An Interview with Dr. Stephen Harvey
by Jimmy Dunn
Dr. Stephen Harvey, Director of the Oriental Institute Abydos Project, researches the archaeology, iconography and architecture of the New Kingdom with an emphasis on the Hyksos and early Eighteenth Dynasty. We consider Dr. Harvey to be a very good friend of Tour Egypt, and hope in a number of ways to support his work.
Excavation in Egypt these days is expensive, and funds are not always readily available for initiatives such as the Abydos Project. Hence, we at Tour Egypt have made the Abydos Project our own sort of "pet project". Therefore, we would like to encourage our readers to help Stephen Harvey with Donations to the Oriental Institute. Checks should be made out to the Oriental Institute and mailed to:
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Jimmy Dunn: First of all, I want to talk about the fact that you recently changed schools. I say recently, as archaeology goes I guess it's recent. You moved and tell us a little about that. Why did you move?
Stephen Harvey: Well I was teaching and was also the assistant director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology down at Memphis at the University of Memphis, which is a wonderful program that we have that gives Masters degrees to students who want to study ancient Egyptian art and archaeology and hieroglyphs. But at that university I was responsible for teaching hieroglyphs primarily. That's most of what my teaching job was, and I didn't have the opportunity in that job to take time out to go and do work at Abydos. So that was a big problem for me. The second thing was that since we only gave a Masters, I would have really good students, some of whom you met in 2002, and then I would have to pass them on to the other universities, the more famous universities, for their PhD's. Those students normally would have then become my assistants and done a lot of work with me for years and years as they completed their PhD thesis. So the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which is the first American institute to have had an Egyptology department, had a position open that was formerly occupied by Mark Lehner, the excavator of the Giza Pyramids, and when I had that opportunity I just jumped at it, because it gives me students to work with, funding for digging, or that is some funding for digging I should say. Not enough! And it also gives me one academic quarter, which is about three months every year come rain or shine to go off to Egypt and do work. So it's what we call a pretty good deal.
Jimmy Dunn: Yeah. You mentioned something I didn't know. You said it was formerly occupied... this position was formerly occupied by Mark Lehner. Why did he leave that?
Stephen Harvey: It's interesting. To get the full perspective you would have to ask Mark. But I'll tell you the short way. Mark was really well like there. It wasn't a question of any kind of problem in any way. On the contrary, there were people begging him to stay because Mark is a high profile guy. You turn on the TV and see a show about Egypt and a good percentage of the time Mark is on being interviewed. He is charismatic and he's been able to raise just a vast amount of private funding with a lot of really significant donors. What happened was, I think that that was so attractive that he started thinking why am I taking nine months of the year every year to be in Chicago teaching when I could work in Egypt full time, essentially. So he started a private foundation called Ancient Egypt Research Associates, he became incorporated, and now what he does is he works in Egypt most of the time. In fact, one donor said to him, "What would you do with a million dollars? How much can you excavate if I give you a million dollars?" So Mark, I think, decided that really his love has always been working with the pyramids and went for that. And I can't say that in his shoes I wouldn't maybe have done the same.
Jimmy Dunn: Well, that sounds like the Egyptologist's dream.
Stephen Harvey: Yeah, it may be. I mean I love to teach and I think Mark loved to teach too, but you know you get on committees and you get on all sorts of administrative duties and that part of it can diminish your ability to do your research work.
Jimmy Dunn: Now, back to you. You did not excavate this last season, right?
Stephen Harvey: Right, yeah.
Jimmy Dunn: Why is that?
Stephen Harvey: Well, I was here doing work in the summer of 2002. This past year, 2003, I really wanted to come out but one of the major obstacles was I had planned to come out in spring 2003, which is when we had the Iraq war. Although it probably would have been fine and other projects were going in Egypt during that time, I just felt that it was not the perfect time to come out. Then I delayed a little bit more, but we had some money problems with the University. They're wanting me to go out and find big sources of government grants and private money and that's been more complicated than I had hoped.
