Evolution of Epigraphy - James Henry Breasted’s Experiments with Technology to Create the Chicago House Method

Evolution of Epigraphy - James Henry Breasted’s Experiments with Technology to Create the Chicago House Method


Evolution of Epigraphy - James Henry Breasted’s Experiments with Technology to Create the Chicago House Method

Reading March 22. 2021

Written by Dominique Navarro, artist at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Professor James Henry Breasted at his desk in the Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

The Epigraphic Survey at the Oriental Institute of University of Chicago (and in a way the digitalEPIGRAPHY website itself) exists due to the extraordinary vision of our founder, James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), over a century ago. 

This three-part article reflects on how Breasted came to establish the Epigraphic Survey and the Chicago House Method, utilizing new technologies to make epigraphic work possible, and setting the standard for the digital work of today.

PART I

“Passion for Truth”

The history of James Henry Breasted is a fascinating American story of a young man from a small town in Illinois with hard working parents and financial hardships. Reluctant to be a burden on his family in order to attain an education, and desperate for a career or a calling, he initially studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary beginning in 1887, intending to join the ministry. Studying Greek and Hebrew, with a resolve to read the Old Testament in its original untranslated text, he discovered his unique gift for languages.

Breasted’s immediate and natural command of Hebrew rendered him an entirely new understanding of the Scriptures, having always relied on the King James rendition. Shocked at the discrepancies between the original language and a trusted translation, he explained to his mother, “I could never be satisfied to preach on the basis of texts I know to be full of mistranslations. It’s my nature to seek the sources of everything I study. The Hebrew writers fascinate me, I shall never be satisfied until I know their entire history and what forces created them.” (C. Breasted, Pioneer to the Past)

Breasted’s fervor had caught the attention of Samuel Ives Curtiss, his seminary professor, who urged Breasted to consider pursuing an academic career in ancient Near Eastern studies and even Egyptology, a vacant field in America. Breasted recalls his professor’s words: “You have the passion for truth which belongs to the scholar.” (C. Breasted, Pioneer to the Past) Along with Hebrew, Greek, French, and German, Breasted would teach himself Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform, Arabic and ancient Egyptian. Studying at Yale in 1890 and acquiring a PhD overseas at the University of Berlin in 1894, he became the first Egyptologist in America.

Upon graduation, he was invited to become a professor at the newly formed University of Chicago by its president, William Rainey Harper, Breasted’s former professor and mentor at Yale.

Throughout Breasted’s academic pursuits in Egyptology during the late 1800’s his frustration at the lack of documentation and poorly transliterated and translated texts of the hieroglyphs drove his ambitions. His 1906-1907 five-volume work, Ancient Records of Egypt (available as a free online PDF  through the University of Pennsylvania), attempts to publish and translate all of the surviving ancient historical records of Egyptian history, and took him nine years to complete.

Egyptologist Peter Piccione wrote, “At the time of publication, the Ancient Records of Egypt  represented the pinnacle of Egyptological achievement and highest standard of philological research. It was the most complete translation… of historical texts according to the most modern understanding of Egyptian grammar. It even employed a modification of the new Berlin system of transliteration,… the most highly evolved of the contemporary systems for rendering Egyptian hieroglyphs into Roman letters and which ultimately became the international standard.” (Abt, American Egyptologist)

However, the hieroglyphic translations of Ancient Records of Egypt are into English, which posed its own limitations and dilemmas, as the structure and meaning of a word or sentence could so crucially be misinterpreted and forsaken. 

Thus, Breasted would eventually conclude that for the purpose of documentation for posterity, and for the benefit of all scholars no matter what language they speak, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts must be recorded in a facsimile form, free of misleading translations, corrupted transcriptions, or poorly drawn interpretations. But how to create and publish accurate facsimile images remained to be seen…

A Colossal Dream

In the 1943 book “Pioneer to the Past; The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist” (written by his son Charles, and using his father’s own words from personal family documents and letters) there is a description of Breasted’s second expedition to Egypt in 1905 when he found himself more determined than ever to create the Epigraphic Survey. Recalling that journey later on, Breasted wrote, “My inexperience, and the inspiration of Thebes after so long an absence, perhaps inclined me to be oversanquine. ­But it seemed to me obvious that any successful effort to record and interpret this extraordinary place must be on a scale commensurate with its magnitude. I decided… to do everything in my power to carry out, on a greatly expanded basis, a plan I had conceived during my first visit, for the publication of all the monuments, tombs and buildings of ancient Thebes.”

