The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Research > Waseda research zone - latest news on project research


Waseda research zone - latest news on project research

In Pursuit of the 5000-Year Dream of Pharaoh: Institute of Egyptology

Mummy of Senw, found "in perfect condition" in an undisturbed tomb

On January 5th, 2005, at the Dahshur North site in the south of Cairo, the capital of Egypt, a team of researchers from Waseda University Institute of Egyptology excavated a yellow wooden coffin with blue inscriptions covering all its sides. The name of the mummy in the coffin is Senw, wearing a mask whose hair and eyebrows are painted in vivid blue. 400 years older than the mummy of King Tutankhamun, Senw's is believed to date from approximately 3,800 years ago, one of the oldest mummies, "in perfect condition" without any signs of being robbed in the past. The news crossed the world in a flash.

In 1966, 200 years lagging behind Western research in Egyptology, Prof. Kiichi Kawamura (then Assistant Professor/Lecturer) launched an archaeological survey in Egypt with his five students including Prof. Sakuji Yoshimura (President of Cyber University & visiting professor of Waseda University), then a student of the Faculty of Letters I. As a pioneering survey in Japan, it resulted in many new excavations just in a period of 40 years and opened up a new front in Egyptology.

An exhibition entitled "Sakuji Yoshimura's Excavating in Egypt for 40 Years: Waseda University Expedition 1966-2006" is now held nationwide. Each of its approximately 250 articles is the fruit of assiduous efforts devoted by the researchers to their excavation. Pledging himself to establish a research institute in the future, Prof. Yoshimura set out on his first trip to Egypt at the age of 23. His pledge was fulfilled in April 2000: the Institute of Egyptology was established at Waseda University. Producing over 20 researchers and attracting others from other universities and organizations, the Institute is now leading Egyptology in Japan. Its Director Prof. Jiro Kondo (Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences) says, "Through 100-year or 200-year efforts, we want to spread Japan's unique Egyptology to the world."

I'll never give up my excavation until the day I die.

In September 1966, Prof. Yoshimura (then a student and later the General Director of the Institute of Egyptology) and four other students arrived at Egypt after a two-week ride on an oil company's tanker. Almost everyday, Prof. Yoshimura had waited for the President of Waseda University in front of his office to directly talk with him about the research project and at last obtained his approval. Then, the Waseda University research team searched for an excavation site in negotiations with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and became the first Asian team that was granted the right to excavate in 1971. This way, the exploration of the Malqata South site started.

Without any encouraging results, however, the research team worked on the project for almost three years, a period in which they could receive a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research from the Ministry of Education (now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). In January 1974, about to giving it up, they discovered the royal tomb of Amenhotep III with a painted staircase, "Kom al Samak". It was their first great success. Prof. Sukenaga Murai, then President of Waseda University, decided to provide an ample fund and Waseda House was built in 1976 as a base for excavation on the West bank of Luxor. Prof. Kondo (then a graduate student) joined the research team and in the following year Egyptian Culture Center was established on campus.

While the project was well under way, however, the team leader Prof. Kawamura was struck by illness. In December 1978, he died suddenly in a Japanese hospital at the young age of 48 without seeing the outcome of the archaeological excavation at the "Kom al Samak". Informed of his mentor being in a critical condition, Prof. Yoshimura had flied back in a hurry from Egypt to see him. It was a few days before his death. Prof. Kawamura said to Prof. Yoshimura, "Please compile my diaries in Egypt into a book. Sorry for my leaving you behind. It's regrettable." His enthusiasm for Egyptology was handed over to Prof. Yoshimura: "I'll never give up my excavation until the day I die." Although he was supposed to work for a Cairo branch of a Japanese newspaper, his mentor's death changed his destiny.

Waseda's High Technology Sweeps the World

The research team carrying out a CT scan on the mummy

Although Waseda University's project in Egypt was on the verge of collapse because of Prof. Kawamura's death, Prof. Yoshimura and other members did not give up their excavation. In January 1983, they discovered 200 mummies and human bones at Qurna Village on the West bank of Luxor and then reconstructed a mummy's head using a CT scan and computer graphics. After its publication in Europe, Waseda's high technology and its application to Exploration Geophysics attracted worldwide attention.

"We cannot compete with our Western counterparts while conducting the same survey as they do. We'll develop Japan's unique Egyptology." In 1987, they surveyed the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza using Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR), a geophysical method that uses electromagnetic radiation and detects the reflected signals from subsurface structures and which represents Japan's cutting-edge technology. They detected an unknown cavity as well as confirmed the existence of "the Second Boat" on the south side of the Pyramid, the world's oldest large wooden boat that is believed to have been used for the King's soul to travel through heaven. Also using GPR, they found architectural remains on the hilltop at Abusir South in 1991 and unearthed the stone structure belonging to the Prince Khaemwaset, often called the 'first archaeologist.' Investigative teams around the world seek this for 100 years. Over 3,000 excavated artifacts include stone materials and columns as well as relieves with which the walls might have been decorated.

