A Trip To Ancient Egypt

Posted By Karen Moltenbrey on May 09, 2012 11:20 am | Permalink
Categories: Karen Moltenbrey
One of the items on my "bucket list" is to visit the pyramids in Egypt. Ever since I was in junior high school, I have been fascinated by these great tombs and the associated rituals, antiquities, and mysteries associated with them. How did these ancient people build these enormous structures? How, without modern tools, were they able to design, carve, and construct them with such accuracy? 

Dassault Systemes used photos and mountains of other information from the turn-of-the-century Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Expedition to re-create a historically accurate real-time stereo 3D walk-through of the Giza Plateau.

Even more fascinating is what's inside the pyramids. Of course, there are the mummified remains of the deceased-a pharaoh, in the case of the great pyramids; an important ruler or extremely wealthy individual in the case of the smaller tombs. Indeed, the mummification process is extremely interesting, too. But it's the treasure trove of objects inside that leaves one transfixed. 

On May 8, I got a special insider's look at the hidden wonders of Giza, thanks to Dassult Systemes, Harvard University's Egyptology department, and last but not least, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). I have visited the MFA several times in the past and have been impressed with its extensive Egyptian antiquities. Yet I came away with an appreciation like never before.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has an extensive ancient Egyptian collection, thanks to the joint expedition with Harvard.

As I learned at the event, Harvard and the MFA have had a long association when it comes to this ancient culture. More than a century ago, George Reisner, renowned Egyptologist and a founding father of modern scientific archaeology, directed the work of what is called the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Expedition at the Giza Plateau. As a result, the museum was able to "collect" a wide range of items, and Harvard came away with an invaluable collection of information, photos, and more (as well as a portion of the finds). 

So, what role does Dassault Systemes play in this? For the past several years, the 3D design, digital mock-up, and PLM company has been working with Harvard and the MFA to meticulously digitize the impressive collection of pictures, diaries, drawings, and documents from Giza, and make them available online through the MFA. However, that description just touches the surface. What Dassault did was use all this scientific research to accurately reconstruct the area in stereo 3D. 

What's more, it is not a 3D pre-rendered video. No, the imagery is rendered in real time as the user travels through time, and through the imagery. 

The Old Kingdom Giza Necropolis (from about 2500 BCE) contains thousands of tombs and temples. Inside those are countless artifacts-chairs, jewelry, figurines, pots...the list goes on. In 1902, Harvard and the MFA began a joint excavation of this enormous site. It became the longest-running excavation at Giza, eventually ending in 1947. Luckily for us today (and for history in general) Reisner and his crew had the foresight to meticulously detail and log every bit they found-from the large, fairly intact statues to what can be described as an ancient disposal site resulting from centuries and centuries of decay that left once-beautiful treasures in heaps of slivers and shards across the floors.

Thanks to that documentation, experts have been able to piece together this ancient past. But never like what we saw during the Giza 3D demonstration. Users are able to start at one of the many buildings in the Giza area that was assigned to Harvard-MFA back at the turn of the last century and travel inside. They can appreciate the size of each room. They can get lost in the many shafts leading to an actual burial chamber or to a dead end (pun intended). They can zoom out and see the subterranean chambers, with the ground-level chambers atop. Relationships become more apparent-you can connect the dots more easily. Virtually any dot in what otherwise is a vast, confusing span of chambers, antechambers, subterranean chambers, and so forth. 

We were told of very special robot that was sent down into a very small opening of a shaft. The robot recorded the journey and what was discovered at the journey's end. This information was then added into the virtual 3D database (a small hint: the find was spectacular). More specifically, the shaft was too narrow for a human, so the robot was able to offer a view that had been hidden for thousands of years.

One of the most impressive features of Giza 3D is the ability to see a room as the Harvard-MFA Expedition group saw it when they opened the various structures in the 1900s, and then see it reconstructed as it would have looked in the days of the ancient Egyptians. (The reconstructions were made based on the meticulous data from the Expedition.) Many of the actual objects have long since decayed, but with the technology, they have been resurrected in virtual space. In addition, because the re-creation of the landscape (from ancient times), the structures, and the objects are in 3D, users are able to "handle" the fragile antiquities, viewing them from multiple angles. 

This virtual self-guided tour is being used as a teaching tool at Harvard for students by the Egyptology department. "Giza 3D is a powerful example of how our 3DExperience platform powers applications that can change education, research and knowledge-sharing forever," said Monica Menghini, executive vice president, Industry, Dassault Systèmes, in a press release issued by the company. 

With state-of-the-art display systems, motion sensors, and 3D glasses, the students have an experience that offers far more information and intricate views than the original archaeologists had. 

The virtual experience is also available to the general public. Yup, you, too, can visit the ancient Giza Plateau using a home computer. Connect to a 3DTV and you will have an immersive stereoscopic experience. So if you are a budding archaeologist or just have an interest in the subject (whether extensive or minor), take a virtual trip and explore the wonders of the past at www.3ds.com/giza3D. The trip is free.

Side note: In addition to this novel journey to Giza, we were treated to a special private tour of the MFA's Ancient Egypt galleries, where we were awed by the treasures and educated by a person from the MFA who provided extensive information about the period and the antiquities. What a nice way to end the evening.

A behind-the-scenes technical journey will be chronicled in an upcoming issue of CGW.