Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Meketre: an online repository for middle kingdom scenes

[First posted in AWOL 26 July 2014, updated 14 April 2021 (relaunce - new URLs)]

Meketre Scene Repository: the online repository for middle kingdom scenes



The Middle Kingdom (11th to 13th Dynasty, ca. 2030 – 1640 B.C.) constitutes one of Ancient Egypt’s outstanding epochs. Art, architecture and literature flourished and reached a peak hardly surpassed in later periods. A large number of rock-cut tombs, free-standing tombs (mastabas) and other funerary structures testify to the high quality of craftsmanship at that time. The overall concept of the tomb with its symbolic allusions to self-representation had a decisive influence on the scenes, the scene content and the distribution of representations of the tomb owner. Middle Kingdom tomb decorations offer a wide variety of complex and multi-layered information that is in the focus of our research.

About Painted for Eternity (2019 – )

Decoration of Middle Kingdom Coffins from Beni Hassan – an Art Historical Case Study

Painted for Eternity is an interdisciplinary research project, conducted at the Institute of Egyptology in cooperation with the Vienna University Computer Center at the University of Vienna. The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, project number P 31390-G25).

The project seeks to investigate the painted figurative decoration of the Middle Kingdom box shaped coffins from an art historical perspective. The cemetery at Beni Hassan – an important necropolis in Middle Egypt with the largest set of coffins deriving from archaeological excavations and covering a time span from the 11th Dynasty up to the reign of Senwosret III or slightly later – has been chosen for the present case study.

Beni Hassan (henceforth BH) was the burial place of the governors of the 16th Upper Egyptian Nome whose rock-cut tombs are among the best-known and best-preserved examples of Middle Kingdom private funerary architecture. Below these impressive monuments of high-ranking officials, scattered across the slope of the hill, the so-called lower necropolis with tombs belonging to officials of lower ranks was discovered, yielding a significant amount of coffins. These rather simple shaft tombs, mostly without any superstructure, were excavated by John Garstang during two archaeological seasons in the years 1902/03 and 1903/04 and published in 1907. Garstang uncovered almost 900 tombs, of which about 20 were found intact. His monograph, although full of flaws and lacking detailed descriptions of the individual tombs and the burial equipment, is still an invaluable source of information on the funerary customs of the middle class.

More than 50 BH coffins and coffin fragments are nowadays accessible in museums all over the world representing the subject matter of the present project. About 25 further coffins are (at least partially) known from Garstang’s publication as well as from the excavation photographs, which are kept at the Garstang Museum at the University of Liverpool. Furthermore, there are at least seven canopic boxes from BH which are equally important due to the presence of similar decorative patterns.

The self-contained character and accessibility of the coffin corpus, the circumstances that allow to take their context into account, as well as the immediate vicinity of contemporary decorated tombs of the upper class make BH a well-suited candidate for the envisaged project.

Project details

The project Painted for Eternity officially started on the 15th of February 2019 and will run four years.

Art historical domain


The main focus of the research will be an art historical analysis of the decorative elements painted on the coffins – ornamental frames, ornamental hieroglyphs, representations of wDA.t-eyes, architectural elements including the false door and the palace façade, offering table with associated piles of offerings, and object frieze. The study will involve an in-depth analysis of their iconography including the colouring, the layout, the elaboration of potential stylistic traits and artistic developments as well as the identification of workshops or artists. Special attention will be given to the so called object friezes, their selection, positioning and arrangement. Subsequently, the coffin decoration will be compared with the paintings in the Beni Hassan tombs of high-ranking officials as well as with coffins from other Middle Kingdom cemeteries.

Non-ornamental texts written in small hieroglyphics, cursive hieroglyphics or hieratic script do not form part of the analysis. The project’s intention is not the study of the inscriptions on the coffins (neither a translation nor a philological discussion are attempted), their content, however, will indeed be considered, especially with regard to the labels provided in the object friezes.

Scientific Approach

The BH coffins and canopic boxes shall be subjected to the following art historical questions:

  1. What is the layout of the decoration of these coffins?
  2. How were the particular decorative elements, such as the ornamental frames, wDA.t-eyes, false doors, palace façades and offering tables rendered in terms of shape, design, colouring, geometric patterns and other features used?
  3. What observations can be made with respect to the object friezes? Which objects were represented and how (shape, colour, etc.)? Are there significant similarities or differences in their rendering on individual coffins? Do the objects conform to some rules (“decorum”) concerning their selection, positioning and arrangement?
  4. What is the design of the ornamental hieroglyphs (palaeography)?
  5. Is it possible to elaborate some stylistic traits and/or differentiate between workshops or even individual artists? Was it usual for a coffin to be decorated by one artist only or are there indications that several persons were involved?
  6. Can the typologies and chronological developments established by Harco Willems and Günther Lapp be verified and refined?
  7. Comparison with the paintings in the BH rock-cut tombs
  8. Comparison with two- and three-dimensional representations of coffins
  9. Comparison with MK coffins from other necropolises

