concentration of Egypt's New Kingdom temple and tomb remains. The necessary funds were not forthcoming until 1924, but with the help of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and increased public interest in ancient Egypt stimulated by the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb two years earlier, Breasted's dream was finally realized.

The Epigraphic Survey in Luxor

The Epigraphic and Architectural Survey of the Oriental Institute, known by most of our friends as Chicago House, was originally set up on the West Bank of Luxor on the desert edge behind the Colossi of Memnon. The core house and work areas were designed by Breasted himself and were built for him by Howard Carter's assistant, A. R. Callender. The original staff consisted of only three people: the director, one artist, and one photographer. Harold H. Nelson was lured away from his position as Head of the History Department at the University of Beirut to become the Epigraphic Survey's first director, and he remained in that position for twenty-three years.

In October of 1924 the expedition moved into "Chicago House," and on 18 November, Nelson cabled Breasted three words: "Work began yesterday." Later that first season Julius Rosenwald of Chicago paid a visit and agreed to donate funds to enlarge the house and add a scientific library and administrative offices to the complex. Once the facility was enlarged, more staff were hired to expand the work. In 1926 Caroline Ransom Williams, William F. Edgerton, and John Wilson joined the team, increasing the epigraphic staff to four people. By 1927 Breasted had organized the Architectural Survey, headed by Uvo Hölscher, which would work alongside the Epigraphic Survey, excavating at Medinet Habu until 1932 and swelling the ranks even more.

The history of the Epigraphic Survey from the beginning has been one of constant striving to do better, and expanding when necessary to meet the changing demands of the work at hand. Breasted saw the Epigraphic Survey as a vital continuation of the great epigraphic missions of the past, continuing the work of the groundbreakers such as Napoleon, Champollion, Rosellini, and Lepsius. But Breasted desired one major difference; he wanted his expedition to be long-term, to maximize the amount of information that would be recorded and preserved.

The original house and library complex, built mainly of wood and mudbrick, soon proved to be inadequate for the growing needs of the Epigraphic Survey. It was replaced in 1930 by a larger facility on the East Bank made of more permanent materials better suited for the long-term: stone, baked brick, and reinforced concrete, and its location was more central to all of the temple sites. The new complex was designed by two young architects from the University of Pennsylvania, L. Le Grande Hunter and L. C. Woolman, who were personally guided by Breasted in the creation of a spacious, comfortable, and modern residence and work area for staff members who were called upon to live far away from home for six months each year. The facility was completed in June of 1931; the staff took up residence that winter and at the same time the Oriental Institute building in Chicago was finished and occupied.

The three and a half acre complex, recently renovated and the library facility expanded, continues to house the Chicago House crew of photographers, artists, Egyptologists, and conservators from 15 October to 15 April each year. The gardens, which were designed and planted by Harold Nelson and his wife in the early 1930s, are in their glory now.

The professional staff of Chicago House over the years has read like a "Who's Who" of Egyptology: Directors Harold Nelson, Richard Parker, George Hughes, John Wilson, Charlie Nims, Edward Wente, Kent Weeks, Chuck Van Siclen, Lanny Bell, and Peter Dorman have all upheld the high standards of the Survey and kept us on the course of excellence, sometimes through troubled waters. The epigraphic staff has also included many who have gone on to excel elsewhere and are well known to us all: among them Jim Allen, Rudolf Anthes, Ricardo Caminos, Lorelei Corcoran, John Darnell, William Edgerton, Helen Jacquet-Gordon, Richard Jasnow, Leonard Lesko, Bill Murnane, Peter Piccione, Ann Roth, Siegfried Schott, Keith Seele, Mark Smith, Caroline Ransom Williams, and Frank Yurko. We were extremely fortunate to have our friend, Egyptian Egyptologist Labib Habachi living with us for many years, and now Henri Riad, former director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. Henri has become a beloved father to us all, and is a precious link to a fast-vanishing past.

The Chicago House Method

Breasted committed the Survey to the preservation of Egypt's cultural heritage by non-destructive means: through documentation so precise it could stand alone as a replacement in the absence of the original monument. Large-format photography (8 x10 and 5 x 7 inch negatives) is an essential tool in this process, and one of the first goals of Chicago House was to create a photographic archive of as many of Egypt's accessible standing monuments as possible, photographed inside and out. Breasted's own negatives and photographs, some from his honeymoon trip, form the core of the Chicago House and Oriental Institute Photographic Archives. Charlie Nims during his time with the Survey took many more. To date there are over 17,000 large-format negatives registered in the Chicago House archives alone, and the number grows each year.

