Reader’s Question: What can you tell me about Indianapolis-born Egyptologist George Reisner? I’m interested in learning about his Indianapolis years. ~ Peter Der Manuelian, Cambridge, Massachusetts
George Andrew Reisner Jr., is considered one of the most important figures in modern scientific archaeology. George was born in Indianapolis on Tuesday, November 5, 1867, the son of George Andrew Reisner Sr., and Mary Elizabeth (Mason) Reisner. At the time of the younger George’s birth, the family was listed in Indianapolis City Directories as residing at 178 Winston. I was not able to locate Winston ( Street? Avenue? Road? ) on any street map of the city. I did find Winston described in an early city directory as being four blocks east of East Street, from E. Washington north to E. Walnut, so I would guess the Reisner home was in the vicinity of the area that is today E. New York Street and N. Pine Street.
The family of John Jacob Reisner immigrated to the United States of America from Worms, Germany, in 1817. The Reisner household was enumerated on the 1820 and 1830 Censuses in Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia. George’s father was born in Virginia in 1832. When George Sr. was about two years old, the Reisners made their way west, settling in Knightstown in Henry County, Indiana. George Reisner Sr., served in the Union Army in the Civil War. When he returned from his military service, he left Knightstown for the capital city, where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Mason.
George Sr.’s parents and some of his brother Frederick’s children are buried in Bell Cemetery, about two miles south of Knightstown, Indiana (which is actually in neighboring Rush County, not in Henry County, where they lived). Other siblings of George Sr.’s went to Jasper County, Illinois, which is about 25 miles west of the Indiana-Illinois state line.
George and Mary Reisner had four children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom were born in Indianapolis. George Jr. was the oldest. Within a short time after his birth, George Reisner’s family moved from their home on Winston to 241 N. Tennessee Street. Tennessee Street was renamed Capitol Avenue in the 1890s, after the construction of the Indiana Statehouse. In addition, the early street address of the Reisners’ home was renumbered from 241 to 429 to make it consistent with other addresses. Members of the Reisner family remained in that same residence on Tennessee — ultimately known as 429 N. Capitol Avenue — for more than thirty years.
Today, the former location of the Reisners’ single-family residence is the site of the 5-story Gibson Building, which was built in 1916 to accommodate the manufacture of automobiles for the Empire Motor Company. The Frank Hunter-designed building currently houses Sahm’s Café, Sahm’s Tavern, First Financial Bank, and Exact Target.
From 1873 to 1881, George Reisner Jr. attended Indianapolis’ third ward primary school. From 1881 to 1885, he attended Indianapolis High School (renamed Shortridge High School in the 1890s), where George was first in his graduating class. From 1885 to 1889, George attended Harvard College, receiving an A.B., summa cum laude in 1889.
Back home again in Indiana after his college graduation, George read law in the offices of MacDonald, Butler, and Snow; became athletic director of the YMCA; assisted in taking the 1890 Census (the records of which were later lost in a fire); and coached the Purdue University football team to a winning season. Reisner earned enough money in a year’s time to return to Harvard University for graduate school, where he received a master’s degree in Semitic Languages and History in 1891.
At Thanksgiving time in 1892, George married Mary Putnam Bronson in Indianapolis. She accompanied him the following year, when he returned to Harvard University once again, this time to earn his Ph.D.
Upon completion of his doctorate, George Reisner was appointed a Traveling Fellow of Harvard University and worked in the Berlin Museum for the next three years. Reisner returned to the States in 1896, where he took the post of Instructor in Semitics at Harvard.
In 1899, with the financial backing of Californian Phoebe Apperson Hearst (wife of George Hearst and mother of Randolph Hearst), George Reisner became director of an archaeological expedition in Egypt. He began examining the desert east of Quft in December of that year. He also spent time in Germany during that time period. While in Göttingen in 1903, George and Mary’s only child, daughter Mary Bronson Reisner, was born. Both wife and daughter frequently worked alongside George Reisner in his excavations. Among his many discoveries and achievements, he is credited with solving “the mystery of the Sphinx.”
Reisner’s life work centered around the Old Kingdom cemeteries in the vicinity of the three great pyramids of Giza. From 1905 until the end of his life, his work was supported by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. George distinguished himself by establishing sound methods for achaeological studies. His careful classification of objects and information resulted in amazingly clear expedition reports. The practices George Reisner devised in the early deades of the 20th century are still in use today.
George Reisner’s excavations were carried on in spite of failing eyesight in his later years. He died of a cerebral thrombosis in the Harvard Camp at Giza, Egypt, on June 6, 1942, amidst the ruins of the ancient civilization he had passionately studied for most of his adult life. He was buried in the American Cemetery in Cairo. George’s widow Mary and daughter Mary spent the remainder of their lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, where George’s brother Horace Greeley Reisner Sr., and nephew Horace Greeley Reisne, Jr., were the proprietors of a bookstore adjacent to the Purdue University campus.