After graduating with her MA, Elissa Day is heading home to London before starting Harvard’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies Ph.D. program with a sub-field in Egyptology this fall. There, she will join three other IU alumni in the same program.
Day graduated from the Hamilton Lugar School’s Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures MA program with a focus in Egyptology.
“I couldn’t quite settle on something I liked,” she said, of her decision to study Egyptology. “I liked history, languages, archeology, the environmental side. Weirdly, by doing Egyptology that meant I was still studying one civilization but a subject from loads of different perspectives. This is what drew me to IU as well.”
Day has always had an interest in multiple fields. After her undergraduate education at the University of Liverpool, she explored graduate programs in Egyptology and chose Indiana University because of its interdisciplinary program.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 deferred her start date at IU, so during that time she earned a Master of Philosophy in Egyptology at the University of Cambridge. However, Day wanted to take more interdisciplinary courses before undertaking a Ph.D., and Indiana University’s program allowed her to do so.
“IU, in the Egyptology world, is known for its strengths in virtual heritage, which is 3D modeling [artifacts] for museums, and digital humanities,” she said. “I was able to take classes outside of the Egyptology department, for example, GIS [geographic information systems] and remote sensing through the geography department.”
Geography and GIS technologies are used by Egyptologists to analyze hidden data about the Earth’s surface, which can help them uncover previously undiscovered artifacts or ancient sites. Students in the Hamilton Lugar School Egyptology program can also take courses in virtual heritage through the Luddy School.
Day’s aptitude in GIS led to her winning first prize in the 2022 Indiana Geographic Information Council Emerging Professional Research Competition.
Day says it was an honor to win as an Egyptology student. “I didn’t really expect that. I was up against all these agriculture majors at Purdue,” she said.
Because of her experience in virtual heritage technologies, Day and other students in the IU Egyptology program had the opportunity to participate in the IU Digital Egyptian Sculpture Project led by Professor Stephen Vinson. In the project, students created 3D models of ancient Egyptian sculpture and artifacts for the Yale Peabody Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the M.C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, and a growing list of partners.
“The technique for photographing objects to process them into 3D models is called photogrammetry,” explained Day. “We were given access to a variety of objects from small animal mummies and inscribed objects, to full size coffins. For each layer of an object you take hundreds of photos all around until you’ve basically covered as much of the object as possible. You then stitch the photos together using software, edit them, and then you get your 3D object.”
Day says the 3D models will be used by students and researchers worldwide.
“It makes objects more accessible to people who can’t get to museums with Egyptian objects,” she said. “In this context, they’re able to see these really beautiful objects and rotate them around the screen, zoom in, and see all the detail. A lot more museums around the world are starting to do this.”
Day says having the opportunities to work with universities like Yale and Emory on the Digital Egyptian Sculpture Project also helped her CV.
“Dr. Vinson does a fantastic job of running the program. I don’t think my CV would be as layered as it is without those opportunities,” she said.
At Harvard, Day will also take an interdisciplinary approach to her studies, and hopes to explore the application of GIS and remote sensing to her research.
“Harvard is really strong in Egyptology, but also in GIS and remote sensing,” said Day, “I spoke to my professor about classes, and he’s really supportive of me taking computer science, and other STEM classes. So this will be my first formal classes in that. Within Egyptology, I think people are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and it’s helping the field massively.”
Day credits her IU professors and the access to multiple disciplines at IU for gaining admission to Harvard’s Egyptology program.
“Because I had so much Egyptology background, I was able to have less structure in my program, which meant I was encouraged to explore classes outside of Egyptology,” she said. “For example, in addition to studying GIS and remote sensing, I was able to take Vietnamese and Chinese history in Southeast Asian and ASEAN Studies (SEAS) program and the East Asian Languages and Cultures department. I think that, and taking GIS and remote sensing, is what ended up making me attractive to Ph.D. programs.”
“The support of my professors, especially Dr. Vinson, has been fantastic,” she continued. “He pushed hard to get me funding in Classics and Egyptology. He has also given me access to opportunities and written references for grants for me to attend conferences, where I met people from different Ph.D. programs that I ended up getting accepted to. He really took a chance on me which I am immensely grateful for.”