Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beneath The Sands Of Egypt by Donald Ryan

Readers interested in Egypt and archeology will be fascinated by the life and career of Donald Ryan in his book Beneath The Sands Of Egypt.  Ryan was fascinated by ancient cultures and exploration from his childhood; the kind of kid whose favorite magazine was The National Geographic. After he finished his education he found work and made significant discoveries in Egypt. 

There are several points that I'd not really considered prior to reading this book that were quite interesting.  One was the day to day danger and tedium of an archeologist's life.  Those who work in the Valley of the Kings are exposed to grueling heat, nerve-wracking climbs down steep cliffs and crawls through narrow underground passages.  They endure this to find shards and pieces of the past, which then must be painstakingly put back together.  The modern archaeologist in Egypt is getting to tombs after the early discoveries by scientists who didn't have advanced methods of protecting the finds and after repeated predations by graverobbers.  They battle bureaucracies, both in their home country and in the country where the work is done.  Disease is common from the dust and animals found in the sites.  A common enemy of their work is water.  Egyptian tombs are located in such a way that they are often repeatedly flooded over the years, destroying much of the evidence the scientist is looking for.

Another interesting point is how common objects are as precious to the scientist as the big, showy items that make it into museum showcases.  Ryan had a fascinating chapter on the rope used during the era of the Pharaohs, and his scholarship is displayed as he researches how it was constructed and used.  Another common object is papyrus, and he discusses those who have brought this art back from extinction.

A point most hobbyists don't consider but that Ryan discusses is how few career jobs there are in archeology and how hard it is to make a living in this field.  Ryan spent years patching together a career from teaching in several colleges, lecturing on cruise ships, being a consultant to TV productions about Egypt and serving on different site digs.  The life is one of constant scrambling for funds, and those not comfortable with a career outside the box need not apply.

Although Ryan focuses mainly on his work in Egypt, he also discusses the seven years he spent as an assistant to the great Thor Heyerdahl.  Heyerdahl burst onto the archaeological scene with his theories about how primitive men were able to transverse oceans, and his replication of such a journey on his raft, the Kon-tiki.  Ryan had grown up with Heyerdahl as his childhood hero and the opportunity to work with him as an adult was a dream come true.

This book is recommended for history readers, and those interested in archeology.  Ryan is a fascinating man, and he has covered his career in an interesting fashion. 

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