But Breasted understood that photographs alone cannot capture all the details of the often damaged wall scenes of individual monuments; the light source that illuminates also casts shadows which obscure important details. To supplement and clarify the photographic record, precise line drawings are produced at Chicago House that combine the talents of the photographer, artist, and Egyptologist. First the wall surface is carefully photographed with a large-format camera whose lens is positioned exactly parallel to the wall to eliminate distortion. From these negatives photographic enlargements up to 20 x 24 inches are produced, printed on a special matte-surface paper with an emulsion coating that can take pencil and ink lines. An artist takes this enlarged photographic print, mounted on a drawing board, to the wall itself, and pencils directly onto the photograph all of the carved detail that is visible on the wall surface, adding those details that are not visible or clear on the photograph. Back at the house the penciled lines are carefully inked with a series of weighted line conventions to show the three dimensions of the relief, and damage that interrupts the carved line is rendered with thin, broken lines that imitate the nature of the break. When the inking is complete, the entire photograph is immersed in an iodine bath that dissolves the photographic image, leaving only the ink drawing. The drawing is then blueprinted, the blueprint is cut into sections, and each section is mounted on a sheet of stiff white paper. These "collation sheets" are taken back to the wall where the inked details on the blueprint are thoroughly examined by two Egyptologist epigraphers, one after the other, who pencil corrections and refinements on the blueprint itself with explanations and instructions to the artist written in the margins. The collation sheets are then returned to the artist, who in turn takes them back to the wall and carefully checks the epigraphers' corrections, one by one. When everyone is in agreement, the corrections are added to the inked drawing back in the studio, the transferred corrections are checked for accuracy by the epigraphers, and the drawing receives a final review by the Field Director.

Consultations between artists, epigraphers, and Field Director, the consensus of all talents combined, ensures a finished facsimile drawing that is faithful to what is preserved on the wall in every detail; this is the essence of what is generally referred to as the "Chicago House Method." The corrected ink drawings, photographs, text translations, commentary, and glossaries are then taken back to Chicago for processing and publication in large folio volumes for distribution worldwide.

We are constantly trying to improve upon our recording methodology, and over the last twenty years have refined our drawing conventions to expand the amount of information that is recorded in each drawing. We are also always reevaluating the basic technology that we utilize in our recording and have recently introduced computer technology and digital imaging in the recording process, although this will not replace the photographic basis for our drawing enlargements, at least not yet. We have found that the relatively low-tech but elegant photographic technology is still much better suited to the field conditions of the desert environment we encounter daily, and the density of information in a single large-format negative is still far greater than any digital image developed so far, and much better suited to the production of our extremely detailed drawings. So, for the time being, our recording process continues to start with the production of large-format negatives. But afterward each negative will be scanned and burned onto CD-ROM for backup, storage, computer manipulation, and eventual inclusion in our new Photographic Archives database (designed by John Sanders and Jason Ur).


Breasted asked for and received permission to publish all of the monuments of Ramesses III in Luxor, since not only were these among the best preserved monuments from ancient Thebes, they also preserved references to people and places mentioned in the Bible. This program, with some additions, has been followed by the Survey to this day. Chicago House's first project was to document the great mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu on the West Bank, the southernmost, latest, and best preserved of the long line of New Kingdom mortuary complexes built along the desert edge. The task of photographing and drawing every scene and inscription in the mortuary temple, inside and out, took over thirty-five years to accomplish, and resulted in eight published volumes of the wall reliefs and inscriptions (891 scenes total), and five additional volumes from the Architectural Survey of maps, plans, and excavation reports (including 160 maps and plans, 154 elevations, and 79 reconstructions).

Concurrently the Survey also recorded and published several significant monuments in the Karnak complex: a processional temple of Ramesses III later enclosed within the first court (271 scenes); the "Bubastite Portal" also in the first court (15 scenes); another temple of Ramesses III in the Mut Temple complex (22 scenes); Sety I's great battle reliefs on the north wall of the great Hypostyle Hall (65 scenes); and half of Khonsu Temple at Karnak (261 scenes). On the West Bank in the plain of Assasif the Epigraphic Survey recorded and published the tomb reliefs of Kheruef, steward of the estate of Akhenaten's mother Queen Tiye and overseer of Amenhotep III's jubilee celebrations in Thebes (81 scenes). In Nubia during the Nubian Salvage Project of the 1960s, the Epigraphic Survey recorded the Beit El-Wali Temple of Ramesses II, threatened by the rising waters of Lake Nasser, before it was dismantled and moved to Kalabshah Island, just south of the Aswan High Dam (45 scenes). A total of 1,671 scenes are recorded.

