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Introduction

The Middle Kingdom (11th to 13th Dynasty, ca. 2030 – 1640 B.C.) constitutes one of Ancient Egypt’s outstanding epochs. Art, architecture and literature flourished and reached a peak hardly surpassed in later periods. A large number of rock-cut tombs, free-standing tombs (mastabas) and other funerary structures testify to the high quality of craftsmanship at that time. The overall concept of the tomb with its symbolic allusions to self-representation had a decisive influence on the scenes, the scene content and the distribution of representations of the tomb owner. Middle Kingdom tomb decorations offer a wide variety of complex and multi-layered information that is in the focus of our research.

About From Object to Icon (2013 – )

Visual Reflections on and the Designations of Material Culture in the Reliefs and Paintings of Middle Kingdom Tombs

From Object to Icon is an interdisciplinary research project, conducted at the Institute of Egyptology in cooperation with the research group Multimedia Information Systems at the University of Vienna. It is based on the research that was initiated with the project MeKeTRE (see below). The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, project number P 25958).

The decorative programme of Middle Kingdom tombs offers a wealth of themes and scenes all featuring numerous objects – artefacts – made or given shape by humans and shown/used in various contexts. The project deals with the assessment and study of these objects – their three-dimensional “existence” compared to and contrasted with their two-dimensional rendering in art. It seeks to answer the questions what kind of objects were depicted to convey the meaning of certain processes or actions, and most importantly how these objects were transformed into images (icons). This research will be supplemented by a full investigation of captions and object designations. The project’s third part covers the extension of the MEKETREpository (developed in the course of the MeKeTRE project) by utilising crowd sourcing technologies that will allow scholars in the Egyptological domain to access efficiently pre-processed data such as images and annotations.

Project details

The project From Object to Icon (‘Vom Vorbild zum Abbild‘) officially started on the 15th of November 2013 and will run three years.

Art historical domain

General

A large number of artefacts have survived from tombs and settlements of the Middle Kingdom enriching our view of the material culture of that period. Most of these artefacts are treated in archaeological reports, museum or exhibition catalogues, or – to a lesser degree – are dealt with in special monographs. In discussing Middle Kingdom representations numerous scholars already drew attention to three-dimensional artefacts which the depictions were intended to illustrate, but only exceptionally are objects and tools discussed in depth in relation to their two-dimensional representations. Isolated objects – such as daggers (Petschel 2011), axes (Kühnert-Eggebrecht 1969) or clothes (Scheele 2005) – have been investigated one by one in great detail, but comprehensive investigation of objects – their depictions and the captions accompanying them – remains a desideratum. The only major contribution in this connection is G. Jéquier’s book on object friezes (1921), which is however outdated concerning both lexicology and especially morphology of object designations.

Scientific Approach

The confrontation of these two groups – the ‘material objects’ and images of them – can be done on different levels: a) cultural remains investigated by archaeology can be recovered in contemporaneous reliefs and paintings, b) the terminology used to designate archaeological finds can be adopted for their reproduction in art, c) the development and the assumed function (‘Sitz im Leben’) of the discovered items can be verified or modified by studying their images and vice versa. In addition, the examination of the nomenclature used in the Egyptian language to designate these objects also can help to classify them and reveal their purpose. The study of the material culture, its ‘conversion’ into two-dimensional art as well as its designation in written sources can contribute to the understanding of both the preserved cultural remains and their representations in the tombs dated to the same period.

It is envisaged to subject the icons illustrated in art to archaeological as well as art-historical questions crucial for their examination:

  1. Which artefacts were represented in art?
  2. How are artefacts represented in two-dimensional art – the relation between representation and reality? This transformation conveys to the viewer
  3. the meaning and the very essence of an object (e.g., a particular type of box) or a certain step in a manufacturing process (e.g., handicrafts).
  4. Was the development of material culture immediately reflected in contemporaneous art?
  5. Were some of the represented artefacts specific to a particular region?
  6. Does the range of use of artefacts correspond to the context represented in art and vice-versa?
  7. Are icons simply representations of the material culture or do they have a deeper symbolic meaning?

