The pharaohs' digital afterlife

August 29, 2003

Stephen Quirke's online project will let students hear the words of the ancient Egyptians.

The internet - good or bad? Some academics love the cheap instant access to information, opinions and images. Others hate what they see as a hornet's nest of anarchy and wonder what it can do for teaching that other media cannot.

Cynicism has not deterred the enthusiasts. July 31 marked the end of an experimental phase in developing UK university online culture.

The Joint Information Systems Committee invited project bids in May 1999 to create digital resources and an infrastructure to which all students and teachers would have free access. But copyright was an obstacle. After decades of practical and theoretical redundancy, museums and archives, as holders of many copyright keys, came into their own.

Jisc extended its call to university museums. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, where I lecture and curate, in partnership with UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, was among the successful bidders. We argued that we could put together a package of graphics, images and text in our own copyright. Images would lead the site, including virtual-reality reconstructions of the less famous Egyptian sites from prehistory to the Islamic period.

Ancient Egypt is a popular subject and we were using it as bait. But we did not wish to appeal just to an Egyptomanic audience. Objects uncovered by excavation include vast quantities from prehistoric, Roman and Islamic Egypt. We were keen not to erect a disciplinary iron curtain. Egypt lends itself to debate in many disciplines, including medicine and comparative religion, and could be extended to literary studies or law.

In workshops with partners at Birmingham, Cardiff, Farnham, and Swansea, as well as departments across the spectrum at UCL, we tested different parts of the website as it grew. It gave us the chance to share the Egyptian data and Egyptological commentary with students and teachers in economics, medicine, textile studies, art history, the history of Iran and museum studies.

Digital Egypt for Universities went live last month. It offers 3,000 pages of content by Wolfram Grajetzki, a dozen sets of virtual-reality reconstructions by Narushige Shiode and guides for beginners. There are prompts to seminar questions and debates not only on archaeological and historical matters, but also on contemporary social issues suchas race and the ethics of display.

There are different types of reconstructions, different voices in audio for ancient Egyptian literature and performance, different periods brought into play. Future objectives include translations into different languages to enrich UK experience with the global, often anti-western, perspectives the West needs.

The dozens of Jisc-funded projects ranged from vital hardcore technical development to garnering content varying from medicine and language to music and geology. Resources created include journals, textbooks, manuscripts, maps, music scores, still images and moving picture and sound collections.

All the projects shared experience and learnt good practice at annual programme conferences, and in the smaller project clusters meetings. The great intangible benefit was to bring together like-minded people who would otherwise never have met and who share a determination that higher education must exploit the potential of the internet.

As higher education in this country becomes ever-more commercial, it would be a fine twist to reactivate the tradition of free access and debate through the internet. Just as the ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife, I hope that our contribution will generate many afterlives.

Stephen Quirke managed the project Digital Egypt for Universities in the 5/99 development programme. He is lecturer and curator at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

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