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A Passion for Things Ancient

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Many students discover their passion for a subject in college. Allyssa Lamb, a UW senior and 2004 Rhodes Scholar, started a bit earlier.

“At age 8, my grandfather gave me a book, Land of the Pharaohs, and it just clicked for some reason,” Lamb recalls. “I went to the library and picked up every book they had on ancient civilizations, walking home with armloads of books.” 

Allyssa Lamb.

Allyssa Lamb. Media credit: Karen Orders

Lamb’s fascination with the ancient world continues. She has a double major in classics and Near Eastern languages and civilization, and spent last summer on an excavation at Tel Dor, an ancient site in Israel. And she reads ancient Greek, Latin, biblical Hebrew, and hieroglyphics.

Reading—in whatever language— has always been important to Lamb. She learned to read at age 2, and became a fixture in the local library when she began searching for books on ancient civilizations. “The librarians got to know me well,” she admits. “If they got a new book they thought I’d like, they would be excited to tell me about it. I learned a lot about navigating libraries at an early age.”

When she arrived at the UW, Lamb wasn’t sure how to translate her fascination with the ancient world into a degree or a career. She started with courses in ancient history and classics, and caught the attention of classics professor Lawrence Bliquez, who was impressed with her work.

“He contacted me after the midterm to find out my interests,” says Lamb. That conversation led Lamb to consider a classics degree. Bliquez also directed Lamb to Scott Noegel in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, a specialist in ancient Egypt. Before long she was pursuing degrees in both departments. 

“I realized I was going to need both sides—the Greek and Roman and the Egyptian—for what I wanted to do,” says Lamb. “Even if I don’t use both later, what I’ve learned from studying both halves, getting that broader perspective, has been a very good lesson.” 

"I learned a lot about navigating libraries at an early age," says Rhodes Scholar Allyssa Lamb.

"I learned a lot about navigating libraries at an early age," says Rhodes Scholar Allyssa Lamb.  Media credit: Kirsten Atik

She also values the attention to students in both departments. Bliquez’s early interest in her studies proved to be the rule, not the exception. “One of the great things about faculty in both departments is their willingness to get involved in what students are doing—to know what classes they’re taking, what research opportunities they’re involved in. They’ll suggest courses or opportunities for financial aid. Their willingness to help students has really been important to me.”

Lamb, once convinced she would be an archaeologist, is now more interested in ancient texts than in unearthing ancient artifacts, but she hopes to continue participating in archaeological digs during the summer. 

“I’d like to remain involved with the material culture in some way,” she explains. “It’s easy to read the literature and forget that the concrete side of the culture really exists somewhere. It’s one thing to see artifacts in a museum. It’s very different to be digging and see where the wall and floor of an ancient building are.”

The same can be said for ancient languages. It’s one thing to study them in a book, but quite another to see them in context. While in Italy through a program offered by the Classics Department, Lamb came across an Egyptian stela—an inscribed stone—in a museum in Naples. “I realized I was able to read the inscription, which was in hieroglyphics,” she recalls. “It was the first time I read a real hieroglyphic inscription, not something in a workbook. It was an amazing moment for me.”

Lamb described that moment in an essay for the Rhodes scholarship application. She clearly impressed the judges. Lamb was one of 32 American students selected as 2004 Rhodes scholars.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” says Lamb. “When my name was announced, I was in shock. It wasn’t until someone grabbed my hand and congratulated me that I realized I did hear right.”

She is looking forward to entering Oxford this fall, where she plans to study Egyptology. But she knows she will miss the University of Washington. 
“Being at the University of Washington worked out phenomenally for me,” she says. “I had the opportunity to work with brilliant people I wouldn’t have met at other schools. I can’t imagine a college that would have been better for me.”