Greg Alexander

Discovering ancient dynasties

Baltimore Sun, February 2004

One of the many benefits of a college education is the opportunity to transport oneself to far away lands through the magic of books, films, slideshows and lectures. Reading and hearing about exotic lands allows you to close your eyes and visualize yourself walking on the Great Wall of China or taking part in an African Safari. However, a few lucky Johns Hopkins University students will do more than just visualize traveling to an exotic location — they will actually be there.

As she has since 1994, Betsy Bryan, professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology and chair of the Near Eastern Department at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), embarked last month with three undergraduate and 10 graduate students for a two-month trip to Egypt to research areas dating back to 1500 B.C. For the fourth straight year, Bryan and her team are focussing on the Temple of the Goddess Mut at Karnak in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor. Mut was the wife of the national god of ancient Egypt, Amun, whose central temple is the largest existing religious complex in the world. Bryan’s team works in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum of Art and is supervised by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt.

The project is part of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at JHU, which has an undergraduate and master’s program. The graduate program, the oldest of its kind in the country, requires that all graduate students majoring in art and archaeology are required to do at least one season in the field or an internship at a museum, and the field work in Egypt fits that requirement. Undergraduate students on the team volunteer and are required to take two classes in Near Eastern studies on Egypt before being accepted.

Bryan says that last year, “in attempting to define the New Kingdom Temple of Mut, we made progress in finding and following the line of the enclosure wall to the precinct, built around 1470 B.C. In addition, we found workshop rooms with evidence of metal working in one area, and ovens and storage facilities.” Amazingly, Bryan’s team found bakeries with querns and mixing bowls still in place.

Building on this momentum, this year’s team will continue to further reveal the bakery and installation sectors. Additionally, “we will begin to work on the main temple platform where deteriorating blocks need conservation and reused parts of the New Kingdom Temple are now foundation fill,” Bryan says.

According to Bryan, the students stay in a local hotel, and she, the field director and photographer stay in a nearby flat. As wonderful as the scenery is, there’s hard work to do. After a 6 a.m. breakfast, the team walks to the work site and begins work at the Temple around 7 a.m. The team works until 1 p.m. before heading to a house to unload the pottery brought in baskets from the site for registration and study. Here, the team will classify, draw and photograph pottery until 5 p.m., when the students return to the hotel.

Although an 11-hour workday may scare off many young college students, Maria Malbroux, a senior pre-med major in biology at JHU, says the experience has been wonderful. “The most amazing part of this trip is listening to Dr. Bryan give you history before you arrive on a site. By the time you get there, the amount of information you learn and the detail that you are suddenly able to pick out in a scene on a wall is incredible,” says Malbroux, who also participated last year. “At the end of the day, it hits you that what you just had is better than anything you could pay for. Not only did you get to visit some of the most amazing places in the world, but you were there with a great woman who pushed you to get the maximum out of the experience.”

Malbroux says her interest in Egypt dates back to the movies. “I have always had an interest in Egyptology — the iconography, the history and the sheer fascination aspect of the culture attracts so many people. There is a specific reason that I asked to participate — I saw “Indiana Jones” when I was seven years old, and when the film was over I immediately thought, ‘I want to do that someday.’ Being a part of this excavation was a way to live out a childhood dream, as well as pursue an intense personal interest.”

Another returning student, Katie Knight, a junior majoring in Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies, says, “I’ve never been a morning person, and yet when I’m here, waking up before dawn is a joy. I’ve learned more about archaeology, Egyptology and Egyptian culture than any classroom situation would ever have to offer. The most exciting part of the project is that it reminds me how lucky I am to have seemingly endless possibilities at my fingertips.” Knight says after a wonderful experience last year, she applied for a grant in order to return this year. “This year I have the opportunity to excavate my own 5 meter by 5 meter square behind the sacred lake of the temple, investigating New Kingdom granaries and their relationship with the Temple itself.”

Participating in her first Egyptian dig with Bryan’s team, Kate Rydstrom, a junior behavioral biology major, says that she had heard about the trips to Luxor through taking many classes taught by Bryan.

“Everything has been an amazing learning experience — from the daily work on-site to the various excursions we have made to other parts of the country. I have probably learned the most about archaeological techniques from being on site every day working with all the graduate students,” she says. “I have already learned and seen more than I could have expected. It is amazing to finally see something like the Great Pyramids or the Valley of the Kings, after having only seen pictures or read about them in textbooks, but beyond the sights, the daily work at the site has taught me the most, without a doubt.”

To allow friends, family and “armchair archaeologists” the opportunity to track the team’s progress, Bryan has teamed once again with Johns Hopkins photographer Jay VanRensselaer, who will photograph the team’s findings. Each day, he and Bryan then narrow down the photos to 10 to 15 images and e-mail them to the Homewood campus where Marcie Hall, senior information technology specialist — and VanRensselaer’s wife — assembles a Web site, “Hopkins in Egypt Today,” which received more than 55,000 hits in January 2003. To view the site, go to

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