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Student Spotlight: Jennifer Thum

Name: Jennifer Thum

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Doctoral Program: Archaeology and the Ancient World

Jennifer is a fourth-year PhD candidate at the Joukowsky Institute and co-curator of an exhibit called "Uncovering Ancient Egypt: Ancient Crafts, Modern Technologies," on view at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology though spring 2016. She has a master's degree from University of Oxford, a B.A. from Columbia University's Barnard College, and was an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Jennifer tells the Graduate School's Beverly Larson why she studies rock inscriptions and about the challenges and joys of field research.

Tell us about your research and how this became your focus or passion.
My research is on a group of monuments made by Egyptian kings from "living rock," official words carved directly on natural features of the landscape. The monuments were created during the New Kingdom, the period when Egypt was an empire, and they are in Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and modern Egypt. I am the first to look at them as a group and I do so from two perspectives: landscape archaeology and linguistic anthropology.

Two professors at Brown are responsible for my discovery of the pattern of these monuments. Ömür Harmansah, a specialist in the archaeology of the ancient Near East who is now at another university, and Stephen Houston, who works on Maya archaeology. Harmansah directed me to a site in Lebanon with 22 monuments, including Egyptian monuments created by Ramses II as he passed through the landscape. They are like a billboard spot signaling the Mediterranean world.

Houston asked me if I knew about the linguistic phenomenon known as deixis, which is "pointing language"—words like "here" or "in the north" that hint at the social dimensions of space. That question prompted me to look at spatial references within rock inscriptions, since rock inscriptions are in fixed locations. Since then, I have had the opportunity to discuss my ideas about Egyptian monuments with Brown scholars working on rock inscriptions in China and Mexico.

What drew you to Brown?
The emphasis on teaching as part of a PhD program and taking classes before going into research is the U.S. model, which I chose. I needed an even footing between Egyptology and Archaeology, which can be quite separate studies. Brown had Departments of Archaeology and of Egyptology and Assyriology. There was an overlap with courses and faculty. What I found here was an openness to give me what is best for me, and the sense that the right people were going to be involved in my dissertation whichever route I chose.

The Joukowsky Institute is a major hub of Archaeology in the U.S. It is a pioneering effort of interdisciplinary archaeology, and there is an amazing dialogue with people in Anthropology, Egyptology, and other departments.

What have you found to be the challenges and rewards of field research?
Obtaining permits – the right to do field research and to do it in an ethically sound way – is the biggest challenge.

The rewards are being in the place itself. You just can't get that information from Google and you can't do it from the U.S.

Fieldwork also gives you connections with colleagues from other institutions and countries. It is essential to maintain connections with antiquities specialists outside the U.S.

What are the next steps in your research?
I will submit my prospectus. Then I will begin writing the theory and background sections of my dissertation, while waiting for field research permits. I will also work on publications and funding applications, including for an NSF grant.

I plan to use reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and geographic information systems (GIS) to make models of monuments and the landscapes where they are. This isn't just in case something happens to the monuments, but also so that I can more easily, visually demonstrate the points I want to make in the dissertation.

Your research looks back in time. What is your sense of time or horizon for your research?
I think about people experiencing the monuments within their landscapes, rather than just the monuments themselves. This is a universally appealing topic and it can be presented for a popular audience. I am currently working on an article for Near Eastern Archaeology, which is an accessible scholarly journal.

Through a Joukowsky proctorship, I learned how to curate an exhibit at the Haffenreffer Museum. My co-curator, Dr. Julia Troche, and I recruited researchers at Brown to apply modern technologies to objects in the collection, and we put the researchers on display alongside their work. Our goal was to make archaeological research more accessible to the public. Curation is, I think, a very unusual experience for a doctoral student.

I am interested in museum studies and love teaching with objects. When visitors get to handle objects, when they come out of that glass case, it is more apparent to visitors that anyone can ask questions about the past, and that these objects need to be protected. 

Credits: Interview by Beverly Larson; photo by Susan Ely