History of the Czech (and Czechoslovak) field research in the Middle Nile
(text by Lenka Varadzinová Suková)
In the Czech Republic, two institutions have been engaged in field research in the Middle Nile: the Czech (former Czechoslovak) Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, and the National Museum – Náprstek Museum of Asian, African, and American Cultures.
The Czechoslovak Institute of Egyptology was established in 1958. In 1959, the Institute opened its permanent branch in Cairo, and in 1960 it initiated its research in Egypt. The first fieldwork undertaken by the Institute was concerned with the Fifth Dynasty mastaba of the vizier Ptahshepses at Abusir, near Cairo. After two seasons, the Institute discontinued its works at Abusir in order to devote all its resources to work within the framework of the UNESCO-organised campaign to save the monuments of ancient Nubia, threatened by the waters of the projected High Dam of Aswan.
Between 1961 and 1965, five scientific expeditions were sent to Nubia under the leadership of Professor Zbyněk Žába (1917–1971), the director of the Institute at that time. For the work in Nubia, the Czechoslovak expedition created its base camp on a catamaran designed and assembled in Prague by Milan Hlinomaz, the vessel’s future captain; it was transported to Egypt in parts and, after construction, it was launched onto the Nile in Shellal port at Aswan and christened Sadiq en-Nuba, the Friend of Nubia.
The individual expeditions consisted of 4 to 9 researchers accompanied by an inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and a group of workers with their foreman, the reis. The composition of the expeditions was always given by the particular tasks to be tackled. In 1961 and 1962, these included precise documentation and sounding in the area of the so-called Southern Temple of Tafa and the so-called Roman Fortress of Qertassi, which were to remain on the spot to be flooded because of their poor state of preservation. In 1963–1965, the expedition moved further southward to carry out systematic epigraphical and archaeological exploration and research on both banks of the Nile in two separate concessions. The northern one was delimited in the north by the Temple at Kalabsha and in the south by the Temple at Gerf Hussein. The southern one extended from the village of Naga el-Dom el-Dakar (upstream of the Temple at Wadi es-Sebua) to the village of Naga el-Bir in the Er-Riqa region on the left bank and the village of Naga Abu Shanak at the boundary of the Korosko and Abu Handal regions on the right bank of the river.
Both sections were regarded as rather marginal from archaeological and epigraphical point of view; they represented what remained after more lucrative sections of the Nile Valley were taken by other expeditions. This made the results, achieved in three seasons, the more surprising. The corpus of rock inscriptions, which had been rather scanty by that time, was enriched by historically important documents of the military conquest of Nubia by the kings of the Middle Kingdom.
A valuable set of rock art, including nine shelters containing paintings which only occurred rarely in the area, was acquired for the study of the culture and arts of historical populations of Nubia. Last but not least, the excavation of a cemetery at Wadi Qitna brought to light important information of the character of the village communities between the third to fifth centuries AD.
Thanks to the initiative of Eugen Strouhal, the field research in the “Old Nubia” between 1961 and 1965 was followed by an Arab-Czechoslovak anthropology project in the so-called “New Nubia” (1965, 1967).
By successfully fulfilling the tasks connected with the UNESCO campaign, the Czechoslovak Egyptologists got at last actively involved in field research in Northeast Africa. The Egyptian government subsequently appreciated the scientific contribution and quality of their work by confirming their research concession at the Fifth-Dynasty pyramid necropolis at Abusir near Cairo.
During the five field campaigns, an enormous complex of finds was gathered in Nubia, and their processing started already during the Nubian campaigns. At the beginning of the 1970s, however, it was complicated by the break-up of the original “Nubian team”. Zbyněk Žába, Director of the Institute, died in 1971, his successor František Váhala in 1974 and three of their young collaborators left the Institute due to the political events of the late 1960s: Jaromír Málek and Pavel Červíček (1942–2015) emigrated and Ján Midžiak (1932–2013) was expelled from the faculty. Only basic processing of the finds from Nubia, which have been deposited in the National Museum – Náprstek Museum since the establishment of the Department of Prehistory and Antiquity of Near East and Africa in 1967, continued in the following years. However, their comprehensive evaluation and publishing either stopped altogether, or slowed down significantly. The settling of this debt did not gain momentum until the 1990s.
After the end of the UNESCO campaign, the field research by the Czechoslovak (and later Czech) expedition was limited to the Ancient Egyptian necropolis at Abusir where the works had been resumed as early as 1966. Nevertheless, the necessity to approach political, cultural and social development of Ancient Egypt in a wider context of the civilisational and environmental development of Northeast Africa has become increasingly urgent since the 1990s. Many branches of natural science represented by several leading Czech scientific institutes got involved in the Czech Egyptological research. At the same time, research expanded first outside the Nile Valley, and in 2009 even outside Egypt proper. At that time, the Czech Institute of Egyptology, in cooperation with the Institute of Geology of the ASCR and the Faculty of Environment of Jan Evangelista Purkyně University, started two projects in Sudan in reaction to an invitation by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums:
- geoarchaeological research at Jebel Sabaloka and the Sixth Cataract
2. archaeological exploration of the previously almost unknown site of Usli.
Since then, other Czech scientific institutions have become involved in both projects, lending the research a strong interdisciplinary character. A team of the National Museum – Náprstek Museum answered the same invitation in 2009, choosing the promising ancient site of Wad Ben Naga for their long-term operation.
For more information, see
http://egyptologie.ff.cuni.cz/?lang=en for the Czech Institute of Egyptology at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, and
http://www.nm.cz/Naprstek-Museum/ for the National Museum – Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures in Prague
For further reading on the research carried out in the Sudan since 2009, see
Suková, L. – Varadzin, L. 2012. Preliminary report on the exploration of Jebel Sabaloka (West Bank), 2009 – 2012. Sudan & Nubia 16: 118–131.
Bárta, M. – Suková, L. – Brůna, Vl. 2013. The latest explorations at Usli, Northern Province. Sudan & Nubia 17: 66–69.
Onderka, P. 2014. Wad ben Naga: a history of the site. Sudan & Nubia 18: 83–89.