Vol. XX, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
Winter, 2008

Web Site Review: Digital Egypt and the OEE Scenes-Detail Database

Susan C. Jones
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)

The Oxford Expedition to Egypt, Scenes-details Database

Digital Egypt for Universities

Scholarly resources have two important components that need to be evaluated - the intellectual value of the information and the organization of that information. The web makes their separate contributions more intertwined, and usually a web site review will concentrate on one or the other aspect. Reviewing content takes a different knowledge base than reviewing the structure and organization. However, both aspects are important and need to be assessed. Excellent scholarship can be overwhelmed by a site's poor organization; conversely, a brillantly organized site can disguise weak scholarship. I will attempt to address both the content and the structure of these two web sites. Then I will provide an example of using them to understand a specific Old Kingdom monument.

Site contents

I decided to review these two sites together because in some sense they complement each other. Digital Egypt for Universities contains pages devoted to a general overview of Egyptian culture from 4000 B.C.E. to 1919 C.E. with a concentration on the ancient period. The discussions are based on W. M. Flinders Petrie's work in the late 19th through early 20th centuries and on the Petrie Museum's post-World-War-II excavations, but they incorporate a broader vision of Egyptian culture than a single individual's or institution's excavations could supply. In other words, it has a broad chronology and range of topics, but a limited number of examples. In constrast, The Oxford Expedition to Egypt, Scenes-details Database, hereafter OEE scenes, takes as its subject images of specific type found in Old Kingdom tomb complexes; it includes all published Old Kingdom cemeteries, regardless of excavator or date of excavation. Its coverage is chronologically and topically narrow, but it includes all known examples.

These web sites are examples of two types of resources that are useful for scholarly research - (1) syntheses that present the results of a scholar's research and (2) raw data with minimal interpretation. As a general resource, the topical discussions presented on Digital Egypt are wide-ranging, representing the current state of knowledge about ancient Egypt. As a database the OEE scenes provides no analyses, only accessible, extensive, reliable data on which to base understanding. It is by combining the results of past research (Digital Egypt) and raw primary data (OEE scenes) that deeper research is possible.

The content of Digital Egypt is organized into the following topical areas:

The time frame covered is primarily from the Neolithic through the Roman periods, but there is some material from the Coptic and Islamic periods under the Beliefs, Technology-and-industry and Science headings. Topical materials provide an overview of our knowledge of ancient Egypt that goes beyond that gained directly from Flinders Petrie and the Flinders-Petrie musuem excavations. Unfortunately, individual authors are not credited for their presentations. There is also an extensive bibliography for each period and thematic area. Surprisingly, there are no web resources listed among them; links to other web sites are buried under a link listed as the United Nations rules on collecting on the Archaeological record page.

The OEE scenes provides a database of scenes from Old Kingdom tombs with documentation on the terminology and abbreviations used, an extensive bibliography and a map. Images chosen are from 15 major groups and hundreds of subgroups. "Scene types and their scene details were selected as the primary subject matter of Phase One of the OEE Database because they are easily identified, and they constitute the most varied source of information for academic and non-academic research."2

A PDF file which lists all the subcategories runs to 27 pages! The major categories with a partial list of subcategories are:

Both the types of images included and those excluded in the OEE scenes are clearly laid out on the introductory page.3 The arbitrary nature of the images included and excluded does slightly curtail the site's usefulness as a database. However, even with this limitiation, the OEE scenes is a magnificent resource and contains information on thousands of images.

The basis for the data presented is Bertha Porter and Rosalind Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1927-) -- Porter and Moss. These data have been augmented as the project has grown. Currently data are present for 495 tombs in 58 cemeteries at 27 sites.

OEE Scenes offers its data with no interpretation of the scenes beyond the subject classifications; however, as with any database, it provides a number of ways to organize its catalog of scenes. The introduction to the database provides an overview of the types of queries that are available and the displays that they produce. Line drawings of typical scenes from each subgroup are provided.

Both sites (Digital Egypt and OEE scenes) provide extensive data with adequate documentation and bibliographies to make further, more focused research possible. There may be more overt scholarly interpretation present on Digital Egypt, but that is the nature of the general site versus a database. The scholarly research that resulted in the categorization of tomb imagery on the OEE database is more basic, but no less important to our understanding of ancient Egypt. It is this type of research that supports the articles found on Digital Egypt.

Structure and Navigation

Both sites are relatively straight-forward and simple to navigate. Both provide a banner with a menu of the main sections across the top of every screen.

The banner menu on Digital Egypt lists only the home page, the timeline, maps, the A-Z index and the learning page, but no search mechanism. All topical analyses are accessed from the home page. Each topical section within Digital Egypt has a different presentation of its material. Some sections, like astromony, are divided into topics (clocks, zodiac and astrolabes in the case of Astronomy) then into chronology. Others, like Beliefs, are first divided by chronology, then by topic. Cross-links on a page are only to other pages within the given section or to the bibliography. The Art-and-architecture section in particular has many internal cross-links so little backtracking is necessary to follow a train of thought not directly addressed by its authors. Other sections, like the Temple section under Beliefs, does not even provide cross-links to actual temples, even though Flinders Petrie excavated and published those at Thebes and Digital Egpyt itself has pages devoted to them. However, the extensive A-Z index can be used exactly like an index in a standard scholarly publication to access any data on the site. The A-Z index is also the only way to access much of the individual site information directly.

The banner menu on the OEE scenes site provides links to the introduction, overview, database, bibliography, glossary and help pages. The database page provides structured access to the data and gives a wide selection of ways to display the results of queries.

There are two hierarchical ways to approach the data, either (1) by a single tomb and all the catalogued imagery therein or (2) by a particular scene and all tombs that contain that scene. These hierarchic approaches have the frustrations inherent in this database structure. The data must be approached hierarchically, as the designers themselves used and envisioned them. In this case, attempts to see all images that a set of tombs might have in common involves manually comparing lists of tombs and their images or lists of image types and their associated tombs. Such lists are quickly produced, but it would be nice to be able to do the comparisons mechanically since that it what computers do very well. I do not know if the problem is with the heirarchical design of the underlying database or only with the provided approaches to the data that the web site allows.

Both sites fail in some aspects to take advantage of the possibilities of the new flexible and non-linear approaches to data that online resources provide. Both do, nonetheless, contain reliable data and interpretations that can be accessed in a logical order.

An experiment researching a single mastaba

Both Digital Egypt and OEE scenes are so extensive that I decided that the best way to get a feel for their usefulness was to research a single Old Kingdom tomb complex. Both Digital Egypt and the OEE scenes give a list of Old Kingdom cemeteries and tombs covered by the site. The tombs listed on Digital Egypt are only those excavated by Petrie or the Petrie Museum; the OEE scenes has a less obvious filter for the tombs that it includes: its range of image types. Less elaborately decorated tombs, for example those with just depictions of the tomb owner, are not there.4

Only 4 tombs were included on both sites: