During James Henry Breasted's first visit to Egypt in 1894, he was able to compare published versions of hieroglyphic texts with the original inscriptions. His observation of the many discrepancies in the publications shocked him and impressed upon him the importance of careful recording of texts - the discipline known as "epigraphy." His resolve to record the ancient inscriptions properly was strengthened by his realization that many inscriptions were being eroded or vandalized before they could be documented. Breasted's determination to produce accurate facsimiles of texts and their associated decoration led to the foundation of an epigraphic program that is, to this day, one of the principle contributions of The Oriental Institute to the field of Egyptology.


The Epigraphic Survey of The Oriental Institute was founded in 1924 under the direction of Harold H. Nelson. With the exception of the war years (1940-45), the staff of the Epigraphic Survey has returned annually to Egypt to record inscriptions and decoration on ancient Egyptian monuments. The work has included the great temple at Medinet Habu, the Bubastite Portal and Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, the temple of Ramesses III at Karnak and the first two courts of theTemple of Khonsu at Karnak. The Survey finished work in the Colonnade Hall of the Luxor Temple in 1994 and is beginning documentation of the Eighteenth Dynasty chapel at Medinet Habu.

The publications of The Epigraphic Survey serve as basic research materials for historians and philologists and as a permanent record of rapidly eroding temple decoration.

Many features of what is now referred to as the "Chicago Method" of epigraphy were first devised by Breasted during the 1905-7 expedition. The hallmark of this procedure continues to be the systematic checking of the artistic rendering against the original by a team of epigraphers and artists.


  1. The surface of the monument is photographed. Great care is taken to avoid any distortion during photography. The photo is then printed on paper coated with a heavy gelatine emulsion.
  2. The hieroglyphs and decoration shown on the photograph are traced in pencil and then inked by an artist.
  3. The photographic image is bleached away, leaving a preliminary line drawing of the wall's surface. Two blueprints of the inked drawings are made.
  4. One of these blueprints is cut into small pieces. These are called "collation sheets." All lines on the collation sheet are compared to those on the original carved walls. Any discrepancies, corrections or questions are noted on the sheet. These corrections are discussed by Egyptologists and artists, who evaluate the appearance of the carved scene and how it may best be represented in the drawing.
  5. After the team agrees upon all suggested corrections, an artist makes changes to the drawing.
  6. The drawing undergoes another last check before it is included in the final publication of the monument.

The Epigraphic Survey's most recent work has been documenting the original decoration of the upper registers of the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple. Over several years, the staff has recorded the decoration on blocks that once formed the upper walls of the monument, but were removed from the temple in antiquity. On the basis of similar scenes, the survey has been able to reconstruct the scheme of ritual scenes on the now-destroyed upper registers.


The permanent headquarters of The Epigraphic Survey is called "Chicago House." The original building, located on the west bank of the Nile near Medinet Habu, was designed by Breasted himself and included living quarters, a study and a library.

In 1931, a new facility funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was built on the east bank of the Nile at Luxor. This second Chicago House offers more spacious living quarters, a library, laboratories, workshops and artists' studios. For the last half century it has been a center of international research and has provided hospitality and assistance for scholars and visitors alike.