The Land of the Pharoahs

For the ancient Egyptian, the sphere of life floated as a bubble, surrounded by the limitless dark waters of the inert god Nun.

people move sand blocks with palm trees in the background
Donald Redford

Donald Redford's field schools in Egypt have trained some 300 students in archeological techniques; the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, which he edited, could bring love of Egyptology to many more.

Dip into the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt and you will also learn that the ubiquitous scarab ornaments were not simply good-luck charms, but the "embodiment of the creator god who was self-engendered," the divine beetle that daily rolled the sun across the sky. You will learn how the ancient Egyptians made beer, cursed, and wore their hair, the state of their dental care, and the meaning of certain gestures. If you dreamed last night that you were eating a donkey, the entry on "Dream Books" will put your fears to rest: It means you're getting a promotion. (If you dreamed you were eating a crocodile, congratulations: You will live off the property of a bureaucrat.)

Editor-in-chief Donald Redford is a professor of classics at Penn State and, according to department head Gary Knoppers, "one of the most accomplished (if not the most accomplished) living Egyptologist in the world." At the request of Oxford University Press, Redford oversaw a team of six "field editors" and some 250 contributors who together produced 620 articles on aspects of Egyptian civilization from prehistory through the Islamic conquest of 642 CE. The three-volume, heavily illustrated encyclopedia, begun in 1994 and published in 2001, covers every sort of Egyptology, from history, linguistics, and religious studies through the personalities behind the "rough-and-ready treasure hunts" of the 19th century to the results of today's "scientific archeology." The story of Egyptian beer, for instance, takes the reader from mythology to modern microscope studies of the residues on brewing vessels.

Redford, who read and edited each entry (and supplied many of the photographs), is an acting archeologist with 40 years' experience in Egypt. Field schools he runs have taught some 300 students. "Last year I had 15 students. It varies on how I can accommodate them," he adds. "Six days a week they excavate under professional supervision, and we dig in the heat of the summer in July. It's 120 degrees. Even though it's a dry heat, it's only fair to give the students accommodations with air conditioning so they can sleep at night. We do have a dig house at one site, but I take over a technical core staff of professionals, so we're a bit packed. Otherwise, I'd take more students." Redford takes the students on side trips to see the pyramids and the ancient city of Alexandria, and to modern Cairo which, he says, "is far more encumbered with skyscrapers than Chicago is. They go on down the Nile as far as the eye can see."

man stands in front of uncovered statue
Donald Redford

A colossal statue from the lost temple of Akhenaten, one of Redford's archeological digs. King Akhenaten was "the most controversial figure in all of Egyptian history," says the Encyclopedia.

The students, he says, "come away with a good idea of the scientific aspects of archeology. They also come into close contact with the local population, since we often hire kids from the local area who need a little cash. Every student comes home with a little bit of Arabic." This part of the students' education was inspired by Redford's interactions with his French and German colleagues. "They've studied Egypt for 200 years, since Napoleon's time. They have tremendous collections," he says, "but their great interest in ancient Egypt is paralleled by an undercurrent of diplomatic interest in modern Egypt. On the continent, they know archeology and politics go together," that learning about other cultures is the first step toward a productive and profitable relationship with them.

Redford currently has contracts with the Egyptian government allowing him to dig at four sites. One is at Mendes, about two hours north of Cairo. "For a short time, Mendes was the capital of ancient Egypt," Redford says. The city once boasted two harbors on the Nile; that branch of the river has since shrunk to a narrow canal. "It's in the countryside and not built over by modern towns. It's ideal for a field school—a real gem. It goes back to prehistoric times—I don't know how far back, because we haven't gotten to the bottom yet—and was inhabited until 1100 CE."

A second site in northern Sinai, by contrast, is "a one-period site. It was only occupied 100 years," which makes it excellent for teaching the principles of stratigraphic archeology, the use of soil strata to tell time. "It's very clear. The colors of the soil are beautiful. No one can go wrong digging here," Redford says.

Redford's premiere site, the one he "cut his teeth on," is in East Karnak, part of the ancient city of Thebes. There, Redford and his team uncovered the "lost temple" of Akhenaten, the father-in-law of King Tut. Akhenaten, according to the entry in the Encyclopedia, was "the most controversial figure in all of Egyptian history." He had an "ambitious building program at the Karnak temple which aimed to appropriate the cult center of the state god Amun for the worship of a solar diety." Evidence for the temple first surfaced in 1925. While putting in a town drainage system, workers found collosal statues fallen on their faces. "In 1975," says Redford, "I got the contract from the Egyptian government to excavate East Karnak. We discovered this enormous temple. It's 212 meters wide and 600 or 700 meters long—a half a mile long. It's surrounded by two-meter-wide walls of sandstone, and every pier had a statue in front of it. The statues looked into an open court designed to let the sun in."

Akhenaten believed that only he (and to a lesser extent his queen, Nefertiti) could approach the sun god. He thought of himself as the "perfect little man-child" of the sun, and representations of him, according to the Encyclopedia entry, stressed that uniqueness. "The manner in which the king himself was depicted retains its shock value down to the present," wrote contributor Marianne Eaton-Krauss. Akhenaten has a "hanging chin, thick lips, sunken cheeks, and slanting eyes, . . . narrow shoulders, fleshy chest, swelling thighs, pendulous abdoment, and full buttocks, in marked contrast to spindly limbs and a scrawny neck." Truly not the standard heroic figure of a king, and one reason why he remains so intriguing.

drawing of ancient Egyptians playing music

Illustration from the entry on music in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Redford.

"The sanctuary is now under the modern village," says Redford. "There are two soccer fields right over the midway. Until they move that village . . . And they've talked about it, because it's such an important site, but Egyptians really object to moving. They think of their land as the family homestead. We own a small house there. We could open up the dig again. Given the interest in Akhenaten, having his first temple would be something."

Meanwhile, at a fourth site at Luxor, the Valley of the Nobles, anthropologist Susan Redford, Donald's wife and a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State, is leading a study of the tomb of Akhenaten's butler, the chief official of his household. "It's possibly the earliest tomb yet recovered dating to his reign," says Redford.

He is resigned to the fact that whatever they find in Luxor, or at the temple site if and when that dig resumes, will require an appendix in his new encyclopedia. "It's hard to write an encyclopedia in a subject like this in which we're still discovering things," he says. "When I start teaching a course on ancient Egypt, I always tell my students, by the end of the semester, someone will have discovered something that will change our minds."

Donald B. Redford, Ph.D., is professor in the department of classics and Mediterranean studies, 325 Weaver Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-863-8945; dbr3@psu.edu. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.

Last Updated May 01, 2002