The Egyptologist sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss using modern technology to study ancient societies. “With a judicious blend of old and new, you can tell some pretty rich stories,” he says.
Peter Der Manuelian ’81 is the Barabara Bell Professor of Egyptology and teaches in both the Anthropology department and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He serves as the director of the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: My first question is about how you came to study what you’re studying now: was it that you had an interest in archaeology and then you settled on studying Egypt’s as a region, or were you interested in Egypt first, then you came to study it through archaeology?
PDM: I think, for me, it’s been all Egypt all the time. I grew up locally, and it was ancient Egypt in fourth grade history class. I tell people that I never grew up. Most people love ancient Egypt as a kid, and they move on to something else, but I found it fascinating.
FM: How do you think studying the ancient past has value today?
PDM: So many of the trends that we see now, you can almost form a direct line into earlier cultures — as empires rise and fall, as people are treated well or mistreated. I think there’s an awful lot to be learned. In fact, just in most recent history, when I see some of the disturbing trends in our society today, and I think even 30, 50, 100 years ago, the same problems were playing out. And it boggles my mind that people haven’t taken a lesson from that. So extrapolate that all the way back to, say, the ancient Near East, and you see how empires have risen and fallen and different groups have dominated other groups in the past. Some states have come together and worked together and achieved great things, and others have disappeared through forces of climate change or invasion or economic disintegration or top-heavy economic institutions.
FM: As an Egyptologist, how do you feel about representations of Egypt in popular American culture? I’m thinking “Indiana Jones,” “Tomb Raider,” “The Mummy.”
PDM: It’s always important to distinguish between Egyptology, which is the academic study of ancient Egyptian civilization, and Egyptomania, which is the popular reception of ancient Egypt. They’re often two very different things. I find them both fascinating, and there can be academic study of both or just enjoyment of both. I’m not such a stickler going into a movie like “Indiana Jones” or “The Mummy” where I’m pointing out every single flaw or chronological anomaly or something like that. But there are some issues that get sensitive, especially now, about how different ethnic groups are portrayed. We could always do a better job in Hollywood of reimagining some of these ancient cultures.
FM: What do you think is the biggest misconception that people who don’t study Egypt have about such an ancient society?
PDM: I’d say one — which is kind of a nasty one, when you think about it — is that aliens must have built the pyramids. That really comes across as kind of a racist comment, because what you’re saying is people from that part of the world could not have been so advanced or skilled to obtain such a monumental achievement. So that’s something worth debunking. There are lots of rumors out there in popular culture that aren’t true, such as Napoleon’s men shot the nose off the Sphinx as target practice.
Hieroglyphs is really a language. People will look at these pictures, and because they recognize them as images, part of your brain has trouble thinking that these are letters and it’s a real grammar. But it is. There’s nouns and adjectives and participles all buried within those hieroglyphic signs — masculine and feminine and things like that. It’s a real grammar and so fascinating to study and to translate.
FM: You’ve written about famous Egyptologists who have come before you. What do you think the discipline should take from their example, and what do you think has become more outdated?
PDM: Well, after about 15 years, I just finished a biography of my predecessor. George Reisner was a Harvard professor and a Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator but mainly an archaeologist, and he lived in Egypt and he dug in Egypt and the Sudan for most of his life. He lived at a place called Harvard Camp, which was just a collection of mud brick huts behind the pyramids, and he only came back here to teach about three or four semesters his whole life. He was a founding father of modern scientific archaeological methods for the time. So basically working from about 1899 until 1942, when he died at the pyramids. He also — it’s not quite kosher to say anymore, but — a product of his time, so he bore some of the colonialist and racist attitudes of his time. And I think because he was so meticulous in his archaeological documentation, it’s easier for us to separate now what we would like to think is archaeological fact from some of his interpretations that don’t make sense. We’re really seeing through his biased lens, so we need to set aside what doesn’t make sense anymore, and we need to acknowledge the contributions — the positive contributions — that he made.
I’ll add that while some of his interpretations are not acceptable today, he was pretty progressive in a lot of other ways. And that means his Egyptian staff: delegating so many of the skilled positions to them, training them in archaeological photography, keeping Arabic expedition diary accounts, paying the man organizing the labor, making big, important decisions. He was looking out for them, even against some of the Cairo elites, which was not an attitude that a lot of Western expedition directors were taking at the time.
FM: One of your big interests is combining archeology with 3D visualization. How did you identify a need for that sort of combination?
