Meet The Ancient Egyptian Heritage Fund’s Peter Lacovara

About Meet an Egyptologist

This Nile Scribes series enables our readers to learn more about Egyptologists from around the world. From questions about their life and their career, we also explore their research interests and perspectives on the field of Egyptology. We want to use this series to help strengthen the public’s awareness of the Egyptological community, and to illustrate the varied careers and on-going research projects within the discipline. This week we interviewed Dr. Peter Lacovara about his career.

Who is Dr. Peter Lacovara?

Dr. Peter Lacovara received his PhD from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and is currently the Director of The Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund. Previously, he worked as Senior Curator of the Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art collection at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. Having organised several important Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern exhibitions and museum installations, he also directs an active field mission at Deir el-Ballas in Upper Egypt.

Peter Lacovara at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
Peter Lacovara at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Nile Scribes: Where are you from and when did you become interested in ancient Egypt?

Peter Lacovara: I was born and grew up in Flushing, New York. I’d been interested in archaeology since I was a child and read many books on the archaeology of the ancient world and, particularly, Egypt.

NS: How did you get started in Egyptology?

PL: I went to college in Boston at Boston University and took classes in archaeology, art, geology, and ancient history and one day saw a notice for a course on Egyptology at the Museum of Fine Arts. I enrolled in the course and when it was over I volunteered and began working in the store rooms. In those days Dows Dunham, who was Curator Emeritus, still came in to work every day and told thrilling stories of his excavations in Egypt and the Sudan. Edna (Ann) Russmann was also in the department at the time and was very kind and encouraging, as was Suzanne Chapman, the department’s great archaeological artist. I decided on applying to graduate school and eventually went to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Although the focus at Chicago was on Egyptian language, I was fortunate to take classes with Helene Kantor and Karl Butzer and work in the Oriental Institute Museum with Judith Franke and in the Conservation Lab with Barbara Hall, and also on a re-installation of the Egyptian Collection at the Field Museum of Natural History. In addition, I went one summer to the University of Arizona’s Field School at Grasshopper Pueblo to learn excavation techniques.

Peter Lacovara on site at Abydos
Peter Lacovara on site at Abydos

While a student, I went on excavations at Hierakonpolis and then to Abydos with David O’Connor, who was very generous with his time and expertise. I also worked with Mark Lehner who was just starting out at Giza, at the Great Sphinx. After finishing coursework in Chicago, I went back to Boston as an intern and then as a Curatorial Assistant and eventually Assistant Curator. I had become interested in settlement archaeology in school and came across Resiner’s unpublished notes of his excavations at Deir el-Ballas. I was able to obtain a grant from the American Research Center in Egypt to visit the site and complete Reisner’s unfinished records and realized there was far more to the site than previously thought. I’ve recently gone back there as the site is being threatened by the encroachment of the modern town, something that is happening all over Egypt today as the need for more land steadily increases.

In Boston, I also became acquainted with their remarkable Nubian collection, the finest in the world, and did a great deal of research on the material culture of the ancient Sudan. Also, my colleague in Boston, Sue D’Auria, began work on the mummies in the collection and having them CT-Scanned at a local hospital. This led to us working on the exhibition “Mummies and Magic: the Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt.” I also continued with field work in Egypt at Giza with Mark Lehner, at Abydos with David O’Connor and later, Janet Richards, and the Valley of the Kings with Nicholas Reeves, and at Deir el-Ballas on my own.

The Northern Palace at Deir el-Ballas as reconstructed by Andrew Boyce
The Northern Palace at Deir el-Ballas as reconstructed by Andrew Boyce

NS: What are some of the highlights of your time as Curator of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University?

PL: After working in Boston for 18 years, I was offered a job as Curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University. The permanent collection there was very small and I saw the need to expand it. Soon after I got there I had a call from my friend Roberta Shaw telling me of an Egyptian collection in Niagara Falls, Canada that was becoming available. I went up to see it and was able to get people in Atlanta excited about acquiring it, largely through Catherine Fox, the arts reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. We not only had to raise the purchase price, but also money to conserve the badly neglected mummies and coffins. An interesting sidelight of the collection that had been formed in the mid-Nineteenth Century, was a mummy which had already been suggested to be a missing royal mummy. We announced that if it proved to be, we would return it to Egypt where it properly belonged. After much research chronicled in a NOVA TV Special and an Emmy-winning documentary on WCVB TV, the determination was that there was enough evidence that this might be the missing mummy of Ramesses I and it was returned with great fanfare to Egypt. I also found amongst the Niagara material fragments of Seti I’s tomb and was able to convince Emory that they should be returned and put back in place in the tomb.

