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Originally published July 11, 2010 at 7:03 PM | Page modified July 11, 2010 at 10:19 PM

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Lit Life

An 'Unconventional Archaeologist' in our midst

Tacoma-based archaeologist/Egyptologist Donald P. Ryan, a part-time faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University, has a passion for his work that comes through in his book "Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist." Ryan speaks in Seattle Monday, July 12.

Seattle Times book editor

On the Internet

Donald P. Ryan's home page: www.plu.edu/~ryandp/

Author appearance

Donald P. Ryan

The author of "Beneath the Sands of Egypt" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1520 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Lit Life |

Given the rarefied job market for Egyptologists, it would be understandable if Donald P. Ryan highlighted the nastier bits about his job to star-struck young adventurers.

Sifting for bones and shards in windblasted dirt and 100-degree heat. Untangling the skein of regulations put in place by the Egyptian government to ensure that tomb looting never happens again. And the time that archaeologist Ryan, crawling down a tunnel in Tenerife, was struck by an "eerie tingling feeling on my skin," he writes in his new book. Scrambling out, he found he was "covered from head to toe with fleas," courtesy of feral dogs who kept cool underground.

But Ryan can't help himself: he loves his work, and his book, "Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist" (Morrow, 304 pp., $26.99), shows it. It's a fascinating, genial and accessible memoir by Ryan, a Tacoma-based archaeologist/Egyptologist and part-time faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU).

Ryan, 53, writes of finding undiscovered mummies in the same tombs explored by Howard Carter, discoverer of King Tut; watching Egyptian workmen move immense stone boulders with ropes and pulleys, much as their ancestors did 4,000 years ago; using his own mountaineering skills to scramble out of dark and dirty holes in the ground.

Ryan, fellow of the Explorers Club and Britain's Royal Geographical Society, has some working knowledge of Spanish, German, French, Italian, Yiddish, modern and biblical Hebrew, Arabic and ancient Sumerian. But his accessible prose has been refined by years teaching at community colleges and writing several "Complete Idiots" books ("The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ancient Egypt," "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Biblical Mysteries").

Ryan grew up in California but landed at PLU as an undergraduate. He fell hard for mountaineering, rock climbing and archaeology. Between getting a master's and doctorate, he was continually back and forth to Egypt to work on digs.

Given the heaps of artifacts and treasure retrieved from Egypt's Valley of the Kings, you might think there was nothing left to discover. But Ryan has made major finds in tombs first unsealed by 19th-century adventurers. Egypt's hot, dry climate has preserved history's detritus: A 4,000-year-old statue "may look like it was carved yesterday," Ryan says.

Ryan profiles characters who dominated early Egyptian archaeology, notably Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a 6-foot-7 circus performer and inventor. Spurred on by the British consul, in 1816 Belzoni retrieved a huge stone head and torso from ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) by inching it forward on rollers and floating it up the Nile. Today the head, from the mortuary temple of Ramses II, is a prized feature of the British Museum's collection.

"These projects were for big, strong guys," Ryan says. "There were a lot of competitors. Today people say, 'look at all this stuff Belzoni stole,' but 100 years ago, nobody flinched ... Now you can be extremely careful to the point of being tedious."

His current role is that of an "accountant: A lot of my job is raising money and spending it judiciously ... I have to make the big decisions and get the permissions," he says.

Ryan advises would-be archaeologists to enter the competitive field with their eyes wide open — volunteer for digs, attend professional conferences to see if they take to the tedium of research.

Today, 21st-century technology such as DNA analysis and information sharing on the Web has expanded the study of a lost way of life. But Ryan still records his finds in an old-fashioned paper notebook: "My notebook will never crash, be scrutinized by security or get dust in it."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel

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