William J Murnane
Egyptologist William Joseph Murnane, Jr, was best known to the general public for his very popular Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt. His death in Memphis, Tennessee after emergency heart surgery on 17 November has left his family, colleagues, and students in a state of shock at his totally unexpected passing. Bill, as we all knew him, had been in Memphis since 1987, when he was appointed to the staff of the History Department in the University; he was promoted to full professor in 1994.
Born in White Plains, New York on 22 March, 1945, his parents went to Venezuela to visit his grandparents when Bill was 18 months old. His father then set up in the construction business there, and they eventually lived in Venezuela for 33 years. Bill grew up bilingual in English and Spanish in Caracas and Ciuda Bolivar, and only returned to the USA to attend preparatory schools at the age of 13, subsequently obtaining a scholarship to study history at St Anselm College in New Hampshire. There he supplemented his income by teaching Spanish. He was a precocious child, always gaining the highest grades, and his interest in Egypt was first manifested at the age of six; later he wrote letters from college in hieroglyphs to his sister in Caracas. After graduating with his BA in 1966, he moved to the University of Chicago as a graduate student.
A variety of themes ran through Bill's activities as an Egyptologist, in particular historical issues, the recording of monuments, and the Amarna period (the controversial age of the so called `heretic king' Akhenaten in the 14th century BC). Making information accessible to students and the wider public also meant much to him, and he enjoyed teaching. His studies in Chicago led to his research on Egyptian co-regencies, the much-debated system by which a number of Egyptian kings placed their anointed successors on the throne with them for a time. While finishing off this important historical issue, submitted as a PhD in 1973 (awarded with distinction) and published as Ancient Egyptian Coregencies in 1977, he joined the staff of the University of Chicago's Epigraphic Survey, based at Chicago House in Luxor in Egypt. This long-standing mission has as its primary function the documentation of long-known but unpublished monuments; there he worked on the temples of Karnak and Medinet Habu in Luxor, and developed his concern for threatened monuments. His Road to Kadesh publication (1985, revised 1990) was an historical offshoot of the Chicago work on the battle reliefs of Sety I at Karnak, while his United with Eternity remains the most authoritative popular work on the temples of Medinet Habu. He was deeply concerned about the temple of Karnak and how much needed to be recorded; in 1981 he published some older Chicago records of the great hypostyle (pillared) hall, and in the early part of 2000 he was busy there yet again--an email said `Work is going well, although we were rained out of Karnak yesterday ... and the standing walls look worse than ever. Oh well.' He remained with the Epigraphic Survey until he was appointed Visiting Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1986, moving to Memphis the next year. Thereafter he was unable to spend as much time in Egypt, but he nonetheless continued to work there as often as he could. His interest in the Amarna period, which perhaps went back to examining the controversial co-regency of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, led to his producing the first proper edition of the Amarna boundary stelae with Charles van Siclen in 1993, and then a pioneering volume of translations in readable English of the texts of that confused period (Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt, 1995). His Penguin Guide, first published in 1983 and regularly revised and reprinted since, is still by far the best-informed guide to the monuments of Egypt.
Music played a great role in Bill's life, and everyone knew him as a great and knowledgeable opera fan. At school and college he was already reviewing performances. Two of my favourite anecdotes about him concern opera. He was not averse to using his awareness of the language of Verdi and Rossini: my wife and I first met him at Chicago House in 1984 at a time when one of the new generation of cruise boats was trying to steal the Chicago mooring place on the Nile; one time the cruise boat tried to dock with a group of Italian tourists on board, and I was told that Bill was out there pointing out the errors of their ways to the mystified tourists in his best operatic Italian. He could sing too: one night, he and Charles van Siclen were moved to pay a moonlight visit to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Apparently, the beauty of the scene had an emotional effect on Bill, as he broke into an impromptu aria, which was quickly answered by two gunshots. At this they headed for the safely of Chicago House, to find out the next day that Bill's aria had been taken for the call of a hyena! But whatever his feelings about other forms of music, he was always the perfect gentleman, and kindly acceded to my request after a lecture on my one and only visit to him at Memphis to go to a blues club on Beale Street.
He was the ideal colleague, a real `gentleman scholar', critical in the positive sense, always prepared to offer his opinion and to help, and never afraid to tell you what he honestly thought of some idea of yours or other, which is always sure to produce the best results. As to his scholarship there can be no doubts, and he has left a long bibliography; there were also many projects still to be published, including at least one history textbook. He will be deeply missed, not just by his mother and sister, but by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.
Nigel Strudwick, December 2000