Meet the PLU Valley of the Kings Project Director Don Ryan

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 our discipline. This week we interviewed Dr. Don Ryan about his career.

Who is Dr. Donald P. Ryan?

Dr. Donald P. Ryan earned his PhD in Archaeology from The Union Institute and now serves as a Faculty Fellow in the Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington and Director of the PLU Valley of the Kings Project. He is also the author of numerous popular publications on ancient Egypt including, Beneath the Sands of Egypt, Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day, and Ancient Egypt: The Basics.

Don Ryan examining the face of a coffin found in KV 60 (photo: Don Ryan)
Don Ryan examining the face of a coffin found in KV 60 (photo: Don Ryan)

Nile Scribes: How did you become interested in ancient Egypt?

Don Ryan: As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs and other prehistoric life and that led to a broader interest in the past including archaeology. I was a precocious and voracious reader and ancient Egypt caught my interest early on. National Geographic Magazine had articles about various discoveries and there were current reports about the saving of the monuments about to be flooded as a result of the Aswan dam (e.g. Abu Simbel). The local library had the three-volume set of Howard Carter’s “Tomb of Tutankhamun” and I read every page of it. I drifted a bit away from the subject as a teen when I became a fanatical mountain climber, but my interest in Egyptology was rekindled when the traveling Tut exhibit came to Seattle when I was a college student. I had been studying political science and international relations but arranged for a tutorial in ancient Egyptian history with one of my professors. Afterwards I switched my focus to archaeology during graduate school.

NS: What are some of your research interests concerning Egypt?

DR: My areas of interest include Egyptian archaeology, history of archaeology (especially in Egypt and the Near East), history of world exploration, ancient technology, and the cultural influences of the past on the present. Some of my first research was on ancient Egyptian cordage, i.e. “old rope,” which was a simple but absolutely essential technology and barely studied. I’ve also enjoyed investigating excavation and exploration notes from some of our earlier archaeological predecessors. In at least one case, that of the oft-maligned Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, my research clearly demonstrates that he was ahead of his time and could be considered a “proto-archaeologist.” In terms of other skills, I have a background in mountaineering and occasionally I’m able to apply those skills to work in remote, extreme, or dangerous environments.

Don Ryan and his Egyptian team during his 2017 field season (photo: Don Ryan)
Don Ryan and his Egyptian team during his 2017 field season (photo: Don Ryan)

NS: Do you have research interests in any other countries?

DR: I have a secondary interest in the archaeology of Polynesia. I have visited many islands in the Pacific and have conducted field work documenting petroglyphs in Hawai’i, and have done research on Easter Island stone sculpture. I worked with my boyhood hero, Thor Heyerdahl, during the last seven years of his life and it was a fantastic experience. Heyerdahl was a national hero in Norway and became an international spokesman for world peace and environmental issues. Apart from his voyages on experimental ancient watercraft for which he became famous, he led formal archaeological expeditions to such places as Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands, Peru and the Maldive Islands. The two of us directed a project excavating a group of enigmatic stone structures on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. I’m still involved with his work and am proudly a Research Associate at the Kon-Tiki Museumin Oslo, Norway.

NS: What do you think are some essential skills for a career in Egyptology?

DR: A broad liberal arts education and a fondness for ancient and modern languages are important. I always advise my undergraduate students who are interested in an Egyptological career to do two things:

  • Attend a conference (such as that put on annually by ARCE) to experience what professionals and advanced students actually discuss, as opposed to the endless glamour and adventure portrayed on television and in many popular books. It is also a great way to meet one’s potential professors and fellow students.
  • Attend an archaeological field school to see if that aspect is appealing. If one doesn’t like getting dirty and living in simple and close conditions, then working with objects and texts might be a better option.

Anyone studying Egyptology with the goal of making it their career should fully understand that there are few jobs and the competition for them is very tough. There are a lot of bright and enthusiastic Egyptology students out there with big dreams but there are also a lot of PhDs whose dreams have yet to be fulfilled. Having other skills that are more employable is a good back-up strategy. A diverse interdisciplinary background, and the flexibility to adapt is very helpful, especially if one is involved in teaching. For example, apart from Egyptology and Archaeology, I’ve taught courses on Ancient Near East, Cultural Anthropology, Physical Anthropology, World Geography, Middle Eastern History, Critical Thinking, History of Exploration, and writing seminars.