The quality of the documentation is imperative and makes the photographic recording of the coffins crucial for an art historical analysis. As a consequence, professional high-resolution photography will be provided by the museums. For publication purposes, it is also envisaged to prepare accurate line drawings in black and white (in Adobe Illustrator or comparable vector graphic software) of selected details of the coffin decoration. These will be especially needed for a comparative analysis of the individual decorative elements.

It should be stressed, however, that it is not the project’s initial intention to provide an exhaustive study, treatment and publication of the entire coffins, i.e. the study of the technical details (construction), the investigation of the material used (wood species, grounding, pigments) or the technique of the painting. The aim is to collect as many images as possible from the walls of these coffins in order to enable a careful art historical analysis. It goes without saying that crucial details will be checked against the originals in the museums in order to reach valid conclusions.

The major output of the project shall be a monographic treatment of the decoration of the BH coffins, based on the various research questions outlined above.

Technical domain


The analysis will make use of the MEKETREpository, an extensive database of Middle Kingdom tombs of officials, especially those at Beni Hassan, which provides an invaluable source of information on the Middle Kingdom art, and which resulted from the ‘MEKETRE Project’ and from the project ‘From Object to Icon’, both of which were directed by the applicant Prof. Dr. Peter-Christian Jánosi (FWF, P21571–G21 and P25958–G21). Part of the present project shall cover its extension by adding detailed records of the Beni Hassan coffins, and an update to meet the FAIR Data principles and guarantee its future usability.

About From Object to Icon (2013 – 2018)

Visual Reflections on and the Designations of Material Culture in the Reliefs and Paintings of Middle Kingdom Tombs

From Object to Icon is an interdisciplinary research project, conducted at the Institute of Egyptology in cooperation with the research group Multimedia Information Systems at the University of Vienna. It is based on the research that was initiated with the project MeKeTRE (see below). The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, project number P 25958).

The decorative programme of Middle Kingdom tombs offers a wealth of themes and scenes all featuring numerous objects – artefacts – made or given shape by humans and shown/used in various contexts. The project deals with the assessment and study of these objects – their three-dimensional “existence” compared to and contrasted with their two-dimensional rendering in art. It seeks to answer the questions what kind of objects were depicted to convey the meaning of certain processes or actions, and most importantly how these objects were transformed into images (icons). This research will be supplemented by a full investigation of captions and object designations. The project’s third part covers the extension of the MEKETREpository (developed in the course of the MeKeTRE project) by utilising crowd sourcing technologies that will allow scholars in the Egyptological domain to access efficiently pre-processed data such as images and annotations.

Project details

The project From Object to Icon (‘Vom Vorbild zum Abbild‘) officially started on the 15th of November 2013 and will run three years.

Art historical domain


A large number of artefacts have survived from tombs and settlements of the Middle Kingdom enriching our view of the material culture of that period. Most of these artefacts are treated in archaeological reports, museum or exhibition catalogues, or – to a lesser degree – are dealt with in special monographs. In discussing Middle Kingdom representations numerous scholars already drew attention to three-dimensional artefacts which the depictions were intended to illustrate, but only exceptionally are objects and tools discussed in depth in relation to their two-dimensional representations. Isolated objects – such as daggers (Petschel 2011), axes (Kühnert-Eggebrecht 1969) or clothes (Scheele 2005) – have been investigated one by one in great detail, but comprehensive investigation of objects – their depictions and the captions accompanying them – remains a desideratum. The only major contribution in this connection is G. Jéquier’s book on object friezes (1921), which is however outdated concerning both lexicology and especially morphology of object designations.

Scientific Approach

The confrontation of these two groups – the ‘material objects’ and images of them – can be done on different levels: a) cultural remains investigated by archaeology can be recovered in contemporaneous reliefs and paintings, b) the terminology used to designate archaeological finds can be adopted for their reproduction in art, c) the development and the assumed function (‘Sitz im Leben’) of the discovered items can be verified or modified by studying their images and vice versa. In addition, the examination of the nomenclature used in the Egyptian language to designate these objects also can help to classify them and reveal their purpose. The study of the material culture, its ‘conversion’ into two-dimensional art as well as its designation in written sources can contribute to the understanding of both the preserved cultural remains and their representations in the tombs dated to the same period.

