George Reisner and the Giza Pyramids

Dr. Peter der Manuelian, is currently the Mellon Research Fellow in Egyptian Art, and Director of the Giza Archive Project at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He received his AB in Near Eastern Language and Civilizations from Harvard, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. In addition to his directorial and research responsibilities at MFA Boston, he is a lecturer at both Harvard and Tufts Universities, and is the author of a very new book entitled, Slab Stelae of the Giza Necropolis, due out by the end of October, 2003.

Dr. der Manuelian’s lecture was a veritable “trip down memory lane”. 

The Giza Pyramid complex is the most famous architectural site in the world, regularly swarming with visitors from a dozen nations. Dr. der Manuelian began by taking the audience back to a quieter time; as in 1927, when one reached the great pyramids via a street car traveling up the Al Pharon.
Work at the Giza Plateau at the turn of the century was a sort of “Indiana Jones” type of affair, during which great quantities of objects, papyrus and debris was removed, and some of the world great museums were the major benefactors.

George Andrew Reisner had an amazing, long lived career in archaeology, much of which centered around Giza. But, incredibly, Reisner actually excavated at 23 different sites between 1899 and 1942, including several seasons in Palestine. He revolutionized the archaeological process and the types and means of documentation, all of which archaeologists employ routinely today. Reisner was truly ahead of his time. He developed a systematic method of excavating and documenting which was unlike anything being done by any other archaeologist of his day.

George Reisner was born in 1867 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He took his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University and graduated in the class of 1889. For a short time after graduation he returned to Indianapolis but soon went back to Harvard to pursue a Masters and Doctorate, graduating in 1893 with a specialty in Assyriology and Semitic languages.

In 1892 he married Mary Bunson, and almost immediately left for one of George’s excavations in the Middle East. George worked in Berlin, under Adolph Erman and Kurt Sethe. Sethe taught George hieroglyphs, which he added to his already considerable knowledge of Arabic, Cuneiform and various other ancient and modern languages.

In 1896 Reisner went back to Harvard to work temporarily at the Semitic Museum which was being developed by David Gordon Lynn. Soon thereafter Yale offered him a job in Assyriology, but was not able to put him on the payroll for a year, so he decided to go to Cairo to work with a team hired to catalogue the holdings of the Cairo Museum while he waited for his Yale appointment. His responsibilities in Cairo included cataloging the Egyptian amulets, canopic jars, and boat models.
While Reisner was in Cairo, he was introduced to Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, mother of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. She was looking for someone to excavate for her in Egypt, and offered the job to Reisner. George Reisner had no experience in field excavation, and had two other options pending. He could return to Berlin to continue work with Erman and Sethe, he could take the Assyriology job at Yale, or he could go to work for Mrs. Hearst. He decided to accept Phoebe Hearst’s offer, thus began the Hearst Egyptian Expedition.

Mrs. Hearst imposed no requirement for finding “things” as she, a former teacher, was much more interested in learning things rather than acquiring them. Reisner, therefore negotiated three years of funding which would be used to work at unimportant sites such Deir el Ballas, where he could perfect his methods.

In September of 1897 he came to California to meet which his benefactor, who threw a big party in his honor at her hacienda in Pleasanton. Her son, upon meeting him, characterized Reisner as honest, energetic and a little gentleman!

By 1902, Reisner has perfected his methods and Giza was available. When he learned that a British Member of Parliament (MP) was to be given a concession there, he immediately applied, along with a German, and an Italian. Reisner actively protested that the site was much too important to allow untutored diggers such as MPs to work there. Ultimately, the plateau was divided up between the Americans who received the north section of the Western Cemetery plus the funerary & valley temple of Menkaure, the Germans who were awarded the middle section of the West Cemetery, and Italians who received the southern segment of the West Cemetery. After just a few years, the Italians abandoned their concession and Reisner took it over. Thus, he ended up with 2/3 of the Western Cemetery, all of the Eastern Cemetery, the pyramid temple, satellite pyramids, and the valley temple of Menkaure.

He started work at the farthest tip of the Western Cemetery and moved slowly east, then excavated the pyramid temple of Menkaure. When it was complete, he returned to the Western Cemetery, then back to work in the Menkaure complex. Next he went off to Nubia to excavate, then to Palestine; back to Nubia, and finally back to Giza in the early 1920s.

Giza was really his home, even when he worked elsewhere. At Giza, mastaba after mastaba was cleared, and is our major source of information about architecture in the Old Kingdom. He discovered that some time during Khufu’s reign, early in the 4th Dynasty, all innovation in building came to a halt. Was it through royal edict, or insufficient supplies, or just a refocusing of priorities. Whatever it was, a very static period ensued and was not eclipsed until after Khufu’s death.
At Giza, Reisner set up Hearst/Harvard Camp, which was to be his and Mary’s home until his death. Mary Reisner did all the bookkeeping for the expedition and assisted with other chores related to running a large, ongoing excavation. His daughter, Mary – for her mother - was born there in 1902. Life at Hearst/Harvard camp was relatively simple. The house was build around a large central courtyard, which was perpetually full of the work-in-progress. 