PDM: Well, that goes back to the early ’80s, when I saw my first Mac computer, and I instantly thought, there’s going to be hieroglyphs on the screen one day. There was a little app called MacPaint that let you do bitmap pixel drawings, and things took off from there. I look at ancient Egypt as such an iconographic and visual culture that the application of computer graphics and visual interfaces and graphical approaches just made perfect sense to me — combining the old and the new. I think it can be a tremendous teaching tool now, and the digital humanities can enhance reconstructions of archaeological sites that can make teaching more informative, more educational, and hopefully more fun as well. So there’s almost no limit to the different types of technology you can apply to even an ancient civilization.
FM: Are there other types of technology you’ve worked with in addition to 3D modeling?
PDM: That’s the main one. Another is we need to play with big amounts of data these days. That’s why we created the Giza Project many years ago. Its job is to scan, type, database, and intelligently crosslink all this material together. So you can be hunting for a particular statue or an object in a museum collection or temple or tomb architecture at Giza that you’re interested in, and all the relevant stuff comes together. That then goes on the internet, so it’s available to the world community. From there, we move on to 3D virtual tours with Matterport cameras and BLK scanning and things like that. And then there’s Metashape to do all kinds of 3D models of actual statues and objects, able to rotate them and see them from all angles. Integrating all that stuff is a kind of digital repatriation in a way, and we can recreate the fine spots of these things and put them back virtually where they were found. And that’s a huge plus for the archaeological process.
FM: How do you feel students’ experiences change when you introduce these types of technologies in the classroom?
PDM: We have a classroom called the Visualization Lab. It’s part of Earth and Planetary Sciences. It’s a big curving screen, with 3D glasses and all kinds of 3D projector equipment. That’s a chance for people to experience Egypt on a screen with the real estate that I think does ancient Egypt justice. There’s nothing like hovering over the pyramids on a screen that big and zooming into an area you’re interested in or putting on 3D glasses and being able to enter a reconstruction of an Egyptian tomb and see the fresh colors on the walls beautifully reconstructed — based on real archaeological data too. So this is, I hope, a horizon-expanding kind of experience for students beyond just a static image on a PowerPoint slide.
FM: How do you feel the use of technology can make archaeology more accessible?
PDM: Very often when you’re at a site today, monuments are sanded over or reburied or just exist in foundations of stone or mud brick. It’s very difficult, if you’re not a specialist, to visualize what you’re looking at. So I fantasize about the day where anyone can go to a site, pull up the phone, aim it at a lump of mud, and in augmented reality or VR that lump of mud turns into a five-foot-high wall from 80 years ago or 3000 years ago and shows a beautiful, important inscription. There are ways I think that we can reanimate or reimagine these sites based, hopefully, on sound archaeological data and reconstruct some of these buildings and put everything back in context. That’s a huge plus for your average visitor.
FM: How much creative liberty do you feel like you can take without compromising archaeological accuracy?
PDM: Great question. There are different forms of scholarly publication and educational information. And a journal article is different from, say, a reconstruction of a temple on a website. I think the most important thing is if you can flag it: what you know, what you don’t know. A good example of that is the three pyramids at Giza: for the Great Pyramid, the temple at the end of its causeway is buried and unknown underneath the modern town. So how do you reconstruct a temple that you can’t excavate, and you don’t know the foundations and all of that? Well, you look for contemporary temples from the Old Kingdom from the fourth dynasty or fifth dynasty and try to conjecture as best you can. So in our models, we’ve built that temple, but we have to admit that it’s pure speculation at this point.
FM: How does collaboration play a role in this process? Who are the people that are working on a virtual tour or virtual model?
PDM: Egyptologists used to handle their field by themselves. Now we look to interdisciplinary collaborations, so evermore to anthropology and archaeological sciences, digital technologies, computer graphics experts, website coders. It all has to come together. You need the scholarly inputs to understand the culture, read the language, understand the archaeology and the architecture. But then you’ve got to communicate effectively with technologists to build these things. To give you a good example, we did a nice teaching tool reconstruction of Harvard Camp. That’s the dighouse headquarters that George Reisner had at the pyramids. And we had some fantastically talented people working on this, but at one point, I saw the buildings had electric light bulbs sticking out of the walls. You would absolutely assume why not, right? Except there was no electricity up at Harvard Camp, and no running water either. So we had to remove those light bulbs. A good example of the specialists working with the technologists and trying to get it right as best we can.
FM: Right now, a lot of your work focuses on the Giza necropolis. What are the research questions you’re currently interested in exploring?
PDM: Well, trying to understand Giza is always a fascination for me. And that’s not just how the pyramids were built, for example, but really how the whole necropolis — the cemetery — developed, because you can find on the decorated tomb walls of these tombs of the elites every frozen moment there is of ancient Egyptian civilization. If you want to know about gender, you can see males and females represented on the walls. If you want to know about ritual, if you want to study hieroglyphic grammar, craftsmanship scenes, agriculture, economy, costume, it’s all there.
Another is the interplay of hieroglyphs, the Egyptian language, with monuments and how things are laid out. This comes from an interest I have in graphic design. For many years, I’ve designed and produced academic publications as well and got tremendous pleasure out of the layout process and the sizing of the images and where to put things and the use of typography. So I’ve always wondered about the ancient artists and how they make their decisions. Where to end this line of hieroglyphs and begin the next line? Do I break the word or do I not? In Egyptian, you can spell the same word many different ways with a lot of extra signs, so when you’re stuck, and you don’t have enough space, you can abbreviate your spellings, and when you need more space, you can add a lot of filler material as well. So who makes those decisions? We only see the finished product, where everything looks symmetrical and beautifully laid out and obvious and easy. But a lot of thought has to go into that production process. And I’m interested in sort of climbing into the ancient minds, to the extent that one can, and thinking about the design principles too.
FM: You’re the director of the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East. What are your current goals in that position?
PDM: We’re not in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — our collections are not that large — but I think we can enhance them with these types of technological approaches. So VR and AR are various ways to animate static relief sculptures, wall fragments on the walls of our galleries. And we have a combination of reproductions and antiquities, because they both tell sides of the same story. So for example, out on our second floor, we have a resin cast of the famous dream stela of King Thutmose IV. The original ancient one is still between the front legs of the Sphinx at Giza, and it tells the story of how a king who lived 1,000 years after the pyramids took a nap in the shadow of the pyramids as a young prince. The Sphinx appeared to him in a dream and said, “If you’ll dig me out, I’ll make you Pharaoh.” It’s a great text. We have the reproduction of the stela, and by aiming your phone at it, you can get a line-by-line English translation. You can be standing right between the front paws of the Sphinx and look around in 360 degrees or call up an augmented reality image of the Sphinx, and even move a time slider and look at it at different points in time. We think these enhance the collection, hopefully excite the visitor, and are educational as well. And we have a combination of all kinds of objects from all kinds of cultures, not just Egyptian — that happens to be my specialty. We’ll be bringing more and more of them as time goes by.
FM: What would you say to museum visitors who don’t really want to see a reproduction of an ancient artifact because it’s “not the real thing”?
PDM: With a judicious blend of old and new, you can tell some pretty rich stories. I’ll give an example of that: we just acquired something that will go on view in a couple of weeks. It’s a reproduction throne of Tutankhamun. The original was founded in 1922 among the five or six thousand objects in his tomb. It’s in the Cairo Museum. But in 1929, an American traveler commissioned from a very talented furniture maker in Cairo two reproductions of this throne, not in gold this time but in teak wood with mother of pearl and ivory inlays. And it is spectacular. It’s an example of Egyptology and Egyptomania at the same time. It’s historically very important because it has the name of Tutankhamun on the inscriptions on it, and in various forms, which has to do with a big religious revolution at the time. So this is the kind of thing that, although a reproduction, can open the window wide to all kinds of issues about understanding ancient Egypt, reception of ancient Egypt, and even some ancient history as well. We’re pretty excited about that piece.
FM: How do you think the responsibilities or the role of museums have changed in the past 50 or 60 years?
PDM: Some people look at museums as storehouses of knowledge. Others might look at them as entertainment palaces. And maybe there’s a happy medium in the middle there. Museums are under tremendous pressure, right? They’re competing for entertainment time and dollars: should I go to the Red Sox game, or should I go to the Museum of Fine Arts? Should I come to the HMANE, or should I go somewhere else? So those are very logical and understandable pressures. I think the key is to try to bring the education and the delight in these objects, to make things clear, to reinterpret them.
Anthropological collections are facing scrutiny: what should be repatriated to original groups and what shouldn’t? I think it’s tough to say it’s a black or white issue, and everything should go back or everything should stay put. I think it needs sensitive investigation, care, and listening on both sides. At our museum, we’re not facing most of those controversies because of the nature of our material, but museums are working very hard to do a better job of that, to reach different and better audiences, to explain and interpret their material better. And also to blend different types of objects and collections and exciting new ways as well. In the old days, it was all chronological, and this culture goes over there and that culture goes over here. There’s some synergies to be created by mixing and matching, and I think that’s pretty exciting.
— Associate Magazine Editor Tess C. Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.