Time Efficiency in Field Epigraphy - Documenting Loose Door Fragments in the Medinet Habu Blockyard

Feb 3, 2021

Written by Júlia Schmied, Egyptologist, Blockyard Assistant at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

The new blockyard at Medinet Habu, photo: W. Raymond Johnson.


In the fall of 2007, when I began working at Chicago House, there were several hundred unregistered loose fragments scattered about the Medinet Habu temple precinct, some of them inscribed and lying face down on the ground, already showing advanced signs of deterioration caused by groundwater and salt. To prevent the further decay of these fragments, the Epigraphic Survey decided to survey the blocks and collect them into a newly built blockyard against the inside of the south enclosure wall of the precinct.[1] Between 2008 and 2011 most of the fragmentary material from Medinet Habu, including the fragments kept in the small blockyard south of the main temple and in a storage room in the great mortuary temple of Ramses III, was transferred into this new blockyard.

This collection, numbering about 4000 pieces, is quite diverse, comprising fragments from all periods of the precinct’s history, from the early 18th Dynasty through the abandonment of the Coptic town Djeme in the ninth century A.D. Among the corpus is a special collection of about 50-100 doorjambs and lintels presumably from private houses that were built within the Medinet Habu precinct. The identification and analysis of this material, especially in the context of the occupation history of Medinet Habu, was begun in 2011 as part of my PhD thesis.

However, already during the 2010/2011 season, there was growing uncertainty about the fate of the collection within the new lapidarium. The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) was talking about transferring some of the material into magazines and locking away smaller pieces for safety reasons. This development of perhaps losing access to a part of the corpus coincided with some changes in my personal circumstances in the following season. For the near future I would only have limited possibilities to work in Egypt and, consequently, have limited access to the material itself that forms the backbone of my research. Bearing that in mind, and the likelihood that the fragments might not remain in the blockyard as they were until I could return, comprehensive documentation of certain fragments, especially those pertaining to my research, was begun at once.

The corpus

Doorjamb of Imeneminet placed on a mastaba inside the Medinet Habu blockyard, photo: Yarko Kobylecky

The focus of my research is a group of doorjambs and lintels from private houses dating primarily to the end of the 20th Dynasty and early Third Intermediate Period. Many of these fragments were unearthed during the early Oriental Institute excavations, from layers that were connected with the 21st-22nd Dynasty settlement.[2] The doorjambs are mostly inscribed with dedicatory formulae, and, in fortunate cases, with the names and titles of their owners, while most lintels have carved offering scenes. 

Unfortunately, many of these fragments are quite damaged, due to the fact that they were either left lying about the temple precinct exposed to weather conditions and rising ground water table level for three quarters of a century, or kept in a haphazard manner in crowded storage, such as in the treasury room of Ramses III’s Mortuary Temple. Those blocks that were collected in the old blockyard east of the palace were subject to both elements and inadequate storing. These circumstances (effects of salty groundwater on stone, decorated faces of blocks rubbing against each other, etc.) sometimes resulted in very badly eroded surfaces, leaving parts of the decoration and inscriptions hardly legible.

The state of the fragments’ preservation notwithstanding, there are other factors that make it difficult to read the inscriptions on some of the blocks. While there are beautifully carved pieces in the blockyard, some of those made at a later (presumably during the twentieth dynasty or later) date were somewhat crudely and carelessly made. To be able to decipher the hard to see details and better comprehend stylistic features, it was decided that epigraphic documentation of (mostly) the lintel fragments should complement the photographic records.

Field work in the Blockyard

All blocks that enter the Medinet Habu blockyard are immediately inventoried: they are digitally photographed, assigned a number, have their basic historical and architectural information recorded in a custom designed Filemaker Pro database (an extremely flexible cross-platform database application program, which allows users to organize data into screens, layouts and forms and easily manage projects), and are prepared for conservation if necessary. Many of the best preserved and historically most relevant fragments are also photographed with a large-format black-and-white film camera for the Photographic Archives of Chicago House. 

The large-format camera setup of Survey photographer Yarko Kobylecky for photographing a lintel fragment in the Medinet Habu blockyard 

Photographing in the blockyard with the large-format camera is a challenging task. According to the Chicago House conventions, the theoretical light source is positioned at the upper left corner of a block, raking the surface at a forty-five-degree angle. The only source of light in the Medinet Habu blockyard is the sun, to utilize its raking light the fragments need to be positioned just so. But some of the blocks are really heavy, moving them around and lifting them up onto a platform requires several hands. The lens of the camera then needs to be positioned exactly parallel to the surface of the fragment to eliminate distortion. This process is time consuming, to say the least. But by the fall of 2012, most of the fragments pertaining to my research had been photographed with the large-format camera by Epigraphic Survey photographer Yarko Kobylecky. These photographs would, eventually, provide the background for the epigraphic documentation.

To supplement the film photographs, the blocks were also thoroughly documented with a digital camera, which can better capture hard to see aspects as well as color and painted details. Most of the lintel and doorjamb fragments had once been painted, although being exposed to the sun for so long had led to the paint pigments fading into almost invisible (now the most vulnerable pieces in the blockyard are placed under the shade of an awning that blocks out direct sun). However, fast dissolving 70% etil-alcohol sprayed upon the decorative surface might reveal the remaining pigment traces. Meanwhile, details of carving can be made more visible when hit with strong raking light (such as a mirror reflecting the sun).

When it came to deciding the method for the epigraphic documentation, we had to bear in mind our limited possibilities, mostly due to the constraint of time. Instead of the more time-consuming Chicago House Method[3], the hybrid technique already proven during the Epigraphic Survey's recent fieldwork[4] in the temple of Khonsu in Karnak was chosen for the epigraphic recording of the best preserved and most notable pieces. This methodology enables the documentation of a relatively large number of fragments in a limited time frame – precisely what we needed at the Medinet Habu blockyard. We selected about a dozen pieces, mostly lintels from private houses, for epigraphic recording. A 1:1 facsimile of the decorated surface of these fragments was directly traced onto a sheet of clear acetate film using permanent markers. Architectural elements, such as torus molding, and surface features, including breaks, chisel marks, etc. were also indicated on the drawing, however damage outline to the stone surface was included only where it affected the relief decoration. 

The fragments’ three sides (front, side, top) were also recorded in isometric sketches, in the hopes that they might help with the potential joining of fragment groups in the future.

A 1:1 facsimile drawing of a lintel fragment’s decorative surface 

After completing the initial facsimile drawings, as a first collation artist Krisztián Vértes did a quick epigraphic review of the outlines. The corrections were marked on the acetate sheet by a different colored marker. The next step was to convert the facsimiles into refined digital drawings in the studio.

Studio work

The digital inking of the facsimile drawings prepared in the Medinet Habu blockyard began in the fall of 2017. Beforehand, I had been trained in digital drawing according to the Epigraphic Survey’s conventions both on a Wacom tablet and on the iPad Pro, and had participated in the digital inking of painted tomb fragments from the Tomb of Nebamun (TT 179), using an elaborate color-code system. For this project, my studio arrangement consisted of drawing in Photoshop on an iPad Pro connected to my MacBook Pro via Astropad Studio

Drawing in Photoshop on an iPad Pro connected to a MacBook Pro via Astropad Studio

As the first step of the studio work, the facsimile drawings were scanned at 600 dpi and prepared as Photoshop TIFF files. Traditionally the Epigraphic Survey sets the resolution of its documentation at 1200 dpi and at a scale of 1:4, therefore the scans were resized to match the target image resolution. The photographs taken on site with the large format camera had been, in previous years, scanned at 800 dpi; in order for them to be attached as layers to the corresponding Photoshop files, they had to be resized as well.

In setting up my Photoshop layers on my computer, I was following the Epigraphic Survey’s guidelines. The layers included the facsimile drawing I had made of the fragment in the blockyard, the first corrected version of the drawing and the scanned photographic negative of the block. As I was not in the proximity of the fragments themselves, for reference I also had a great many digital photos at my disposal, as well as some historical photographs from the archives of the Oriental Institute originating from the early OI excavations (see the supplement). 

Black-and-white photo negative of a fragment set as background layer in Photoshop

In digitally inking the fragments, I followed the standard Chicago House method. The Survey’s traditional sun-and-shadow line conventions were applied for the reliefs. However, I only used a light dashed outline to show the damaged or plastered over areas on the decorated surface instead of the Survey’s convention to realistically represent these areas. The architectural boundary of the decoration as well as the architectural elements, such as doorframes and torus molding, were represented with dashed lines. Chisel marks or signs of intentional hacking were also indicated on the drawings, even when they weren’t interrupting the carved lines.

The scanned collation sheet added as a layer in Photoshop

After I finished inking the fragments, the digital drawings were sent back to Egypt for collation: Survey senior epigrapher and Medinet Habu assistant field director J. Brett McClain checked the printed-out drawings for accuracy against the fragments in the blockyard. The epigrapher’s collation sheets package consisting of the proposed refinements were then sent back to me, so that I could make the modifications at home. The standard collation process of Chicago House involves a second epigrapher checking an artist’s drawings; however, due to the time-constraints, we had to make some sacrifices in this regard. The last step of the epigraphic recording is the drawings’ final review by the Survey’s field director back at the monument – a task that still remains for the future. 

Supplement: additional material

Among the reference photographs I used during the inking process were the archival photos taken during the excavations of the Oriental Institute. In the spring of 2013, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has kindly granted me access to copies of the original field notes and card files from the 1927-32 excavations of the Medinet Habu compound pertaining to my research. I received an external hard drive with several hundred gigabytes of archival photos, copies of notebooks (including those of Professor Uvo Hölscher, the director of the OI excavations), object registers etc., which took weeks to sort through!

Besides the archival photographs (I will come to that later), Hölscher’s card files proved to be the most valuable regarding my PhD research. He grouped the finds of the excavation according to categories, and to one such group belonged the doorjambs and lintels that were found at Medinet Habu. Each fragment received its separate card file which summed up the basic information about the object, including their provenance (i.e. where they were found within the compound) and where they ended up being stored. Going through these cards, it became obvious that many of the pieces that should have been recovered by us in 2007, when we collected the fragments scattered around Medinet Habu into the new blockyard, had gone missing since the first half of the 20th century. 

The card file for a doorjamb of the High Priest of Amun Ramsesnakht and the fragment of it that has been preserved (MH bl. 1397) 

Combing through the archival images of the OI excavations yielded similar results: the whereabouts of numerous blocks are unfortunately unknown to us at present. On the other hand, the old photographs proved to be instrumental in identifying several fragments that were previously believed to be missing or unconnected to other pieces in the blockyard. Many negatives still depict more or less intact blocks with details to scenes and inscriptions that have since suffered extensive damage or have broken off. Based upon this archival material, however, the drawings can be supplemented with the now lost details, thus completing the study and publication of a fragment.  

MH door fragments 2404-2405 - detail (Click photo to discover in higher resolution)

The full resolution digitally inked version of joining Medinet Habu blocks 2404 and 2405 (Click to enlarge!)

(I would like to thank Survey director W. Raymond Johnson, senior epigrapher and assistant director J. Brett McClain and senior artist Krisztián Vértes for their kind help and encouragement throughout this project.)

[1] J. Brett McClain: “Continuing the Medinet Habu Fragment Project,” Egyptian Archaeology 46 (2015): 14-16. 

[2] Julia Schmied: “Doors to the Past, Rediscovering Fragments in the New Blockyard at Medinet Habu,” in: Proceedings of the XI International Congress of Egyptologists, Florence Egyptian Museum Florence, 23-30 August 2015, edited by Gloria Rosati and Maria Cristina Guidotti, ICE XI (2017): 563-567.

[3] J. Brett McClain: “The Chicago House Method,” in The Oxford Handbook of Egyptian Epigraphy and Paleography, edited by Vanessa Davies and Dimitry Laboury (2020).

[4] Jennifer L. Kimpton, J. Brett McClain, Krisztián Vértes, and W. Raymond Johnson: “Preliminary Report on the Work of the Epigraphic Survey in the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak, 2008–2009” in JARCE 46 (2010): 109-120.


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