Archaeologists Are Using Imaging Technology to Capture 2,000 Years of Ancient Graffiti Scratched Into the Walls of an Egyptian Temple
If Egyptian temples are the bold declarations of the rich and powerful, the graffiti etched into their walls are the voices of the common people. At least, that’s the chosen analogy of Nick Hedley, a geography professor at Simon Fraser University.
It’s Hedley’s expertise in spatial reality capture, however, rather than ancient Egypt, that brought him onto a project striving to record the Temple of Isis on Agilkia Island in southern Egypt. The graffiti inscriptions—written in Demotic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, and French, along with the myriad figures of hunting scenes, feet, and gods and goddesses—tell the stories of those who have visited the site for 2,000 years.
Hedley is, in his own telling, an unconventional spatial data scientist, one concerned as much with the visual experiences his skills make possible as the practice of purely capturing data. In 2019, an exhibition he designed at the Museum of Vancouver showed how extended reality might be used to bring ancient Greece alive and connected him to the Temple of Isis project.
Hedley overlooking the Temple of Isis. Photo: Nick Hedley/PTGP 2021-2023.
The popularity of studying graffiti at ancient sites has swelled in recent years, but at the UNESCO site, most academic research has focused on textual graffiti, rather than the figural graffiti lining the walls, columns and roof, despite the fact they are roughly equal in number—around 1,400 items. Among them are outlines of feet (something like an ancient “I was here” marking), devotional impressions of gods, and hashes for board games.
“These inscriptions tell us something about many types of people and when you look at them up close,” Hedley told Artnet News. “You can almost imagine them standing here today, quietly scratching these figures into the sandstone.”
Hedley recording ancient graffiti on roof of Mammisi at Philae. Photo: Nick Hedley/PTGP 2021-2023.
Previously, similar archeological studies have relied on digitizing traced sketches to create two-dimensional plans, but Sabrina Higgins, a Simon Fraser University archeologist who has been working on the project since 2020, realized Hedley’s skills in photogrammetry, raking light, and reflectance transformation imaging would produce a far more accurate model. Photogrammetry, which builds a 3D model out of photographs, can capture markings less than a millimeter deep. It’s also significantly faster, achieving work that usually takes years in a matter of days.
The first stage has focused on the birth house, or Mammisis in Coptic, a small chapel focused on the nativity of a god that is connected to a large temple.
Graffiti being documented at Temple of Isis in Egypt. Photo: Nick Hedley/PTGP 2021-2023.
“My spatial reality capture work will produce the new definitive set of digital wall plans for the figural graffiti on the Mammisi,” Hedley said. “In due course, I will also present the new 3D model of the Mammisi, from which point it will be used to drive multiple fundamentally new types of archaeological spatial analysis.”
The project, which began in 2016, involves University of Ottawa archeologists and funding from the Swiss Institute of Archeology and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Built in 362 B.C.E., the Temple of Isis was originally located on the island of Philae, believed to be one of burial sites of Egyptian deity Osiris. It is located on the border between Nubia and ancient Egypt and was an important pilgrimage site through the 5th century. Following repeated flooding caused by the Aswan Dam it was moved to Agilkia Island under the guide of UNESCO in the 1960s and 1970s.