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UCLA Egyptologists To Launch New E-encyclopedia

May 1, 2006
University Of California - Los Angeles
In cooperation with an international team of scholars, UCLA is launching the world's first comprehensive online encyclopedia dedicated to all aspects of ancient Egypt and its legacy. Over the next decade, hundreds of scholars are expected to contribute to the constantly evolving and peer-reviewed UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE), which ultimately will contain approximately 4,000 entries and weigh in at 6 million words.

Move out of the way "Lexikon der Agyptologie" (pictured left), UCLA Egyptologists (from right) Jacco Dieleman and Willemina Wendrich plan to create ancient Egypt's ultimate reference source online.
Credit: Kevin Matthews

In cooperation with an international team of scholars, UCLA is launching the world's first comprehensive online encyclopedia dedicated to all aspects of ancient Egypt and its legacy.

Over the next decade, hundreds of scholars are expected to contribute to the constantly evolving and peer-reviewed UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE), which ultimately will contain approximately 4,000 entries and weigh in at 6 million words.

"We want to set the gold standard for reference materials about ancient Egypt, and we hope our standard won't be carved in stone," said UCLA Egyptologist Willemina Wendrich, who conceived of and will oversee the project. "We want to be as nimble as our field is fast‑paced."

A project of such scope has not been attempted in the field since a group of five main editors and hundreds of scholar contributors embarked on the seven-volume Lexikon der Ägyptologie, which has reigned as the bible of Egyptology for the past three decades.

While many Web sites currently provide information on ancient Egypt, most are hosted by nonprofessional enthusiasts and the quality of content varies widely. Although several well‑funded and high-quality Web sites have been created on ancient Egypt, nearly all are either for tourists, children or some specialized segment of the scholarly or archaeological community that is involved in Egyptology.

"The UEE will be the first reliable and comprehensive scholarly interactive Web resource on ancient Egypt," said Jacco Dieleman, encyclopedia editor and a UCLA assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Culture.

Designed to become available in stages beginning in 2008, the project is at core a conventional encyclopedia.

"This traditional form has been deliberately selected in order to ensure acceptance of the concept by everyone working in Egyptology," said Wendrich, UEE editor-in-chief and a UCLA associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

The UEE will have two versions: an Open Version, an easily operated, no-frills version that will be available to anybody with access to the Internet via the University of California's online publication series eScholarship; and a Full Version, a more sophisticated version that will target users familiar with such information retrieval systems as map searches and weighted keyword searches. Unlike a printed reference book, the UEE Full Version also will feature virtual reality models — or 3-D computer reconstructions of ancient temples, tombs, settlements and landscapes. Editors are looking into the prospects of including a database of hieroglyphic texts and archaeological data. They hope to integrate primary and archival material, so that users can inspect archaeological treasures.

Since it is not being printed, UEE will not be built alphabetically but according to a topic's overall importance, so editors plan to weigh in first with high-interest entries or subjects deemed most out of date in conventional sources. Also unlike conventional encyclopedia entries, topics can be updated quickly as discoveries and new interpretations surface.

"This year alone there already have been four major discoveries that have significantly changed how we interpret ancient Egyptian history, religion and life," Wendrich said.

Added Dieleman: "The field is evolving at a continuous, fast pace, and printed reference materials just have not been able to keep up."

Indeed, the Lexikon has not been updated since 1987, and a complete update is widely viewed as too expensive to undertake in today's publishing climate.

"The advantage of an online encyclopedia is that you can update each article whenever necessary," Wendrich said.

But UEE editors promise to bring more than currency to the field. Thanks to hyperlink search features, the UEE will pave the way to new approaches to the field.

"UEE will allow users to combine data, images, interpretive articles and Virtual Reality 3-D computer models of monuments and to link information in ways otherwise not possible," Wendrich said.

