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Nation's only Egyptology dept. set to expand, but details not set in stone

There are over 5,000 institutions of higher education in the United States. But just one - Brown - boasts a free-standing Egyptology department. Almost 60 years after its founding, Brown's Department of Egyptology remains the only one of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Like the invention of the microwave and artificial sweetener, the creation of the department was somewhat serendipitous.

When Theodora Wilbour died in 1947, she left the University $750,000 to establish the department and endow a chair in Egyptology in memory of her father, Charles Edwin Wilbour, who entered Brown with the Class of 1854 but left without graduating and did not maintain any connection with the University, according to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Wilbour made his fortune as a journalist in New York and had connections to William Macy Tweed, the boss of the Tammany Hall political machine. When the Tweed ring was smashed in 1871 Wilbour and his family sailed for France, where he began studying Egyptology. Wilbour went on to become the first trained American Egyptologist.

The University designated the building on the corner of Prospect and George streets, which had housed the Delta Phi fraternity, as the department's home and renamed it Wilbour Hall in 1949.

Egyptology is one of Brown's smallest departments, usually graduating between two and five concentrators a year. A few years ago there were six in one year, "but that was an exception," said Leo Depuydt, associate professor of Egyptology.

Depuydt now finds himself in what he called the "strange situation" of being the only full-time professor in the department. His former colleague, Leonard Lesko, retired last year. There are between three and five adjunct professors at any given time, although one of them, Lanny Bell, is in Egypt this semester.

Lucy Raulston '06, an Egyptology concentrator, said that "right now it's a little hard, having so few faculty members," but that generally "it's kind of nice" to be in such a small department, because concentrators get lots of personal interaction with professors and all the classes are very small.

Michael Ennis '08 said there are only three undergraduates in his second-year Egyptian class, EG133: "Selections from Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts," meaning there is lots of opportunity for one-on-one interaction with professors.

But this miniature gem of a department, which Depuydt describes as an "orchid" in his online University profile because it is "beautiful" but "useless," - will soon experience some serious growth. The department recently changed its name to the Department of Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies and could soon "be expanding into a much wider focus," Depuydt said.

New areas of study could include other pre-classical civilizations in North-East Africa and Western Asia, such as the Mesopotamians, Babylonians and Assyrians.

He added that the University is "trying to establish a new template ... for studying the ancient Near East," although the spec-ifics are not yet set in stone. But Depuydt said it will most likely include more collaboration with related departments at Brown, as well as with the new Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World.

The institute, which takes the place of the Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, was established a year ago with a gift from Chancellor Emeritus Artemis A.W. Joukowsky '55, P '87 and Professor Emerita Martha Sharp Joukowsky '58, P '87. At the time it was also announced that Rhode Island Hall would be-come the permanent home of the institute.

The change provides the University with a "unique opportunity to create something new," Depuydt said.

The departure of Lesko, who was chairman of the department as well as the Wilbour professor, also created an opportunity to reorganize. The Wilbour professor has historically chaired the department, but this could change with the addition of more faculty in the near future, Depuydt said. The redefined department will likely have six faculty members - double the number currently funded by the endowment - including specialists in other ancient civilizations.

The expansion of the department's focus will make it less unique, but it will also make its existence less tenuous. "Fields like ours are always struggling for recognition because they are exotic," Depuydt said, adding that they also tend to rely heavily on philanthropy.

"This is the most significant transition" in the department's 50-year history, Depuydt said. He added that the initiative to change the name "came from higher up."

"There is now a group of core professors from ancient studies, archaeology (and related fields) who are going to brainstorm" about the future of their disciplines at Brown, Depuydt said. The new Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World also currently has only one full-time faculty member, so "the University sees this situation as an opportunity" to hire more scholars, he added.

Depuydt said that if the University wanted to set an ambitious goal, it could create the best ancient studies program in the country. He added that the changes already underway guarantee that the new department will be "competitive with anybody that's out there."

But although there is room for growth, there are limits to how much the department can expand. Depuydt said that there are probably no more than 50 or 60 Egyptologists in the United States. Some states, such Texas, Florida and Minnesota, have none.

However, just because there aren't many Egyptologists doesn't mean they don't have much to study. Depuydt compared the field to biology in its diversity, explaining that scholars can focus on such specific areas as language, literature or archaeology. He added that because the Egyptian language was in use for 4,000 years, studying all the different stages is essentially like learning five different languages.

The fact that there are "only six to 10 places in this country where one can be a working Egyptologist" may seem daunting to some students worried about career prospects, but there are "a small number of people who absolutely want to do this," he said.

Raulston, who is double concentrating in Egyptology and ancient studies and is currently applying to graduate schools for a Ph.D. in Egyptology, says she is asked why she is interested in the field "all the time." She said that above all, it is "fun" and "cool," especially the ability to read hieroglyphics.

Yoo Sung Hwan GS came to Brown from Korea, where he was a translator, to study Egyptology. He became interested in the subject when several books about Egypt were published in Korean in the early 1990s. After he earns his degree from Brown he hopes to return to Korea and establish Egyptology as an academic field in his home country, where there are currently no Egyptologists.

Ashley Harris '09 doesn't know yet what she is going to do with an Egyptology degree, but she said, "It would be really cool if I ended up in a desert digging somewhere." She said, "I liked that the school had an Egyptology department because it was something I hadn't seen other places."




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