Walking Among Pharaohs: George Reisner and the dawn of modern egyptology


Harvard-based Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian examines the life, career, and legacy of George Reisner (1867-1942), and considers his place in Egyptological and archaeological history. He argues that Reisner’s contribution ‘cannot be overstated’, and is not sufficiently acknowledged in discussions of the ‘founding figures’ of archaeology. This painstaking biography is the product of nearly 20 years’ research, drawing on Reisner’s field notes, letters, maps, and images. The author reassesses Reisner’s conscious or unconscious attitudes to racism, while striving for a balanced portrayal of this groundbreaking Egyptologist, renowned for his excavations at Giza, including his discovery of the tomb Queen Hetepheres (1925).

One of Harvard’s first archaeologists, George Reisner hailed from Indianapolis. At Harvard, he originally studied ancient Near Eastern languages and cultures, earning his doctorate under America’s first Assyriologist, David Gordon Lyon. During postdoctoral work in Berlin (1893-1896), Reisner studied under prominent Egyptologist Adolf Erman, from whom he learned Egyptian language, art, and archaeology.

Millionairess Phoebe Hearst made a proposal to Reisner in 1899 that was a turning-point in his career: he agreed to conduct excavations in Egypt and develop scientific methods of excavating and recording, thus adopting Egyptian archaeology instead of Assyriology. Reisner would spend 40 years in Egypt, working during the period of British political control of Egypt, French control of the Antiquities Service, and growing Egyptian nationalism.

In 1903, Reisner seized the opportunity to excavate the cemeteries surrounding the Giza Pyramids. After Hearst’s funding was withdrawn in 1905, he played a key role in the creation of the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition for financing. The HU-MFA Expedition work began on the Menkaura Pyramid Temple in 1906. Funding was always tight, so in 1907 Reisner accepted the Egyptian government’s assignment to survey cemeteries in ancient Nubia following concern about the threat caused by the Aswan Dam.

Building on fieldwork principles established by Petrie, Reisner set new standards for modern archaeological surveying, and was one of the first to dig stratigraphically. All his work was meticulously documented. Reisner credited his excavation work at the Menkaura pyramid, including the discovery of the Menkaura diad statue (a masterpiece of historical art) for his appointment as curator of the Egyptian Department of the Boston MFA (1910) and a professorship of Egyptology at Harvard (1914).

Walking Among Pharaohs grew out of Manuelian’s involvement with the Giza Archives Project at the Boston MFA, and he is the ideal author for this authoritative first biography of Reisner. It is an essential addition to any Egyptological library, bringing to light the work and accomplishments of Reisner in Egypt and Nubia during the ‘golden age’ of Egyptology. The extensive, meticulous notes and bibliography are indispensable. The book is illustrated with 100 figures and 52 colour plates.

by Peter Der Manuelian 
Oxford University Press, 2023 
ISBN 978-0-19-762893-5 
Hardback £25.99