The Valley of the Kings viewed from above (photo: Don Ryan)
The Valley of the Kings viewed from above (photo: Don Ryan)

NS: Where have you worked in Egypt?

DR: My first trip to Egypt was with one of my professors who was doing a survey of prehistoric sites at the southwest edge of the Fayyum. It was amazing to see scatters of stone tools and bones scattered across the desert surface. I later spent some time on projects in the north Fayyum and in the Delta. My own project over the last several years has focused on the undecorated tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Every field season has its special moments, both good and bad, but my very first in the Valley of the Kings was especially memorable as we unexpectedly rediscovered KV 60 on our first day in less than half an hour using a simple broom. (Zahi Hawass has since concluded that the mummy we encountered within is that of Hatshepsut.) Later that same season, we were looking for KV 21 which was buried quite deeply. It was fun to learn that we were on the right track when we uncovered a big red number “21” painted on a cut in the rock. It was part of the numbering system initiated by John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827.

The steps leading down into KV 60 as rediscovered by the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project (photo: Don Ryan)
The steps leading down into KV 60 as rediscovered by the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project (photo: Don Ryan)

NS: What are you working on currently?

DR: My project in the Valley of the Kings continues, and a publication for that is in the works. I’ve edited a couple of anthologies of nineteenth century poetry inspired by ancient Egypt and now I’m assembling another which will include poems addressing other archaeological places. I also write books for public consumption and I have a couple more of those in progress. I’ve also finished a novel with an Egyptological theme which I hope will be available soon.

NS: What other discoveries do you think are waiting to be made in the Valley of the Kings?

DR: In 1817, Giovanni Belzoni was confident that he had found all there was to find in the Valley of the Kings. And in 1912, Theodore Davis concluded “I fear the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted,” yet ten years later, KV 62, the tomb of Tutankhamun, was discovered. I’ve re-excavated several of the many neglected undecorated tombs in the Valley, as has a Swiss expedition, and each is uniquely fascinating. And then there is KV 5, a known tomb which when revisited by the Theban Mapping Project in 1995 was found to be massive, the enigmatic KV 63 embalming cache discovered by Otto Schaden in 2005 and another new tomb, KV 64, uncovered by the Swiss in 2012. The Valley of the Kings is full of surprises. It is by no means fully explored and one never knows what might turn up next.

The three tombs which once contained the mummies of monkeys and other animals as rediscovered in 2017 (photo: Don Ryan)
The three tombs which once contained the mummies of monkeys and other animals as rediscovered in 2017 (photo: Don Ryan)

NS: How has our familiarity with the more extravagant, royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings inaccurately coloured our understanding of the cemetery?

DR: The tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) naturally will continue to attract a good deal of attention from both scholars and the public and for good reason: its contents remain an incredible source of Egyptological knowledge which still has not been fully studied nearly 100 years after the tomb’s discovery. There has been a tendency for Egyptologists to gravitate to the larger tombs with their rich religious texts and art, but the few dozen, typically small, undecorated tombs scattered in Valley likewise have significant stories to tell. Anyone buried in the Valley of the Kings was of importance and some of these tombs belonged to royal relatives and favoured officials. And there are even three tombs, which we recently rediscovered, which once held the mummies of monkeys and other animals (royal pets?). The Valley also has a very interesting post-New Kingdom history, with some of the smaller tombs being reused, particularly during the Twenty-Second Dynasty.

NS: Is there a site in Egypt you’ve never had the chance to visit that you’d really like to see?

DR: I’ve visited Egypt numerous times. I once asked my friend, Egyptologist Larry Berman, what his favourite site is. His answer speaks for a lot of people: “Whichever one I happen to be visiting at the moment!” I’m interested in seeing anything I haven’t yet seen, and revisiting most that I already have.

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

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All images are courtesy of Donald P. Ryan/ Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project.