UChicago Remembers Robert Ritner, Iconic Egyptologist

Community members recalled Ritner’s passion for all things Egypt and many contributions to his field.

By Basil Egli, Deputy News Editor

Celebrated Egyptologist and beloved UChicago professor Robert Ritner died on July 25, 2021, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after a long battle with leukemia and kidney disease. He was 68.

Born in Houston in 1953 to Bob and Margaret Ritner, Robert Ritner Jr. was entranced by ancient Egypt from a young age, reading extensively about it in the Houston Public Library as a child. He attended Rice University and majored in psychology, graduating with honors in 1975. He also studied medieval history as an undergraduate, and this extracurricular interest in history eventually led him to publish his first academic work, “Egyptians in Ireland: A Question of Coptic Peregrinations,” in Rice University Studies in 1976.

Ritner arrived at the Oriental Institute (OI) at the University of Chicago in 1976, studying and researching Egyptian history for more than a decade until he received his Ph.D.—once again with honors—in 1987. Between 1991 and 1996, Ritner was the Marilyn S. Simpson Assistant Professor of Egyptology at Yale University before returning to the OI in 1996. He became an associate professor and then a full professor, and in 2019, he was named the inaugural Rowe Professor of Egyptology at the OI during its centennial gala.

Ritner was best known for his revised dissertation work, 1993’s The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, which remains widely read in the study of ancient Egyptian religion and magic. In addition to the direct influence Ritner had on his students and colleagues, his work cultivated an interest in ancient Egypt for countless readers. He was considered a world-class expert on ancient Egyptian magic, religion, and culture, as reflected by his many publications on the subject.

Not all of Ritner’s work was restricted to the ancient world. He played a role in discrediting claims made by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that Smith had successfully decoded ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in “translating” the Mormon Book of Abraham from two Egyptian scrolls that the Mormon community purchased from a travelling mummy exhibition in the mid-1800s. Ritner published The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Tradition in 2013, translating into English the Egyptian manuscripts upon which Joseph Smith based his Book of Abraham. According to Ritner, Smith’s translation was a fabrication, and the papyri he claimed to have translated were in fact from 1,500 years after Abraham’s death. He made an extended appearance on the Mormon Stories podcast, discussing his work to disentangle Smith’s claims about his ability to translate hieroglyphics.

Ritner was a staple of the OI, and colleagues, students, and fellow OI members vividly remember his intense love of all things Egypt and his dedication to teaching and his work, says OI volunteer manager Sue Geshwender.  An article Geshwender co-authored and shared with The Maroon describes Ritner as a fastidious and friendly presence at the Institute, decorating his office entirely with “Egyptomania kitsch,” frequenting potlucks and the docent library, and going on trips to museums and exhibitions with OI volunteers and colleagues.

During the final years of his life, Ritner was always accompanied by his dog Sheshonq, named after a pharaoh of the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt. Every Halloween, Ritner and Sheshonq came to class in matching mummy or pharaoh costumes.

In an email to The Maroon, Ariel Singer, another of Ritner’s graduate students, called him, among other things, “one of the most remarkable professors I have ever had.”

Singer also remembered Ritner and Sheshonq’s close companionship. “My favorite memories of Prof. Ritner were the times he would stop by the Demotic Dictionary office (where I was working) with, or perhaps more precisely led by, his Wheaton Terrier Sheshonq. Prof. Ritner and I shared a deep love of dogs, and Sheshonq is a particularly charming canine! Sheshonq was always happy to get as many pets as possible, and Prof. Ritner was always happy to chat about the latest news in Egyptology, or the world at large.”

Ritner is survived by his younger brother Rick, sister-in-law Jody, nieces, cousins, and his dog Sheshonq.