Gray light filtered through the tall, Gothic windows in the third-floor hallway of the Hall of Graduate Studies as John Darnell turned the corner with his dog — a Basenji named after King Antef II of Egypt.
This is a normal day at the office for Darnell, an professor of Egyptology. For Darnell, Antef serves as a constant reminder of the ancient Egyptians who used Basenji dogs, now found in the Sudan and Congo, to protect them on desert patrols.
Although Darnell’s current focus is mapping Egyptian caravan routes in the Western desert, he has recently garnered the attention of producers for the National Geographic Channel’s “Mummy Road Show.”
When co-hosts Ron Beckett and Gerald Conlogue, both Quinnipiac University professors, stumbled upon an ancient child mummy, they became interested in tracing its history — so they called Darnell.
“We were talking about the story [surrounding the child mummy] and John’s name kept popping up, so we decided to get him involved,” said Larry Engel ’71, executive producer of the show. “We’ve been courting him for one year and finally he’s free to get involved.”
Since he started working on the project, Darnell has identified the mummy as a Roman period mummy from the hospital of Deir El-bahri in the West Bank of Thebes. Darnell called the mummy very distinctive because the child has some skeletal abnormalities — her head is much larger than it should be. The mummy dates back to 220-270 A.D.
Darnell said that the mummy belonged to Rev. Lyman Coleman, Yale class of 1817. After teaching Latin, Coleman toured Egypt in the late 1850’s and bought the mummy then. The mummy holds a cup of wine in one hand and a floral bouquet symbolizing divine power in the other. Below its waist is a garland, which Darnell called a “crown of justification.” At its feet is the boat of the god Sokar — god of the underworld — and the keys to the gates of underworld. There are only 28 such mummies in the world today and they all have the same basic decorative theme, Darnell said.
Darnell has worked well with the show’s producers and hosts, Beckett said.
“Gerald and I both feel honored to work with Darnell in his area of expertise,” Beckett said. “More importantly, it’s a great example of how a scientific team contributed individual expertise to understand the ancient past.”
The episode featuring Darnell is still in production and will air during the show’s third season, set to begin in the fall of 2003.
Darnell has been interested in Egyptology and archeology since he was a young boy, when his mother gave him a book on ancient Egypt. Darnell said he has been glued to the subject from then on.
Everyone thought Darnell would outgrow this “childhood dream,” but his passion for archeology and Egyptology have guided him through a lifelong journey.
“It’s very hard to contain his energy,” Engel said. “He’s incredibly intelligent and he tells a great story — and he dresses rather stylishly, too.”
Colleen Manassa GRD ’07 joined Darnell on an expedition to Egypt two summers ago. When they were in the desert, they found ceramic pottery dating back to 5000 B.C. When they studied the inscriptions on the pottery, which were written in very difficult script, Manassa said Darnell always knew all the details of ancient Egypt.
“His expertise in Egyptian text and religion is amazing,” Manassa said. “I only hope to follow in his footsteps.”
Darnell received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Johns Hopkins University and his doctorate at the University of Chicago, writing his dissertation on cryptographic underworld books. After earning his doctorate, Darnell spent 10 years working as an Egyptological epigrapher in Luxor, Egypt.
He and his wife Deborah still own an apartment in Luxor on the Nile River, which they call their “home base.” But on excursions, Darnell lives in a tent and drives or walks between sites. Darnell said the weather in Egypt varies, reaching a high of 130 degrees on summer afternoons and falling to below-freezing temperatures on winter nights. Darnell said he is taking a one-semester leave of absence in order to embark on a new expedition this winter to investigate the pottery-paved roads of the ancient Egyptians.
Darnell currently teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses at Yale. Darnell’s students said they enjoy his classes and said his energy and passion for Egyptology and archeology, as well as his warm sense of humor, add to their learning experience.
“He’s the only professor I know to bring a dog to class,” David Klotz ’03 said. “In the middle of class, the dog will make distractions and do whatever it takes to get what he wants.”
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