The Letter that Changed Egyptology

“Dows Dunham, Georg Steindorff and the Foundation of ARCE”

Peter Lacovara, The Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeology Fund

The story of the most important organization for the American study of ancient Egypt began in wartime, when Egyptology was at a low ebb in the United States. In 1942, World War II was raging, and that year saw the death of George Andrew Reisner and the end of the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Expedition, the last of the continuing major American institutional excavations in Egypt. Dows Dunham, Reisner’s stalwart assistant and curator of Egyptian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, wrote a letter the next year to mutual friend, Georg Steindorff, expressing concern about the future of American archaeology in the Nile Valley.  Dunham noted the mounting costs for institutions to engage in fieldwork and the responsibilities of publication, for which all of the expeditions had fallen far behind. Fortuitously, Steindorff replied to Dunham on Sept. 13 with a proposal: “An ‘American Institute of Egyptology’ with headquarters in Cairo or Luxor might be formed with a director (as in Athens) serving for a specified term, to supervise American Egyptological-Archaeological interests.”

contemporary color photograph of Club of Odd Volumes, Boston
Club of Odd Volumes, Boston
Photo: Peter Lacovara

Dunham, his hands full with Reisner’s legacy and his museum duties, immediately adopted the idea and began prevailing on his many friends and contacts in the archaeological world to help create what would soon be known as the American Research Center in Egypt. Along with his Boston colleagues, artist Joseph Lindon Smith and curator William Stevenson Smith, and with the encouragement of Edward W. Forbes, director of the Fogg Museum and trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Sterling Dow, professor of Classics at Harvard University, Dunham set the foundation for the organization. Prof. Dow suggested modeling the fledgling ARCE on the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA), where he worked on the Agora excavations. Founded in 1892, the ASCSA was a center in Greece for American scholars involved in the study of the country’s ancient language, literature, history, archaeology, philosophy and art. The school provided training and research opportunities for young scholars, sponsored and promoted archaeological fieldwork, maintained a library and other resources and supported lectures and publications, including the annual journal, Hesperia.  Despite the Greek model and even the end of the war, the U.S. research situation in Egypt had only worsened. “This past year,” Dow noted in 1948, “there has been no American excavation at all in Egypt….and no institution exists where young Americans can be trained in Egyptology.”

Dunham, who would serve as vice chairman of the fledgling group’s executive committee, soon persuaded old friends Ludlow Bull and Ambrose Lansing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Cooney of the Brooklyn Museum and Richard Parker of Brown University to join the leadership. A planning meeting was arranged on May 14, 1948, at the Club of Odd Volumes, a prominent, private literary club on Beacon Hill. There, the group accepted a constitution drafted by John Wilson of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago with the help of Edward Forbes, Joseph Lindon Smith, William Stevenson Smith and Sterling Dow. Guests at the meeting included former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt William Phillips and archaeologist Abd Essalam M. Hussein, representing the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, and seed money was contributed by Dunham and other patrons. The goal was to establish an office in Cairo to serve as headquarters for U.S. scholars in Egypt, with its purview expanded to include  Islamic studies. An additional administrative office was opened in Cambridge with William Stevenson Smith acting as president.

From that auspicious beginning with a letter in 1943 from one friend to another, the important, successful and enduring history of the American Research Center in Egypt took root.  And thanks to the early vision of Dunham, Steindorff and many others, ARCE is entering its eighth decade of research, fellowship and cultural preservation. 



The author is indebted for archival research help to Maureen Melton, Susan Morse Hilles Director of Libraries and Archives, and Museum Historian and Lawrence Berman, Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Megan Schwenke, Senior Archivist/Records Manager, Harvard University Art Museums; Dietrich Raue, Director, Ägyptisches Museum der Universität Leipzig.


Recommended Reading

Dow, Sterling. “The Founding of an American Research Center in Egypt” In Archaeology 1:3, 1948. pp. 136–145.

Dunham, Dows. Recollections of an Egyptologist. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1972.