Jimmy Dunn: Well tell us a little more about that. Obviously one thing you are trying to say is it costs to excavate. How much does a season cost?
Stephen Harvey: That's a good question. It depends on what you are trying to do. There are a lot of needs every year. The biggest one of course is getting the students, the staff and the equipment between the U.S. and Egypt. Even with a really good airfare that falls somewhere around $1,000 per person and with 10 to 12 people going over that's a basic cost of $10-12,000. But then on top of that we have all sorts of fees. In short, we're looking at costs that begin at about $25,000 for a couple months of work and go up, depending on what you are trying to do. We have equipment costs, every year we go out, we spend a lot on basic supplies. We have food and lodging, but we also have labor. We require a lot of Egyptian workmen, we have a cook, we have people who take care of our house out at Abydos. So there are a lot of different expenses, but then we also have special projects that we try to do, and one of the things that more and more the Egyptian government and in particular Dr Zahi Hawass, the head of Supreme Council of Antiquities wants to see is the preservation of the monuments and eventually the creation of sites....well let me see... sites being made accessible to tourism. And that's going to include a lot more costs than we ever have seen.
Jimmy Dunn: And you'd have to fund that.
Stephen Harvey: We have to fund that. For example, right now one of my big concerns is that the site itself, before we can even get to digging it, is under constant threat from the expansion of villages, the expansion of cemeteries, local modern cemeteries that encroach upon the ancient monuments, and because the local officials and villagers don't know what is an ancient site and what isn't, you know you can't see from the surface of the ground, we are trying to think about creating fencing. Steel and concrete permanent fencing, in collaboration with Egyptian government that will protect the site. But we have to foot the bill, so it's a small thing that we as foreigners can do to assist the government in protecting their heritage. But it's an expensive project and that's what I'm looking at right now.
Jimmy Dunn: You've thrown out figures before like $40,000 for a digging season. Is that typical?
Stephen Harvey: That's pretty typical, and with the dollar as strong as it is in Egypt right now, that can go a long way. There are also costs that one doesn't always think of. You know when you are planning to go to Egypt you think about the airfares and how much it will cost to eat and how much it will cost to have the labor. When you go home you've got to deal with the film, the processing, creating databases. There's a lot of back end stuff that's involved in excavation that really should be reckoned into the cost of how much it costs to do the work. These are things that are all part of the picture of getting the word out and publishing material. I mean, just one example: the government now requires that you submit all your reports in Arabic. We have to pay to get those reports translated, so everything has a cost. But fortunately, in a way you know I always think it's a very good investment because the amount that we find out in any one season is just extraordinary. Last time, we went out and we found out with just about two months of digging, we found probably five new 18th Dynasty structures, I mean none of which have been know before.
Jimmy Dunn: Really?
Stephen Harvey: Yeah, yeah. Very exciting, and that's what we're going to go out and dig in the coming year.
Jimmy Dunn: Now, you're here this year. You're not digging again.
Stephen Harvey: Right.
Jimmy Dunn: I guess for similar...no Iraqi war this time, but...
Stephen Harvey: We did have problems with getting money for the excavation. In part because our institution, Oriental Institute, is currently in a phase of reinstalling all of it's galleries. It's reinstalled the Egyptian Gallery. It's reinstalled now it's Mesopotamian Gallery, the art of ancient Iraq, but there are many more galleries to be installed including the Nubian one, Syro-Palestinian and Anatolian-Hittite art. But the problem is that the museum doesn't really want to funnel funds over to expeditions like mine until it's done displaying all these galleries, and that's costing millions of dollars. So, they keep saying to us "Sit tight, sit tight, it will get better in five years", but you know we can't wait five years.
Jimmy Dunn: Alright, tell us a little about what you've...you know we've written a few articles about the exploration, but tell us a little bit about the latest discoveries that you have made in the last season out there.
Stephen Harvey: One of the most exciting things we've done is using a new high technology, a geophysical technology called magnetometry, that allows us to see underneath the earth. There's a scene I think in the first Jurassic Park movie that illustrates it in a fantasy way, but they have this machine and they're sort of able to send shock waves into the earth and they can see these dinosaur fossils. That's a fantasy version of what we're doing. A Polish guy named Tomash Harbeck, who's worked all over Egypt, come out and with an assistant they walk with what looks basically like suitcases, over the site. They send magnetic waves down into the earth and they are able to see the magnetic resistivity of things in the earth. In other words, they can see brick walls underneath the earth, as much as up to maybe, I don't know four or five feet down. Without even digging we can make maps of what's beneath the earth. Based on the evidence on the surface, pottery and things like that, we could tell that we have a series of...a whole series of buildings that go past where we've dug since 1993. Then, by digging a little bit of them, we can tell for sure, OK, this is a building of the 18th Dynasty. So what we now know basically in the last season, we found a temple of a queen, Ahmose-Nefertari, who was the wife of King Ahmose. This is a totally unknown temple that's just immense, probably about 40 meters, 120 feet long. Alongside that is a new building that I think might be an administrative complex or also maybe a place where a priest organized the food offerings for the temple. This is based on the prevalence of bread and beer, vessels related to bread and beer production.
Then even beyond that the magnetometer went wild because there are kilns or ovens that really have a very strong signature...showing a lot burning. So, that's just in one area along the side of Ahmose's Pyramid, a total of one to three buildings plus these kiln areas. That was good enough, but we did the same technology out in an area behind Ahmose's Pyramid where he dedicated a monument to his grandmother, Queen Tetisheri. This is a wonderful monument that contained one of the masterpieces in the Cairo Museum, a six-foot high carved stone monument dedicated to Tetisheri that describes the building of a pyramid. On it, some of the hieroglyphs say 'an enclosure' was also present. Well, there was not evidence of this enclosure, but we used this technology out in the desert in this totally flat area that if you saw it, it looks like there has never been any disturbance; it looks natural. Harbeck, using this technology, found an immense 90 by 70 meter wide enclosure wall with little buildings in each corner. So one of the big goals for the coming season, which I hope will be this fall, would be to excavate some of those buildings. Bear in mind that in 1902 when they excavated the middle of this whole enclosure, the pyramid of Tetisheri, they found a masterpiece stela and some other statues. The possibilities are really exciting.
Stephen Harvey: That's right. Jimmy Dunn: Or at least not identified. So, how important is this work? What do we think we're going to learn from this? It seems to me like one of the most important archaeological excavations in Egypt.
Stephen Harvey: Well, you know, when I first started the work, the idea was to kind of clean up and tidy up what the English did 100 years ago, and I didn't know how important the site would turn out to be. I didn't realize, for example, when I started working there, that this is the only place in Egypt where Ahmose commemorated his battles against the Hyksos. We don't have any evidence...a scrap of evidence for that, whether in text or in image from anywhere except from my site, and we found that evidence in '93. Then, last season, we found this whole series of other buildings that let us know that this was a focus of real attention. And it was a focus of real attention for 250 years, from the time of Ahmose through the time of Ramesses the Great at least, maybe Merenptah (his son). What this means is that the ancient Egyptians were aware of the importance of this place more than historians and archaeologists have been aware. This is exciting. One of the main things that is important about Abydos and this Ahmose complex specifically is that it doesn't just have one potential burial place for King Ahmose, it has two. You remember of course that prior to Ahmose, most of the pharaohs were buried in pyramids. That was the tradition. His father, grandfather and so on have small pyramid type tombs at Thebes in the part of Thebes known as Dra Abu el-Naga. Well, immediately after Ahmose we know, too, that the Valley of the Kings started a tradition of Royal burials.
