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Professor Revives Egyptology At Harvard

By Daniel J. Kramer, Crimson Staff Writer

“When you see the mummies, make a right.”

So said Harvard’s Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology Peter Der Manuelian ’81, as he gave directions to his office in the Semitic Musuem at 6 Divinity Avenue.

The Semitic Museum, Harvard’s showcase of Near Eastern Archaeology, is a small, cozy building nestled in between the Biological Laboratories and the Yenching Library. Upon entering, one is greeted by gleaming walls, colorful displays, and perfectly preserved pieces of ancient history of inestimable value.

Between exhibits on “The Houses in Ancient Israel,” and “Monuments from Mesopotamia,” golden statues look down with solemn gazes, while pottery and intricate metalwork shine in the slanted iridescence of sun filtering through the museum windows.

Though the contents ring of the archetypal Harvard museum, the halls feel oddly quiet.

As one of the staff members says, “We don’t get students too often.”

In 2010, Manuelian became Harvard’s first full-fledged Egyptologist on the faculty since George Andrew Reisner, class of 1889. Through his ongoing archaeological research and innovative computer modelling, Manuelian hopes to help ancient Eygypt make a comeback at Harvard and in the intellectual community at large.

A Long-Awaited Arrival

Manuelian’s office contrasts starkly with its immediate environment. In a hall of chariots, spears, and swords sits his modern room, with a digital projector, and a grapefruit-sized rotating globe sitting on the conference table. Clad in a turtle neck sweater and elbow-patch jacket, he offers a polite welcome. A book under his authorship is visible next to a desk-sized statue of one of the early pharaohs.

Previously, Manuelian served as director of the Giza Archives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and as a research associate at Harvard.

When asked about what got him interested in Egyptian archaeology, Manuelian smiles reflectively.

“To me I think it was the scale of the monuments, the monumentality of the pyramids and temples, and then the fascinating hieroglyphic language structure, the very graphic and iconographic culture that uses pictures and words together to convey some pretty sophisticated thoughts,” he says. “That, and the longevity of Egyptian civilizations, three millennia or more of pharaonic culture, is a pretty impressive thing to study.”

The Egyptologist is in his fourth decade in the field. He began his archaeological career at the MFA, Boston in the summer of 1976, and began on-site work in Egypt at the Giza Pyramids in the summer of 1977. Manuelian was just out of high school.

During that year, Manuelian was part of an epigraphic expedition—meaning he continued the archiving of materials and artifacts that was not completed by an original expedition’s conclusion. He studied the tombs, their inscriptions, and the architecture of buildings around the pyramids, focusing on works that originated in the fourth dynasty in 2500 BC. After that early phase of his career, Manuelian moved on to more “traditional archaeological sites” and studied pre-dynastic work.

Unbeknownst to many, Harvard has had a long-standing association with the Giza Pyramids: the Harvard University-Boston MFA Expedition ran from 1905 until 1947 in Giza.

The Expedition produced “the greatest assemblage of archaeological materials and archives up until that point by any expedition,” says Manuelian.

Back in the Classroom

Manuelian teaches seven classes, including Egyptian Aa: The Language of the Pharaohs, Egyptian 150: Voices from the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Literature in Translation, and Anthropology 1250: The Pyramids of Giza. He also teaches a General Education course titled Societies of the World 38: Pyramid Schemes: The Archaeological History of Ancient Egypt.

Maggie E. Geoga ’12 has taken Pyramid Schemes, Egyptian Ab, and Egyptian 150 under Manuelian’s instruction. “I loved Pyramid Schemes because the lectures were really engaging and enjoyable, but my favorites are Middle Egyptian and Egyptian Literature because both classes are very small ... and discussion-based, which allows us to delve deeper into certain issues,” Geoga says.

Geoga is excited about the revival of Egyptology in Harvard academia.

“It’s really great to see Egyptology classes in the course catalog,” she says. “If Harvard had had them two years ago, I might have chosen a different concentration.”

In addition, Manuelian has shown no hesitation in integrating the world’s oldest subject matter with the world’s newest technology. To help his students visualize Egyptian life and architecture, Geoga says Manuelian gives his students “3-D tours” of the Giza Pyramids, using computer graphics and images in the Geological Museum’s Visualization Center, across the street from the Semitic Museum.

“Professor Manuelian is a very engaging lecturer because his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious,” Geoga says. “His use of technology ... gives his students a unique understanding of the material and makes the class more fun.”

Bringing Egypt to the World

The bulk of Manuelian’s career has focused on the Giza site, which he describes as a “treasure trove” of relics from one of the longest-living civilizations in human history. For the last decade, he has been working on assembling thousands of dig photographs, diaries, object register books, glass plate negative photographs, and unpublished manuscripts.

