Profile – Man, Myth, or Legend?

This past summer, Hollywood descended on New Haven. For a week, Harrison Ford alternately lectured on archaeology in WLH and zipped on his motorcycle through SML as he and Steven Spielberg filmed the new Indiana Jones movie. For many, seeing the filming in action made it clear that Indiana Jones is a product of pure fiction. The idea of a professor calmly teaching classes between wild adventures seemed ridiculous to anyone watching — especially when the backdrop was a menagerie of grips, extras, phony props, and fake fronts.

But it may not be as absurd as it appears.

Professor John Darnell, the chair of Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, has almost as much legend surrounding him as Indiana Jones, and infinitely more credibility. For years, he has brought Egypt to students and, in many cases, students to Egypt. His charisma and quirky teaching style have made him such a Yale character that he has inspired the Facebook group “John C. Darnell: Man, Myth, or Legend?” Given his experiences in Northern Africa, he just might deserve it.

When I first opened the door to Darnell’s office, I was greeted by strains of choral music and the strong scent of sherry. He beckoned me in and shook my hand as a handful of NELC professors left the room. “We were having a faculty meeting,” he said, gesturing towards the wine glasses scattered around the room. With his three-piece-suit, pocket watch, monocle, and supremely erudite sense of academic zeal, Darnell appeared to be exactly what one would expect of a stuffy Ivy League academic chair. Although he looks as though he were plucked from Victorian London, Darnell actually hails from Prattville, Alabama, and is anything but stodgy.

Darnell has been a professor of Egyptology at Yale for nine years. His passion for archaeology came from his mother, who grew up near the Mississippian Indian burial mounds and had always been fascinated with the subject. Darnell’s first brush with Egypt came when he saw a mummy in a local museum as a child. He studied Egyptology at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cologne, followed by a stint at the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute, where he began his desert work in Luxor, Egypt, and finally Yale. But the Near East doesn’t just inspire his academics: His dog is named after King Antef II.

When Darnell is not moonlighting as a professor, he spends his time wandering the Egyptian desert with his students and colleagues, hunting for archeological clues and combating heat, scorpions, and antiquities thieves along the way. “Let me think of some good stories for you,” he said, then paused for a few moments. “Actually… I’m going to ask Colleen. She’ll be able to think of some.” He banged on the wall of his office to summon Assistant Professor Colleen Manassa, the department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, into the room. “Some people say I take the ‘assistant’ part of ‘assistant professor’ a little literally,” he said with a smile. Manassa, a sharp young woman with Cleopatra bangs, soon arrived. For the next hour, she provided prompts and offered helpful translations of Darnell’s occasionally labyrinthine digressions.

At first I had been suspicious of Darnell’s reputation. I wondered if he might, in fact, be less Indiana Jones and more a bookish academic who spent his time brushing dust from old rocks and pottery shards in the Egyptian equivalent of rural Texas. He does do this, and in fact, most of his time in Egypt seems consumed with the fairly mundane tasks of surveying, digging, and recording finds. But there’s a touch of Harrison Ford, too.

Most of Darnell’s memories of Egypt involve road disasters and his chief assistant, Abdu. Because research takes place as many as twelve hours’ hard driving from civilization, breakdowns are common. Abdu has been working on the expeditions for nearly as long as Darnell, and, apparently, when Abdu is not accidentally discovering relics in his neighborhood (“He must live next door to the Flintstones,” said Darnell) or perilously stacking bags atop the already top-heavy Range Rovers, he is fixing cars. Once, he and Darnell even managed to repair a dying engine using rocks as their main tools.

Aside from mechanical failures, they also contend with a variety of natural hazards. Temperatures in the summer can climb as high as 130 degrees, but that’s hardly the worst threat. Once, when they were digging up a site, the first shovelful came up with a baby horned viper. Another time, a policeman they were traveling with was stung in the ear by a scorpion. Out in the desert, even something as gentle as gerbils can make for a difficult time: The rascally rodents like to invade tents and clean out the food supply. At least, Darnell claims, “the shrieking jackals won’t bother you too much.”

But these stories of baby snakes and broken cars were only the warm-up to the real adventures. Though Darnell is no tomb raider, it turns out that he still has to race against thieves to make it to sites before they do. Often, local tomb raiders will dig right through valuable ancient inscriptions, hoping to find gold hidden in the rocks. “Every time you find a site, you have to act as though it is probably the last time that you will see that site intact,” Darnell said.

Perhaps the most incredible tale Darnell told involved chasing after a cadre of thieves that he, with his team and a group of soldiers, had frightened away from a site. As they drove back from the site, they noticed a large object the size of the house on the horizon. As they neared it, they realized that it was a quarry dump truck, a tall vehicle that requires a ladder to make it up to the driver’s seat. It clearly had no business out on the desert road, and when the vehicles finally neared each other, both stopped.

“At first,” said Darnell, “everyone was frightened, and then we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got all these AK-47s and other sorts of arms.’” The soldiers fell into a loose skirmishing position. But a few heads popped out from the back of the dump truck and explained the situation. As it turns out, the truck had been borrowed by the police from a local quarry; they had captured one of the antiquities thieves and were looking to bring him out to Darnell’s team. Not having any vehicles that could handle the rocky terrain, they took a quarry truck out into the desert, thief in tow.

Of course, Darnell’s important work is much more restrained than chasing after thieves and tombs. Part of what makes his team interesting is that it is not focused on the traditional (and much glorified) strongholds of Egyptology in the Nile Valley. Rather, it explores the desert caravan routes, something that is rarely done and which has provided a wealth of new information on the culture of ancient Egypt. “It’s like you have the same incomplete puzzle, and you’re still trying to make those pieces fit, but they just don’t,” Darnell said, and explained that his goal with his desert data is to help find those pieces. He pointed out that, far from being isolated or irrelevant, the caravan routes actually have a great deal to say about Egyptian history: “You can be on an interstate highway, out passing through some large wooded area, but you’re not really in the middle of nowhere. You’re in a narrow, long, stretched-out strip of somewhere.”

Because Darnell’s research angle is fresh, his team has been able to close gaps in Egyptian history. They’ve found the earliest historical document from Egypt, the Scorpion tableau, and the earliest-known alphabetic inscription.

And his originality shows in the classroom. Ashley Young ’10, a student of his and the creator of the “Man, Myth, or Legend” Facebook group, couldn’t say enough in praise of Darnell’s unusual tactics and striking charisma. “He has such a command of historical knowledge that students can’t help but be in awe of him… He made ancient Egypt come alive in my eyes,” she said. She has particularly fond memories of quirky moments in class, such as when Darnell accidentally took a chunk out of a classroom chair with an ancient sword, or when he taught his students how to send Roman smoke signals to each other.

By the time I left Darnell’s office, I was tempted to join the Facebook group myself. As I walked out, he asked Manassa to bring me a Yale Egyptology T-shirt, and he was as enthusiastic about its hieroglyphic lux et veritas as he was about AK-47s and undiscovered alphabets. Watching him range from his wild adventures to his love of mundane minutiae, I found him about as fascinating and inscrutable as the hieroglyphics he studies. Here is a man who deserves his myth.

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