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published: April, 2002

Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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   ribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

MW2002: Papers

Virtual Pyramids: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Giza Archives Project

Peter Der Manuelian, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA


A grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is allowing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to digitize and integrate all its diverse media archives from forty years of excavations at the famous Pyramids of Giza, Egypt.

Keywords: Egypt, Giza, pyramids, mastabas, Egyptology, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What was it like to excavate an ancient temple or burial chamber and watch a brilliantly painted statue of a 5,000-year-old Egyptian official emerge from the sands? Such a dream exists today not only among amateur archaeologists and ancient Egypt fans, but also among scholars. Museum curators, Egyptologists and archaeologists have much to learn from detailed examination of earlier excavations (when they exist), and a common lament is the inaccessibility of those records for research. Archaeological context is critical to proper scholarly inquiry about ancient material culture, but what does the scholar do if the discovery records are locked away in a distant museum archive, unsorted and unusable? (See Figure 1)

Raising a stone sarcophagus from Giza tomb G 7060 B. October 26, 1929
Figure 1. Raising a stone sarcophagus from Giza tomb G 7060 B. October 26, 1929 (A 5287). Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Museums have begun to discover that, with the help of technology, their vast collections, and the intellectual property that accompanies them can reach both the scholar and the interested layman far beyond the doors of the physical museum building itself. While no one is suggesting that the Internet can replace a museum visit for direct interaction with works of art, nevertheless the power of the Web is opening broad new vistas for access to scholarly information. Much of this material can now be presented in ways that were not even imaginable just five years ago.

One such project is now under way in Boston (USA), at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), where Egyptologists are computerizing the vast excavation archives from forty years of digging at the famous Giza Pyramids. The Pyramids form one part of a vast necropolis, or city of the dead, that housed hundreds of individual tombs of Egypt’s governing classes during the Old Kingdom (Dynasties 4-6, about 2630-2250 B.C. See Figure 2).

Subterranean chapel of Meresankh III, looking north. April 1999.
Fig.2: Subterranean chapel of Meresankh III, looking north. April 1999. Photograph by Brian Snyder.

In 2000, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, received a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (www.mellon.org) in support of a unique four-year archaeological “Giza Archives Project.” The goal is to provide integrated, on-line access to the archives documenting the Museum’s Giza excavations from 1905 through 1942 and beyond. Excavation diaries, historic glass plate photographic negatives, object register books, published volumes and unpublished manuscripts, maps, plans, and sketches are all being converted (scanned, typed, inventoried and databased) to electronic form to create a reunited archive of Egyptian archaeological information on the pyramids, temples and tombs of Giza. In addition to making this resource available on-line to all, free of charge, this project aims to promote collaborative action among archives, museums, and libraries in the development and delivery of unique online resources.

Between 1905 and 1942, excavations undertaken jointly by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Harvard University, and directed by George A. Reisner (1867-1942), uncovered one of the richest collections of ancient Egyptian objects in the world (See Figure 3)

Comparison shots
Fig.3: Comparison shots: Above: General view of the cemetery west of the Great Pyramid, looking southeast in 1905/6 (B 7243). Below: the same view on April 4, 1936 (A 7558). Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

After moving to Cairo to participate in an international cataloguing project for the Egyptian Museum, Reisner eventually turned to excavating in his own right. He emphasized field photography as a fundamental element of the documentation process, and developed and maintained numerous expedition record books and numbering systems. Were he alive today, there is no doubt that Reisner would have pioneered the application of relational databases to archaeological research.

The MFA’s archive of Giza reports, photography, diaries, and register books from the Giza excavations is unrivaled for its thoroughness, containing information available nowhere else in the world. The materials increase in value as the ancient monuments they document continue to deteriorate and disappear. Unfortunately, like their ancient counterparts, this irreplaceable archaeological archive is also deteriorating at an alarming rate. The race is on to produce “digital surrogates” while the original documentation still survives intact.

The archives produced during any archaeological excavation naturally dissect the ancient site into a number of discreet components. The primary goal of this project is to reunite these disparate and deteriorating materials, thereby creating a multimedia repository of archaeological data for scholarly research, and effectively reconstructing the ancient environment of the Giza Necropolis. Among the types of documents being “virtually reunited” are

  • 21,000 glass plate negatives (1905-1942), along with register books describing each single image (Figures 1, 3-5, 7)
  • over 3,000 pages of daily excavation diaries
  • over 2,000 pages of object registers, cataloguing all the finds that were later divided between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
  • 10 scholarly monographs and 166 Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston articles on Egypt (1903-1994), all being converted into electronic publications
  • thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts, reports, articles and correspondence
  • hundreds of maps and plans, from large overviews of the entire necropolis to individual burial shafts
  • more recent materials, such as 35mm color photography dating from the 1970s to the present.