As Curator, Dr. Lacovara added significantly to the Michael C. Carlos Museum (Photo: Nile Scribes)
As Curator, Dr. Lacovara added significantly to the Michael C. Carlos Museum (Photo: Nile Scribes)

Before it left Atlanta we created an exhibition around the Ramesses mummy working with the Carlos’ master designer, Nancy Roberts. We put on a number of stellar exhibitions together, including a traveling exhibition of objects from the collection of the Petrie Museum of University College, London, and I even worked with my colleague Salima Ikram on a re-installation of the Predynastic material in the Cairo Museum. I was also fortunate to teach with her at The American University in Cairo as a visiting professor. In addition, I worked several seasons with the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the site of Malqata, another palace-city like Deir el-Ballas, that was in danger from growing local communities.

NS: You recently retired from your position as Curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. What are you working on currently?

PL: After many years at Emory, I took the opportunity for early retirement to catch up on publication and research, including thanks to a grant from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Foundation for Archaeological Publication, I am working along with a number of experts on the publication of Reisner’s original excavations at Dier el-Ballas. I also formed my own non-profit to sponsor work in Egypt and Egyptological projects, The Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeology Fund.

NS: What are some common misconceptions about Egyptologists?

PL: I think the worst one, and one unfortunately believed in by too many Egyptologists, is that anyone can just pick up a trowel and be an archaeologist. It really takes a lifetime of training and special skill sets, and without those, the results can be disastrous.

NS: Museums are shifting away from their ‘encyclopaedic’ past to becoming important shared spaces for increasingly diverse communities. How do you see North American museums with Egyptian collections fitting into these developments?

PL: I think that encyclopaedic museums are important; these institutions are for preservation, research, and education, not just entertainment. Museums were originally thought of as 3–Dimensional libraries – now they are much more about mass-marketing entertainment. There is an over emphasis on blockbuster exhibitions rather than the permanent collections. Often objects are shown just as decoration with minimal labels and no attempt to put them in context- either temporal or cultural. Certainly there are wide varieties of stakeholders in museums, all of whose needs should be addressed, but particularly in the United States with the lack of federal support there is a danger of them only serving the needs of wealthy patrons.

I do think that it is also our obligation to make the material accessible to the broadest possible audience and to address the specific interests of individual groups. There has been too long a history of divorcing Egypt from Africa and connecting it with the Classical/European world. In this I think it is important to also to show the connections between Egypt to Nubia and that is something the Royal Ontario Museum does rather well. Unfortunately, in the United States, only the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago has a gallery devoted to Nubia, while the great collections in Boston and Philadelphia are all largely in storage.

A wooden coffin and a mummy as part of the Mummies and Magic exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
A mummy and wooden coffin featured in the Mummies and Magic exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

NS: What role should museums with Egyptian collections play in “de-colonialising” museological institutions?

PL: “De-colonialising” museums is really focused more on the effect of western imperialism on indigenous living cultures and is less a factor in curating cultures of remote antiquity. Of course, there are issues of repatriation, but these are complex and often misunderstood by the general public. Influenced by television and movies, most people assume that all the ancient art in museums is “stolen” and should be returned. In fact, most of the great collections in North America at the ROM, Boston MFA, The Met, The University Museum in Philadelphia, The Oriental Institute, and the Hearst Museum in Berkeley, were acquired legally through excavation. In the old division system this allowed for objects to be scientifically excavated and the best objects to remain in their country of origin at no cost to the host country. Such collaboration needs to be a cornerstone of our work, and although these days divisions and even samples are no longer given, museums with such collections have a responsibility to make sure that their collections are available through publications, social media, scholarly programs, and exchanges and to ensure that the sites they excavated are preserved and protected. On top of that, museums should be providing training and research opportunities in cooperation with our Egyptian colleagues – that is a responsibility we all share.

NS: What are your hopes for the future of Egyptology?

PL: I think there is a whole new generation coming up of Egyptian Egyptologists, who are extremely gifted and dedicated and deserve all the help and encouragement the rest of the world of Egyptology can give.

The Nile Scribes are grateful for Dr. Lacovara’s willingness to participate in our interview series. If you have any questions for Dr. Lacovara, you can contact him online at the below sites, or leave a comment on the blog.

Follow Peter Lacovara

All photos are courtesy of Dr. Peter Lacovara unless otherwise indicated.