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Biography of Barbara S. Lesko
Barbara Lesko was born in Chicago in 1940, the only child of John and Lee Switalski. She graduated from Hyde Park High School, class of 1958, and, having determined on her future profession by age 14, enrolled at and received her A.B. in 1962 from the University of Chicago, where she studied at the famed Oriental Institute and subsequently earned her A.M. in Egyptology in 1965. In 1966 she married a fellow student in Egyptology, Leonard H. Lesko, Chicago Ph.D. 1969, who had joined the Department of Near Eastern Languages at the University of California that year. The Leskos lived in California for the first 16 years of their marriage, and Barbara taught occasionally for the University of California Extension and worked as a bibliographer in the Department, collaborating with her husband on the Dictionary of Late Egyptian, subsidized by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project used computer technology for the concordances and developed the first computer generated hieroglyphs. The Dictionary first appeared in five volumes during 1980's and has subsequently seen a second edition, including an English to Egyptian index, published by B.C. Scribe Publications of Providence.
During the late 1970's, while the block buster museum exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamun toured the United States, Barbara published the first book in English on ancient Egyptian women: The Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt, published by B.C. Scribe Publications (the Leskos own company formed to bring out the Dictionary at a reasonable price). This book is now in its third edition. Both Barbara and her husband lectured extensively on the west coast during the years when the Tutankhamun exhibition visited three cities there. In 1981 Barbara served as cataloguer for the Berkeley/BYU expedition to the Egyptian Fayum, working on artifacts found at the site of the Seila Pyramid.
In 1982, Leonard, who had become Professor of Egyptology and Chairman of Near Eastern Studies at Berkeley, accepted an offer from Brown University to fill the Wilbour Chair Professorship of Egyptology and chair the Department of Egyptology, the only such at any North American university. Subsequently Barbara became the Administrative Research Assistant, working on publications and library acquisitions. It was this move and the discovery of an abandoned lighthouse for sale that is the subject of Barbara's latest book: Lighthouse Life, published by Outskirts Press in 2009. The experiences of storms and wild life and the Lesko's efforts at restoration and maintenance of the property, its history and that of other early Rhode Island lighthouses, and the 400 year history of the Nayatt Point neighborhood in Barrington, Rhode Island are all covered in this illustrated paperback.
Barbara was invited to write the chapter on women in the ancient Near East for the second edition of a college textbook: Becoming Visible, Women in European History, edited by R. Bridenthal, C. Koonz, and S. Stuard and published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1987. While researching for this assignment, she realized that not nearly enough had been published by experts on ancient economics, law, religion or even art to adequately understand female status in ancient societies. Thus she successfully sought an NEH grant to support an international conference on Women in the Ancient Near East, which was held in November of 1987 at Brown University. Nineteen paper presenters from the U.S. and Europe participated with a number of respondents from various periods of history and the proceedings were recorded and published (including discussions) as Women's Earliest Records, from Ancient Egypt and Western Asia by Scholar's Press of Atlanta in 1989 (and currently available from the American Council of Learned Societies).
During the 1990's, Barbara continued to collaborate on the Dictionary of Late Egyptian which went into a second augmented edition at the end of the decade, but she also contributed articles to magazines and chapters to encyclopedias and anthologies such as M.M. Wertheimer's Listening to their Voices, the Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women (1995); Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt edited by K.A. Bard (1999); and Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion edited by S. Young (1999).
In 1998, again because so little had been published by experts on the subject, Barbara brought out, with the University of Oklahoma Press, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, which concentrates on seven major goddesses in their celestial and solar forms and illustrates the varied roles they played in creation and procreation and as the protectors of the dead as well as the living and even as the personification of the Egyptian State, and how these roles changed over time. The end of the century also saw the organizing by Barbara of the Friends of Egyptology at Brown, a support group of members whose donations supports students, field projects, and lectures in the Department.
Before she retired in 2005, Barbara participated in the Brown conference on Household and Domestic Religion in Antiquity and wrote the chapter "Household and Domestic Religion in Ancient Egypt" for the publication of its proceedings: Household and Family Religion in Antiquity: contextual and comparative perspectives edited by J. Bodel and S. Olyan and published by Blackwell, Oxford, 2008. Barbara also collaborated with Brown Professor of Archaeology Martha S. Joukowsky on a Brown University website: "Breaking Ground, Women in Old World Archaeology." This features bios of prominent women archaeologists of the past.
After selling the lighthouse, the Leskos built on the coast of Maine, and retirement allowed free time for recalling the exciting eighteen years they had lived full time at Nayatt Point's lighthouse on Narragansett Bay and the subsequent writing of Lighthouse Life.