The nomenclature of icons will be analysed in great detail, since many scenes and icons are accompanied by captions explaining the actions performed and naming the objects involved. The object designations as found in captions will be analysed lexicologically and morphologically to obtain additional information on the objects’ nature and their specific features. The lexicological investigation will be based on and supplemented with philological and linguistic research. The analysis of what the Egyptians deemed important to express in words in connection with an object and how depiction and caption complemented one another will be equally essential for understanding the Egyptian mind.

Technical domain

General

For the assessment of icons, the system of the MEKETREpository, which has been developed in the course of the MeKeTRE Project (see below), will be extended by utilising crowd sourcing technologies (e.g. Citizen Science, Game With a Purpose). This will provide scholars from other institutions, as well as non-experts with some background in Egyptology, with an easy-to-use platform where they can perform simple repetitive but yet highly helpful tasks, such as uploading images depicting relevant art items, providing annotations, or suggesting inclusion of new thesaurus terms. The expected results are twofold. First, we aim to acquire extensive material (especially photographs) that has the potential to complement the data already collected in the course of the MeKeTRE project. Second, the methods developed and applied in the implementation and data gathering process will constitute a contribution on their own, hopefully providing valuable insights about quality assessment and integration of data coming from citizen science projects.

About MeKeTRE (2009 – 2013)

The Evolution of Scene Content in Middle Kingdom Tombs

MeKeTRE was an interdisciplinary research project, conducted at Institute of Egyptology in cooperation with the research group Multimedia Information Systems at the University of Vienna. It was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, project number P 21571).

MEKETRE focused on two main goals:

Project details

The MeKeTRE project officially started on the 1st of November 2009 and ended in May 2013. The acronym MeKeTRE stands for "Middle Kingdom Tomb Relief Evolution". The name derives from the owner of the famous early Middle Kingdom tomb in Thebes (TT 280) and should signify the project's main focus, i.e. the art of the Middle Kingdom (MK). The project From Object to Icon (see above) is based on the MeKeTRE project and can be considered its second phase.

Art historical domain

General

The first comprehensive assessment of Middle Kingdom reliefs and paintings were published by Luise Klebs in 1922 (Die Reliefs und Malereien des mittleren Reiches. (VII.-XVII. Dynastie ca. 2475-1580 v. Chr.), Heidelberg). Despite its deficiencies – acknowledged already by the authoress herself – the book is to a certain extent still a valuable reference in art historical research. In 1934 vol. IV of the indispensable Porter and Moss (PM) edition was published (B. Porter, B. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. Vol. IV: Lower and Middle Egypt, Oxford) assessing all the data pertaining to the important Middle Kingdom cemeteries situated in Middle Egypt. Since then, no update of this important egyptological tool has been accomplished, creating a considerable gap in scientific research. From 1968 to 1978 Jacques Vandier dedicated three volumes of his gigantic enterprise Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne to the reliefs and paintings (Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne. Vol. IV, Paris 1964; vol. V, Paris 1969; Vol. VI, Paris 1978). In these books Vandier grouped the various scenes systematically according to their contents and tried to trace chronological developments in style and iconography. His study rests on a much larger collection of scenes and depictions then Klebs’s work and forms an essential basis in art historical research. Nevertheless, since the appearance of the last volume (1978) dealing with the agricultural scenes in tombs, no other comprehensive publication has been undertaken.

Scientific approach

It is widely accepted that Middle Kingdom funerary monuments were carrying on the essential idea of tomb-building and decoration from the Old Kingdom on a grand (sometimes even royal) scale. Nevertheless, the decorative programme – scenes and specific scene details – although modelled on Old Kingdom examples has changed considerably. A large number of scenes and scene details characteristic in the tombs of the Old Kingdom disappear during the Middle Kingdom, while others occur which were not present in the former period or are carried on under modified versions. These changes and innovations – although repeatedly observed – have never been studied on a large scale.

