Construction Begins on UCLA Encyclopedia of EgyptologySample pages of the new UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

Construction Begins on UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology

Egyptologists and UCLA's best technology centers commence the heavy lifting of rewriting ancient Egypt's history.

By Angilee Shah
Staff Writer

The online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE) will be easy to update, easy to search, and illustrated with images, 3-D views of ancient cities and sites, and interactive maps.

The Lexikon der Ägyptologie is a standard reference for scholars of ancient Egypt. Professor Willeke Wendrich of UCLA's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures owns all seven volumes. Her colleague, Jacco Dieleman, has the set of 6,000 articles in worn red binding lining his bookshelf.

The encyclopedia was published over the course of almost thirty years -- the final volume came out in 1992. But by 2008, Wendrich, Dieleman, and John Baines, a professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, plan to create a new Egyptology encyclopedia in a whole new medium. The online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE) will be easy to update, easy to search, and illustrated with images, 3-D views of ancient cities and sites, and interactive maps.

Dieleman, a philologist in the Department of Near Eastern Languages, says the project is informed by the search functionality of Google and the constant updates of Wikipedia. Printed encyclopedias, he explains, can't keep up: "Once it is out, a week later it is outdated." But what UEE is countering, he says, is "ill-informed information about Egypt on the Internet."

Wendrich, UEE's editor in chief, hopes the encyclopedia will become the standard for scholarly articles about Egypt in the time of the pharaohs. Students turn to the web when they want to know something, but Wendrich agrees that the web is not always the most reliable source. Wikipedia has good information, but it cannot be quoted because there is no author and the content changes over time. UEE is being designed to incorporate multiple authors but also strict version control and peer review to create a more reliable resource.

The project, though, is a huge undertaking. The editorial board is planning to create 4,000 entries, about 6,000,000 words of completely original content covering 4,000 years of history from 3500 BC to 400 AD. The UEE is slated to be in English, German, French and, unlike the Lexikon, in Arabic as well. Scholars from around the globe -- Egyptologists from across the United States, Egypt, and Europe -- will serve as the living encyclopedia's 500 authors. Wendrich says, "The whole idea is to make this a cooperation of the field."

Technology support is coming from all corners of UCLA: The Digital Humanities Incubator Group (UDHIG), the research arm of the Center for Digital Humanities, is doing the backend programming and interface for the UEE. The Digital Library is helping with storage and databasing and Academic Technology Services (ATS) helping to find new ways to use new media. The Experiential Technology Center (ETS) is creating virtual reality models of the ancient Egyptian cities and site. The first of these models is the city of Karanis, a site Wendrich, an archaeologist, has been helping to excavate for years. "There's a lot of UCLA brainpower behind this," Wendrich says.

Wendrich was first drawn to ancient Egypt as a high school student in the Netherlands, and she hopes the new encyclopedia will inspire a new generation of scholars to analyze and imagine life in the time of the pharaohs. Animated, she explains, "It's such a colorful culture that has left so many tangible traces, and at the same time has so much to wonder about."

UEE is in the first of its three-phase publishing plan. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the UEE will debut with its first 500 entries in 2008. The editorial board met in March and spent four days behind closed doors making content decisions. The UCLA International Institute, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and Vice Chancellor of Research sponsored a conference that was open to the public featuring several Egyptologists to mark the beginnings of the UEE.

An open version of the encyclopedia will be available on the California Digital Library's E-scholarship Repository, where articles will be posted initially for peer review, while the full version with multimedia and images will be available by subscription. Readers in Egypt and students and scholars at UCLA will have free access to the UEE.