Egyptology and digital humanities – does it fit together or do we open Pandora’s box?

Most people have a romantic and movie inspired view of an Egyptologist: he is masculine, between 40 and 60 years old, good looking and wears his best corduroy suit. Just like Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies. When I worked for an exhibition of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, where I guided the visitors and answered all the questions they had about that “old guy”, some people complained about me to the exhibition manager. In their minds, I didn’t look like a typical Egyptologist (I am feminine, 29 years old, and wouldn’t dream of wearing a corduroy suit). Sadly, this is a true story.

People also have a more or less romantic view about our working conditions: if we are not digging somewhere in the sand, brushing artifacts tenderly or holding old-fashioned lectures (of course with antiquated overhead transparencies), we are sitting behind a huge wall of dusty books and haven’t seen the sun in months (ok, maybe this is true).

Only a very few would expect that the day of an Egyptologist is mainly characterized by working with computers and any kind of software. We use the Internet to announce call for papers, interesting news, and the latest publications – on homepages, twitter, or our own scientific blogs.

The work of an Egyptologist – how digital are we?

I think Egyptologists themselves don’t know how many digital resources they are already working with every day. The times when they were spending hours skimming through every single book in the library are long gone. Today, they can use the “Online Egyptological Bibliography”, for instance. When they collect data (no matter if texts or images) they can use an Excel-file or other software to make the data easily comparable. On excavations they use laser scanners to measure, for instance, a tomb with precise accuracy, and with high-resolution cameras they can show reliefs and images in every single detail. Photoshop or other raster graphics editors help reveal long-lost subtleties. This gives us the possibility to work fast and accurate. The field of digital humanities is just one more little step away.

In fact there are some fascinating historical digital humanities projects (I can’t itemize them all) like the “3D joins und Schriftmetrologie” by University of Würzburg (Germany) that uses the 3D scanning technology to reconstruct cuneiform tablets and their content. Or the amazing visualization of the birth and death places of notable people over the last 2,600 years by the art historian Maximilian Schich.

More and more big Egyptological projects are located in the field of digital humanities like the “Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae“, or the great “Book of the Dead project” by University of Bonn, who are also working on techniques for text visualization.
But we need more of that open source data which is available from all over the world. Especially because we are spending tax money, our work should be obtainable for everyone who is interested.

Social and Semantic Network Analysis – what new information can be obtained by method?

When I started working for the SeNeReKo project in May 2014, I have to admit, that I didn’t have deep knowledge of Social Network Analysis (SNA). During the first weeks all the new words sounded like a foreign language to me: nodes, edges, centrality, tagging, entity recognition etc., and the new computer programs like “R” or Gephi made me break out in sweat. But after a while everything became familiar and now I am happy to explain what our method is and what we are expecting from it:

Social Network Analysis is a technique that originated in modern sociology and was used to show relationships and connections between individuals. The common technique for historians was to extract the entities and their relations out of a text by hand (for example in an Excel-file) and then put the information into a network visualization program like Gephi. But we think that a lot of the information a text can give us gets lost this way. So our approach is to combine Social Network Analysis with Semantic Network Analysis to build up the deeper structure of a text. The method is perfectly suited for big text corpora to get an overview of the concepts and the structure (topic modeling) behind. Thus you can take a different look at Middle and Late Egyptian novels, for instance, or compare the social and semantic networks of different tombs or temples that can be visualized. You can see who is connected to whom through what and how kings and gods interact with each other, etc…

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be dewy-eyed and believe everything the software suggests us, but should be wary and scrutinize every result instead. We are just at the beginning and about to develop a completely new method for text knowledge of a culture that did not exist for thousands of years. But clearly, we will not open Pandora’s box!

A case for working more digital – when, if not now!

So why not going one step further into the digital world? What is holding us back from using the possibilities of the digital humanities in our own research interest? Are we just afraid of doing something new or is there more behind? Maybe the image of how an Egyptologist should look like and work is deeper in our minds than we expect – so lets get out of our (maybe too comfortable) corduroy suits and try something new!

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