Having received the endorsement from the 1,000-member-strong International Association of Egyptologists, the project is poised to become the definitive source for researchers and scholars active in the field, said Wendrich, whose work includes ongoing archaeological projects in Egypt.

UEE also will try to reach out to key audiences overlooked in the past by scholarly repositories of Egyptology. Pledging to keep language accessible and jargon-free, editors plan to provide editorial content for general audiences as well as the more than 15,000 U.S. college students who take classes each year in Egyptian history, art history and civilization.

"This segment of the public has depended until now on Web materials that are often based on outdated or fanciful theories and have no direct link with the academic study of Egyptology," Dieleman said.

The editors also plan to reach a key audience overlooked by past scholarly publications on the subject: Egypt's Arabic-speaking population. Plans call initially for synopses of entries to be translated into Arabic. Eventually, however, the entire reference work will be available in the language that is today spoken in what once was the land of the Pharaohs. As currently envisioned, all UEE text will be available free of charge through the UEE Open Version in eScholarship, while a subscription structure will be in place for English-readers of the UEE Full Version. Users logging in from Egypt will have access to all information for free.

"This Arabic version will foster dialog and positive exchange among American, European and Egyptian scholars and the public," Wendrich said.

"At this point, no high-quality reference material targets this group, and so unless Egyptians read one of the three languages in which scholarly research tends to be published — German, English or French — they don't have access to the findings," Dieleman added. "We feel that this situation is not right since this, after all, is their culture and legacy."

Editors expect to launch UEE's first phase two years from now, with approximately 500 entries or roughly as many entries as such leading reference books as the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt and the British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. The ultimate build-out of the repository is estimated to take an additional decade.

The project's financing is similarly intricate and ambitious. For the past year, UCLA has bankrolled the project's exploratory phase. The award last month of a $325,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will pave the way for the project's first phase.

From there, the project's business model calls for a range of income streams. The editors hope to secure various grants and donations to cover components aimed at non-academic and K‑12 audiences and the Arabic translation of the encyclopedia.

The grant's receipt represents something of a coup for Los Angeles, which, despite its rich museum culture, does not hold a candle to Eastern establishments when it comes to ancient Egyptian holdings.

Credit partly lies with the project's interdisciplinary editorial board, which consists of 10 leading Egyptologists from seven different countries — including four based in the United States — and six different fields, including archaeology, philology, linguistics, history, literature and art history. The project's third editor is Oxford University Egyptologist John Baines.

"The top Egyptologists in the world today are guiding this project," Wendrich said.

But it also helps that UCLA has distinguished itself in recent years by serving as the incubator for such creative digital projects in the humanities as 3-D virtual reality models of the Roman Forum and Colosseum and a vast digital archive of cuneiform. In addition to UEE editor‑in-chief, Wendrich serves as faculty director of UCLA's Digital Humanities Incubator Group, which nurtures such projects.

An Egyptologist for almost 20 years, Wendrich has participated in at least 15 different excavations in Egypt and for eight years has overseen excavations in the Greco-Roman harbor town of Berenike. For the past four years, she has been co-directing excavations in the Fayum, where she excavated Neolithic grain storage facilities and discovered an unknown Greco-Roman settlement. Since 2000, Wendrich has been on the faculty of UCLA's Near Eastern Cultures and Languages Department, where she teaches the history and archaeology of Egypt. She is a board member of the Institute for Digital Research and Education and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

Dieleman, who has been on UCLA's faculty since 2003, studies dealings between the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians during the Greco-Roman period. As a philologist, he specializes in magical texts written in Demotic, which is the latest form of the ancient Egyptian language. In 2002, he won the prestigious Basler ägyptologischer Nachwuchspreis, which is given by Switzerland's University of Basel.

Wendrich and Dieleman will present their plans for the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology April 28 at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, an umbrella group for American scholars and archaeologists with ongoing research in Egypt. This year's meeting will be held in Jersey City, N.J.

The UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology's Internet address is

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