The Sixth Dynasty tomb
The Sixth Dynasty tomb of Inti is one of the institute's long-standing excavation projects in the Abusir South site near Cairo.

Fifty years of Czech Egyptology

Local scientists have led some of the most important excavations

The history of the country’s accomplishments in the field of Egyptology hits an important milestone this year as the Czech Institute of Egyptology turns 50. The birthday of the institute, located in Prague, will be celebrated with a series of exhibitions in Egypt as well as in the Czech Republic. President Václav Klaus will open one exhibit in Cairo April 7. Two others are also planned for Prague, one at Liechtenstein Palace April 17, and the other this fall at the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures. The institute is also publishing several books about its five decades of achievements.

One of the greatest accomplishments is the institute’s participation in the UNESCO effort to save ancient Egyptian monuments in Nubia during the 1960s after the Egyptian government asked the international community for help when the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to flood priceless artifacts. As a reward for those efforts, the Egyptian government granted Czechoslovak Egyptologists one of the largest concessions for excavations ever issued, and for the past 40 years local scientists have made several important discoveries in the Abusir necropolis located some 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Cairo.

“The scholarly achievements of Czech Egyptologists as well as demanding reconstruction work have contributed to the fact that Abusir is now considered one of the most important archeological sites both in Egypt and worldwide,” said professor Miroslav Verner, who participated in the Nubian rescue and has led Czech excavations in Abusir since the 1970s.

Miroslav Verner
Miroslav Verner has led Czech expeditions since the 1970s.

Egyptology had its place in Czechoslovakia even before the institute’s founding. In the 1930s, Charles University was one of a few institutions worldwide to teach the ancient Egyptian language Demotic. Professor František Lexa, who taught the subject, went on to found the institute with his associates after World War II in order to create proper facilities and a framework for organized research.

The first task facing the institute in the early 1960s was to document and hopefully save several Roman settlements in the Nile Valley. But researchers had only rumors and a few pictures from 18th- and 19th-century explorers to go on. Usually Egyptian expeditions take place during the winter to avoid intense summer heat; however, since speed was essential, researches had to dig through meters of mud during summer days with temperatures reaching 70 degrees Celsius (158 Fahrenheit). The expedition located and documented a lost temple in Tafa and a Roman fort at Qertassi as well as several burial sites more than 4,000 years old.

After the Nubian expeditions ended in 1965, Czech archeologists began to focus on Abusir, which contains graves as old as 5,000 years. They started exploring ruins that a German archeologist had mistakenly marked as part of a larger pyramid. It quickly became clear that it was the largest private tomb in ancient Egypt. The mastaba belonged to Ptahshepses, an important court official in the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 BC). His grave originally included gardens, a shelter for two boats and a roof terrace. The exploration of this tomb alone took more than 10 years and its reconstruction continues.

The Sixth Dynasty tomb
The Sixth Dynasty tomb of Inti is one of the institute’s long-standing excavation projects in the Abusir South site near Cairo.

In the 1990s, work concentrated on excavations of shaft tombs from the Late Period (715–332 BC). Among them was the grave of Udjahorresnet, a royal doctor who was also in charge of the navy and defected to the Persian side during an invasion in 525 BC.

In 1996, a Czech expedition discovered its first intact shaft tomb belonging to a priest and palace overseer named Iufaa. Currently, Czech scientists are working on another intact shaft tomb discovered in 2006 belonging to the priest Neferinpu and his family. Such tombs have yielded many artifacts ranging from objects of daily use to religious ornaments and excerpts from The Book of the Dead.

But Czech Egyptologists are not only looking at the past. A new generation of scientists has to be trained and the level of teaching at the institute is so high that even Egyptian students come to Prague for doctoral studies

Meanwhile, Czech Egyptologists are trying to make their discoveries more accessible to the public. The Abusir necropolis is slated to become an open-air museum, where tourists can walk among the ruins and see archeologists at work, according to Hana Navrátilová, a researcher at the Czech Institute of Egyptology.

Archeologists recently realized there are many valuable sources in the deep desert and have started to revise their views of ancient Egyptian history. There are prehistoric sites with many valuable artifacts that will take years to locate. The institute has already funded several expeditions to the Black Desert, where Paleolithic tools lie alongside early Christian settlements.

“This is a virginal area archeologically that has opened up with the advent of GPS navigation, and it still has many secrets to yield,” Verner said. “When faced with this ancient and glorious civilization and the possibilities that it still offers for research today, one can’t help but feel humble. All our achievements, however great they seem to us, will one day be surpassed.”

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