At Abydos, the British excavators found a pyramid of Ahmose and they found a subterranean rock-cut tomb with a huge pillared hall with 18 pillars and twisting passages that resembled those of the Valley of the Kings' tombs. To me, one of the most interesting things is in that underground tomb they found pieces of sheet gold. Whether Ahmose's tomb was looted, or whether even in ancient times the priest decided 'well, he doesn't belong in Abydos, he belongs in the Valley of the Kings' and moved his mummy, I have increasingly strong evidence, I think, that Ahmose was originally intended to be buried at Abydos. This would have been maybe a new necropolis, a new burial place that might then might have gone on to be the new sacred burial ground for the rulers of this period, had they not then decided to go back to the tradition of burying at Thebes. So, I mean, indeed, this work has the potential to really change how we understand this period. Bear in mind too that one of the great of holy grails of Egyptian archaeology has been the tomb of Amenhotep I, Ahmose's son, and this too has never been identified. There are those who think it has been, but it's not 100% agreed upon. So, this is a period where religious and architectural traditions are changing and the Abydos work I think is going to be more important than people realize. I personally think that there are more tombs out in that area that haven't been discovered.
Jimmy Dunn: Tombs? Not necessarily royal tombs?
Stephen Harvey: I don't know. I mean I'd by lying if I said I knew. You know, what I'm beginning to see in my research is that Ahmose's family was being worshipped there. Not just himself, but his wife, and also I'm starting to find more evidence that there was some kind of worship of princes there. Could there be tombs of other individuals? I mean there may be a whole necropolis, sort of like what we see in the Valley of the Kings or the Valley of the Queens, not just for the king himself, but for other members of the family. And that seems a little farfetched maybe except that there are some intriguing little bits of evidence. One of them is a little story which, if you have a second, I'll tell you.
The guy who discovered Ahmose's subterranean tomb and found the sheet gold in there but nothing else, was a Canadian named Charles Currelly, who went on to found the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. In 1902 he did that piece of work and he found also the series of other monuments, the Tetisheri Pyramid, a temple up against the cliffs for Ahmose, and he worked also in a pyramid and some other parts of the site. In 1906 he gets married, he goes back to Egypt with his wife on their honeymoon, and they go back to look at his work. A guy comes up to Currelly and pulls out of his gallabeya a dagger. Currelly gets very excited about the dagger. Back then it was OK to buy antiquities so he purchased it off the guy. It was a large sword with a pommel (knob) with a gold cartouche of King Ahmose. What we don't know is where this guy got this. Although originally people thought 'oh maybe it's a fake', that's very improbable because first of all it doesn't make any sense. A local guy who's illiterate in ancient Egyptian wouldn't even know to create something like this. Most people now think that it's real. It's been examined. So the question to me is 'what's the source of an object like that, a very high level, maybe even royal object?' Most likely it came from some sort of rock-cut tomb or hidden sanctuary in the sand.
I'm not a treasure hunter by any means. We are actually interested in broad socioeconomic data. We're interested in what was the original idea of this burial place at Abydos and how did it come to have a change in meaning for people over time. But evidence like this dagger indicates to us there are things that we simply just don't know, and we better pay close attention. I think over the next twenty years there will be big surprises coming out of Abydos, even if they are fragmentary.
Jimmy Dunn: Big surprises, and I agree. I am very interested in your work.
Stephen Harvey: Well thanks.
Jimmy Dunn: These days a lot of work does not result in a new Karnak Temple or a new royal tomb like those on the West Bank at Thebes. Therefore, a lot of your work, like you say, it's not a treasure hunt, it's real Egyptology. It's not finding artifacts that necessarily will be the center display in some museum, it's uncovering the history of Egypt.
