By Abigail Flynn and Devon Murray
More than 30 years ago, Mark Lehner ’72 and a team from Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), a nonprofit organization conducting archaeological research and educational programs in Egypt, unearthed the Lost City of the Pyramids, an urban settlement 400 meters south of the Sphinx that housed the laborers and craftsmen involved in the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Layer by layer, the team has been recording and mapping the city for 35 years, painting a picture of life back then with meticulous detail. In the 1990s, you may have found Lehner squatting in the sand with a folding ruler in hand and a pencil between his teeth. Today, he and others in the field have an arsenal of tech tools that help them map, scan and archive artifacts and areas with speed and ease.
Field to Lab
Tools and techniques like ground-penetrating radar, total stations, drone photogrammetry and laser scanning allow Egyptologists to gather points, textures and colors of a site in seconds, making Lehner’s work in the Lost City much more seamless.
“At the site, whenever we uncover an ancient building of mud brick or broken stone, we do detailed mapping — brick by brick and stone by stone,” he explained. “Technology is now increasingly giving us ways to create these extremely detailed drawings without doing them by hand.”
Lehner is no stranger to old school methods of mapping. After graduating from AUC with a bachelor’s in Egyptology, he worked on a number of research projects around Egypt, most notably heading a massive effort to produce the first large-scale map of the Sphinx by hand. This project, sponsored by the American Research Center in Egypt, was the beginning of Lehner establishing AERA, where he serves as president.
Mapping by hand is a meditative process, according to Lehner. “It can also be exhausting because you are constantly bending over to measure, which requires a lot of Vitamin I — Ibuprofen,” he said.
Back at the AERA field lab, new tech is helping Lehner’s team analyze ancient material without having to send it abroad. “Egypt has laws against taking material out of the country — for good reasons, historically — but the development of modern technology has made things like X-ray devices used in materials analysis more portable, allowing us to bring them to Egypt in a suitcase.”
Preserving the Present
Lehner’s mapping of the Sphinx took two and a half years. While he acknowledges his work could have been done in a few days with modern scanning technology, his work remains unduplicable. Why? “These drawings are historic,” he said. “This was done in 1979, and there’s been so much restoration of the Sphinx that it doesn’t look like this anymore. The information has been covered; it’s lost.”
Also concerned with preserving the present is Aliaa Ismail ’14, an award-winning Egyptologist, director of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative and director of the 3D Scanning, Training and Archiving Centre at Luxor’s Stoppelaere House.
“Climate change is causing higher levels of humidity, flooding and rain in places that haven’t seen rain before,” Ismail said. “Egypt’s monuments were built during a time when the country was very hot and dry. Increased moisture will cause the rocks to crack and sections to erode. This will change our heritage.”
Working up the Nile from Lehner in Luxor, Ismail produces large-scale 3D scans in the Valley of the Kings. She collects images using a special scanner, capturing the same amount of detail that the human eye could discern as if one were physically in front of a tomb.
“This level of detail is critical to understanding what our heritage looks like now and tracking how it may change in the near and distant future,” Ismail said.
On the flip side, she noted, a disruptive climate has also protected Egypt’s heritage. The tomb of Tutankhamun, dug low into the floor of the Valley of the Kings, was filled with debris carried by flash floods during the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BC).
“The debris hid the entrance of the tomb and protected it from looting, unlike the other tombs in the Valley of the Kings,” Ismail explained. King Tut’s tomb, found intact and containing all its valuables, reawakened global interest in Egyptian antiquities when it was discovered in 1922 and is considered one of the greatest discoveries in the history of Egyptology.
“The tomb is a reminder that artifacts are not static features of Egypt’s landscape; their appearance and cultural impact change in response to shifting environments,” Ismail said.
With gold-covered mummies in Sakkara and royal tombs in Luxor, 2023 alone has buzzed with findings and revelations in the field of Egyptology. New technology has greatly contributed to such discoveries; back in March, for example, Egypt’s antiquities authorities announced the finding of a new chamber inside the Pyramid of Khufu using modern scanning technology.
For Salima Ikram (YAB ’86), distinguished University professor of Egyptology, it is difficult to choose a favorite with new findings coming out every few weeks. “Egypt is a remarkable country. You can put a spade down and find something that is thousands of years old,” Ikram said. “But my current favorite is the discovery of the embalming houses in Sakkara, where humans and animals were mummified. This can teach us more about the materials and methods of mummification.”
Scientists examining embalming jars from a similar discovery in Sakkara five years ago employed a technique called gas chromatography–mass spectrometry to identify the materials inside. “This method can help identify the components within a jar,” Ikram said. “Scientists then piece this information together, looking through their libraries to find a match for that chemical composition.”
Beyond technological detective work, Ikram emphasizes the importance of the media’s role in encouraging new archaeological missions.
“As more media channels like Netflix become interested in filming documentaries on excavations and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is assisting with these projects, we are seeing so many more discoveries,” she said. “These discoveries and events like the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade in 2021 have reawakened a greater interest in ancient Egyptian history and a sense of national pride. In the same way that Parisians don’t visit the Eiffel Tower and New Yorkers don’t visit the Statue of Liberty, what is at home is not engaging until someone points it out. It’s a bit like the girl or boy next door; you don’t notice their beauty until someone points it out.”