Medinet Habu

Chicago House is currently working on two projects, one on the East Bank of Luxor, one on the West. Because we are still responsible for the documentation and publication of all of the monuments within Ramesses III's precinct at Medinet Habu, we resumed our work there in the mid-1980s. For the last few years we have been copying the reliefs and inscriptions of the small Amun Temple of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, Djeser Set, or "Holy of Place," where a pre-creation form of the god Amun was believed to reside, and which Ramesses III enclosed within his funerary complex to lend it greater sanctity. The majority of the drawings of the painted chapels of Hatshepsut and their eastern facade, the earliest portion of the Thutmoside temple, have now been successfully completed and collated, and await one final paint collation after the reliefs in that area have been completely cleaned. They will be published in the first volume projected for the Eighteenth Dynasty Temple of Amun at Medinet Habu, while the second volume in the series will be devoted to the Thutmoside bark sanctuary area and miscellaneous graffiti, currently underway. The third volume will document the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, Kushite additions to the small temple, and the fourth volume will be dedicated to the Ptolemaic and Roman additions to the east.

Under Lanny Bell's directorship twenty years ago, the Epigraphic Survey added conservation to its program and a conservator to the staff, and we have continued that policy ever since. Now, because of rapidly changing conditions in Egypt that are causing the monuments to decay at an ever increasing rate, we find ourselves obliged to expand our conservation programs even further.

Recently the Epigraphic Survey received a five-year grant from the Egyptian Antiquities Project and USAID, administered through the American Research Center in Egypt, for documentation and conservation of the Thutmoside temple at Medinet Habu and its later additions. Lately the conservation work has focused on the rooftop of the Thutmoside temple, over the back painted chapels and bark sanctuary, where we have sealed the roof against incursions of rainwater which stained the reliefs inside. Cleaning and desalination of the painted reliefs was initiated this season by our new conservator Lotfi Hassan, with spectacular results. For a full report of recent conservation work, please see the Oriental Institute 1998-1999 Annual Report.

Luxor Temple

Across the river in the land of the living Chicago House has been involved in another long-term project at Luxor Temple, the place of Amun-Re's divine birth. In 1996 the Epigraphic Survey presented the first volume in its Luxor Temple series, Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Volume 1: The Festival Procession of Opet in the Colonnade Hall (49 scenes total). This volume, the Epigraphic Survey's largest ever, documents in detailed drawings and photographs the first register of decoration in the hall, built by Amenhotep III but largely decorated during the reign of Tutankhamun and his successors. It is one of the very few monuments of Tutankhamun to survive to the present day. The reliefs, executed in the lively style of the late Amarna period, commemorate one of the most important annual festivals in the Egyptian religious calendar, the great Festival of Opet, the occasion when Amun-Re traveled from his palace at Karnak to his birthplace at Luxor Temple to experience rebirth and rejuvenation. The Opet reliefs document in particular detail the lavish water procession associated with this festival, when Amun-Re, his wife the mother-goddess Mut, and their son the moon-god Khonsu traveled from Karnak to Luxor Temple and, later, back to Karnak, in great gilded divine barges towed by the elaborate royal barges of the king and queen, assisted by numerous smaller towboats manned by dozens of oarsmen, the whole procession escorted by a cheering populace on the riverbanks. In the history of Egyptian art there is nothing that equals its scope and lively detail.

I am pleased to announce that the Epigraphic Survey has recently completed the production of Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Volume 2: The Facade, Portals, Upper Register Scenes, Columns, Marginalia, and Statuary in the Colonnade Hall (103 scenes). The title truly says it all. As the companion to Volume 1, which documents the first register of decoration, this second volume covers all the rest. With this volume we have now completed the documentation and publication of all the standing wall remains in the great Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple, one of the largest, most beautiful, and most threatened monuments in all of Egypt.

