Shifting Sands

The ancient Egyptians had a reputation for being obsessed with death. But Hopkins archaeologist Betsy Bryan dug a little bit deeper


Ancient Egypt was a society preoccupied by death, but as a child growing up in Richmond during the 1950s, Betsy Bryan didn't think of it like that. For her it was pure wonder.

"The way they had it set up [at the Richmond Museum], it was dark, and the objects really stood out. It was like a secret that I didn't know about," Bryan recalled. "And what I really wanted to know about was how to read the hieroglyphs."

Today, Bryan is a Johns Hopkins professor of Near Eastern studies and, as one of two curators for the National Gallery of Art's current show The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, she is one of the world's acknowledged experts on ancient Egyptian writing as well as art.

The show, which opened last month, brings together some 115 ceremonial and religious objects from Egyptian museums and archaeological sites, plus a life-sized reconstruction of the burial chamber of the ancient ruler Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.). It is the largest selection of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt for exhibition in North America.

Bryan is a specialist in the New Kingdom and one of a handful of scholars worldwide who are experts both in the arts and the written languages of ancient Egypt. So when the Danish organizers of the show were looking around for an American curator to partner with Erik Hornung, a renowned professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, Bryan was the natural choice. Most recently she has been part of a team excavating the ancient Temple of Mut, begun during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1212 B.C.) at South Karnak in Luxor on the East Bank of the Nile River.

"We're trying to reconstruct the original form of the temple through the materials we find on the site," Bryan explained. "We want to get a ground plan, find out where the processional paths inside and other architectural features were. So that makes me a logical person to do this exhibit, because this is my time period, the mid- to late-18th Dynasty."

Bryan and her colleagues knew they wanted to present images of actual people who lived during the New Kingdom, as well as introduce the public to the major religious ideas of the period, especially those connected with ancient Egyptian funeral rites. But how to select the best works to make the past come alive?

The team decided to find the best objects it could get that illustrated the concepts the show would present - even if that meant not all the objects were made during the New Kingdom.

"If we couldn't get an object, our priority was a good quality object from a different time," Bryan said. "For example, almost nothing remains of the tomb of Thutmose III. We do include one object from his tomb and one from his son's tomb, but there's nothing from his coffin. Yet since this material is very stylized and the motifs were repeated in other time periods, we were able to use objects - like the gold jewelry and amulets - from another site that dates to the period immediately after around 1050 B.C."

What holds the show together is the fact that all the objects illustrate the religious beliefs of Egypt's New Kingdom, which lasted from approximately 1500-1069 B.C. and was one of the most dynamic periods in that civilization's 5,000-year history.

And what objects they are - a gold coffin lid from the tomb of Queen Anhotep, who ruled over Egypt while her sons waged a successful war against foreign enemies; an exquisite ebony and gilded wood chair, painted with the god that protects children and mothers, that once belonged to Princess Sitamun, daughter of Amenhotep III (1390-1350); and a startlingly lifelike statue of a royal scribe named Amenhotep Son of Hapu, the architect to King Amenhotep II, who was deified himself after his death because of his close relationship to the king.

`Dig in the sand'

Bryan still remembers the first time she saw works of Egyptian art at the Richmond Museum when she was 10. She was fascinated.

"I just got really interested. I started reading books about it, everything I could find. An aunt who was very supportive gave me books to read."

Call it love at first sight.

By the time Bryan was 12, she had already made up her mind that she would become an Egyptologist. It was the only thing she can remember ever wanting to do. All through high school she read everything she could on the subject.

"I remember writing my college application and saying I wanted to go to Egypt and dig in the sand," she says. "The college didn't even have a program in Egyptology."

The youngest of two daughters of a history buff father and a musically gifted mother, Bryan ended up majoring in medieval history and geology at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. (the state's flagship school, the University of Virginia, didn't accept women at that time).

While at Mary Washington, she met her husband, Charles, who was a student at Virginia. After graduation, the couple headed for New Haven, Conn., where Charles had been accepted into Yale's law school.

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