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An archaeologist restores an Egyptian artefact, one of thousands that need to be properly catalogued and stored.
An archaeologist restores an Egyptian artefact, one of thousands that need to be properly catalogued and stored.

Robots work alongside archaeologists to restore history

Robot technology is a big help in the process of cataloguing, cleaning and storing pyramids.

Immortality is a messy business. If you don't believe it, ask Ramadan Badry Hussein, the man keeping track of thousands of monuments in Egypt. Only five years ago, cleaning men stole three ancient statues from the basement of the Egyptian Museum. When quizzed by the police, they said that the statues were just lying around unattended. They bundled them up with some construction debris they were removing from the building and walked out. Their deception went unnoticed for days. The basement housed more than 100,000 artefacts, and hadn't been properly catalogued for decades. The thieves were caught this time, but others may have got away with an ancient treasure or more. When mummies and furniture, statues and votive offerings are stacked in boxes and deposited in dusty corners, anything can happen.

As the director of the National Project of Documentation of Egyptian Antiquities, Hussein is making sure that every artefact is accounted for, properly stored, and clearly labelled. Bracelets and anklets, burial urns and commemorative plates are being photographed, scanned, and described in detail. The information is then made accessible in digital form or otherwise to researchers and the public in general, Hussein says.

"Excavation is a destructive process," he tells me. Seated in a small office with the windows open and the air conditioning off in the middle of summer, he seems to relish the thought. The weather can be harsh in this country, and while we may sweat, artefacts and wall paintings slowly wither away. ument, you subject it to natural elements, to abrasion, and to urban encroachment, deterioration sets in. The sand layers are mixed, removing some of the historical evidence from the scene. Think of a policeman at a crime scene. The first thing he says is: 'Don't touch anything.' It is the same with excavation."

A few years ago, Egypt's top archaeological outfit, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, began sending teams from Cairo to document antiquities all over the country. Away from home and working in unfamiliar places, the teams had trouble meeting their deadlines. Hussein is not surprised. The work, he says, should have been done by the men and women living and working near the monuments, not by teams from Cairo.

From now on, the collection of data will be done by the resident archaeological inspectors, the right people for the job. "In Egypt, every archaeological site has inspectors. They run the site, supervise the security, and write reports. They are never asked to explore the archaeological site or document it. they don't engage in the scientific aspect of the work." Some of the inspectors must be dying to do something more exciting than their current routine work. Since 2002, the SCA has been training 60 inspectors per year on excavation methods. With a total of 700 local inspectors versed in the "field method", the brand of archaeology involving step-by-step documentation of the excavation process, the antiquities authority has no shortage of talent. The inspectors will not be documenting the monuments every month or yearly. They'll do it every day, around the clock, with a precision that outside researchers can only dream of matching.

Artefacts are the biggest challenge. Six years ago, officials discovered that dozens of Roman necklaces were missing from the Egyptian Museum. Upon further investigation, the verdict was that the necklaces were stolen five or six years earlier. A proper storage system, itemised and checked on a daily basis, would go a long way towards preventing theft, or at least making it immediately detectable.

Much of Egypt's treasured remains - the statues, the sarcophagi, the amulets and the jewellery - are stored in outdated warehouses or makeshift spaces. "Many artefacts used to be stored in poorly secured places," Hussein says. "Sometimes ancient tombs were turned into storage facilities. Sometime the artefacts were buried in the ground, with a layer of cement placed on top until proper space could be arranged," Hussein says.

At present, all artefacts are being transported to proper storage facilities. The archaeologists have a name for these: magazines. Egypt has built nearly 32 magazines, each with a capacity to hold an average of 25,000 pieces. The country's once-scattered heritage is finally finding a home. The part that Hussein likes most about the new magazines is that they are identical. You get a big hall with rooms on the sides and a certain number of shelves and drawers in each room. This makes it simple to label items for easy retrieval. For example, an artefact held in magazine 3, room D, shelf 10, position 4 can be given a single address (3-D-10-4). When it is moved or lent to a museum or sent for restoration, the records will show when, why, and to where it was moved.

Standardisation is the key. Archaeologists are by nature a meticulous lot. But they don't all necessarily work in the same manner. Let's suppose that two different researchers are documenting an ancient statue. One may start by describing the statue's height and colour, then its material and age. Another would note the year in which it was found, the excavated site, and give an elaborate description. Both are correct, but the dissimilarity between their reports would make life hell for future researchers.

What curators, historians, and heritage specialists want is conformity in the presented information. They need a database that is not only accessible and computer-friendly, but also identically arranged. According to Hussein, massive amounts of detail, such as that associated with Egyptian heritage, can only be useful if standardised. "Let's say that someone needs to find a statue of Ramses II. You'll want to spell the word Ramses in the exact same way throughout. And you'll expect to have a list of materials, perhaps from a computer-generated drop list, to define the statue's make-up. You'll also need a manual for common descriptive phrases in English, to ensure that the archaeologists are using the same terminology."

The database Hussein is putting together will have images of various items, often photographs. But for the key sites and artefacts, the imagery will be more impressive. A few weeks ago, scientists from the Informatics Research Institute finished scanning the entire Giza plateau in 3D. Their hi-tech facility is located in the grandly named Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, a 20-minute drive west of Alexandria. When I visited their offices, they showed me the machine that did the work.

