A Harvard Egyptologist on the Allure of Pyramid Schemes
Post by Leslie H.
This is the second of two posts based on my interview with Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard, whose fall Harvard College course Pyramid Schemes: The Archaeological History of Ancient Egypt is also being offered as an online course at Harvard Extension School. Registration opens July 30, so join us!
Today, Dr. Manuelian delves a bit more into the field of Egyptology and the course in particular. Read the earlier post on contemporary issues in Egyptology.
What first piqued your interest in Egyptian archaeology?
It was a fourth-grade history class. Most people grow up and grow out of it, but I never did. I remember it as being the first course material that actively grabbed my attention—all aspects of Egyptian culture, not just mummifying bodies and placing them in a tomb, but the scale of the monuments, the language of hieroglyphs and how it was constructed, the art, and the remote antiquity of the civilization as a whole.
Why should someone enroll in Pyramid Schemes this fall?
I hope the course will provide an exciting introduction to Egyptian history and archaeology, which continues to fascinate us thousands of years since hieroglyphs were in style. [Visit the course website.]
We follow a chronological path with several stops for specific themes. This takes us from Predynastic times, through the formation of the Egyptian state, to the wonders of the Pyramid Age. We study periods of fragmentation, empire, great literature, monumental architecture. And we look at ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and religion, and cover many of the great archaeological discoveries such as the tomb of Tutankhamun.
I hope the technology that we bring into the course will make it exciting for Extension School students. The lectures will be recorded, and videos and animations will be accessible to online students.
Local students should come along on the field trips. I’m planning three or four of them. One will be backstage storage in the Peabody Museum, early in the semester to see some of the Predynastic artifacts. Shortly thereafter in the course, we’ll go to the Visualization Center to look at 3D models of the Giza Pyramids. And after that, we’ll go downtown to the MFA to look at the Giza material there, with a return trip toward the end of semester to study some of the later periods and objects.
What is it that motivates you to get students interested in archaeology?
I think any civilization that is so stable over such a long period of time is worthy of investigation. In the case of ancient Egypt, you’ve got a minimum of 3,000 years to learn about. A state apparatus with a complex hierarchy, a rich pantheon of deities to explain the natural forces around us, and a death-and-resurrection system that remained in place for a long, long time. So there’s much to be learned, not just the elements that are similar to our own culture but those that are mysteriously different as well.
Once somewhat isolated in its own little corner, Egyptology is now becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. On the archaeological side, that means approaches as diverse as the analysis of tomb and temple architecture, settlement patterns and ceramics, stratigraphic relationships, bones, and even spores and pollen.
These and many more disciplines can fit under the rubric of this one ancient Egyptian culture, which was powerful enough to preserve such amazing remains. I see Egyptology as a chance for people with all kinds of diverse interests to come and apply those interests to this one ancient civilization.
In the class I encourage students to follow those personal interests and passions. So if someone is studying medicine, he or she might be interested in researching mummification techniques and what the ancient Egyptians knew about the body. Someone who’s interested in international relations might look at some of the earliest treaties between superpowers (Egyptians and Hittites) in the thirteenth century BC.
So there are lots of different ways to pursue your interests while studying ancient Egypt. Along the way we try to have fun, to get more acquainted with the culture, and debunk some of the myths and misinformation that are out there too.
You’ve headed the massive Giza Archives Project for a decade. Can you tell me more about the 3D modeling of the Giza pyramids you’re undertaking.
It is, for one, a great visualization tool, which is helpful for teaching, to show students spatial relations, the relative sizes of the monuments, and what’s above ground and what’s below. (see a sample 3D model here) In the class we go to the Visualization Center at the Geological Museum, where there’s a big 23-foot curving screen. The students put on the 3D glasses, and it’s great fun to navigate around the Giza Necropolis. The cool thing about it is that it’s a real-time interactive model, so you’re not just watching a video. You can steer. If someone asks, “What’s in that tomb chapel over there,” you can go into that chapel and look around.
But beyond that it’s a new interface for all this archival archaeological information. What I have in mind is that one day you’ll be able to navigate around in 3D and click on a tomb you’re interested in or dive down a burial shaft and click on a sarcophagus. Then up pops all the archival photos and documentation that we’ve already worked so hard to process. That’s the goal, to blend the old archival material and the new and make the whole Giza site spatially accessible with lots of intelligently cross-referenced information.
More on the course and subject:
- Watch Dr. Manuelian’s course trailer for Pyramid Schemes: The Archaeological History of Ancient Egypt.
- Registration is open July 30 through September 3, no application required
- See all online classes at Harvard Extension School
- On CNN: mysterious markings discovered at Great Pyramid of Giza