Breasted, his wife Mrs. Breasted, and their son Charles beside the entrance to the great temple of Abu Simbel, 1906; the foot of one of the colossi is visible (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Breasted’s ambitions to document Egypt’s ancient sites were colossal and unfathomable for obvious reasons, including: the remoteness of Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, and the challenges of traveling to and within the country; the sheer number of massive and complex antiquities it was Breasted’s ambition to document (both known, and yet to be uncovered or discovered); and most critical perhaps of all, the lack of technological resources to make such documentation feasible.

However, at this pivotal moment in history, technology was rapidly advancing in realms including electricity, transportation, and communication, and Breasted took full advantage of each development.

Modern technology today—with our computers, smart phones, and digital cameras—may have been incomprehensible for Breasted to foresee, yet he was a man that fully embraced the technology of his era, seeking solutions to the daunting task he set out to achieve, and using equipment and processes that were altogether new and constantly progressing. 

Experimenting with a multitude of techniques, Breasted would eventually create the Chicago House Method to document and publish the wall reliefs and hieroglyphs of ancient Egyptian sites, a methodology still used today. With the goal of efficiency and accurately creating facsimile drawings, Breasted determined that the first step is a strategically lit photograph…

PART II

The Phenomenon of Light and Photography

Seeking a means to document the hieroglyphs and wall reliefs of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, James Henry Breasted determined that a new technology could be utilized: photography.

In her meticulously researched and fascinating book, Photography and Egypt, Maria Golia credits the birth of photography to Egyptian origins in 11th century Cairo where Ibn al-Haytham—an Iraqi mathematician, physicist, and astronomer—conducted his research developing the camera obscura and produced Kitāb al-Manāẓir, the Book of Optics (published 1011 to 1021 AD). His seven-volume treatise written in Arabic was translated into Persian, Latin, and Italian, and laid the foundations of modern optics, revolutionizing the way light and vision were understood, and providing the groundwork for the invention of photography. (Volumes I-II of the Book of Optics is available in English as a free online pdf from monoskop.org)

The structure of the human eye according to Ibn al-Haytham, late 11th century CE from a copy of the Kitab al-Manazir; MS Fatih 3212, vol. 1, fol. 81b, Süleimaniye Mosque Library, Istanbul (Public Domain)

Eight centuries later, Joseph Nicèphore Nièpce experimented with Bitumen of Judea and heliography. His partner Louise Daguerre produced the daguerreotype process (producing a single photographic image on a sheet of silver-plated copper) first introduced and publicly available in Europe in 1839 and brought to Egypt that same year. 

By the 1850s there were multiple commissions to photograph Egypt using the more advanced technology of calotypes (paper coated with silver iodide, which could produce multiple positive prints.)

Despite the extreme challenges of traveling to remote regions of the country with its severe environmental conditions including scorching heat, blinding sun, and pernicious sand, trailblazing photographers persisted. Traveling with their heavy, vulnerable equipment and sensitive chemicals, they documented Egypt for all the world to see for the first time through photographic images.

The Sphinx c. 1853 by John Beasley Greene; Salted paper print from waxed paper negative (Creative Commons)

Golia lists numerous early photographers who set out to document the country, including French painter Horace Vernet, French civil engineer Felix Teynard, British grocer Francis Frith, Italian-born British astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth, and French-born American Egyptologist John Beasely Greene. Green arrived in Egypt at age 19 and died in Cairo when he was only 24 from possible tuberculosis but left a substantial collection of photographs from 1852-1856 using a waxed paper negative process.

(Another pioneering photographer was Attaya Gaddis of Luxor who opened his first photography studio in 1907 at age 18. He had spent his youth as an apprentice to a foreign photographer named Antonio Beato who died in Luxor in 1906. Attaya’s camera equipment and photographs are still on display in the Gaddis Bookstore in Luxor next to the Winter Palace Hotel.)

By the time Breasted arrived in 1894 for his first tour of the country,­ Egypt and its antiquities had been broadly photographed for several decades.

