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PLU archaeologist uncovers Egypt’s secrets

January 18, 2008

PLU archaeologist uncovers Egypt’s secrets

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

“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.

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.

In one of the tomb’s four rooms, the floor was completely covered with thousands of pieces of broken pots, representing dozens of vessels. Ryan employed two local pottery restorers who worked around the clock to reconstruct the vessels. The task is difficult, but the knowledge gained is invaluable.

“The pottery is really the clue to dating these tombs without the inscriptions and the paintings,” Ryan said.

The restorers were able to reconstruct several pots, which were then examined by pottery expert Barbara Aston. She identified several new types of pottery, and the discovery will aid future Egyptologists in dating similar objects, Ryan explained.

Just as things were winding down, the team found human remains in KV 27’s final chamber. Also, while reexamining artifacts found during previous field seasons, they uncovered new revelations. These 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 so interesting to listen to them. They knew so much.”

University Communications staff writer Megan Haley compiled this report. Comments, questions, ideas? Please contact her at ext. 8691 or at Photo provided by Don Ryan.