Living in the Past – Egyptologist Kent R.Weeks, Old Lyme
by RONA MANN / Photos Courtesy Kent R. Weeks
But Kent R. Weeks is none of these, for here is a man who always knew what he wanted, set his mind on getting it, and continues to make what has been his life’s work, his life’s pleasure and purpose.
Kent Weeks is an Egyptologist, a Connecticut based archaeologist who studies the culture and artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization. He’s a man who owns a comfortable home in a wooded part of Old Lyme, yet one senses this is but a stopping place to hang his hat, since long ago Kent Weeks hung his heart in Egypt.
A native of Seattle, as a boy Weeks really never cared about anything else. Reading about Egypt and archaeology from the age of seven, Weeks became entranced and totally immersed himself in its study. “My parents didn’t think it was dumb, and my teachers encouraged it. I never outgrew it.”
Weeks attended the University of Washington, although they did not have a specific program in Egyptology; instead he majored in archaeology and anthropology with a minor in medicine and a further study of both Greek and German.
Weeks was just beginning his senior year when he heard that the Aswan Dam in Egypt was going to be rebuilt due to heavy flooding each year from the Nile, and many were being sought to do the excavation. “People from all over the world responded,” Weeks began. “I heard about the American project going out to help, and I wanted to be part of it. So I wrote a letter to the head of the project and was delighted when I received the response, ‘By all means come.'”
Funded by Yale and the Smithsonian, the young Weeks went to Cairo for six months. “Unfortunately the day after I got there I got appendicitis,” Weeks laughs. “I spent my first few days in a Cairo hospital before joining the Yale Expedition in Aswan where we boarded a boat and sailed south.”
Following this adventure Weeks returned to graduate school at the University of Washington, then set his sights on a doctorate in Egyptology from Yale. But money was needed to accomplish this next phase of his education, so once again Weeks penned a letter, this time to the National Institute of Health, citing his background, specifically his anatomy and pathology course work. Apparently the young man knew how to write a letter because the NIH saw both desire and promise and awarded him a fellowship to Yale. Within a few short years, Kent Weeks was Dr. Kent R. Weeks, PhD and regularly made trips to Egypt where he studied Arabic, practiced hieroglyphics, and mastered the ancient Egyptian language.
Weeks met and married a fellow archaeologist, staying a year in Egypt before returning to the States where Kent was named Assistant Curator of Egyptian Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. An offer from the University of Chicago meant spending the next four years as Assistant Professor and Director of its Institute in Luxor where he photographed and made copies of hieroglyphic texts.
While living in Luxor, the Weeks family increased by two; yet when it was time for their children to go to school, they found nothing adequate, so they once again moved stateside where Kent became a Professor of Egyptology at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time he continued to travel to Egypt for field work on a regular basis.
By the time their children graduated from junior high, both Weeks and his wife were eager to return to Egypt and did so as Kent took a job at the American University in Cairo, where he would spend the balance of his teaching career. But something would not let the Egyptologist rest. “I was shocked by the deterioration of many of the monuments and felt if we didn’t do something to protect them, they would surely disintegrate.” Weeks knew the Egyptians were running out of room and wanted to build over ancient burial sites. To counteract this, in 1978 he launched the Theban Mapping Project, an ambitious effort to photograph and map every temple and tomb in the Theban Necropolis; then excavating, hoping to discover what might have remained over the centuries. (Thebes is the ancient name for Luxor,located on the west bank of the Nile).
Weeks and his team, which changed yearly, began by making detailed typographical maps of the monuments to be protected, concentrating on the Valley of the Kings wherein are located thousands of temples and tombs of ancient pharaohs in danger of being washed away by runoff from frequent flash floods. Howard Carter, discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun, had used the entrance to what is known as KV5 as a place to dump debris and did not realize how much more lay within.
Weeks and his workers excavated and found the entrance to the tomb, encountering corridor after corridor going into the hillside. “Everyone buried here had been a pharaoh from Ramesses II (known as Ramesses the Great) to his sons.”
When Weeks and his team began to excavate, they found more than they had ever hoped for. While Carter had stopped after the first few rooms, Weeks persevered finding “tube-like corridors leading to burial chambers.” There were more than 70 rooms making this not only the largest, but the only family mausoleum in the Valley of the Kings. “It made the cover of Time Magazine,” Weeks says, almost offhandedly. Here is a world renowned excavator who is so focused on what he does that he appears to have little time for braggadocio.
The project did not end there; it is ongoing.”It needs a long term approach, not quick fixes.” While Weeks needs and receives permission from the Egyptian government to excavate, he notes “there is always an inspector with us each time we go.”And Weeks continues to return to Luxor spring and fall each year, always with a sense of excitement and curiosity not unlike that of the seven year old boy growing up in Seattle reading those books.
It has taken the last 20 years, but Weeks now has produced an atlas of The Valley of the Kings available for sale along with his other books on amazon.com. In the compendium are detailed maps and complete information on both the royal and public tombs contained within the Valley of the Kings.
Weeks’ primary focus now is education and the future. To accomplish this goal he has created something of a neighborhood community center in Luxor where children come daily to read, to learn arts and crafts, and to even receive services from a pediatrician. His own library of some 800 volumes formed the nucleus of the center, but he is constantly seeking other sources of revenue to support the project. “My emphasis is on the conservation of antiquities and preservation of the environment. We need to teach that to children, to show them films about how important it is to preserve their monuments.”
People have responded in droves. Where initially just a few kids would stop by the center, now on a good day there are between 300 and 400 children taking advantage of the learning opportunities Weeks has created. But it takes money and yet not a lot. “Things are very cheap in Egypt,” Kent says. “A schoolteacher makes just $40. a month, so really it takes not a lot of money to keep this center going. $20,000 a year will do it, so I conduct fundraising tours of Egypt and am always looking for other sources. I lecture, but don’t always have the time to do as many as I’d like. There’s a place on our website for those who wish to support the work we do.”
This winter some residents are preparing to escape the snow and ice with a few months in a warm clime; but in Old Lyme a quiet, intense man is also preparing to spend four months in a place rooted in antiquity…always searching, always looking for something within the echoes of an ancient civilization.
For more information or to donate, visit www.thebanmapingproject.com
Visit amazon.com to order any of Kent R. Weeks’ books