Breasted and George Reisner; photo taken in the garden of the Continental Hotel in Cairo (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

George Reisner, an American contemporary of Breasted and distinguished archeologist, made invaluable contributions to early photography while working for several decades in Egypt and the Sudan. One of the founders of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) he made numerous discoveries and advances in archeological techniques, and authored Archeological Fieldwork in Egypt: A Method of Historical Research which included a chapter on photography, although the book was never published in his lifetime. (Completed in 1937, and finally published in 2020, editor Peter Lacovara notes the chapter on photography was not included as it was already published by Peter Manuelian in 1992 in the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, available as a free online pdf). Reisner’s early contributions to photography were significant, including the training of Egyptian photographers such as Said Ahmad Said who would become a master of the craft himself and photography instructor to fellow Egyptians.

Physicist Dominique François Jean Arago lamented that Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt didn’t have photographic technology when producing the beautifully illustrated Description de l’Egypte, suggesting that “[daguerreotype] images would surpass in fidelity and local color the work of our most skilled artists.” However, Reisner would come to firmly disagree citing photography’s many limitations. After two decades of excavations and field work at the Giza plateau and other sites, producing 45,000 glass plate negatives, Reisner wrote in 1924 that photography “can only differentiate shadows and colors. There are other things like consistency, perceptible to the eye or touch, but practically imperceptible to the lens of the camera…” (Golia, Photography and Egypt)

Breasted acknowledged the limitations of photography for capturing the details of ancient Egyptian reliefs and inscriptions, due especially to the inherent problems of lighting. “In order to secure all that the camera might record, it would be necessary to take at least eight negatives of every inscription, each with a different illumination—that is, with the light… coming from top, bottom, right, left, and diagonally from each of the four corners. Even a group of eight such negatives would not record all that the wall discloses to the eye of the trained epigrapher… for a badly weathered inscription on stone contains much which is visible to the trained and experienced eye, but which nevertheless is too faint and confused to be recorded photographically.” (Breasted, The Oriental Institute)

Breasted’s personal Revolving Back Cycle Graphic Camera manufactured by Folmer & Schwing Manufacturing Co., New York, ca. 1910, serial number 13399 with graphic rapid rectilinear 4 x 5 lens, serial number 3252, manufactured by Eastman Kodak Co. ca. 1910 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archives)

For years, Breasted had struggled with lighting in his pursuit of photographic documentation. In 1896 as a young academic, he began work on Ancient Records of Egypt “collecting all the historical sources of ancient Egypt, from earliest times to the Persian conquest [and creating] a solid foundation of documentary source material for the production of a modern history of ancient Egypt.” He set out for the museums of Europe in 1899 with a 5x7 camera and German cut films (because glass plates were too heavy, and film rolls too expensive) and developed the photographs himself. But despite the efficiency of the camera to photograph inscriptions, the lighting conditions often forced him to rely on candlelight. He lamented, “There are 434 tablets from the Serapeum alone in the Louvre,—badly inscribed and in a dark hall, where it is impossible to photograph them. Indeed I use a candle all day.” (Abt, American Egyptologist)

Dahabiya used by Breasted in 1922-23 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

From 1905-1907, with a small team traveling by dahabiya down river from Sudan to Aswan, Breasted documented numerous ancient archeological sites, including five weeks recording at Abu Simbel. (A catalogue of 1,055 photographs taken by Breasted on this expedition is available online at the Oriental Institute.) A German photographer named Friederich Koch was hired to help him. Their photographic equipment from Germany included: “glass photographic plates packed in sealed cartons enclosed in hermetically soldered tin cases. A large mahogany camera with a great bellows… using eight-by-ten-inch glass plates… superbly constructed in Vienna by Kurt Bentzin, one of the ablest camera builders of his day, and fitted with lenses by Carl Zeiss, who then produced the finest in the world.” (C. Breasted, Pioneer to the Past)

Photograph showing a relief from the first hall of the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel containing a text referred to as the Blessing of Ptah with Breasted’s epigraphic notes in red ink (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Utilizing an efficient epigraphic “field process” in which Koch would photograph a temple wall, immediately process a negative and print a blueprint, Breasted would collate at the wall on a large print “in red ink any readings or details which the camera had failed to record.” (Abt, American Egyptologist)

Breasted relied on all “artificial illumination” due to the extreme variation of dark interiors and over-lit sunny exterior walls, which he would often drape in large canvas over scaffolding to control the light. Due to the long exposures required for the glass plate negatives, flash bulbs could not be utilized. Breasted used “composition time-cartridges” (Zeitlichtpatronen) like slow-burning flares. But he preferred the Nadar Lamp, comprised of a complex and hazardous pressurized chamber containing magnesium, creating a bright and steady light. (The Nadar Lamp was invented by the fascinating artist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who went by the pseudonym Nadar, and became known for his historic, mysterious photos of the Catacombs of Paris in the 1860s, illuminated by his unique magnesium light.)

Charles Breasted, although a child at the time with his father on the 1905 trip, recalled, “Here all photographic adjustments had to be made by candlelight, for such commonplace modern equipment as electric dry-battery flashlights were still not yet practicable for the field. The bats would beat out the candleflame or fly into a burning magnesium tape during an exposure.” (C. Breasted, Pioneer to the Past)

Breasted working under the scaffolding and canvas, while an Egyptian assistant uses a light reflector in the foreground to shine sunlight on the inscriptions, on the terrace south of the Colossi, 1906 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Another source of illumination Breasted used—still used to this day by Chicago House photographers, artists, and epigraphers—were reflectors, or mirrors directing sunlight at angles onto the wall or surface. Large mirrors can illuminate broad spaces, while small handheld mirrors can be angled to brighten details. Breasted describes the success of this technique: “It is surprising how seemingly illegible signs will suddenly come out clearly if the direction of the light can be widely varied. To accomplish this the word under examination could be covered with the left hand, thus cutting off the [reflected] sunshine from the left. At the same time I held at the proper angle on the right side of the word a hand-mirror, which caught the sunshine coming from the large reflector and threw it upon the word from the right… This method brought out many new readings.” (Abt, American Egyptologist)

The conclusion of the expedition in 1907—due to an immense sandstorm and a staff member’s illness—taught Breasted a great deal about what was necessary for a documentation team to expedite their best work onsite. The entire process of photographing and collating in Egypt required multiple people and teamwork, endless equipment and provisions, as well as adapting to challenging conditions, and relenting to tribulations such as weather, war, and epidemics. (The Epigraphic Survey would eventually survive the Great Depression, World War II, the 1947 cholera outbreak, and many more world crises. The 2020-2021 season is the first time in many decades the doors of Chicago House have remained closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Old Chicago House during the Nile inundation. The first Chicago House on the West bank was occupied from 1924 to 1931 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

By winter 1923, Breasted returned to Egypt again, this time to organize the foundations for the Oriental Institute Epigraphic Survey, with funding from John D. Rockefeller. Breasted “dictated a plan of campaign for the development of an epigraphic survey of the temples of Egypt, to begin with the great Medinet Habu temple.” (Breasted, The Oriental Institute) Although sick with malaria and confined to a wheelchair at the Winter Palace Hotel, Breasted wrote a preliminary draft for the campaign and drew the sketch for the expedition field house. 

He invited his former student, Harold H. Nelson, to be directing epigrapher (a role he held from 1924-1947), along with a small seasonal staff including a draftsman, a photographer, an Egyptian foreman, and local workers.

The field house was built under the supervision of Mr. A. R. Callender (the superintendent to Howard Carter’s operations for Tutankhamun’s tomb). Breasted wrote, “In October, 1924, the expedition moved into ‘Chicago House’; and on November 18 Dr. Nelson cabled three words: ‘Work began yesterday.’ It was… a message which brought the greatest satisfaction… [I] was firmly convinced that our epigraphic work would expand to a larger scale of operations, commensurate with the greatness and importance of our task and worthy of the precedents set by our predecessors.” (Breasted, The Oriental Institute)

A new permanent field house on the east bank of Luxor’s Nile would be completed by 1931 (occupied to this day as the permanent headquarters of Chicago House) complete with living-quarters, offices, workrooms, artists’ studios, photography studio and darkrooms, and an Egyptological library. Breasted believed that providing the Epigraphic Survey with every convenience possible would assure the highest quality work could be completed in the field, with the advantage of modern equipment and the best available staff, including epigraphers, photographers, and artists.

Photographer John Hartman on ladders at Medinet Habu, circa 1924-1929 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Harold Nelson at work on a ladder at Medinet Habu, circa 1924-1929 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Breasted wrote “it is hardly to be expected that the orientalist, however skilled in epigraphy, should be a sufficiently good draftsman... He must be aided by the best available artist. The ideal recording system consequently must unite in one record three things: the speed and accuracy of the camera, the reading ability of the experienced orientalist, and the drawing skill of the accurate draftsman.” (Breasted, The Oriental Institute) The resulting epigraphic images had to be both accurate as facsimiles, and legible for reproduction with modern printing methods, so that they could be distributed to scholars worldwide. 

