Egyptian treasures get 3D Internet treatment

IBM's pioneering work on digital imaging technologies is to be used in a new internet portal showcasing Egyptian archaeology, culture and history...

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By  Mike Bayman Published  July 6, 2001

Egypt’s legacy of cultural artefacts will be showcased on the Web using IBM’s pioneering work on digital imaging technologies. The portal for Egyptian archaeology, culture and history will be developed over a period of two years with a direct grant of $ 2.5 million from IBM.

Some two years ago, I watched IBM’s then new country manager in Egypt, Amr Tafwik, demonstrate IBM’s digital modelling of Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta and the Web site for St Petersburg’s State Heritage Museum. This, he said, is what I want IBM to give to Egypt. When the project was finally announced on May 20th this year, Tawfik proudly declared, “this is the best and greatest of all projects given to Egypt.”

I share his enthusiasm. It is not just that Egypt, as everybody knows, has vast resources of artefacts to exhibit; it is the way the artefacts are presented on the Web, in a kind of eternal and interactive catalogue of Egypt’s remarkable history that will never be hidden beneath dust in a corner. And it is most likely that it will be updated and refined as the years go on.

Digitise images

The first leg of the project is to digitise images of artefacts in the Egyptian Museum, which has as many treasures literally buried in dust and mud in it’s basement as it has on display in its too small premises in Tahrir Square, central Cairo. Not all artefacts are catalogued and the museum’s staff and pool of photographers have been working day and night for many years to bring order to the chaos. It is easy to see how this initiative could kick-start the goal of all lovers of history and antiquity: that of exhibiting all the museum’s possessions.

It is a process that is starting, and we don’t know when or if or how it will end, noted Dr. Gaballah Aly Gaballah, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Throughout Egypt, warehouses are filled with archaeological treasures that there’s no museum space for. And, as technology advances, the project will hopefully find new ways to present this evidence of past cultures to the world.

Welcoming the use of the Web he said, “this is the heritage of the human race, it belongs to every person. The land of Egypt is hiding more than we can see, what we have is only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what more is hidden. I can’t see an end to a project like this.”

He added: “Preference shall be given to the lost heritage of Egypt,” and explained that Egypt’s wealth of archaeology is also a well of complications. How do you dig in an overcrowded city like Cairo? Tawfik said a special focus is going to be the development of two and three-dimensional high-resolution representations of the famous treasures of King Tutankhamen, such as the funeral collection. By providing complete scans in a variety of resolutions, it will be possible to access virtual artefacts through the Internet and eventually through specially developed kiosks, he said. He added that the Web site is going to be available in Arabic, English and French.
Luxor monuments

The monuments in Luxor will also be presented virtually with the help of 3D scanning of images of existing tombs and temples. Real time robotic cameras with 3D overlay will encourage interaction. And I kind of look forward to the day when it’s possible to discover Luxor without having to cope with the immense heat which is a never-ending reality on the physical site.

It is a fascinating idea, that we can first go on a virtual tour and then use links to the catalogued material and then continue our journey via the Internet to read more extensive reports on the findings, and catch up with the latest progress in the science of archaeology.

The location of the findings will be linked to the main site’s database, explains Tawfik, and adds that, of course, in the future there are hundreds of other applications. He also revealed that even X-ray images of artefacts are going to be presented in several dimensions on the Web. The ownership of the site is with the Egyptian government. To expand the project, it may take 20 years to cover all of Egypt’s culture says Tawfik and hesitates; perhaps it will not end with that.

Collaborative effort

IBM will work in collaboration with the National Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture. “With the emerging of the 21 Century, a new step is being taken in Egypt’s cultural heritage by bringing it into cyberspace through the co-operation between the Egyptian government and IBM,” stated Mr. Farouk Hosni, Minister of Culture.

IBM’s digital imaging technologies were invented in the big blue’s New York Research Laboratories. Another project sponsored by IBM is the digitisation of the Vatican Library archives. IBM says new technology that is needed for the project will be developed by a team of international and Egyptian IBM experts. “The partnership will combine the expertise of IBM’s leading research and Web technology experts with Egypt’s top scholars, museum curators and archaeologists,” said Stanley S. Litow, VP of IBM Corporate Community Relations.

The $ 2.5 million grant will cover all the costs of equipment, software, research and development expertise and services to provide the training and technical know-how for the development of the site. The site will be maintained and supported in Egypt. “Egypt’s contribution,” says Tawfik, “is the knowledge, access to the treasures, preparation of the artefacts and logistical activities.”

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