Stephen Harvey: Yeah although you know the real pleasure of the work for me has been that some of the fragments, some of the broken pieces of Ahmose's temples that we've been finding are actually museum worthy, beautifully carved. So there's been this wonderful mix of data. For example, we have found tens of thousands of the simple, everyday bread molds that they used. They used molds to make sort of French bread-like bread. Just that kind of data lets you know about the everyday activities of the temple, such as a small scrap of a piece of limestone with some writing in hieroglyphic on it, done by a priest who's recording amounts of grain coming into the temple. Something like that gives us tremendous amounts of information. And at the same time we have admittedly fragmentary and small evidence of objects that really are quite beautiful. For example, the material I'm publishing that represents the first known detailed images of horses and chariots in Egyptian art. I mean these are very beautiful representations that are wonderfully carved. Now it's true they're not big in scale, but that's because this temple was destroyed down to small chips.
There's a real joy though, Jimmy, in working with something that's not intact. We are allowed to get about our work without too much trouble. If you find something too big...think about Tut, then there are problems. You know Howard Carter and Mace had a great frustration. Once they found Tutankhamun's tomb, the Egyptian government essentially then, and arguably quite rightly, decided to take over the excavation. Nobody much minds that we just carry on with our work on minor fragmentary material. Some archaeologist's great dread is finding gold or treasure because it just causes problems. In fact what I really like is a different kind of treasure, it's the treasure of ancient rubbish and the treasure of ancient pots that tell a richer story. And all together, the bricks, the bones, the stones reveal much about Egyptian history. We can write a wonderful narrative and hopefully also make it displayable and palatable to tourists. I'd love to, for example, find the money to make a cast of the Tetisheri stela that's now in the Cairo Museum and put it back in place where it came from, so that people could go there and see it. I'd put up a translation in English and Arabic and let people know what Abydos once was. If some of the difficulty of traveling in Upper Egypt gets lifted, then it's possible that sites like Abydos could be made really interesting for visitors. A lot like's been done with Elephantine Island at Aswan, for example.
Jimmy Dunn: I guess the early explorers came over here and they would do a season plundering as much as they could plunder. That's not how Egyptology works anymore. There is no end in site to this anymore. This is perhaps maybe going to be a lifelong love for you in Abydos. Do you see that? I mean we're not going to find an answer to this overnight.
Stephen Harvey: No. Now that I'm at the University of Chicago where we have very, very bright and very capable graduate students, I want to pass on parts of the research for them to focus on. I'll still be the director of the overall area but the goal is that they would be able to help me out with parts of the research. For example, the town where the priest lived. That's going to be fascinating. It could be another Deir el-Medina, the workmen's village on the West Bank at Luxor. We could have all sorts of texts and lots of pottery and good evidence associated with it. If I had a student working in that area I could focus more on the pyramid and the pyramid temple area where which holds my personal interest. Similarly I can spin out a whole series of projects that would be free-standing projects and be great for the student's careers. The bottom line is I foresee a series of publications that would be based on the work here over the next, say, fifteen years, but I don't want to spin it out endlessly because part of our duty now is a little different than in the past, differently than 100 years ago. We must publish and to make the material known. That's part of the goal and also to preserve the monument for visitors and for the future.
Jimmy Dunn: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Do you have any final words for our readers?
Stephen Harvey: Well, again and again when I give a lecture, people come up to me and they say 'I thought that everything in Egypt was already discovered. I thought there were no more questions left. I thought that everything had been found, and I'm surprised to see that there's still a lot of questions left.' I just want to underline that we're really actually right now in a golden age of archaeology. I think 100 years from now people will look back and see how much was discovered. We're just now finding out about the earliest hieroglyphic writing in Egypt. We're finding out about the relations between Egypt and Mesopotamia. A lot of tombs are being discovered with incredible artistic importance, including at Saqqara, among other places. Abydos is revealing surprise after surprise, including the earliest boats in the world and all sorts of other material. Excavation, combined with new techniques and technology, make archaeological work very exciting. It's excavations right now that are going to be building a foundation for the history we will be writing in the coming years.
Jimmy Dunn: Thank you Dr. Harvey.