Fortunately—like photography—advances in printing and technical drawing techniques would expedite Breasted’s ambitions for the Epigraphic Survey.

Proposed studios for the new expedition headquarters at Luxor circa 1931 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

PART III

Progress in Printing Techniques & Developing Facsimile Drawings

Medinet Habu MH A 150 An Egyptian scribe; Photographed by Hartman, Lind, or Morrison, circa 1924-1929 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

James Henry Breasted’s years of research and experiments with documentation led him to believe that the best means to record the hieroglyphs and wall reliefs of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs would be to utilize a combination of new technologies and new tools in photography, drawing, and printing.

Alongside advancements in photography at the turn of the 20th century, printing and the reproduction of photographic images were continuously evolving. Due to the challenges of reproducing a photograph with its complex multiple tones requiring specialized plates, alternatives solutions were explored to create black-and-white engravings, until the halftone technique was developed by Frederic Ives in 1880, still used today. At the same time, various methods of photo retouching were developed which allowed the direct manipulation of the negative as well as printed photo enlargements. All these techniques were broadly used in newspapers and books for mass production and inspired a solution to Breasted’s own problems of reproducing detailed epigraphic facsimile images that were both sufficiently legible and easily reproducible for print.

Seeking advice, Breasted contacted the Eastman Kodak Company in 1924, which produced the film, chemicals, and paper for photography. Kodak also produced one of the earliest cameras available to the general public in 1888, with a patented design using a roll of film inside, designed by Kodak’s founder George Eastman.

Breasted asked Kodak for recommendations and explained his needs: “paper of such a hard finish that the draughtsman can ink in the contours and outlines… paper must chemically be of such a formula that after the draughtsman’s work is completed the entire enlargement can be put into a bath and the photographic record completely faded out. This fading out must be sufficient to permit the photo-engraver to make his zinc plate by rephotographing from the inked-in enlargement.” (Abt, American Egyptologist)

Kodak replied with a variety of photographic paper samples and solutions. By drawing over the photographic print with waterproof black India ink, the photograph could then be immersed in a chemical bath bleaching away the photo emulsion and leaving only the drawing. After experimentations with photographic paper, pens, and inks, Breasted determined what would work best for conditions in Egypt and for the Chicago House Method.

Drawing by Alfred Bollacher, circa 1924-1929: Plate 98. MH A 096 Ramesses III returning in triumph from a campaign in Amor, Medinet Habu first court, north wall (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

It should not be overlooked that the pen as a tool—originally developed in ancient Egypt for drawing on papyrus, made from finely cut reeds—has continued to technologically evolve over the past century. Due to the precise line quality necessary for the facsimile drawings, which includes a thin “sun-line” and thicker “shadow-line” as well as variations in line weight for architectural shapes and damage texture, technical pens have always been essential to the Chicago House Method.

Prior to the development of the German Rotring Rapidograph pens in 1928, graphic artists used ruling pens designed for technical drawings (such as in cartography and engineering). A ruling pen has an adjustment screw to render a variety of very thin lines and is dipped in an ink well. Pelikan also developed the GRAPHOS technical pens in the 1930’s. For decades, Koh-i-Noor (a Czech company which patented the first graphite pencil in 1802) has produced their Rapidographs technical pens. Setting an industry standard with ten sizes from a hairline 6x0 (.13mm) nib to the large 4 (1.20 mm) nib, Koh-i-Noor Rapidographs continue to be relied on today at Chicago House, along with Koh-i-Noor 3085-F Ultradraw Ink which successfully endures the iodine bleaching process of the photographic paper.

For over 90 years Chicago House has continued to utilize the best tools in pursuit of a historic objective: to create the most accurate facsimile image technology allows. Thus the tools of yesterday are ever being replaced by new tools, and digital technology today…

Drawing by J. Anthony Chubb, circa 1927: Plate 116. Ramesses III hunting desert game, Medinet Habu exterior, first pylon, south tower, west face (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

The Chicago House Method

In The Oxford Handbook of Egyptian Epigraphy and Paleography (2020) the Assistant Director of the Epigraphic Survey, J. Brett McClain, writes:

“The Chicago House Method is a set of procedures for making facsimile copies of Egyptian monumental decoration. Since its creation by James Henry Breasted in 1924, the Epigraphic Survey has employed this Method for the recording and publication of the ancient records found on the walls of Egyptian monuments. The documentation process uses large-format photographs from which facsimile line drawings are made and rigorously cross-checked against the original monument, utilizing the diverse skills of a team of experts to ensure the highest possible degree of accuracy. The method is flexible when necessitated by field conditions or various types of inscribed material and can integrate new tools and techniques to address a variety of epigraphic tasks more effectively, but the core principles—a photographic basis and multiple checks of the copy by a series of specialists who examine the original—are observed at all times.”