“We try to correlate a lot of that older material with the state of the site now; we try to update things so we can do a new excavation where we need to,” Manuelian says.

For Manuelian, the rewards of his archaeological labors come to fruition in the classroom, where Manuelian’s computer modeling is more than just a teaching tool for a seminar class. Manuelian has combined the data from all his years of work at Giza into a massive computer simulation recreating the entire Giza site and its history.

When Manuelian opens his MacBook and navigates to, the interwebs bring up a virtually unlimited reservoir of archaeological resources: 3,841 files on tombs, 22,076 on artifacts, and 9,909 on plans and drawing of building design, to name a few.

The second phase of Manuelian’s online opus, which will be available later this year, is an expanded version of the three-dimensional models he uses in class. Watching the projector screen in Manuelian’s office, one sees a sky-view of the Pyramid landscape. The view then zooms down to ground view and a recreation of Egyptian burial ceremony begins, complete with computer-generated avatars of Egyptian priests, laborers, and artisans in the ceremonial square.

As Manuelian explains the site, his face lights up. “Bit by bit we’re trying to build the entire site of Giza,” he says. “My fantasy is that every single tomb, every single pyramid, every burial shaft, every statue will be back in place ... These things allow you to pose new questions about how ritual took place, where it took place, what time of day it was, who was present, who was absent.”

A seamless blend of the scientific and the artistic, Manuelian says these tools are essential to a full appreciation of Giza’s ancient relics.

“Archaeology is very much about context,” Manuelian explains.

“It’s a great way to get a sense of relationships and it’s a matrix of what was earlier and what was later relative to each other. Who’s deep, who’s shallow. It’s a great learning and teaching tool for us.”

Taking Up the Reisner Mantle

Manuelian chuckles when asked about the potential similarities between his work and the “Indiana Jones” films.

In the early 1900s, Harvard Egyptologist Reisner and his fellow archaeologists essentially lived the plot of the first movie.

“[They] lived at Giza in a series of mud brick huts behind the pyramids, and in World War II when they were afraid that the Germans were coming over the hill they actually rounded up all the archival materials and they buried them in a series of burial shafts,” Manuelian said.

Reflecting on early 20th century archaeology, Manuelian has read historical documents that sound as if they could have inspired the other “Indiana Jones” films as well.

“There are accounts of finding a statue, putting the guards on it all night, and finding the statue is gone the next morning, and they try to figure out who knows about it and where it could’ve gone and they get tracking dogs to go down into the village and lead them to the guy’s house,” he says, citing diaries and records of Egyptologists in Reisner’s time.

Manuelian sees Hollywood representations of archaeology as attempts to tell an entertaining story. He is not particularly offended by historical inaccuracies, but he does wish that the heightened awareness of archaeology fostered by blockbuster hits had a more tangible impact in drawing people into the field.

Either way, he says he takes comfort in the fact that the realities of his field are just as, if not more, thrilling than the depictions on the big screen.

“Just to enter into these tombs and to try to get a handle on what the original excavators found and try to make it intelligible in a modern era for people is an exciting thing,” Manuelian says.

He also emphasizes that it is an honor to follow in Reisner’s footsteps.

“[Reisner] was actually from a time when archaeology was just finding its feet and becoming a discipline and a science with a responsible method, and he was one of the very earliest pioneers,” Manuelian says.

Manuelian, who is currently writing a biography of Reisner, adds that Reisner was one of the first to use methods of documentation like glass-plate negative photography, daily register books, and diaries.

When asked about filling the void that Reisner left behind, Manuelian’s answer is a very humble one.

“I wouldn’t put myself quite at his league,” Manuelian says. “He was really quite a genius on many fronts.”

Manuelian’s colleagues are excited to hear that he has stepped into Reisner’s position at Harvard.

“It is extremely important that Harvard once more has an Egyptologist on its faculty,” says Willeke Z. Wendrich, professor of Egyptian archaeology at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. “Any serious university, especially one which owns a collection of Egyptian art, should enable students to study and understand the development, unique features and deeply human aspects of ancient cultures.”

Wendrich adds that Manuelian’s work is exciting because of his enormous service to the scholarly community in giving access to the Giza materials online.

“I’m certain the Harvard student population is benefitting greatly from his deep knowledge, unique insights and innovative digital approach,” Wendrich says.

Manuelian stresses that his work in Egyptology is not only beneficial to Harvard students, but benefits society in innumerable ways.

“Any culture you study enriches your own perceptions, to see how you do things in a similar fashion or in a different way, and in many ways studying the ancient Egyptians builds a bridge, a link, to our common humanity,” Manuelian says.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Kramer can be reached at

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