Meet Ri-20, the million dollar machine that stands on a tripod and shoots laser at the rate of 10,000 beams per second. Her full name, according to the plate on her metal chest, is Riegl-LMS-Z620. But she doesn't mind the nickname. Ri-20 is sort of cute. She could be a distant cousin of R2-D2, the pudgy robot in Star Wars. Like him, she's a good whistler. When instructed to scan her surroundings, she hums softly to herself, as if to show that she's on top of things. She swivels around, high on her 5ft tripod, and starts shooting laser beams from silvery eyes that are translucent, rectangular and a bit bigger than playing cards.

Not everyone gets a 3D photo session with Ri-20. You have to be a monument, a rare artefact, or a lucky journalist visiting on a slow Ramadan day. I was made to stand in the corner of the sparsely furnished room, with Ri-20 about two metres away. She swivelled and hummed for a minute, producing a convincing outline of a man standing in the corner of a sparsely furnished room, with a notebook in his hands. My head had no features, as if wrapped in gauze like a mummy. This was the fastest image Ri-20 can take, the equivalent of the once-over. When she looked at the pyramids, a few weeks earlier, she swivelled very slowly, taking about 40 minutes for every turn, collecting millions upon millions of points defining every spot on the pyramids' surface - working at it for days. She gave me only a minute - at first, that is.

Sensing my puzzlement at the result, the scientists instructed Ri-20 to move slower, take her time. The resulting shoot lasted for five minutes and rendered my 3D image with a credible hairdo and a ridiculously scientific detail of the creases in my clothes, but my facial features remained approximate, like a man seen from afar, as if Ri-20 was looking from the corner of her eyes, not really interested.

An accurate rendering would have required me to stand there for 20 minutes or so, and neither Ri-20 nor I had the time. "She is still holding the images of the pyramids on her system, so her memory is working slower now," one of the scientists says, sort of apologising for the machine's short attention span for journalists. Two years ago, the dean of the Informatics Research Institute, Walaa Mohammad Sheta, walked into the office of Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, with Ri-20 in tow. He gave Hawass a similar demonstration to the one just described, and the rest is 3D history. Hawass is having Ri-20 sent to various sites around the country to ply her trade. As well as the Giza plateau, she has scanned Luxor.

Had Ri-20 been sentient, she would have loved every moment of it. But at least the archaeologists are getting a thrill. They speak of her in excited tones, like scientists do when they get the latest gadget. They showed me pictures of Ri-20 riding on the back of a fire truck, rising 80 metres high to get better view of the sphinx. In another photo, Ri-20 is standing on her usual tripod, staring at a camel, a puzzled look in her piercing eyes.

We don't know for sure, but the camel may have had a crush on Ri-20. "Each laser shot takes on average 20-40 minutes. The camel would wait till we were midway through the shot and then walk right in front of the machine. He did it several times, forcing us to start all over," one of the scientists recalls. Ri-20's vision is perfect at distances ranging from two to 500 metres. In clear weather, she can accurately render objects at a distance of two kilometres. But for small distances, she can be far sighted. You need smaller machines for smaller areas. As for an area several kilometres wide, like that of the entire pyramids plateau, you'll have to hire a laser-equipped plane, which another government department, the National Remote Sensing Agency, owns. For anything larger than 10km, the scientists use satellite imagery.

When the team was trying to scan the sphinx, the birds standing on the statue's head turned out to be another nuisance. Ri-20 may have perfect vision, but she's not that perceptive. For her, a bird sitting on a monument seems part of the monument. When the bird moves, the monument appears to be changing shape. The scientists can correct for this kind of "noise" by modelling, but where is the fun in that? When shooting the sphinx, they hired people to shout and make a racket below. The birds flew away and Ri-20 was able to scan the scene in peace.

Approaching Luxor's west bank, the first thing you encounter are the two massive statues of Amenhotep III, commonly referred to as the colossi of Memnon. They look really worn out, and scientists have been worried about them for some time, not knowing how serious the damage is. Ri-20 is on the case. She has scanned the statues in 3D and the scientists are now looking into the data. "Once we finish analysing the images, we will be better able to assess the structural damage," says Bayoumi Abdel Rahman Bayoumi, a scientist from the Alexandria team. "The laser imagery gives us the shape, and when we take into account the qualities of the material, we should be able to calculate the centre of gravity and the stress points."

On the screen, the scanned colossi looks like a painting made of millions of little dots, grainy and grey. Except that it can be turned on its head, revolved around, and tilted this way and that, the way 3D objects do. It looks like something familiar. It looks hollow yet gritty, bulky and elastic. It looks like... an apparition. Ri-20 went to Luxor and came back with an apparition, one that is exact and true to shape, and one that should be able to tell the future of one of Egypt's most loved monuments.

The guardians of eternity have finally found their calling. And Ri-20 is running from one tourist site to another, like a VIP visitor, humming to herself and gazing with her clear silvery eyes as if into space, but never missing a beat. Scientists hover in the background, tending to her every need. And when necessary, they even shoo the camels away.

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