Author: Donald Ryan, PhD
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “From the known to the unknown . . .
With its spectacular temples, tombs, monuments, and mummies, as well as esoteric metaphysics, legendary historical characters, and connections to the Bible, ancient Egypt has enticed the human imagination for centuries. This search for understanding and drive to uncover a lost civilization has also been the life work of archaeologist Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D. In Beneath the Sands of Egypt, he offers an intriguing personal account of a career spent researching the remains of Egypt’s past — including his headline-making rediscovery of a lost tomb in the Valley of the Kings containing the mummy of the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut.
Since his early childhood, Ryan dreamed of exploration and adventure. Inspired by his plastic dinosaurs, his books — including Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki — and his father’s National Geographic collection, Ryan was determined to become an archaeologist. It is a quest that has taken him from harsh desert digs to the modern comforts of Europe’s finest museums to treacherous Alpine peaks — and into the lives of his archaeological predecessors, gathering insight from obscure documents and, literally, digging in their wake.
Beneath the Sands of Egypt interweaves Ryan’s captivating tales from the field with reflections into the arcane world of Egyptology, from the writings of Herodotus to the tools of the trade, the intricacies of obtaining a digging permit to the thrall of popular myths. In addition, Ryan introduces a diverse cast of eccentric colleagues, helpful locals, wily entrepreneurs, and enlightened benefactors who have touched his life, including the legendary Thor Heyerdahl, Ryan’s childhood hero who eventually became his friend, mentor, and boss. Throughout, Ryan adds his unique touch, reminding us how an artifact as seemingly insignificant as a piece of rope can unlock invaluable insights and offer its own wonderful tale.
Infused with the irrepressible curiosity that has fueled Ryan’s journey, Beneath the Sands of Egypt is the extraordinary story of a man who has spent a lifetime embracing adventure whenever — and wherever — he finds it.”
Thoughts: Beneath the Sands of Egypt is more than a memoir. It touches on Egyptian and archaeological history, highlighting pioneers in the industry and important finds already uncovered. Dr. Ryan also presents a cautionary tale about the field, the risks required to be successful, and the demanding physical and scholarly work required. Rather than becoming a lecture, Dr. Ryan presents his story with flair, highlighting the pros and cons of his chosen profession with an ardor that does not exist in most people about their own career paths. His engagement and passion for the field creates a memoir that is enjoyable for anyone interested in science, in history and in taking risks.
Dr. Ryan admits that archaeology is a tough field in which to find success. He admits that it sometimes requires more luck than skill, requires working in harsh, almost punishing conditions, while balancing the local government’s beauracratic requirements for permission to dig. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work for sometimes little reward. This does not include the time spent wining and dining prospective benefactors, the time spent researching and cataloging finds, and the time required writing papers and journal articles. Yet, in spite of all the negative aspects of the field, the reader cannot help but being attracted to it. One cannot help but imagine working alongside Dr. Ryan in the Valley of the Kings, sifting through dirt and ruble excavated from a recently re-opened tomb. While Dr. Ryan works hard to share the work behind a successful dig, his love of his profession also creates a child-like sense of wonder in the reader.
Memoirs are highly dependent on whether the reader relates to the author. Dr. Ryan is immensely likable. While he loves his profession, he is also in awe of the history he is excavating and those giants of the field in whose footsteps he is following. He remains humble at his good fortune and knows how lucky he is to have been able to accomplish everything he has done. Dr. Ryan’s main goal is to share the love he has for archaeology, and he accomplishes this goal extremely well.
I have a secret. My secret childhood dream, and one that does continue to fill me with longing to this day, is to become an archaeologist. I have always wanted to experience the profound joy of uncovering pieces of history. When I was approached about reviewing Dr. Ryan’s Beneath the Sands of Egypt, I knew that it was a novel I had to read, if only to glean better insight into the field of which I have always wanted to be a part. After finishing it, I remain convinced that archaeology is an amazing field. While Dr. Ryan’s cautions have convinced me that it is not necessarily the profession of choice for me, I am more eager than ever to find a way to get involved as a volunteer, perhaps by finding a local dig with which to get some experience. If anything, Dr. Ryan has inspired me to take more risks about those things for which I am truly passionate.
Beneath the Sands of Egypt is a fun, inside look at the world of archaeology. Dr. Ryan does much to debunk the mystique caused by the Indiana Jones series while still keeping the subject matter interesting, and to this reader, appealing. His stories are fascinating and give the reader a greater appreciation for the artifacts already discovered. He does not shy away from describing the tedious, hard work required to be a successful archaeologist, and yet his enthusiasm for his chosen career path flows through the pages. Dr. Ryan loves what he does, and his memoir showcases this perfectly.
Thank you to Megan Traynor from HarperCollings Publishing for my review copy!