George Andrew Reisner (1866-1942), March 29, 1929
Fig 4: George Andrew Reisner (1866-1942), March 29, 1929 (B 672). Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Digital imaging studio at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where 21,000 glass plate expedition negatives have been converted to electronic form.
Fig. 5: Digital imaging studio at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where 21,000 glass plate expedition negatives have been converted to electronic form. Photograph by Peter Der Manuelian, May 2001.

Documenting the changes to the necropolis over time can be of great value in understanding its evolution and planning for its future conservation. See Figures 6a-b.

Comparison shots
Fig. 6a and fig. 6b. Comparison shots.6a: Western Cemetery, with Mena House Hotel and part of the Great Pyramid, looking northeast from pyramid of Khafre; December 1906 (A 13025). 6b: the same view in 1982. Photograph by Peter Der Manuelian.

How does one unite all these disparate data into a coherent, user-friendly corpus? The unifying element, or basic component around which all the relevant data is arranged, is the individual Egyptian tomb (Figure 7).

Schematic chart of diverse excavation archival items revolving around an individual “mastaba” tomb at Giza.

Fig7: Schematic chart of diverse excavation archival items revolving around an individual “mastaba” tomb at Giza.
(detailed image)

To get down to the individual tomb level, one might include on the Giza Web site a series of aerial overview images of the necropolis. From an overview plan, users might zoom in to an individual cemetery, a single tomb, even an isolated burial shaft by clicking on the appropriate “rollover buttons.” Eventually they could arrive at a screen for the individual monument in question, with options for viewing a host of documents related to that monument, including excavation photos, discovery images of finds, corresponding field diary pages describing the discovery, and even recent, museum quality color studio photography. Thus, hidden behind a user-friendly graphic interface, a number of powerful, inter-related databases should link the disparate types of data described above into a fully searchable and seamless unit, removing the artificial restrictions traditionally imposed by the varied nature of manuscripts, notes, photographs, and physical artifacts. In addition, new technologies will enhance the old ones, with immersive, panorama images (Quicktime Virtual Reality, or QTVR) allowing users on-line to view the interior of a tomb chamber in 360 degrees, or take a virtual walk through the necropolis.

The benefits of the Giza Archives Project to the museum community and international scholarship are threefold in nature.

  • First, it will enhance the study of Egyptian civilization during the Old Kingdom, or Pyramid Age, in a way that is not possible at the site of Giza itself. Some tombs at Giza are now reburied, denuded, or otherwise inaccessible; they are often better preserved in their documented state sixty to ninety years ago in the MFA Expedition archives.

  • Second, online MFA records will allow scholars unprecedented access to our archaeological materials. This includes scholars who are unable to visit the site of Giza, or the portions of the site crucial to their research, as well as those colleagues actually working at the site and needing supplemental documentation no longer accessible or available.

  • Third, the Giza Archives Project should do far more than just provide access to a body of expedition records and images online. It should be able to answer research questions that today cannot even be posed because of the overwhelming number of archival documents, the impractical search requirements and the limited time and travel constraints under which most scholars work.

The excitement in Boston over this project is growing, as ever more of Reisner’s Giza materials are processed daily. A demonstration Web site with some sample materials is currently available at: http://www.mfa.org. To follow such an ambitious project to its natural conclusion for a moment, the potential exists for even greater success if one were able to incorporate several other great collections of Giza antiquities. Objects from Giza are in many great museum Egyptian collections. Should all these institutions be able one day to collaborate and add their materials to an international Giza Archives Project, the results could herald a new era of international scholarly cooperation across institutions, languages, borders, and collections. The value of such an integrated, unified Giza archive would then truly be greater than the sum of its parts.


The author is grateful to Rita Freed, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for permission to use several of the archival photographs illustrated here. He is also grateful to Dr. Diane Flores, Research Associate of the MFA’s Giza Archives Project, and to Angelica Zander Rudenstine, Senior Advisor, Museums and Conservation, and to Nancy Allen, Director of Museum Relations for ArtSTOR, both of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.