Mummies and Pottery and Snakes, Oh My!
Bolstered by Web searches and several TV videos of Donald P Ryan reflecting on Howard Carter, ancient rope making and climbing up to the remote tomb of Neferure or dropping into KV60 and KV 20, I eagerly attended Dr. Ryan's lecture at the University of Montana on April 29, 2010 to see what further insights he could shed on the uninscribed tombs he has excavated.
After a brief orientation of Egyptian periods up to King Tut, Dr. Ryan enthralled us with descriptions of some of his experiences excavating in the Valley of the Kings. While many of his observations are available online, his photos of dig procedures provided unusual glimpses of the real work of archaeologists. The team found clay necropolis seals similar to the most famous one on Tutankhamun's shrine whose image greeted us at the beginning of the lecture. The ancient priests stamped hieroglyphs of the captured nine-bows, the symbolic enemies of Egypt, into mud seals when they closed a tomb.
Maps of the Valley of the Kings tombs hardly begin to orient Ryan's excavations the way his photos do. Diagramatically tombs 21, 27, 28, 44 and 45 seem nearly across from Tutankhamun's tomb, but in fact they nestle into a little valley behind a big hill, obscured from tourists' view. Because the roughly hacked out tomb 60 was fortuitously resealed by previous investigators, the mummy now identified as Hatshepsut continued to survive the milennia. Ryan's reopening of that tomb called attention to that long forgotten mummy. His role in the Discovery Channel's "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" employs a little mountaineering show biz to lead us to the uninscribed tomb of Hatshepsut's daughter, Nefererure.
Some finds have their ups and downs. KV27 held two parts of a canopic jar that identifed Userhet, but three other kindred jars in KV45 make the latter more likely the tomb of "God's father" Userhet.
Highlights of the two hour presentation include details about the fragmentary face from a mummy coffin he contemplates in the photo on his webpage. Little would you guess that its current visage reflects painstaking reconstruction of myriad smaller fragments. A closeup reveals the adze marks of the tomb robbers who stripped the gold foil and therefore the mummy's features. Dr. Ryan credits international and Egyptian team members for their specialized contributions. Aiming at a general audience, he shared only occasional names but an egyptophile would have appreciated more name dropping. He most likely provides more details in his book Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist which is due to be released the end of June.
Ryan's initiative to excavate undecorated tombs lends support to his new book cover's claim that he is an unconventional archaeologist. By excavating neglected uninscribed tombs he has rescued from oblivion mummies now considered to be Hatshepsut and the mother of the two fetuses in Tutankhamun's tomb. If he writes with the candor and humor of his live presentation, by reading his book we will enjoy a ringside seat during the digs.
Amazon.com's preorder price seems like a good deal. Ryan's other forthcoming book with the cute title, Ancient Egypt on 5 Deben a Day, sounds attractive to a veteran of a very modestly financed self tour of Egypt some years ago.