UCLA professor develops digital resources for study of ancient Egypt

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Fatma Farouk

Willeke Wendrich stands with a headless statue of Ramses at Karanis, an archaeological site in the Fayum Oasis, located 62 miles southwest of Cairo. She has a long-running excavation and site-management project there.

Willeke Wendrich first developed an interest in ancient Egyptian archaeology as a 20-year-old undergraduate student. Now an esteemed faculty member in UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, she’s made a career out of her lifelong passion and has managed to intertwine her fascination with the power of multimedia with her research on an ancient civilization.

Currently, she is spearheading several digital humanities projects centered on Egypt, teaching a number of courses and seminars, directing large-scale archaeological excavations, and lending her expertise to numerous committees and executive boards. Helping her achieve her research goals have been the consultants and technologists of UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE).

Wendrich hails from a small island north of the Netherlands, but her research has taken her to places far and wide. After receiving an M.A. in the history of religion from the University of Amsterdam, she became an assistant professor for Leiden University in Cairo, Egypt, and eventually earned her Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian archaeology. After receiving her degree, she came to UCLA as an assistant professor and dove headfirst into a multitude of digital humanities projects.

As a doctoral student, she had already become hooked on hypermedia. She spent countless hours integrating a one-hour video into her dissertation on the social context of basketry in ancient Egypt. Also early in her career, Wendrich designed and programmed her own databases to organize dense archaeological data. In 1993, she began co-directing a large archaeological excavation in a remote area of southern Egypt and singlehandedly created a multifunctional database.

“I developed a quite complex database system that could handle both the archaeological context information as well as information about finds,” Wendrich recalled.

When she came to UCLA in 2000, she quickly realized that she needed to find sufficient research funding to attract and support well-qualified students. “Financial support is always limited,” Wendrich said. “So I thought, ‘I need to create a big project for which I get a big grant that has a lot of jobs for graduate students.’”

One day, while scanning the pages of the Lexikon der Ägyptologie, an idea for such a project popped into her head. Realizing the need for an online encyclopedia for archaeologists, Wendrich applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to launch the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

For more than three decades, the lexicon had served as the primary reference work in Egyptology. However, it is mostly written in German and French. Furthermore it wasn’t available online. After initially being turned down by the NEH, Wendrich succeeded after trying again, this time with the support of staff members, who held her hand through the entire grant proposal process.

Pulled in to brainstorm ideas about how the encyclopedia could be set up were staff from IDRE, the UCLA Library and the Center for Digital Humanities. “When the grant came in, Chris Patterson (web developer with the Office of Information Technology) really took the project on and did an amazing job developing the functionality for the encyclopedia,” Wendrich explained.

Wendrich eventually received a second grant to further develop the encyclopedia, which is now available online to the public completely free of charge. Users can rapidly search through thousands of texts and images, give immediate feedback about their experience on the site and find links to related Web-based content. “The encyclopedia is written by the top Egyptologists worldwide,” Wendrich said. “It’s slowly growing because we are in the process of developing an online presentation system and also creating content.

The development of the encyclopedia inspired another innovative digital research platform under Wendrich, known as Ancient Egyptian Architecture Online, which enables people to access expertly reviewed architectural plans of ancient Egyptian buildings. Because many different plans exist for the same buildings, scholars were naturally confused. This resource “makes all these things very explicit,” Wendrich said. “It compares all of the different available plans and figures out which plans, or what aspects of certain plans, are the most accurate.”

Wendrich is also immersed in The Digital Karnak project, which enables users to virtually explore one of the world’s most expansive temple complexes in Egypt. Wendrich has developed a comprehensive website that details Karnak’s prolific political, religious and architectural history. She was first inspired to create the website because she wanted to show her students how the complex had changed over 2,000 years, reflecting changes in the region’s leadership.

When students visit the Digital Karnak website, they can use a time slider to see what features in the complex were added or destroyed in each pharaoh’s period of rule. For a truly 3-D experience, users can load the Karnak Virtual Reality model onto Google Earth.

In addition to being the principal investigator on all these projects, all based in IDRE’s Technology Sandbox, Wendrich chairs the editorial board of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press and serves on the executive committee for IDRE’s Humanities, Arts, Architecture, Social and Information Collaborative, which aims to align the computational interests of south-campus scientists with the cultural and social interests of north campus. It has become a highly productive catalyst for several interdisciplinary research projects.

The collaborative “is a platform where people can discuss projects and come up with ideas for infrastructure that is needed,” she said. “IDRE is really the collaborative umbrella that pulls together a number of centers of excellence that exist on campus, such as the Center for Digital Humanities. It really enables this exchange of information and further interdisciplinary work.”

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