Luxor Temple Fragment Project

Although the Epigraphic Survey has in the past dealt exclusively with standing wall remains, an exciting opportunity presented itself at Luxor Temple to incorporate fragmentary material in our publication program. The upper walls of the Colonnade Hall and other parts of Luxor Temple are mostly missing, quarried away in the medieval period when stone was needed for house, church, or mosque construction. Excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, which exposed the southern end of the alleyway of sphinxes linking Luxor and Karnak Temples, also exposed hundreds of buried stone foundations made up of reused block fragments that had been torn off the upper walls of the temple. When the excavations were finished, the fragments were piled in dozens of rows around the temple for future analysis. From this pool of material, the Epigraphic Survey has identified over 1,500 sandstone fragments from the Colonnade Hall alone and has included them in the publication of the hall. Each block fragment is drawn the same way a wall section would be drawn using photographic enlargements, and when the drawings are collated and finished, each fragment drawing is photographed (or scanned) so that scale prints of the drawings can be reassembled for publication. Many of the fragments join to form long strips or sections from numerous identifiable scenes and augment considerably our understanding of the decorative scheme of the missing upper registers. Volume 2 features joined fragment groups from the Colonnade Hall facade that preserve important information about its original decorative program, while Volume 3 in the series will be devoted primarily to the upper register fragment groups, one of which is 75 feet long, and will include an architectural study of the Hall.

In 1995 the Epigraphic Survey received a five-year grant from the Egyptian Antiquities Project, USAID, and the American Research Center in Egypt for conservation and consolidation of the deteriorating decorated sandstone fragments in our Luxor Temple blockyard. Conservators John Stewart and Hiroko Kariya have supervised this project since its inception. This year we erected an on-site conservation laboratory, and initiated the expansion of the Epigraphic Survey blockyard by constructing new damp-coursed brick storage platforms for the proper storage of the thousands of fragments that are still lying on the ground, to protect them against the rising damp.

The Colonnade Hall's Missing Goddesses

Our second volume in the Colonnade Hall series also includes the publication of the colossal statuary found in the Hall. These include two great seated dyads in indurated limestone of the gods Amun-Re and Mut, carved either by Tutankhamun or his successor Ay at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and a seated sculpture of a king from the same period, all appropriated later on by Ramesses II, who erased the original king's names and replaced them with his own. Both dyads are missing the heads of the Mut-goddess figures, but with the generous assistance of colleagues Hourig Sourouzian and Betsy Bryan, I was able to identify the missing heads in the Cairo Museum basement storage area where they had ended up after the clearance of the Hall in the 1880s. The small dyad goddess turns out to be a Late Period, possibly early Ptolemaic restoration of the original Eighteenth Dynasty goddess, which must have broken off (possibly hit by falling roof blocks) and been so damaged she required a totally new upper body.

The large dyad goddess is another story. Her face had broken clean off in antiquity, and dowel holes in both the body and the face fragment attested to an ancient restoration. A cast later proved that there was enough surviving stone for a proper restoration. Through the kindness of Mohamed Saleh, the former Director of the Egyptian Museum, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the face of the large-dyad goddess was transferred to Luxor and restored to its body in January 1997 by conservator Ellen Pearlstein of the Brooklyn Museum. We used the restoration as an excellent excuse to clean the whole group, and it looks pretty good these days. Ellen has continued the cleaning program of all the statues during the last couple of years and will finish that task next season.

Egypt's Endangered Monuments

Because the Colonnade Hall is one of the most endangered monuments in Egypt, it is particularly satisfying to be producing these volumes at this time. It is a sad fact that within a few decades our drawings may be all that survives of those delicate reliefs from so long ago. The state of the walls in the Colonnade Hall is extremely bad, and growing worse faster than one would think possible. Nor is it the only monument suffering from accelerating decay.

The problem is this: on account of a rapidly growing population and increased irrigation, Egypt's canals are always full, and the water table is always high. Egypt has experienced unusually high Nile levels during the last two years which only adds to the water in the ground. Because the underpinnings of the Nile Valley are ancient sea beds, a certain amount of salt from those ancient seas dissolves in the groundwater and percolates up to the surface. The stone foundations of Egypt's low-lying temples are constantly in contact with this salt-laden groundwater and act like lamp wicks, drawing more water up into the stone walls above. When the water evaporates from the surfaces of the walls the salts are left behind, crystallizing on the surface of the stone whenever the humidity is high, retreating back into it when the humidity is low. Over the course of time this activity inevitably breaks down the fabric of the stone. The carved reliefs fall or flake off the wall, and eventually the walls cannot support themselves, and collapse. However, it is not just the walls that are affected; the column bases in the Colonnade Hall are showing the same signs of decay. Every single column base has begun to crumble and eventually will not be able to support the great weight of the columns and architraves above. Yet even two years ago none of this extreme decay was showing.

