Egyptologists are being urged to dump their pens and paper and go digital.
The hieroglyphics that cover the columns and walls of Egyptian temples are in danger of washing away. Groundwater constantly seeps into the stone on which they are engraved, depositing a corrosive layer of salt on the surface as it evaporates. Yet despite the danger that the precious inscriptions could soon be lost, Egyptologists still trace them by hand – a laborious and time consuming process. “It can take years to produce a final drawing,” says Peter Brand of the University of Memphis in Tennessee, who directs the Hypostyle Hall project at the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, near Luxor.
Now researchers working at Amun-Re are hoping a simple software tool developed by a team led by Élise Meyer of the National Institute of Applied Sciences of Strasbourg, France, will speed up the process. “The history of the Egyptian people is engraved on these walls and columns,” says Meyer. “If these inscriptions disappear, that history is lost.”
To transcribe the engravings, the system first transforms photographs of the object taken from different angles into a flattened, head-on image of its surface, using a technique commonly used to turn aerial images into maps. The Egyptologist then uses an adapted version of the AutoCAD 3D drawing program to record the hieroglyphic.
When the researcher clicks on two points on opposite sides of the hieroglyphic, a line is brought up on the screen. This line can then be reshaped to fit snugly round the hieroglyphic by grabbing points along it with a mouse and dragging them into place. This is faster and more precise than tracing the whole object.
The result can then be stored on a searchable database to be recalled and, if necessary, modified the next time a similar hieroglyphic appears. This will allow researchers to investigate whether a different font or style used to draw a bird, say, was used for expressive purposes or merely dates the writing to a particular era during the temple’s 2000 years of use.
Quibble: it's 'hieroglyph', not 'hieroglyphic'. 'Hieroglyph' is the noun, while 'hieroglyphic' is the adjective. Trust scientists to muddle a simple thing like this. Then again, they're Americans =p