When Richard Redding was a child, he said, he would drive his mother crazy by going out in the woods and bringing back bones he would find in the wild.
In many ways, Redding remains that young boy collecting bones, but instead of the woods, he does much of his work in the history-rich and largely mysterious land of Egypt.
Redding, associate research scientist in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, has spent nearly every winter for about 30 years in Egypt, where he and colleague Mark Lehner operate the largest dig at the Great Pyramid through the nonprofit Ancient Egyptian Research Association.
“Every time I go there I learn something new,” Redding said. “It’s just a constant puzzle. You’re working with one of the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzles. That’s why I keep getting drawn back there.”
Redding first discovered a love for archaeology as an undergraduate chemistry major at U-M. He took an archaeology course, which he enjoyed, and his professor encouraged him to go to the Museum of Anthropology to further explore the field.
There he found a drawer full of animal bones from an archaeological site.
“There weren’t that many people who were interested in these archaeological faunal remains, so I just took off from there,” he said. “Just looking at the drawer and saying, ‘Wow, this is it.’”
Redding took to the field immediately. Before his senior year, he worked for nine months in Iran before coming back to U-M to complete his degree in geology, anthropology and biological sciences.
He had planned to complete his Ph.D. thesis in Iran, but the Iranian revolution of 1979 changed that.
“In 1981, a colleague of mine, who was also in Iran, asked me if I wanted to go to Egypt with him,” he said. “I went there, and it was a really nice project near the Fayyum Desert.”
He basically never left, and it’s not the allure of the pyramids, tombs and monuments that brings him back. He’s primarily interested in evolutionary ecology and how animals and people interacted in the Old Kingdom, commonly referred to as the Age of the Pyramids from about 2700-2200 B.C.
Digging for and examining bones to learn more about that interaction takes him back to that drawer at the anthropology museum.
“We end up with big bags of fragmented and smashed-to-crap bone,” he said. “You go through it and identify what you can. Over the years you pick up the ability, and when you see it over and over again you can identify what bone it is and what animal it came from.”
His primary focus since the late 1980s has been at Kom el-Hisn, a Nile Delta site noted for being the first one excavated where people lived in the Old Kingdom. This production site provided important detail in understanding how that ancient economy functioned.
Not long after first breaking ground at Kom el-Hisn, Lehner invited Redding to join him in the shadows of the pyramids of Giza to help uncover a site where people lived in the region. They discovered Heit el-Ghurab, a worker’s village about the size of 10 football fields.
“It’s got barracks, bakeries, sites for preparing copper, a corral for animals,” he said. “They would have 6,000 people a year living on this site, and their total job was constructing the pyramids.”
Thirty years later, Redding and Lehner continue to shed light on the many mysteries surrounding ancient Egypt. One of his three ongoing projects has drawn the attention of National Geographic, which has featured Redding and his work many times over the years.
In Heit el-Ghurab, Redding and Lehner have unearthed a portion of the Royal Administrative Building, which they believe to be an old palace. They were only able to uncover it up to the boundaries of a soccer field that had been constructed atop the ancient structure. After lengthy negotiations, the Ministry of Youth and Sport turned the soccer field over to the Ministry of Antiquities, allowing Redding and Lehner to continue their work.
“We haven’t excavated it all, but we’ve uncovered it to the top of the walls and mapped it,” he said. “It would be great if it were a palace.”
That type of uncertainty and mystery captivates Redding, who shares his passion for the region with U-M alumni he leads on tours each winter he’s there. Most visitors are content to stare at the pyramids and the Great Sphinx, but Redding encourages them to take in everything.
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“I always start out at the pyramids because they’re totally awed by them,” he said. “But then I tell them, ‘Look around you.’ There are tons of tombs, and I take them down to our site usually.
“There are all these big stone monuments, but it’s almost like the ocean. You see the top of it and you’re just amazed by the vastness of it, but what goes on underneath is just phenomenal.”
Redding is heading back to Egypt in October for about two months to continue to unearth the Heit el-Ghurab site with National Geographic crews alongside. And it’s pretty likely he’ll make a discovery he did not expect.
“There’s just so much going on there, it’s phenomenal to just walk around,” he said. “Whenever I’m there, I always take one or two days and just walk and there’s always something new and surprising.
“My wife keeps saying, ‘You’re never retiring.’ I’ll just keep going until I can’t anymore.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
My thesis defense in 1981.
What can’t you live without?
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The collection of large rock specimens in front of 1100 North University. I also met my wife in this building.
What inspires you?
What are you currently reading?
“The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. A New History from the Shadow of Dinosaurs to Us,” by Steve Brusatte.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Professor Henry Wright (Museum of Anthropological Archaeology) and Professor Emeritus Phil Myers (Museum of Zoology).