Shockingly, we are noting the same sort of accelerated decay even in the desert site of Medinet Habu. Some of the foundation stones of the small Amun Temple are beginning to break down, requiring emergency intervention. This season Lotfi had to do preliminary consolidation of the foundation of the middle pier of the north Ptolemaic annex, and we must do major reinforcement there next season. In the southern well of Ramesses III, to the left of the mortuary temple, stone weakened by salt migration and high groundwater has caused two entire blocks of the decorated inner corridor to slowly turn back to sand and begin to collapse. One of this season's priorities was the total large-format photographic documentation of the decorated corridors of the well, which are almost totally covered with salt. These negatives have all been scanned and will be digitally joined for comparison with scanned, joined 35 mm negatives produced in the mid-1980s when there was far more to see on the walls. Because Egypt's climate is slowly becoming wetter, with tremendous humidity fluctuations during the course of a year, a process that a short while ago took centuries has now sped up drastically, with disastrous results to Egypt's priceless monuments.

What can we do? First of all, I am urging my colleagues to get out and document while there is something left to document. All epigraphy is salvage epigraphy now, and there is simply too much that has never been recorded. The time to do it is now.

One thing the Epigraphic Survey is doing is prioritizing the most threatened monuments within its concessions for immediate documentation. Next season we will continue our photography of the two deteriorating Ramesses III wells and will tackle the northern one, which is in almost as bad shape as its mate to the south. We will also try to get as many decorated stone fragments as possible at Luxor Temple up off the ground onto protected damp-coursed mastabas during the next few seasons. With the help of Egyptian Antiquities Project funding, we will continue our conservation efforts at both sites. And in order to document more, faster, it is our goal to expand the team of epigraphers, artists, and photographers working on-site during the field season. Our methodology is excellent; more people recording will allow more recording to be done. We simply do not have the luxury of time.

We are Egyptologists, not engineers, and the problems facing the ancient sites are not problems we as Egyptologists can solve, which is extremely frustrating. But we can influence others who are more qualified to help. I am pleased to report that I have assisted in directing the attention of the US Embassy and USAID to the water problem facing Egypt, and particularly the ancient sites of Luxor. The visit of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to Luxor and Chicago House in March 1999 helped as well, as she expressed great concern over the local conservation problems I made sure I pointed out to her. At the luncheon we hosted for her at Chicago House, she told us that she found the University of Chicago's facility and fieldwork in Luxor "a revelation," and was particularly impressed with the dedication and commitment of its staff.

Just before I left Egypt to return to Chicago, on 16 April, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer sponsored a historic meeting at the Embassy residence to discuss the water problem and to suggest possible solutions. Present at the meeting were Dr. Gaballa Ali Gaballa, Director General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities; the Swedish Ambassador and two Swedish water engineering firm representatives; the French Cultural Counselor; Dr. Nicholas Grimal, Director of the French Archaeological Institute in Cairo; Dr. Francois Larche, Director of the Franco-Egyptian Center at Karnak; two USAID officials; Dr. Chip Vincent from the Egyptian Antiquities Project; and me. The consensus was that we must all work together, and we must work now, because time has almost run out. Engineering studies will begin immediately and will include Karnak and Luxor Temples. The next meeting was held on 14 May in Luxor and also included the Director of the American Research Center in Egypt, Mark Easton; the Governor of Luxor; and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, to discuss drainage measures that might be taken to lower the water table and slow down the decay. These meetings mark only a first step, but it is a crucial first step.

The Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is dedicated to the preservation of Egypt's priceless cultural heritage through precise documentation and publication of the material as it exists now, a basic first step in any conservation effort. But as it finishes its first 75 years, and faces the new millennium, Chicago House must adapt to the changing conditions in Egypt by intensifying and expanding its documentation and conservation programs in order to preserve what little is left. It is a goal well worth striving for, because Egypt's priceless cultural heritage is the world's cultural heritage, and its loss is our loss.

This was Breasted's vision, and it is alive and well. But there is much to do...

W. Raymond Johnson is the Field Director of the Epigraphic Survey based at Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. He received his Ph.D. in Egyptian Archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1992 and is presently a Research Associate (Assistant Professor) of the Oriental Institute.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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