Modern echoes from the Egyptian sands

Miroslav Bárta, photo: Czech Institute of Egyptology

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.

Miroslav Bárta,  photo: Jan Sklenář
“My basic interest started in grammar school when I was 15 or 16 when I got interested in basic Egyptian administration, development of the early stage etc. The logical continuation of this interest was studying at Charles University where I started in 1988 and graduated in 1993 in archaeology, pre-history and Egyptology. My field involvement in Egypt started in 1991 when I took part in my first expedition to Egypt as a student. And then, step by step, I started to be more involved in our field research and Egypt and later in Sudan and the western desert of Egypt. And now I stay where I am.”

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?

“No, it was quite a complicated issue and nobody can come up with a straightforward solution to this huge issue. Basically, there are five or six principle factors that are quite modern. One is the incredible growth of the administration. We can see that today in our ministries that are flooded with officials who do almost nothing. There was also a crisis of legitimacy, that is that the centre was not able to exercise power in more distant regions of the country, which is also quite typical for modern states. There was the phenomenon that more remote parts of the country became increasingly independent of the central administration. There were huge expenditures used in non-productive fields. A classical example is that thousands of funerary priests were working in mortuary temples of the Old Kingdom kings that had to be sustained in some way in order to sustain the royal dogma that of the immortal king on the throne. And, in the final stage of this long development the climate change came into play. That sped up all those factors that led to the final demise of the Old Kingdom.”

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?

Miroslav Bárta,  photo: Czech Institute of Egyptology
“That is a difficult question. My last trip was in the fall of 2010 for the archaeological season in Abusir where I took over the excavation from professor (Miroslav) Verner who had been in charge for almost 30 years. Just today I had a phone call with the Egyptian authorities and the problem seems to be taking more time than we originally supposed. At the moment it seems we are not able to enter the archaeological site of Abusir, which is protected by the military, until the situation, especially the political situation in Egypt, calms down, which is difficult to predict.”

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?

Abusir,  photo: Czech Institute of Egyptology
“We have basically two missions every year, in the spring and in the fall. Our spring 2011 mission was planned to start about two weeks ago, which did not happen. Now we are waiting for a sign from the Egyptian authorities because we are only guests in the country and we must get authorization for all our future work. We depend heavily on the political situation in the country.”

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.”