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Littman in Egypt in 2009.

World renowned scholar in Greek history and literature, ancient medicine and archaeology Robert Littman celebrated 50 years at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in September. Littman was recruited by UH in 1971 and is a professor in the College of Languages, Linguistics & Literature (CALL). He is known for, among other things, helping recreate Cleopatra’s perfume and a project based in Egypt where UH students participate in the excavation of an ancient city.

man in old black and white photo
Littman in 1971.

UH Mānoa pursued Littman when he was at Brandeis University in Boston. Littman’s wife suggested that they go to Hawaiʻi for what they thought would be one year, and it turned into more than five decades. Littman earned a BA in classical languages from Columbia University, a masters in ancient history from the University of Oxford and a PhD in classical philology from Columbia University.

“One of the things I’ve appreciated about being out in Hawaiʻi is, since I teach in a small program that is not very specialized, I have not been pigeonholed,” said Littman. “I’ve had the opportunity to diversify my academic work here. I started out as a classicist and historian with a little bit of archaeology. And in Hawaiʻi, I’ve gradually shifted into biblical studies in both Hebrew bible and Greek bible and biblical history. And then I expanded my work in Egyptology in both teaching and researching in the ancient Egyptian language and moving into Egyptian archaeology.”

Littman’s achievements

man by the sphinx

Littman has amassed a myriad of accomplishments over his time at UH including: being selected as the 2018 recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America Martha and Artemis Joukowsky Distinguished Service Award; he was part of a team who recreated Cleopatra’s ancient perfume, which was showcased in a National Geographic exhibit; he was involved in producing the digital edition of the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest New Testament and Greek version of the Old Testament dating from the 4th century A.D.; and he co-published the illustrated children’s history book, The Story of Ancient Timai.

Littman continues to direct the UH Tell Timai Project, the excavation of the ancient city of Thmouis in Timai El Amdid, Egypt in the Nile Delta that started in 2007. To date, more than 200 UH Mānoa students as well as students from other universities, have traveled to Egypt to participate in the excavation of Thmouis, a flourishing city from 500 B.C. to about 600 A.D. for the Egyptians followed by Greeks and then the Romans.

While on excavations students are exposed to ancient Egyptian culture, they learn about archaeological techniques, and they help with pottery washing on site.

“My first job was in a commercial kitchen washing dishes, and I guess I’m still doing it, only it’s [ancient Egyptian] pottery, and I usually get the students to wash it now,” Littman said.

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50 years of advancement

Littman has experienced dramatic changes in the university over 50 years. Two years after he was recruited, UH started the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the William S. Richardson School of Law in 1973. Changes in technology have also completely revolutionized education and research. In his early days, Littman was unable to conduct much of his research at UH because sufficient resources were not available at the library. However, with the rise of the internet over his academic career, Littman is now able to access most publications online.

man in egypt

The nature of Littman’s research has shifted, not just archaeologically, but with the changes in science and scientific techniques. One area he works in is the history of medicine, particularly pandemics.

“When I started out, most of my work was looking at clinical symptoms,” said Littman. “Over time in the 1970s and 80s, as the field of epidemiology developed, I teamed up with various epidemiologists from the University of Hawaiʻi and we looked at epidemiological approaches to the analysis of ancient disease. And now, in the last five years, I’ve teamed up with the newest aspect which is looking at ancient DNA. So those developments in the field over the last 50 years, have paralleled my own professional development of moving into newer and newer techniques in the archeological fields.”

When asked if he had any plans for retirement, Littman chuckled and replied, “I am much too young!” His love of teaching and passion for training the next generation of classicists, historians and archeologists is what inspires him to continue his work at UH.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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