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2000-year-old Egyptian graffiti unlocked, thanks to high-tech

As they create a cutting-edge 3D recording of the Temple of Isis in Philae, Egypt, Simon Fraser University researchers are discovering more about ancient graffiti—and its fascinating comparisons to modern graffiti.

Collaborating with the University of Ottowa researchers, Simon Fraser University scholars published their findings in Egyptian Archaeology. After the first indications, they returned to Philae to dig more into Egyptian graffiti.

“It’s fascinating because there are similarities with today’s graffiti,” said SFU geography professor Nick Hedley, co-investigator of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project.

“The iconic architecture of ancient Egypt was built by those in positions of power and wealth, but the graffiti records the voices and activities of everybody else. The building acts like a giant sponge or notepad for generations of people from different cultures for over 2,000 years.”

2000-year-old Egyptian graffiti unlocked, thanks to high-tech
SFU geography professor Nick Hedley.

Simon Fraser University

Precision is necessary because there are hundreds or maybe thousands of graffiti on the temple’s columns, walls, and roof, some of which are etched less than a millimeter deep.

Therefore, Hedley oversees the team’s creative visualization efforts, using cutting-edge techniques like photogrammetry, raking light, and laser scanning to capture the graffiti, its architectural context, and the environments they are located in.

“The techniques we are applying to the project will completely change how the graffiti, and the temple, can be studied,” says Sabrina Higgins, an SFU archaeologist and project co-investigator. She underlines that photographs and two-dimensional plans do not allow the field site to be viewed as a dynamic, multi-layered, and evolving space.

3D recording of the whole surface

Hedley is creating a state-of-the-art three-dimensional recording of the whole surface of the temple, going beyond conventional two-dimensional imaging. This will make it feasible to observe and study the graffiti, as well as the interior and outside of the temple, from nearly anywhere, without sacrificing accuracy.

Researchers will be able to examine the connection between a figural graffito, any surrounding graffiti, and its location in relation to the temple building design thanks to this three-dimensional depiction.

Hedley emphasizes the broad potential of using spatial reality capture technology to further the study of archaeology and other fields, even though this is revolutionary for viewing and analyzing the temple and its inscriptions.

“Though my primary role in this project is to help build the definitive set of digital wall plans for the Mammisi at Philae, I’m also demonstrating how emerging spatial reality capture methods can fundamentally change how we gather and produce data and transform our ability to interpret and analyze these spaces. This is a space to watch!” said Hedley.

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