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Cradle of Life: Tales from an Egyptologist

With towering pyramids and temples surrounded by dry Saharan sands serving as a backdrop, College of Idaho Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History Egyptologist Jan Summers Duffy spent a month in Egypt this summer excavating the land of pharaohs. Here is her firsthand account of life as an Egyptologist:

A rare scene in Egypt today is a bus full of tourists at one of the loveliest temples—Medinet Habu, the Mortuary temple of Ramses III. I never fail to go there as it brings back nice memories. It sits not far from the Valley of the Kings and my apartment where I stay while working in Egypt on a tomb project with a Spanish team.

Egypt's economy has suffered greatly due to the threat of terrorism, but in the area of Luxor, I haven’t seen any violence. Archaeology teams from various universities and museums come every season to unearth history lying in the Sahara desert, to excavate new finds and tombs, and to keep Egyptology alive.

An archaeologist’s work is not glamourous. We rise at 4 a.m. to be in the Valley before sunup, and by 11 a.m., the heat can reach upwards of 110 degrees. My work this summer focused on pottery types and lithic styles found while excavating the tomb chambers. Onsite work ends at noon, and then studying and computer works begins in the afternoon to assess the finds and put them into categories with measuring, weighing and labeling.

Our most recent tomb TT209 (which stands for Theban tomb) was discovered in 2012. Each year, excavation has developed further, revealing more halls and chambers, which are still being carefully excavated down to bedrock. The tomb is in a valley, and much debris from other areas has washed down into it due to the flash floods that occasionally occur. This is important for knowing that many objects excavated and found need to be dated to other eras of history.

On my days off, I was able to spend time visiting places I had been before, such as the Valley of the Queens (Biban el Harim), which was mostly vacant. As I walked up the limestone paths to the tombs, I stopped to enter the Western Valley, my favorite desolate place, where the tomb of Ay, the Pharaoh who ruled after Tutankhamun and perhaps his grandfather, sits hidden 1.3 miles into limestone cliffs. This valley is curious in that it is remote and only a few tombs have been found, but they are very important ones. Having walked these areas and the surrounding landscapes of hidden tombs for years, it is obvious there is much more to be done and I can’t wait to see what new treasure is discovered next!

Anyone interested in firsthand information on these tomb projects, Egyptology or travel to Egypt is encouraged to contact Jan Summers Duffy at [email protected]. She will also interview C of I students for a winter term intern and all are encouraged to apply.

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