Take a Stroll through Harvard Camp
Discover the base of operations for archaeologists working in Egypt and the Sudan in the 1900s.
Welcome to Harvard Camp.
This was the “dig house” for the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts (HU-MFA) Expedition. It was located on a hill west of the famous Giza Pyramids.
From Harvard Camp you could see modern Cairo in one direction and the desert in the other.
If you sat on the veranda, or porch, you could admire the huge Giza Pyramids, just a short walk away.
A dig house served as the home and office for the Expedition team.
The staff worked on their discoveries here, taking photos, filling out paperwork, and making drawings.
For more than 40 years, this group of very simple mud-brick buildings served as the central headquarters for the HU–MFA Expedition team.
In addition to working on the discoveries from the cemeteries at Giza, they also brought objects here from the Expedition’s 22 other archaeological sites.
These sites are in Egypt and in Nubia (modern Sudan).
In the storage rooms (called magazines) were thousands of excavated objects.
There were tiny amulets and colossal statues, pottery jars, stone vessels, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.
These objects came through the Camp for study; then the team packed and shipped them to either the Cairo Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), or the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
In this office, the Expedition’s archaeologists recorded important information about the objects they discovered.
They wrote by hand in paper notebooks and typed thousands of pages on typewriters.
Later they published many of their finds in books and academic journals.
Today, scholars are still studying these finds. Thanks to the many precise records that the Expedition left behind, we are making new discoveries all the time.
At Harvard Camp, they also worked on conserving artifacts on site so that they could be safely packed and shipped.
This object, for instance, is the curtain box of Queen Hetepheres I. Since the wood had disintegrated, it was restored by master conservator, Ahmed Yusef Mustapha.
Here is the photography studio.
In addition to taking daily notes about the excavations, the team took thousands of photos too.
The American and European staff trained Egyptians to work as Expedition photographers.
These Egyptian photographers worked out at the archaeological site, taking pictures of the digging.
They photographed the finds exactly as they appeared in the tombs and temples.
Then, back at Harvard Camp, they put the objects in the Camp studio and photographed them with better lighting and cleaner conditions.
Back in those days, the large cameras used glass plate negatives, not film or digital files, as we do today.
After the work day, the Expedition staff came here to relax, and to see visitors.
Imagine drinking tea on the veranda with your visiting friends, while you enjoyed the sunset behind the Pyramids and the Nile Valley.
Most visitors never forgot this wonderful experience.
Nearby was the famous Mena House hotel, where colleagues, friends, and officials sometimes came to enjoy a fancier meal.
Over the years, Harvard Camp grew to include offices, a photo studio, storage rooms, a kitchen, tea and dining rooms, stables for the horses, and bedrooms for both Western and Egyptian staff.
There was a garage for the cars, and a terrace and veranda for entertaining visitors. In later years the staff even built a tennis court.
For George Reisner, one of the first scientific archaeologists working in Egypt, and his family, Harvard Camp at the Giza Pyramids was home. They owned no property back in Boston.
Reisner originally established the Camp in 1903 for his “Hearst Expedition” of the University of California, Berkeley.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst was the woman who supported the Hearst Expedition’s work, but after 1905 she stopped paying for archaeological expeditions.
Reisner’s new supporters were Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1905 was the year that Hearst Camp became Harvard Camp.
Harvard Camp was not just a meeting place for Egyptologists and archaeologists.
Many other people visited the Camp too, including Egyptian and Western government officials, artists, researchers, tourists, students, and family friends.
And the Camp was not just a home for humans.
Lots of dogs and cats roamed the grounds and lived side-by-side with the Expedition staff.
Donkeys and horses were there too, and a camel brought fresh water up to the Camp each day until the late 1930s. There were cars, but no electricity and no plumbing.
Over the years, the staff improved and enlarged buildings.
In 1929, we read in the Expedition Diary that two camels brought building materials for an extra room. They carried palm reeds for a new ceiling, and new tiles for the office.
Work at the Camp continued through two world wars, 1914 to 1918, and 1939 to 1945.
George Reisner died there in 1942, and the Expedition finally closed down in 1947. The staff packed and shipped most of the papers, photos, and drawings, home to Boston.
The HU–MFA Expedition’s mission was to study the world of the ancient Egyptians.
But the special importance of Harvard Camp was in the relationships between the archaeologists and the modern Egyptian people.
At Harvard Camp, ancient Egypt and modern Egypt came together. Egyptologist William Stevenson Smith, one of the Expedition staff, once wrote that George Reisner’s interest in the life of the people around him was “one of the basic values of Harvard Camp.”
Reisner’s interest in the life of the people around him was “one of the basic values of Harvard Camp.”
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