Best of Scene

Faculty Fellow Don Ryan explores Egypt's ancient burial grounds

By Megan Haley
In high school, Lisa Vlieg ’07 told her friends that one day they’d see her on the Discovery Channel.

Ryan poses with Egyptian memorabilia in his home. The mummy case actually holds CDs. [photo by Jordan Hartman]

While her dream has yet to come true, the recent graduate may be one step closer after spending five weeks this fall in Egypt’s famed Valley of the Kings. Vlieg accompanied Faculty Fellow Don Ryan ’79 and his team to the ancient burial ground for the seventh field season of the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project.

She joined Ryan’s team as the registrar, in charge of accurately documenting all the objects found in the tombs.

“It’s amazing to see firsthand,” she said. “I’m a major history buff, and dealing with the objects is definitely one of my favorite parts. I want to go into conservation, so I can take care of them and learn about them.”

Conceived in 1989 by Ryan, the PLU Valley of the Kings Project focuses on exploring and studying the more obscure tombs in the valley. Most were burial sites for Egypt’s elite, but not necessarily for its royalty.

There are two or three dozen of these smaller tombs, which are largely ignored because they lack the inscriptions and decoration of royal tombs, Ryan explained. His team has been the first to look seriously at them, concentrating on six. 

Egyptian antiquities inspector Abu el Hagag Taye works with registrar Lisa Vlieg ’07 to document the artifacts found in the tombs. [photo courtesy of Don Ryan]

“If you want to find something new and interesting, then you have to go where others don’t,” Ryan said. “In every one of those tombs we found interesting surprises. The fact is that all of this stuff is in the Valley of the Kings – everybody buried there and everything done there is pretty darn special.”

Perhaps the team’s biggest surprise came this past summer, when Egyptian authorities identified one of the mummies Ryan rediscovered as Egypt’s most famous female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who ruled from around 1502 to 1482 B.C. Her royal tomb was found in the early 1900s, but her mummy wasn’t in it.

In 1903, Howard Carter – famous for finding King Tutkanhamun’s tomb in the 1920s – discovered the tomb designated KV 60. The burial chamber contained a coffined mummy and another on the floor. After the coffined mummy was removed to Cairo, the tomb was covered up and its exact location lost for nearly 80 years.

Enter Ryan and his team. On the PLU project’s first day of digging in 1989, Ryan found the tomb’s entrance using only a broom. He approximated its location from Carter’s notes.
“People think I have a special touch for finding things,” Ryan said. “I’d say it’s more of doing one’s homework than anything mystical.”

The entrance of tomb KV 60, rediscovered by Ryan in 1989. The mummy  found inside was recently identified as a famous female pharaoh. [photo courtesy of Don Ryan]

Inside were the remnants of ancient burial goods and the second mummy, still lying on the floor. It appeared to be striking the royal female pose: left arm bent at the elbow diagonally, the left fist clenched and the right arm straight along her side. That, coupled with the quality of the mummification, suggested royalty, Ryan said.

“There was nothing in the tomb that could indicate the identity of any specific individual,” Ryan said. “Our conclusion was that it’s possible it was Hatshepsut.”

The mummy remained in KV 60 until this past spring, when it was one of four candidates shipped to Cairo for examination. Egyptian authorities suspected it might be Hatshepsut.
By a stroke of luck, Egyptian scientists discovered a molar inside a canopic box that bore the royal names of Hatshepsut. The tooth matched within a fraction of a millimeter to the space of a missing molar in the mouth of Ryan’s 3,000-year-old mummy, “like Cinderella’s slipper,” he said.

Despite the hoopla surrounding the revelation, Ryan remains focused on his current work in the Valley of the Kings.

The team’s most recent expedition in November was slated to be its last. Five of the tombs had been thoroughly examined, and Ryan planned to complete his study of the final tomb, KV 27.

Just as things were winding down, they found human remains while excavating the tomb’s final chamber and uncovered new revelations from previously found artifacts. The discoveries will send the group back to the valley at least once more.

“People, I think, are intrinsically interested in the past,” Ryan said. “I think in some ways it’s a very primal fascination or instinct.”

As Ryan regularly points out to his students, the world didn’t start on the day they were born. The study of the past is an important step in understanding how human beings got here and where civilization may be headed.

“Egyptians had a lot to contribute to that,” he said. “It’s a very fertile ground for learning a tremendous amount about the human past. Even before they were building pyramids, there’s this whole process where people went from hunting and gathering to developing agriculture to developing these complex societies, of which Egypt is. So it’s sort of a laboratory of human history.” 

While the historical significance of Egypt isn’t lost on Vlieg, her favorite part of the experience was working side-by-side with many of the world’s most prominent archaeologists.

“It was like being in college again,” she said. “I worked closely with all of them, and it was interesting to listen to them. They knew so much.”

Photo top: Ryan uncovers a deposit of shattered pottery in tomb KV 27. [photo courtesy of Don Ryan]