It is envisaged to subject the icons illustrated in art to archaeological as well as art-historical questions crucial for their examination:

  1. Which artefacts were represented in art?
  2. How are artefacts represented in two-dimensional art – the relation between representation and reality? This transformation conveys to the viewer the meaning and the very essence of an object (e.g., a particular type of box) or a certain step in a manufacturing process (e.g., handicrafts).
  3. Was the development of material culture immediately reflected in contemporaneous art?
  4. Were some of the represented artefacts specific to a particular region?
  5. Does the range of use of artefacts correspond to the context represented in art and vice-versa?
  6. Are icons simply representations of the material culture or do they have a deeper symbolic meaning?

The nomenclature of icons will be analysed in great detail, since many scenes and icons are accompanied by captions explaining the actions performed and naming the objects involved. The object designations as found in captions will be analysed lexicologically and morphologically to obtain additional information on the objects’ nature and their specific features. The lexicological investigation will be based on and supplemented with philological and linguistic research. The analysis of what the Egyptians deemed important to express in words in connection with an object and how depiction and caption complemented one another will be equally essential for understanding the Egyptian mind.

Technical domain


For the assessment of icons, the system of the MEKETREpository, which has been developed in the course of the MeKeTRE Project (see below), will be extended by utilising crowd sourcing technologies (e.g. Citizen Science, Game With a Purpose). This will provide scholars from other institutions, as well as non-experts with some background in Egyptology, with an easy-to-use platform where they can perform simple repetitive but yet highly helpful tasks, such as uploading images depicting relevant art items, providing annotations, or suggesting inclusion of new thesaurus terms. The expected results are twofold. First, we aim to acquire extensive material (especially photographs) that has the potential to complement the data already collected in the course of the MeKeTRE project. Second, the methods developed and applied in the implementation and data gathering process will constitute a contribution on their own, hopefully providing valuable insights about quality assessment and integration of data coming from citizen science projects.

About MeKeTRE (2009 – 2013)

The Evolution of Scene Content in Middle Kingdom Tombs

MeKeTRE was an interdisciplinary research project, conducted at Institute of Egyptology in cooperation with the research group Multimedia Information Systems at the University of Vienna. It was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, project number P 21571).

MEKETRE focused on two main goals:

  • It sought to systematically collect, research, and study the reliefs and paintings of Middle Kingdom tombs of Ancient Egypt. The project targeted two- dimensional art of the Middle Kingdom (11th to 13th Dynasty, ca. 2040 – 1640 B.C.) and one of its main aims was to map and elaborate the development of the scenes and their content in comparison to the Old Kingdom.
  • The project's technical part covered the research-based development of the MEKETREpository, a specialised software solution that supports the assessment, organisation and analysis of the collected material and bibliographic metadata. It supports the collaborative development of ontologies and collaborative annotation on the available media material. The copyright of the database will remain with the Institute of Egyptology, University Vienna, which means that this institution is entitled to host and develop it. The repository was made accessible to scholars, teachers and students worldwide, thus giving an easy access to updated information about scenes and scene details in Middle Kingdom tombs.

Project details

The MeKeTRE project officially started on the 1st of November 2009 and ended in May 2013. The acronym MeKeTRE stands for "Middle Kingdom Tomb Relief Evolution". The name derives from the owner of the famous early Middle Kingdom tomb in Thebes (TT 280) and should signify the project's main focus, i.e. the art of the Middle Kingdom (MK). The project From Object to Icon (see above) is based on the MeKeTRE project and can be considered its second phase.

Art historical domain


The first comprehensive assessment of Middle Kingdom reliefs and paintings were published by Luise Klebs in 1922 (Die Reliefs und Malereien des mittleren Reiches. (VII.-XVII. Dynastie ca. 2475-1580 v. Chr.), Heidelberg). Despite its deficiencies – acknowledged already by the authoress herself – the book is to a certain extent still a valuable reference in art historical research. In 1934 vol. IV of the indispensable Porter and Moss (PM) edition was published (B. Porter, B. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. Vol. IV: Lower and Middle Egypt, Oxford) assessing all the data pertaining to the important Middle Kingdom cemeteries situated in Middle Egypt. Since then, no update of this important egyptological tool has been accomplished, creating a considerable gap in scientific research. From 1968 to 1978 Jacques Vandier dedicated three volumes of his gigantic enterprise Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne to the reliefs and paintings (Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne. Vol. IV, Paris 1964; vol. V, Paris 1969; Vol. VI, Paris 1978). In these books Vandier grouped the various scenes systematically according to their contents and tried to trace chronological developments in style and iconography. His study rests on a much larger collection of scenes and depictions then Klebs’s work and forms an essential basis in art historical research. Nevertheless, since the appearance of the last volume (1978) dealing with the agricultural scenes in tombs, no other comprehensive publication has been undertaken.

Scientific approach

It is widely accepted that Middle Kingdom funerary monuments were carrying on the essential idea of tomb-building and decoration from the Old Kingdom on a grand (sometimes even royal) scale. Nevertheless, the decorative programme – scenes and specific scene details – although modelled on Old Kingdom examples has changed considerably. A large number of scenes and scene details characteristic in the tombs of the Old Kingdom disappear during the Middle Kingdom, while others occur which were not present in the former period or are carried on under modified versions. These changes and innovations – although repeatedly observed – have never been studied on a large scale.

Since change and innovation constitute a fundamental part in understanding Middle Kingdom funerary culture, the project MeKeTRE aimed to establish reliable criteria for the interpretation of tomb decoration:

  1. when and where do specific scenes (or scene details), motifs or larger scene compositions appear or disappear,
  2. when and where are they carried on under modified versions,
  3. what is the deeper meaning of these new or modified scenes in comparison to the Old Kingdom scenes, and
  4. what is the specific connotation of these scenes in the overall scheme of tomb decoration?

Besides the points outlined above key areas of the research targeted also the topics like topographical and regional diversity, traditions, schools and travelling artists, location and distribution of scenes, stylistic analysis etc., which are crucial for the art of the Middle Kingdom.
As all the points outlined above necessitate a comprehensive assessment of the material, an exhaustive and easy-to-use tool such as a bibliographical database for Middle Kingdom reliefs and paintings is a fundamental device. Egyptology has witnessed an enormous increase in the quantity of books, catalogues and periodicals dealing with the art of the Middle Kingdom in the past 40 years. Consequently, the bibliographical workload of any future research in this field has accumulated considerably. One part of this Middle Kingdom research project was therefore the establishment of a comprehensive assessment of published and unpublished material in a database. In its final version, the database should encompass all known scenes and scene details with the entire bibliographical references from Middle Kingdom two-dimensional art, thus creating a reliable source for the future research.

Technical domain


To support the points outlined above, special software was developed for organizing, analysing and sharing the collected multimedia material (drawings, photos, text documents etc.) taken from the MK reliefs and paintings. Approximately 20 general themes (theme complexes) were selected for the MEKETREpository, into which fit approximately more than hundred Middle Kingdom scenes-types and scene details which occur in named and unnamed tombs throughout Egypt, and/or on blocks in magazines, museums and private collections. The location of the individual scenes of each specific scene-type is listed in the database, with data such as the main archaeological references, site, cemetery, tomb number, date, room, wall position etc. The general themes and the themes that derive from the representations constitute the ‘upper layers’ of the database. The themes are arranged according to the topics already provided in Klebs (1922) and Vandier (1964 – 1978) and are widely known in the academic world (for instance: marsh-related activities, desert and desert-related activities, animal-husbandry, workshop activities, funerary rites etc.). From this point onwards it is possible to ‘drill’ downwards to more refined levels, in order to reach the details (icons) that occur in specific scene-types, and in the specific motifs of each accessed scene-type (f.e. specific objects, fauna and flora as well as mannerisms, figure-types and postures, etc.). From this basic structure the researcher can access archaeological, bibliographical, chronological, and geographical information about scores of Middle Kingdom scenes and scene details throughout Egypt.

Scientific approach

Multimedia content within the MEKETREpository is organized by means of one main taxonomy (in English), which embraces the various themes depicted by the reliefs and paintings in a hierarchical fashion and multiple additional concept schemes (ontologies / controlled vocabularies) that further describe the content. The concept schemes that describe other aspects of the multimedia content (not the depicted persons and things but for example colours, location, age, etc.) are constantly developed in the course of the project, using collaborative ontology building methods. The applied concept schemes are technically represented using standardized web based knowledge organization systems (KOS), in particular the Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL).
The implementation of the MEKETREpository software solution utilizes industry-standard technology to ensure both reliability and maintainability. Since the project is expected to develop beyond the three-year limit, it is important to build on a well-proven foundation of software components and a clean, well documented implementation. Therefore we decided to organize the MEKETREpository in a 3-tier style which is very common for many enterprise software solutions.
As stated above, the main focus lies in providing an easy-to-use interface to the collected data. For the user browsing the MEKETREpository, an up-to-date webbrowser (e.g. Firefox 3.0)

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