In 1904, Phoebe Hearst had had a major financial setback when one of her gold mines failed, and notified Reisner that she would not be able to continue her support of his work at Giza, once the current contract expired. Early in 1905 Mrs. Hearst came for a farewell visit, and made a great feast for the expedition’s workmen and their families. Dr. der Manuelian screened fascinating photographs of the affair and the gift of a blanket provided to every workman. In March of that year, the incomparable Wepemnofret stela, now in the Hearst Museum collection, was discovered, just a few weeks after Mrs. Hearst’s departure. Reisner commissioned William DeGaris Davies to make a color drawing of the piece, which is now among the Reisner papers at MFA Boston. 
Per Dr. der Manuelian, “…a great scramble ensued!” upon notification that Mrs. Hearst’s sponsorship was at an end. Albert M. Lithgoe, immediately approached Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston about sponsoring Reisner’s work at Giza, but also made an attempt to have himself named as director, instead of Reisner, and proceeded to convince David Gordon Lynn to support his position. Reisner hurried to Boston, and finally Harvard’s president Elliot had to intervene and sort things out. It was decided that the MFA would support the expedition, Harvard the publications, and Reisner would continue as expedition director, with Lithgoe as field director. Reisner’s new contract stated that he was to come to Boston from time to time to teach a class or two, but in actuality that rarely happened. Most of his time thereafter was spent in Egypt.
George Reisner, as previously noted, was ahead of his time. He tried to determine how the Western Cemetery developed, and identified 3 nucleus cemeteries from which the rest of the cemetery spread. Every day he photographed the day’s work. When excavating Menkaure’s pyramid temple, he had his photographer climb the pyramid at the close of the day’s work, and photograph the temple from above with a camera mounted on the third pyramid! As a result, we have a veritable time-lapse view of the work as it progressed. During excavation of the valley temple it was learned that the temple was not finished by the king it honored, but rather by his successor, Shepseskaf, and the now famous Menkaure dyads and triads were discovered. He learned a great deal about ancient Egyptian architecture and construction techniques. His attention to detail and the vast library of photographs he maintained, today provides the context required by scholars as they pursue research.

While Reisner was away on one of his rare trips back to the US in 1925, his assistant, Dows Dunham, cabled him that an undisturbed Old Kingdom royal tomb had been discovered near the pyramid of Khufu, in the Eastern Cemetery. Reisner immediately cabled Dunham to close the tomb and await his arrival. When Reisner returned, the shaft was cleared and a meticulous job of photographing and clearing the tomb began. Each layer of material was photographed with greatest care, then the pieces were removed bit by bit. It took 2 years to complete the work. As a result of the careful work Reisner and Dunham did, it was possible to completely reconstruct the contents of what turned out to be a tomb prepared for the mother of Khufu, Hetepheres. 
By the late 1930s, George Reisner was the eminent authority on the Giza Plateau. He spoke Arabic fluently and was regularly consulted about what was going on in Egypt. He was, however, by the late 1930s nearly completely blind. At his 70th birthday party, his family gave his a repeater watch that chimed the hours which he could not longer see. In 1939 he made his last trip to the United States, to receive an honorary degree, and started to write a few of his memoirs. He was photographed beside some of the pieces in the Boston Museum which he had excavated in years past. He returned to Harvard Camp, and unable to read any longer, was read to. He was particularly fond of detective novels and had a collection of more than 2000 of them. Also at the end of the 1930s, as war was looming in Europe, an air raid shelter was prepared in one of the rock cut tombs in the Eastern Cemetery. Reisner has his own tomb in which there were stores, medicines, and other things he might need if he had to stay there for very long.

In 1942, Reisner’s body finally gave out; he was blind and could no longer speak. He died at Harvard Camp, Giza on June 6, 1942, and was buried in a protestant cemetery in Cairo. Harvard Camp was closed down in 1947 and the buildings sold back to the Supreme Council for Antiquities.
The Egyptian government award one half of the objects found by Reisner to the excavation sponsors – the Hearst Museum at University of California, Berkeley, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The other half was retained by the Cairo Museum, including the original Hetepheres tomb furnishings to which Reisner made no claim. As Reisner was working for Boston at the time of his death, all of his photographs and papers went to Boston, and are housed there today.

In 2000, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts received a Mellon grant to set up the Giza Archive Project. All of the excavation records are systematically being prepared for internet access, and can be linterlinked, based on every aspect of the material – photos, text, diagrams, maps, etc. The documentation includes 45,000 glass negatives, of which 21,000 are from Giza. Old register books are being microfilmed as they are disintegrating. Likewise, the emulsion on old negatives is giving way so are being stabilized. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts hopes to create a central repository, available via the internet, for use by scholars and interested aficionados to access. 2003 is the final year of the Mellon grant, but the Museum is optimistic that funding will be continued, and may even lead to a collaborative project between the MFA, Harvard, Tufts and Brown Universities.
The MFA Giza Archive Project can be found on the WEB at

— Nancy Corbin

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