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Finding the Pharaohs

In photos from the Giza Archives Project, the early days of Egyptology come back to life

For 40 years before his death in 1942, a larger-than-life Indiana native named George Reisner reigned over the excavation of the Giza Necropolis, home of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. Considered by many to be the father of scientific archaeology, Reisner cared about documentation, not treasure hunting. He unearthed a breathtaking collection of antiquities, much of it now housed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which, along with Harvard University, funded Reisner’s work. Being a careful chronicler, he also amassed thousands of documents, maps, and photographs. There are far more items than any museum could display.

The whole vast assortment is gradually becoming available online, thanks to the Giza Archives Project (www.mfa.org/giza). The project’s director, Peter Der Manuelian—a lecturer in Egyptology and archaeology in Tufts’ Department of Classics—has enlisted hundreds of Tufts students and other volunteers to help sort and digitize the archive’s contents. “Through technology, we can put the archaeological site of Giza together again,” he says.

Visitors can view the striking dark-stone statue of the pharaoh Menkaure standing beside an unknown queen, now on display at the MFA. Then they can read Reisner’s diary entry for January 18, 1910 (the day the statue was discovered), view other statues with similar features, and download reference works. They can also ponder photographs from various stages of the statue’s excavation.

The latter are among some 21,000 black-and-white photographs from Reisner’s expeditions. Most were taken by Egyptian members of Reisner’s staff, who were trained to shoot and develop the large-format, glass-plate images. The most prolific of the Egyptian photographers was Mohammedani Ibrahim, who took 9,321 photos. Reisner himself took 2,507. During Reisner’s time, says Manuelian, the prints were used “for study, for shipping back to Boston, and for publication in Reisner’s books and articles.”

Today, as urban encroachment and climate change eat away at Giza’s antiquities, the photos serve another purpose: they provide a way to cheat fate. “These photos become more, not less, valuable with time,” Manuelian says. We have asked him to guide us through some of the archive’s photographic treasures.

Nile in flood by the Giza pyramids, October 31, 1927
For millennia before the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the Nile flooded yearly, inundating acres of land, often up to the edge of the Giza Plateau. “This view shows a rower northeast of the Great Pyramid,” says Peter Der Manuelian, the Tufts lecturer who heads the Giza Archives Project at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “Perhaps he is rowing over his own fields.” Now that the annual inundation has ceased, “this image is a rarity from a bygone era, and the placid floodwaters cover an area that is choked today with roads and high-rise apartment buildings.”
Photograph by Mohammedani Ibrahim

George Reisner and staff at Giza dig camp, January 4, 1939
After beginning the Harvard/MFA Expedition in 1905, Reisner seldom returned to Boston. “Nowhere was he happier than in the cluster of mud-brick huts that housed the expedition, a few hundred yards west of Khafre’s pyramid,” Manuelian says. Reisner stands at left, pipe in hand. He died at the dig site three years later.
Photograph by Mohammedani Ibrahim

Excavation dump, January 2, 1930
“The great archaeological expeditions of the early twentieth century sometimes resembled the Hollywood operations popularized by the Indiana Jones movies,” Manuelian says. The narrow-gauge railroad cars dumped their loads east of the Giza Plateau, creating “an artificial pyramid that appears to rival the Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background.” On this day, 263 carloads of debris were added to the dump.
Photograph by Mohammedani Ibrahim

Excavating a queen’s burial chamber, July 22, 1926
On February 9, 1925, a photographer’s tripod sank into the ground just east of the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu. Eventually, Reisner and his men discovered a hidden staircase and an unfinished burial chamber, “choked with deteriorated wood, bits of gilding, ceramics, and jewelry,” Manuelian says, and containing a magnificent—but empty—alabaster sarcophagus. The objects belonged to Khufu’s mother, Queen Hetep-heres I, but why the unusual tomb was built is still a mystery. Here, expedition member Noel F. Wheeler works inside the tomb.
Photograph by Mustapha Abu el-Hamd

Carved wall scene of the tomb owner and his wife, August 8, 1929
Tombs of prominent Egyptians of the Old Kingdom surround the pharaohs’ pyramids, forming a city of the dead. The walls of the tombs’ chapels are covered with finely carved and painted scenes, offering a vivid record of daily life. In this scene, a high official, Khufukhaf I, leans upon a staff before his wife, Nefret-kau. “The beaded broad collar, striated wig, subtle modeling of the facial features, hands, and musculature, and the intricate hieroglyphs all attest to the work of the finest craftsmen of the age,” Manuelian says.
Photograph by Mohammedani Ibrahim

Moving multi-ton blocks at Giza, March 5, 1907
Reisner’s Egyptian crew strains to budge one of the huge granite blocks adorning the temple of the pharaoh Menkaure. “The Egyptians knew they could approach Reisner on any topic—he spoke fluent Arabic—from financial issues to time off for family matters,” Manuelian says. “Many knew no other employer, and their sons and grandsons also joined the Museum Expedition.”
Photograph by Said Ahmed

The painted subterranean chapel of Queen Meresankh III, December 15, 1927
“Often the greatest finds appear on the last day of the digging season,” Manuelian says. Reisner wrote in his diary:“I had fixed April 23 [1927] as the final pay-day. In the morning of that day, the men uncovered the entrance to the rock-cut chambers of Meresankh III.” A slight change of plans ensued. Meresankh’s chapel contains ornately decorated pillars and several statues of the queen and her family.
Photograph by Mohammedani Ibrahim

First glimpse at a royal pair statue, January 19, 1910
“In the evening, just before work stopped, a small boy . . . appeared suddenly at my side and said, ‘Come,’ ” Reisner wrote in his diary. “In the lower part of this hole the head, female, of a statue (life size) of bluish slate had just come into view in the sand. . . . Immediately afterwards, a block of dirt fell away and showed a male head on the right—a pair statue of king and queen. A photograph was taken in fading light, and an armed guard of twenty men put on for the night.” This was the first appearance of the imposing statue of Menkaure and a queen. The statue is now on display at the MFA.
Photograph by Badawi Ahmed

HELENE RAGOVIN is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications, covering the School of Arts & Sciences for the online newspaper Tufts Journal. In her print newspaper days, she was recognized for editorial and column writing by the New Jersey Press Association. Her favorite assignment ever: a culinary tour of the Netherlands.

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