A New Light on Ancient Art: Using Computers to Understand Traditional Cultures

Lynn Holden

What is it about ancient Egypt, its culture and particularly its art, which has universal appeal and strikes a deep and familiar chord within us, even in this amazing modern age?

How can what we learn about this primal culture, distantly removed in time and space, help us understand and cope with our own lives as individuals, members of society and global citizens in a rapidly changing world?

Artforms are key elements which display the brilliance and strengths of every people. Sometimes they are highly stylized in unfamiliar ways, requiring some interpretation, but often just the understanding of the original intention and perspective of the creators will show that they were concerned with the same fundamental issues as we are today. It is true that there are always differences of language, environmental influences and local customs, but, the fact remains that the essential concerns of most humans, throughout history, have always been much more similar than different.

We wonder; who are we, where have we come from, and where are we going? We all go through the same developments and transitions in our lives; birth, growth, joinings and separations, reproduction and eventually passing on to something beyond, which we cannot know before its time comes.

The ancient Egyptians evolved extraordinary ways of expressing their understanding of the wonder of the cycles of life (creation) and death (destruction). It is the surety, clarity and directness of their artforms and cultural expressions that strikes the common chord and appeals to latent needs within all of us.

The inspiration of the forms of their art and architecture mirror the beauty and harmony of their relationship with nature. Similarly the details of their reliefs and domestic artifacts reflect a rich appreciation of the joy of earthly life, which they wished to extend beyond the threshold of death.

Their cultural artforms display a sensitive design aesthetic and confidence of craftsmanship which derive from a long association with the regular cycles of their unique Nilotic environment and the equilibrium of its natural forces. The power of these artworks lie in their functional significance as conveyors of cultural tradition and symbolic meaning.

The ITeN (Interactive Teaching Network) Disk Project being developed at the College of Fine Arts of Carnegie Mellon University is inspired by work begun during the installation of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.

A computer information/reference system was installed in the gallery to supply additional information to complement the exhibition labels and graphics, to increase the density of knowledge available in the immediate proximity of the artifacts, and thus the potential impact on visitors. A high quality videodisc also provides ten 5 minute scripted presentations on the central themes of the exhibition.

We are now extending these ideas into the educational arena. There need to be created new interactive hypermedia systems to engage students, teachers and interested people with the critical achievements of historic cultures. These materials are intended to support new curricula in the College and University, but could also be accessible to any interested person.

Our approach at the College is to use the computer to link discrete knowledge sources in meaningful ways and to allow multiple accesses via different pathways according to the perspective and interests of the user. Within the highly sophisticated computer environment we use an interface design format based on the aesthetic of the culture being explored. This engages the user in the perspective of cultures distantly removed in space and time.

Emphasis is on recontextualizing artifacts and visualizing original contexts, with the assistance of virtual reconstructions. In this way we can use finite sources of data, such as moving images on videodisc, digitized still images and details, digital sound and ancient text translations and modern analyses and commentaries (on CD-ROM) to enrich considerably the educational impact of an object or image being looked at.

Our interactive learning environment will use three pathways to access the data on ancient Egypt:

At the end of any presentation the viewer can cross over to the other pathways to explore subjects from other perspectives, or move into a synthesis-study area where specific monuments, artifacts or individuals can be looked at in greater detail and be related to maps, time lines, texts and other associated materials.

Additional elements to be developed for this learning system include an Egyptocentric experience which would allow seeing materials organized from the ancient culture's point of view, relative to their notion of the most significant themes. There will also be use assessment and printout/copy elements to the system.

We are experimenting using actual real-time video-walkthroughs of the surviving ruins of major sites, complemented by virtual walkthroughs of data-CAD reconstructed simulations of the original structures to recontextualize fragments and objects spread around the world in museums and collections back to their original locations. Eventually we hope to animate the most important scenes of events and activities, so that the monuments themselves can "tell their story" directly, with animate Egyptian images accompanied by running translations of their hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Ultimately the ITeN hypermedia system will be a richly integrated flexible, multidisciplinary exploration tool whose concept can be adapted to any historic culture. Egypt was chosen because of the extraordinary quality and quantity of its visual artforms, but also for its unique global situation, being linked geographically and intellectually to both Western Civilization (Greece, Rome & Europe) and Eastern Culture (Mesopotamia, India, China & Japan).

This system can become a new type of multidimensional resource for libraries and institutional and inter-institutional information networks. It is our intention with the ITeN interactive teaching system to use the threads of commonality and the tensions between modern and ancient perceptions to stimulate active learning modes within the critical thinking processes and make learning about traditional cultures and art both enjoyable and stimulating.

All of this is in anticipation of the cyberspace studio/classroom of the not so distant future, where visitors, students and teachers will enter into virtual recreations of ancient space and time to personally experience and learn about the amazing achievements of great historic civilizations, such as those of ancient Egypt.