Senw's computer-generated facial image; supposedly a middle-to-old aged man

In 1996, a joint project of Waseda and Tokai Universities started and the Dahshur North site was identified through computer analysis of satellite imaging data; they applied the world's first satellite remote sensing technology. One of the greatest excavations was a pair of rings bearing the names of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun, the first pair of rings in the history of Egyptology. And in January 2005, the project team discovered the mummy of Senw whose tomb bore no signs of being robbed in the past. A computer-generated facial image was created in collaboration with Joshibi University of Art and Design, with almond-shaped eyes, wide nostrils and thick lips reconstructed in three dimensions.

"Starting later than Western nations, Japan beat them with its high technology." Waseda's high technology and its results always surprised the world. Phrases like "the world's first" and "the oldest in the history" were repeatedly used by the media all across the world.

Japan's Unique Egyptology

Waseda's high technology and its application were one of technical ways to compete with Western research that had already had its 200-year history. But Japan's research had more than excavation technology. Prof. Kondo says, "Japan is not aiming to conduct research in imitation of Western academic systems. But Japan's advantages lie, I hope, in disadvantages or a void in the Western academic tradition."

What Prof. Kondo has in mind is Japan's unique Egyptology. Since the ancient Egyptians were polytheists, monotheistic Westerners may have difficulty in understanding polytheistic world. "Japanese culture, history and values must be useful in some way for understanding and reconstructing the ancient Egypt." His two-year experience as a fellow at the University of Liverpool (UK) gave him the idea of Japan's unique Egyptology.

"Comparative research on the ancient Japanese and Egyptian religions must be better conducted by Japanese than by monotheistic Westerners, as the ancient Japanese also worshipped numerous gods and goddesses. For example, there is a bird-shaped god. It is an example of deification of animals whose capabilities are beyond human ones. Another is this sea god. It's pantheistic; gods reside in everything. In this way, there is a parallelism between the ancient Japanese and Egyptian religions."

Moreover, the ancient Egyptian language is not one of the European languages but related to languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. Also starting later than Western nations, Japan's studies on the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have progressed in the past 40 years. "Hieroglyphs have very similar characters in structure to Kanji. Being kanji users is never a disadvantage in studying ancient Egyptian writing. By capitalizing on Japan's unique strengths, we'll be able to create a new Egyptology," asserted Prof. Kondo.

Through 100-Year or 200-Year Efforts

Prof. Yoshimura (left) and Prof. Kondo surveying the site of the tomb of Amenhotep III at the Valley of the Kings & the West Bank

There were still findings in 2007 at the Dahshur North site including an unearthed wooden coffin and mummies of parent and child. Also in 2008, more findings are expected in its excavation plan.

The restoration of the royal tomb of Amenhotep III at the Valley of the Kings will resume in autumn and the project of excavation and restoration of "the Second Boat" will start also in autumn. The team has already launched their observation using a sensor in the interior and the excavated "the Second Boat" is to be exhibited at the Grand Egyptian Museum to be built in Giza, where "the Second Boat" will be undergoing restoration in a three-year project.

At the same time, the team is planning to protect the Dahshur North site. An increase in tourists may cause serious damage to the remains. "There is no archaeological research that is not committed to the conservation and restoration of the site"; under this principle, Prof. Kondo and his team are making efforts to protect and restore the site as well to conduct surveys for the purpose, and consequently to develop the archaeological park on the West bank of Luxor. 50 researchers including Prof. Yoshimura will also be engaged in a project for the protection of the remains in the Giza pyramid complex including the Great Pyramid whose progressive deterioration is of serious concern. Their research is relating to tourism, for example, the effects of excessive tourism and overprotection on the remains.

Prof. Yoshimura, Prof. Kawamura's first disciple, is responsible for Lower Egypt, a region around Cairo, and Prof. Kondo, Prof. Kawamura's last disciple, for Upper Egypt, being upstream of the Nile. There are few universities in the world that have conducted research in such a wide range of Egypt.

At "Sakuji Yoshimura's Excavating in Egypt for 40 Years," a lot of girls and boys are intently watching the excavated articles. And, interested in Egyptology, an increasing number of junior and senior high school students are visiting Waseda University. Egyptology has set up its broad base in Japan in the past 40 years. Prof. Yoshimura and Prof. Kondo share the same view: "We should pride ourselves on our 40-year assiduous efforts for excavations. Excavating the Dahshur North site will take another 100 years and much more. The bottom line is, we are continuing our efforts for 100 years, or 200 years."

Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University

Sakuji Yoshimura's Excavating in Egypt for 40 Years
Waseda University Expedition 1966-2006 April 12th (Sat.)-June 15th (Sun.), 2008; Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art (Kumamoto)
June 27th (Fri.)-August 31st (Sun.), 2008; Ancient Orient Museum (Ikebukuro, Tokyo)

WASEDAWASEDA UNVERSITY Research Promotion Division  http://www.waseda.jp/rps/en/irp/index.html