Harvard Egyptology Professor Merges Ancient Discoveries with New Technologies


By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard’s Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology Peter Der Manuelian first discovered his passion for all things Egypt during a fourth grade history class at the Belmont Day School.

“I remember that as the first class that actively grabbed my attention,” said Manuelian.

From there, he was hooked. Luckily, young Manuelian was able to foster this interest locally at the famous Egyptian collection at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).

Manuelian is Harvard University’s first Egyptologist in more than half a century.

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His predecessor was George A. Reisner (1867–1942), whom Manuelian described as “one of the greatest archaeologists and Egyptologists of his generation.”

“I feel honored and privileged to try to help reawaken Harvard’s glorious archaeological legacy of work in Egypt. There is indeed great passion for the subject here, and I’ve been supported on every level,” said Manuelian.

Manuelian grew up in Belmont amidst the Boston area’s thriving Armenian community. His grandmother fled Istanbul during World War I and found her way to Boston, where she married a fellow Armenian and started a family.

Manuelian attended Harvard University as an undergraduate before earning his doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. He also studied in Germany at the Universität Tübingen.

While immersed in his studies, Manuelian began what would prove a longstanding relationship with the MFA, as he embarked on his first volunteer summer at the MFA in 1976. In 1977, he accompanied the MFA team to Egypt to begin his field research in archaeological projects in Giza.

He continued his work with the MFA and became a full-time member of the curatorial staff in 1987 and his formal relationship with the museum continued through 2011.

Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2010, Manuelian taught at Tufts University for 10 years.

His research interests include ancient Egyptian history, archaeology, epigraphy, the development of mortuary architecture and the iconographic nature of Egyptian language and culture. He has also researched New Kingdom temples at Luxor (Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) and the Predynastic site of Naqada.

“I don’t know of another civilization that so beautifully blends art and writing, writing and art together into a seamless expression of the entire culture. And to last four millennia or more, well that means you’re doing something right,” he said.

While Manuelian’s job is to document and make sense of the distant past, he is attentive to the future of the field and utilizes current technologies to uncover and document this rich past and share this information with others. “As director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, I have set in motion plans for a new Egyptian gallery and we are currently seeking the funds to build an exciting, state-of-the-art display that will wow both our students and the general public as well,” said Manuelian.

One of the significant contributions Manuelian has made to the field has been his ongoing work as the founding director of the Giza Archives. After 40 years excavating 23 different sites in Egypt and Nubia (ancient Sudan), the joint Harvard University and MFA Expedition had amassed a huge archaeological archive of tens of thousands of glass plate excavation negatives, notes, plans, drawings, manuscripts and diaries, as well as actual artifacts themselves.

“In the case of the Giza Pyramids, just west of modern Cairo” said Manuelian, “this priceless archive allows scholars to study the site in ways no longer possible even at Giza itself.” He added, “Imagine how much more preservation a 1904 photo of a painted tomb wall scene or hieroglyphic inscription will show you than one taken in 2013.”

A collection so large called for an efficient method of organizing and record-keeping. According to Manuelian, the expedition archive struggled with the weight of its own scale and the difficulty of “finding what you need.”

This was a case where ancient history required the help of present-day technology. “When I worked at the MFA, we had the good fortune to secure more than $3 million in support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to digitize and cross-reference online all the Giza materials.”

Thanks to the Mellon funding and the work of more than 500 students, docents, volunteers and supervising Egyptologists, anyone can view the materials today at http://www.gizapyramids.org.

The Giza Project is an ongoing international collaboration. Manuelian explained, “Our aim is to become the central repository for this most famous archaeological site in the world. We hope to recreate that historic collaboration between Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, two great institutions that share a unique archaeological legacy.”

The project has also teamed with Dassault Systèmes of Paris and Waltham and adopted immersive 3D computer technologies for modeling of the Giza Pyramids, tombs and temples. These elaborate models and teaching tools can be viewed at http://giza.3ds.com.

“This is ‘publishing’ in the widest sense of the word. But it is expensive, and this project, too, is in need of continuous support.”

While there is a wealth of information and interest in Egyptology, popularity brings its fair share of misconceptions. The most common ones, according to Manuelian, are: the notion that “Hebrew slaves — or better yet, aliens! — built the pyramids,” the misconception that Egyptian hieroglyphs are just pictures, not a grammatical language and that “there is a curse of the pharaohs, thanks to King Tut. Oh, and archaeologists tend not to carry around guns and whips, unlike Indiana Jones.”

When he is not researching or teaching, Manuelian enjoys simple pleasures such as guitar music, cats, architecture and graphic design, and admits he has an “unholy addiction” to Apple products.

Manuelian approaches his work with enthusiasm and a sense of humor, always keeping the issue of accessibility in mind.

He has contributed to several academic journals, including the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology and the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. As far as other publications, Manuelian noted, “My books have long, boring names, such as Slab Stelae of the Giza Necropolis; Studies in the Reign of Amenophis II; Mastabas of Nucleus Cemetery G 2100 and Living in the Past: Studies Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty […] My children’s books, such as Hieroglyphs from A to Z, might be a bit more fun.”

Manuelian is currently working on a biography of Reisner and various projects related to his work at the Giza Pyramids. He is also producing a short introduction to his field called The 30-Second Ancient Egypt, he noted, “for those who don’t have a lot of time!”

From a fourth grader with a blossoming interest in history to Harvard’s first Harvard professor of Egyptology in more than 60 years, Manuelian exudes the same passion for his field and hopes to preserve history and share it with the public.

“I hope archaeological legacies all over the world, whether in Armenia, in Egypt or elsewhere, will receive the care and preservation they deserve, through both the good times and the challenging ones,” said Manuelian.

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