Since change and innovation constitute a fundamental part in understanding Middle Kingdom funerary culture, the project MeKeTRE aimed to establish reliable criteria for the interpretation of tomb decoration:

  1. when and where do specific scenes (or scene details), motifs or larger scene compositions appear or disappear,
  2. when and where are they carried on under modified versions,
  3. what is the deeper meaning of these new or modified scenes in comparison to the Old Kingdom scenes, and
  4. what is the specific connotation of these scenes in the overall scheme of tomb decoration?

Besides the points outlined above key areas of the research targeted also the topics like topographical and regional diversity, traditions, schools and travelling artists, location and distribution of scenes, stylistic analysis etc., which are crucial for the art of the Middle Kingdom.
As all the points outlined above necessitate a comprehensive assessment of the material, an exhaustive and easy-to-use tool such as a bibliographical database for Middle Kingdom reliefs and paintings is a fundamental device. Egyptology has witnessed an enormous increase in the quantity of books, catalogues and periodicals dealing with the art of the Middle Kingdom in the past 40 years. Consequently, the bibliographical workload of any future research in this field has accumulated considerably. One part of this Middle Kingdom research project was therefore the establishment of a comprehensive assessment of published and unpublished material in a database. In its final version, the database should encompass all known scenes and scene details with the entire bibliographical references from Middle Kingdom two-dimensional art, thus creating a reliable source for the future research.

Technical domain

General

To support the points outlined above, special software was developed for organizing, analysing and sharing the collected multimedia material (drawings, photos, text documents etc.) taken from the MK reliefs and paintings. Approximately 20 general themes (theme complexes) were selected for the MEKETREpository, into which fit approximately more than hundred Middle Kingdom scenes-types and scene details which occur in named and unnamed tombs throughout Egypt, and/or on blocks in magazines, museums and private collections. The location of the individual scenes of each specific scene-type is listed in the database, with data such as the main archaeological references, site, cemetery, tomb number, date, room, wall position etc. The general themes and the themes that derive from the representations constitute the ‘upper layers’ of the database. The themes are arranged according to the topics already provided in Klebs (1922) and Vandier (1964 – 1978) and are widely known in the academic world (for instance: marsh-related activities, desert and desert-related activities, animal-husbandry, workshop activities, funerary rites etc.). From this point onwards it is possible to ‘drill’ downwards to more refined levels, in order to reach the details (icons) that occur in specific scene-types, and in the specific motifs of each accessed scene-type (f.e. specific objects, fauna and flora as well as mannerisms, figure-types and postures, etc.). From this basic structure the researcher can access archaeological, bibliographical, chronological, and geographical information about scores of Middle Kingdom scenes and scene details throughout Egypt.

Scientific approach

Multimedia content within the MEKETREpository is organized by means of one main taxonomy (in English), which embraces the various themes depicted by the reliefs and paintings in a hierarchical fashion and multiple additional concept schemes (ontologies / controlled vocabularies) that further describe the content. The concept schemes that describe other aspects of the multimedia content (not the depicted persons and things but for example colours, location, age, etc.) are constantly developed in the course of the project, using collaborative ontology building methods. The applied concept schemes are technically represented using standardized web based knowledge organization systems (KOS), in particular the Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL).
The implementation of the MEKETREpository software solution utilizes industry-standard technology to ensure both reliability and maintainability. Since the project is expected to develop beyond the three-year limit, it is important to build on a well-proven foundation of software components and a clean, well documented implementation. Therefore we decided to organize the MEKETREpository in a 3-tier style which is very common for many enterprise software solutions.
As stated above, the main focus lies in providing an easy-to-use interface to the collected data. For the user browsing the MEKETREpository, an up-to-date webbrowser (e.g. Firefox 3.0, Internet Explorer 7.0 or Safari 4.0 and, of course all versions above) is sufficient. If the user needs to edit and update information in the repository, he needs to enable Javascript in the browser.