Visualization, Interactivity and Contextualization as Digital Cultural Empowerment: Ancient Egyptian Architectural Terminology Online

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Willeke Wendrich

    University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Work text
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Working in an international setting, such as the international archaeological community in Egypt, brings to the fore that the communication is by definition multi-lingual and, secondly, that international understanding is faced with serious problems of translation. Even if English is used as the modern lingua franca, the different associations connected to terms, based on the various meanings of the terminology in the mother tongue, can cause serious misunderstandings. This is particularly true for communications in which detailed and specialized terminologies are involved. Even in languages that are reasonably close, such as English, French and German, similar sounding terms have developed into a different range of meaning, thus adding to the confusion: a non-native speaker assumes to know the meaning of a term which has the same root, while in reality that meaning does only partly overlap, or diverges completely. The situation becomes even more complex when languages from quite different families, such as Arabic, are included. A translation conveys only part of the term, without touching upon all the linked associations and unspoken meanings. The Arabic term “athar”, for instance, is uses as a translation for “antiquities” or “monuments”, while the core meaning is “remnants” and thus does not convey the strong associations with Greek and Latin antiquity and a world of scholarly and cultural tradition going back to the renaissance that the English term carries with it. Added to that are the very real sensitivities of using the language of former colonizing powers to describe a country’s cultural heritage.

The multi-lingual scholarly environment of Egyptian archaeology requires a broad knowledge of specialized terminology, much of which is related to ancient Egyptian architecture. Architectural terms are often used indiscriminately and confusingly. English, French and German terminology leans heavily on jargon developed by the long tradition of the study of Greek and Roman buildings, such as temples, civic establishments, theatres and other monumental structures. Arabic communications on architecture either use loan words from English, French or Italian, or adopt terms from Islamic architecture, dating to much later periods and a different cultural setting.

Digital Humanities enable an approach that provides possibilities of conveying information in alternative ways. Architectural terminology can and should be understood in its physical, temporal and cultural context. By linking terms to a range of specific buildings they are embedded in place and time. Furthermore, the use of images, colors and interactive interfaces, enables visual learning and avoids lengthy definitions that often obfuscate, rather than clarify. Each multi-lingual equation of terms merits an in-depth discussion and could be the subject of a little conference, but that defies the practical purpose of providing a workable resource to enhance communication.

A cooperation between the German Archaeological Institute Cairo and the University of California, Los Angeles, takes a practical, contextual, visual approach to clarifying architectural terms. Although the function of terminology is partly to enable a certain degree of generalization, studying architecture in its cultural context enables research that teases out temporal and regional differences and developments as well. Furthermore, by including a wide range of building types, including pyramids and workmen’s huts, the entire range of building types common in a particular era and region are taken into account.

The multi-lingual terminology uses photographs and drawings of actual building parts, rather than stylized reconstruction drawings to enable this contextual approach. The drawings and photographs of building parts and architectural details are linked to georeferenced plans of specific ancient buildings. Thus architectural terms in four languages (English, Arabic, German, and French) are illustrated within their architectural and cultural context.

The viewer developed to present the terminology is GIS-based and provides not only the building context, but also the geographical context for the building parts under discussion. The building plans are presented in three different forms: actual state, reconstruction and a plan indicating different building phases. In addition elevations, cross sections and architectural details are added, based on existing publications and ground checking in the field. A team of Egyptian architects create AutoCAD drawings of the selected buildings, and is involved in field checking and photography. An interactive interface enables the user to virtually “step into the plan” by knowing the exact location location, direction, angle and tilt of photographs incorporated in the system. This will enable the user to orient him/herself in the building. It is not the same as being physically present in the actual building, but it avoids the complete divorce of the visual realm from the bodily context.

The result is a freely available web resource which empowers users from various cultural backgrounds and different disciplinary training. The Ancient Egyptian Architecture Online (Aegaron) project provides users with vetted architectural drawings and a very practical and accessible way of comparing architectural, archaeological, historical and egyptological concepts.


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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO