The Epigraphic Survey based at Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt

Prof. Raymond Johnson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago gave a talk at the South Suburban Archaeological Society on Thursday, July 18th.    This is a short description of his talk.    For further information, visit the Oriental Institute website at

1.   Oriental Institute and the Chicago House

The Oriental Institute was founded at the University of Chicago in 1919 by James Henry Breasted.   It is considered one of the world’s premier institutes for the study of the history of ancient Near East.    The Chicago House is a research institution founded as an extension of the University of Chicago in Luxor, Egypt in order to study the temple complexes in that city, which used to be the ancient capital Thebes of New Egypt.

2.  The Epigraphic Survey

The Epigraphic Survey in the Chicago House was founded in 1924 with the aim of preserving through photographs and line drawings the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the major temples and tombs.   Prof. Raymond Johnson of the Oriental Institute has worked there for over 30 years, and has seen the technology used to preserve the inscriptions change, but the professionalism has not.    One aspect of the research that has grown over the years is the cooperation between the researchers here in the U.S. and those in Egypt.

3.   Digital Technology

The old method of preserving inscriptions was for epigraphers to copy them meticulously on paper.   With the advent of digital technology, it is possible for the same epigraphers to copy them using a sort-of digital artist’s pad.   One thing that Prof. Johnson said that amazed him was that it was not just the newer, younger researchers that enjoyed using the digital technology, but even the seasoned veterans of the pre-digital age seem to take to it as well.    What matters is the method, or materials, but the accuracy with which whatever medium is used can depict the actual hieroglyphic inscriptions.    In many cases, the accuracy is crucial because the inscriptions are taken from surfaces which may inaccessible in the future, as the blocks on which they are found are assembled together, effectively hiding those surfaces from view.

4.   The Effect of the Revolution on Research

This topic was actually the main reason for his talk, because many people have been aware of the political turmoil in Egypt since the revolution which ousted Hosni Mubarak.    But there has been no ill effect on the Chicago House itself; in fact, the situation there has even somewhat improved, although certainly not by design of the Egyptian government.   The original plans put forward after the Revolution were for the Chicago House and a lot of the other buildings along the Nile to be destroyed in order to put in amenities for tourists.    Although some of the buildings were torn down, the Chicago House itself was spared because the major of Luxor knew well of the reputation of the facility, and more importantly, understood how important it was for the Egyptian researchers who either worked there, or used the extensively library there for their research.

Although many buildings were torn down, the Revolution interrupted many of the development  plans, and so Prof. Johnson says the area is a lot quieter than it was before.    Rather than the banks of the Nile river being thronged with boats for tourists or the corniche, the avenue along the Nile, being crammed with buses for tourists, the area is used by the native Egyptians for picnics on weekends and it gives a great sense of pride to once again “own” their city, with all of its monumental treasures.

It is the collaboration between the American researchers and the Egyptian researchers which has generated enough good will in the local community to protect it from the predations of the central government for the time being.

5.  Conclusion

I sincerely hope that the Chicago House remains standing and continues to do the premier work that it has been producing for close to century.    On a personal note, this talk rekindled one of my lifelong passions, that of archaeology, and it encouraged me to go back and continue my study of Arabic using Rosetta Stone, so that someday I too will be able to visit the historical sites of Egypt and see those amazing inscriptions firsthand.

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