Artist Alfred Bollacher on scaffolding at Medinet Habu, circa 1924-1929 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Other essential points of the Chicago House Method are to start with a photograph, with the camera lens positioned exactly parallel to the wall to eliminate distortion. A printed enlargement is made on special matte-surface paper with an emulsion coating that can accept both pencil and ink lines. The artist pencils the enlargement onsite, carefully observing all the details of the relief and wall surface.

Virgilio Canziani, an artist of the Epigraphic Survey at work in a studio at the new headquarters, circa 1931-33 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Virgilio Canziani, an artist of the Epigraphic Survey at work in a studio at the new headquarters, circa 1931-33 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Inking is completed in the studio, and once it’s ready, the enlargement returns to the darkroom to be placed in an iodine bleaching bath to remove the photograph, leaving only the inked image. The epigrapher works with a blueprinted image of the drawing to check it onsite using collation sheets. 

A collation sheet example, published in Breasted’s “Oriental Institute; Volume XII” 1933; a blueprint section of a drawing pasted on a sheet with corrections and comments by two epigraphers (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

After several checks by Egyptologists, and the artist’s corrections, the final step is the Director’s Check before the artwork is ready to be published. This method was developed by Breasted himself and has changed very little, allowing for improvements and adaptations to tools and technology.

First official staff photo from the season of 1926-1927; Top row, left to right: Robert J. Barr, Mlle Caillat, Virgilio Canziani, Adrian de Buck. Second row: H. Bayfield Clark, Caroline R. Williams, Clarence S. Fisher, Alfred Bollacher, Auguste Bollacher, Alan H. Gardiner, Uvo Hölscher, Edward DeLoach. Third row: Mrs Ransom (mother), Libbie Nelson, Harold H. Nelson, James H. Breasted, Frances Breasted, Jean Edgerton, William F. Edgerton. Fourth row: Irene Nelson (daughter), Phoebe Byles, John A. Wilson, Mary Wilson (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Egyptian staff photo from the season of 1926-1927 (Copyright Oriental Institute Museum Archive Collections)

Chicago House has retained the highest quality and standards for epigraphic documentation for nearly a century, creating some of the most beautiful and accurate images recording ancient sites, which are disintegrating even at this moment despite ongoing conservation efforts. The dedication to preserve monuments through publications such as those produced by the Oriental Institute cannot be overpraised, for they capture thousands of years of legacy within their binding, for future generations to behold.

Breasted reflected in 1933, “It is now little over a century since the work of recording the written monuments of Egypt in modern facsimiles began—a work made possible by Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic in 1822… [Champollion] was fully conscious that it had placed upon him the sacred obligation to copy these monuments and place them permanently among the records of mankind.” (Breasted, The Oriental Institute)

Thanks to the forward-thinking vision of our current director, Dr. W. Raymond Johnson, Chicago House has embarked into the digital age. The Chicago House Method is transitioning from pen and ink and photo enlargements, to iPads, Photoshop, Photogrammetry, and infinite possibilities. With digital technology, all the Oriental Institute’s publications are now available online as free pdfs, and digitalEPIGRAPHY is providing knowledge and insights of tools and methods to all who are interested. 

Breasted’s dedication to experimenting with pioneering technology at the turn of the 20th century reveals much about his character, and it’s likely he would have been enthusiastic and in awe of the digital era of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute.

(Special thanks to W. Raymond Johnson, J. Brett McClain, Krisztián Vértes, and Ariel Singer for their greatly appreciated editing and suggestions.)

Additional reading

James Henry Breasted—The Oriental Institute; Volume XII, The University of Chicago Press, 1933 (Free Online PDF from University of Chicago Oriental Institute)

Charles Breasted—Pioneer to the Past; The Story of James Henry Breasted Archeologist, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943 (Free Online PDF from University of Chicago Oriental Institute)

Jeffery Abt—American Egyptologist; The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute, The University of Chicago Press, 2011

Maria Golia—Photography and Egypt, Reaktion Books / AUC Press, 2010

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