Uncovering Egypt’s past: ND native, renowned Egyptologist continues quest

Dr. Mark Lehner, director and president of the Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc., does some hand-mapping at an excavation site in Egypt. Lehner has spent years of archaeological research in Egypt. Photo from AERA.

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series.

North Dakota native and anthropologist Dr. Mark Lehner spent three years mapping the Great Sphinx in Egypt.

This led to the mapping of the whole pyramids plateau and that led to the excavation of what is called the “Lost City of the Pyramids.

“Nobody knew the city was there, said Lehner during a recent visit to Minot.

Lehner, director and president of Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc. (AERA), based in Boston, Massachusetts, and his team uncovered a storehouse of Pharaoh that fed the pyramid buildings. Initially, it was believed it was a palace possibly dating back to Khufu who built the Great Pyramid.

Dr. Mark Lehner, North Dakota native and renown Egyptologist, takes many photos when working at excavation sites in Egypt. Photo from AERA.

“The two most satisfying things in my career are mapping the Great Sphinx and coming to an understanding of it, and finding it’s only part of this lost city. And now we know the palace of Khufu is hidden in the other part but what we have is certainly interesting. It’s certainly his storehouse. We first broke ground in 1988 so we’ve been working for 36 years,” he said.

Lehner said when they work, they work as an interdisciplinary project.

“We’re not really interested in fine art objects, gold bowls and mummies. We save every scrap of animal bones,” he said.

From this, he said they can sex and age the animal bones and find out the people living in the city ate lots of prime beef because they can see the different bone parts.

“We literally have big data as they say in AI (artificial intelligence). We have literally millions of iterations of animal bones from 36 years of excavation that show us patterns – that these people were being fed prime beef from young male cattle,” he said. He said the Egyptians culled their herd to feed protein to the pyramid workforce.

“The storehouse of Pharaoh shows they’re also getting high carbohydrates – grain. We can actually see what kind of grain. It’s not our bread wheat; it’s actually emmer (an ancient form of wheat),” he said.

He said when they get ancient plant remains they actually take the dirt and save it. They don’t need the whole grain but through a process they can sort out wheat, barley, etc.

“We put all this information together to try to see a picture of how the pyramid builders really lived,” he said.

In order to do all this, Lehner left his job at the University of Chicago to devote full time to the excavations in Egypt, but has continued at the university as a research associate. Lehner founded AERA in 1985.

Lehner said almost 400 young archaeologists working for Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities have been taught through AERA.

“Instead of teaching foreign graduate students who come to Egypt, get material and come back here and get Ph.Ds, we actually teach young Egyptian archaeologists to empower them and they begin the study of their own heritage. The motto of our field school is really important. It is: ‘We are not looking for things. We are looking for information’ and that takes a team,” he said.

Lehner said there are other field schools but people want to be part of AERA’s field schools.

“We have tremendous value in terms of goodwill with the Egyptian government because of all the field schools,” he said.

AERA operates with grants from various sources, including extensive support from private citizens.

“We do so much research every single season,” Lehner said. “We have to do something new and cutting edge to get the funding from our donors.

“We have had generous support, most recently from Charles Simonyi, who developed the Microsoft Office package. Charles Simonyi’s support is matched by Microsoft,” he said. The National Geographic Society has been a major supporter for more than two years. AERA also has had donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the late David Koch and USAID.

Lehner is considered a world renowned Egyptologist, but he said there’s someone who is more world renowned than he is.

“That’s my good friend and brother Zahi Hawass. For a good many years he was minister of Antiquities in Egypt and for many years he has done his own research outside of the government. He’s a very respected, influential person, a hugely effective publicist for Egypt and tourism. Just last year he was on a major tour of 23 cities in the United States. I owe a lot of my career to my relationship with Zahi.

“The opportunity to find this lost city of the pyramids and do the kind of enth degree archaeology we do is a huge opportunity that Egypt has gifted to me and Egypt is similarly generous with major institutions from the United States – the Metropolitan, Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Egypt is very generous in sharing its research opportunities. But for me personally and my organization the field school program that we developed is giving back and empowering Egyptians to partake of this opportunity,” he said.

“What I would like to do – what’s next for me – is to get back to the quest that took me there in the first place. All of this is a subset of that interest in what is real, why do people believe things, what is the nature of belief?” he said. “I’ve never lost that interest to bigger questions about life and that sort of thing.”


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