Click to Navigate

Northern California Chapter, ARCE

Next Page

Board Members

Upcoming Events

The National Organization

The Local Chapter


Educational Outreach


The el-Hibeh Project

Egypt on the Web

Site Map

A Satellite Survey of the Theban Tombs: A Horus-Eye View

Our February lecturer was Dr. Peter Piccione from the College of Charleston, South Caroline, who has carried out six and one-half campaigns on the West Bank of the Nile at Thebes, developing and conducting a satellite survey of the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Gurna. This is the first comprehensive survey of the tombs, a geological survey using the Global Positioning System (GPS) for historical mapping. Geologists are mapping the tombs in relation to stones in the necropolis, asking why the Egyptians built tombs at certain places at certain times and looking for any physical relationships. The Egyptian stone workers seemed to have an instinctive understanding of geology, an appreciative sophistication in the way they cut the rock, using natural fissures to ease their labor. The team plans in the future to map temples as well as tombs on the West Bank of the Nile. Gurna is home to several thousand tombs, temples, and burial pits. The survey members are in the process of inventorying the tombs. At least 2000 are numbered, and that number will increase when the burial pits are added to the survey. These pits will be plotted later. It is estimated that most of the objects in museums and collections throughout the world have come from these tombs.

Over twenty years ago, UNESCO designated the area as a historical heritage site. Several maps have been created in the past, but very few of a high accuracy have been published in more than eighty years. A few modern detail maps of some small areas do exist, but nothing overall. Geographical Information System (GIS) maps would be used when working a site, but these have a significant error. There are not enough maps of high accuracy that span across the necropolis. When the good maps are clustered together, they create additional errors.

We need to be able to understand now, with the village of Gurna demolished, if the maps are even more inaccurate than previously believed. Modern maps of high accuracy are lacking, and the satellite survey is intended to rectify that situation. Members of the field project walked and checked about 300 kilometers of the Theban hills. They compiled many notebooks of data and took digital images and mapped the locations of more than 700 tombs across the necropolis, collectimg more than 34 gigabytes of data. For example, tomb TT54 alone, located on the western Asassif, filled three notebooks. The project was funded by ARCE and the National Endowment for the Humanities.Data from ground imaging satellites and the NAVSTAR global positioning system were used. The project is ready to merge second generation data shared with the geographic information system. A photo map was loaded from the QuickBird satellite, which is then superimposed onto a geographical map and collated with current data developed by walking the area. A receiver used by professional cartographers is used when walking the site, gathering data within.a distance several centimeters. The system is very accurate. Two GPS units are now being used, one in a set position and the other carried from one tomb to another. This is the first survey of this type and magnitude for western Thebes. Other teams have not been able to get this accuracy.

In 2003, orbital imagery was received from the QuickBird satellite. These images of the Theban necropolis were loaded into the on-line GIS database. The very high resolution QuickBird satellite images became the center of the system. It can take pictures in normal light, black and white or color, and infrared at 62 cm ground resolution. A single pixel in an image represents 62x 62 cm on the ground. By a process of geographic mapping, the satellite images are transformed into maps. One can then overlay clear maps on top of data.

A satellite imaging map becomes a living map. The base maps are from 2005. In addition to locating tombs, the project wants to find out the relationships between images on the West Bank and those on the East Bank. For example, for a long time, archaeologists have believed the temple of Deir el-Bahari was oriented straight across the Nile to the temple of Karnak. This theory has now been proven false.

Over 400 tombs have been identified and numbered. Information from the topical bibliography of Porter and Moss has been included as well as other information from earlier maps. These data have been overlaid on the satellite photograph.

The second phase of the current field campaign is to refine the location of the tombs, to include new tombs recently discovered and others that were inaccessible. Old maps included tombs that were under the houses at Gurna. The area included will be from Dra Abu ‘l-Naga to Medinet Habu. GPS mapping will be performed at the main door of each tomb and data will be corrected. Tombs not previously found will be located and mapped; tombs whose locations are questionable will be located and identified. High resolution photos will be taken of the tombs for both archaeological and geological purposes. The ancient Egyptians followed cracks and fissures when digging tombs and side chambers.

It was believed the survey could be done in about eight months, but it was finished in about five. By the end of the season, 706 tombs were mapped, data collected, and coordinates catalogued. The SCA inspectors, who were very competent, learned to help with the work. One of them was a native of Gurna, which proved to be especially helpful. Early on, the project personnel were welcomed by the people of Gurna. The poor were looking forward to moving to better houses with sewage and running water, while the wealthier wanted to remain in their large and comfortable homes. Many of the people who were moved out of Gurna did not get the houses they were promised.

The maps developed by the project are of interest to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Every day the inspectors helped collect accurate GPS data and identify tomb locations. To do this, we had to establish three reference points. One stationary point, which the team had to return to every three hours or so, was located back of a house in Gurna. Another was used by the men walking the mountainside. The third was located at a distance in Israel. The data gathered was forwarded to the University of Charleston. For the first time, the tombs were placed in their true location. In addition, names of separate villages in the area, which were never catalogued properly, were collected.

The tomb numbers are not consistent. Those in the Theban Tomb numbering system as recorded in Porter and Moss are identified with the letters TT. MMA identifies tombs numbered by excavators for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. K represents tombs numbered by Frederike Kampp. The satellite survey team used the letter P to identify newly discovered tombs and those that were known but never numbered. As of April 2007, the houses of Gurna were being demolished. Many tombs found beneath the houses were in terrible condition. Some were full of garbage, some used for storage, some used as toilets. Most had never been recorded.

The survey has also revealed how the ancient Egyptians reshaped their environment. For example, several Middle Kingdom tombs were demolished by the builders of Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari and later additions to the site by Thutmose III. Tombs were literally sliced away from the hillside to create new sacred spaces.

—Betty Winkelman