Astoria Characters: The Egyptologist Who Digs the Past

It’s complicated.

Ava Forte Vitali’s life, that is.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava has been fascinated with Egypt since childhood.

She lifts her biker-black leather skirt to reveal the tattoo on her right thigh.

The half-foot-long stick-figure skeleton is from a mosaic in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that Mt. Vesuvius buried in a belch of volcanic ash in 79 A.D.

“He’s carrying two jugs of wine,” she says. “The image was found on the floor of a party room, and in Greek it said, ‘Be cheerful, enjoy your life.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava’s carpe diem tattoo.

Having survived a bout of Covid-19, Ava takes its message of carpe diem to heart.

Of course, it didn’t take a pandemic to get Ava to seize the day.

Whether she’s been digging for ancient artifacts in Egypt and Turkey, creating costumes for theatrical productions or making short films, Ava has always followed a plethora of passions, some of them serendipitous.

“My career has swerved several times,” she says, adding that she’s glad it’s not easy to pigeonhole her.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava’s the community outreach coordinator for the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

When pressed, she describes herself as an archaeologist, Egyptologist and project manager.

But these words are academic and dry; Ava is neither.

Upbeat and offbeat, she’s a flamboyant fangirl of museums, flea markets and antiques shows, heavy-metal concerts, history (she’s the community outreach coordinator for the Greater Astoria Historical Society) and probably, she admits, too much sci-fi TV for her own good.

Her eclectic taste is reflected in her apartment on the top floor of Astoria’s Flatiron Building, which was erected at the corner of Astoria Boulevard and 27th Avenue in 1889.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Marty the Morkie.

Filled with eccentric finds, the tin-ceilinged space, which features a crystal chandelier suspended in the center and purple velvet drapes, looks like Edward Gorey’s vision of a Victorian brothel.

Ava can make anything and everything interesting, as those who have attended her “Death and the Occult in the Ancient World” series at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum and her Intro to Egyptian Art classes at Adelphi University can attest.

Ava, who doesn’t feel dressed until she has placed silver rings on nearly finger, is as brash as ALL CAPS boldface type.

She’s tall, even without the heeled leather boots, and her face is framed by dark riotous ringlets that bounce gleefully down her shoulders.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava used to work for The Met.

She’s from Scituate, a small fishing village that’s about 45 minutes south of Boston.

It was in this “beautiful, peaceful, very Irish” place that Ava, who comes from what she calls a loud, artistic Italian family, discovered that she had big and odd ambitions.

“I became fascinated with Egypt when I was a child,” she says. “I used to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I always asked to look at the statues with the weird heads. I went to a Montessori school, which encouraged us to research subjects that interested us. So I did.”

Which brings us to the tattoo inside her left forearm. It is the fractured face of an Egyptian queen, circa 1353 to 1336 B.C., depicted in a statue at The Met’s Temple of Dendur.

“She’s still beautiful even though she’s beaten and broken,” Ava says as she runs her hand over its bee-stung lips.

She got to know the statue well when she managed the Greek and Roman art collections at the museum.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The prelude to the kiss.

Ava finally got out of Scituate when she came to New York City in 2000 to attend New York University, where she had every intention of studying anthropology. Until, that is, she discovered that she could major in Egyptology instead.

“The ancient Egyptians left behind culture and art, but the way they approached everything was different from the way we do,” Ava says. “I love making my brain take a step away and look at things through another culture’s eyes.”

She was well on her way to earning a doctorate at NYU when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 put an end to her studies.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava works for the children’s book publisher Scholastic.

“I was supposed to be in the trenches doing an archaeological dig when it happened,” she says. “It was canceled at the last minute.”

Uncertain where her future lay, Ava moved back to Boston temporarily. She returned to New York for the job at The Met.

Two years later, she became a lead project manager for Picturae, overseeing a digitalization project for the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt.

In her current job, Ava manages creative corporate projects for the children’s book publisher Scholastic.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava’s Flatiron Building apartment is filled with flea-market finds.

Books, she says, are part of her heritage: Her grandmother was a librarian.

Through Scholastic’s Possible Fund, Ava coordinates the donation of 1 million books a year.

“I like being in a job where I tangibly see an impact in real time,” she says. “I want to stay in jobs that have a corporate social responsibility.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava’s also a filmmaker and costumer.

She’s interrupted by a tiny squeaking sound emanating from the bowels of the apartment.

Her roommate’s Morkie, Marty McFly, who is named after the Back to the Future hero, wants the world to know he has awakened and is a force to be reckoned with.

A bitty blonde, he wanders into the living room and jumps on the couch.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
You’ve seen this at The Met.

Before nestling his head into his favorite pillow, he gives Ava a big kiss.

Which leads, for no explicable reason, to a discussion of Ava’s trio of other tattoos.

A small flock of birds, based on the work of artist Will Barnet, flutter their wings across her upper right arm, and two tiny tattoos on her left leg are book themed.

She’s thinking of getting a sixth. Yes, she really should do it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Ava’s facing the future head-on.

“I’ve been lucky to follow my dreams,” Ava says. “I’ve found a niche for myself as an Egyptologist/anthropologist doing lectures.”

Marty rouses himself: It’s time for his walk.

“I do so many things that sometimes people ask me whether I ever sleep. The answer is no,” she says. “I’m a people person. I like to keep busy.”

Marty races down the steps ahead of her, barking at the top of his little lungs.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling