Modern echoes from the Egyptian sands
Professor Miroslav Bárta is the head of a Czech team of archaeologists working at a long established site in Egypt. He recently got back from Egypt and is seeking clearance to resume work there again in the face of the uncertainty about the situation in country. In this week’s One on One Professor Bárta describes the new theories about the collapse of the Old Kingdom he has contributed to and his thoughts about the more recent demise of the reign of president Hosni Mubarak. I asked him first of all when he had begun to be interested in Egyptology.
And you have recently been in Egypt at the Czech site there, what were your main recent experiences and what were the excavations looking for?
“Our excavations started some 50 years ago. And our present site in Egypt is Abusir, a site located about 25 kilometres south of modern Cairo next to Saqqara. There are two principle periods covered in the archaeological record. Above all, it is the fifth dynasty royal monuments of some Old Kingdom kings starting with Nyuserra and continuing with Menkuahor Akauhor, Djedkara Isesia and Raneferef. These are all four kings of the pyramid builders era that built on the site of Abusir. And in the shadow of these monuments came into being the non-royal tombs. And the second principle era we can find in Abusir is the later period, the monuments from the first millennium BC. ”
Can you say what are the main finds that have been made by you over, say, the last 20 years.
“No, I won’t, because we are more interested in history and the processes and the historical process that we can unveil through our archaeological work in the field. Nevertheless, for the general audience I might refer to the pyramid complex of Ra Neferev. He was one of the last Old Kingdom kings that was only discovered in the 1980’s and provided a vast array of archaeological finds including papyri describing the everyday royal cult, stone vessels, royal statuary etc.”
Perhaps I can rephrase the earlier question and ask what light you have shed on Egyptian society in the last 20 years or so?
“We basically developed a new theory about the decline of the Old Kingdom that is contrary to the prevailing opinion that said that basically the old kingdom collapsed due to historical events at the very end of this historical period. We are saying that the changes that led to the end or the collapse of the Old Kingdom started maybe 150-200 years before the actual collapse of the Old Kingdom, to the period of the Abusir kings of the fifth dynasty which we can match quite neatly with major climate change that we have in our records.”
So what was the basic problem? Was it just that the crops failed systematically, was it as simple as that?
It sounds like the whole system became top heavy?
“It’s a problem of a complex society with a structured economy and administration.”
And when was your most recent trip to Egypt and when do you think you will be going back given the recent problems?
There was some damage to the site during the early days of the demonstrations there?
“Apparently so. Here we depend heavily on local sources from Egypt who say that some damage has been inflicted on the monuments Lisht, Tahrir and Abusir. But the extent of the damage must be established and due to the fact that the sites are sealed we are unable to come up with any preliminary assessment.”
So, in theory, you could be getting back to the site soon?
“I have no idea, I have no idea.”
But the plan was to get back fairly soon?
Do you have any personal views about what has happened in Egypt and whether the changes will be for the better or worse?
“I am just a distant observer. Of course, I am quite concerned about the country, about the people, and, last but not least, about the future of the monuments.”