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Research of the Ancient Egyptian Civilisation.

Czech Archeological Excavations in the Royal Necropolis at Abusir


   The exploration of the pyramid cemetery at Abusir, a part of a large necropolis of the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis, represents in the Egyptian archeology an unique project orientated at the systematic examination of the Abusir cemetery as a whole. To some extent, the exploration continues the work of the German expedition of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in Abusir at the beginning of the 20th century, considered so far as a model examination of an ancient Egyptian pyramid cemetery. The large cemetery at Abusir covers an area of several square kilometres involving the pyramids, temples, tombs and other structures, dating from different periods of pharaonic Egypt. The hitherto results of the work at the pyramid complexes of the 5th Dynasty (2494-2345 BC) kings – Sahura, Neferirkara, Niuserra and, possibly, also Shepseskara – have basically contributed to the Institute´s orientation especially at the history and archeology of the Old Kingdom (major part of the 3th millennium BC), the period of the rise and floruit of the early Egyptian state. The hitherto exploration shows that Abusir was also an important burial site of the members of the royal family, high officials and priests from all periods of the Old Kingdom. After temporary oblivion in the Middle and New Kingdom, Abusir became again an attractive burial ground in the Saite-Persian Period (6th-4th centuries BC). The exploration activities of the Institute therefore concentrate mostly on the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes and private tombs and the large shaft tombs dating from the Saite Persian Period. The exploration thus principally pertains to the more than 2000 years long period of ancient Egyptian history.


   Institute´s work at Abusir was preceded by the participation of the Institute, from the end of 1950 in the international campaign of UNESCO to salvage the monuments of Nubia threatened by the waters of the High Dam of Asuan. Czechoslovak Institute of Egyptology took an active part in the campaign in the years of 1960-1965 through the exploration and documentation of archeological monuments and the epigraphic survey in two areas of Lower Nubia. As a consequence of the high international appreciation of the Czechoslovak participation in the campaign, the Institute was granted by the Egyptian authorities a permission to excavate at Abusir.


   Czechoslovak concession in Nubia covered two areas in the Nile valley, each about 50 km long. The survey and documentation of rock drawings and inscriptions in the two areas represented the main objective of the Czechoslovak expedition to Nubia. Alltogether, 243 rock inscriptions, dating from the Early Dynastic to Roman Periods, were recorded. The results of the epigraphic survey in Nubia represent, besides the scientific papers, exhibitions, etc., especially the monographs „The Rock Inscriptions of Lower Nubia. Czechoslovak Concession, by Z. Žába (Praha 1974)“, “Some Nubian Petroglyphs, by M. Verner (Praha 1974)“ and “Katalog der Festbilder aus der tschechoslowakischen Konzession in Nubien“, by F. Váhala and P. Červíček (Praha 1999)“. Besides the epigraphic work, an archeological survey in 47 lacalities was carried out, too. Besides that archeological excavations were carried out in a tumulous cemetery at Wadi Qitna and Qalabsha-South dating from the Roman to the early Byzantine Period. (E. Strouhal, Wadi Qitna and Qalabsha South. Volume I. Archeology, Praha 1984). The expedition also discovered a Roman stronghold in Kertassi, which made part of a Roman fortification system in Nubia. It also succeded in rediscovering in Tafa the so-called South Temple dating from Roman Period and lost in 19th century under sediments of the Nile mud.


   With regard to the high international appreciation of the Czechoslovak participation in the Nubian campaign, the Egyptian authorities granted of the Czechoslovak Institute of Egyptology the permission to excavate in Abusir. The work in Abusir started in 1960 in the mastaba of Ptahshepses, a vizier of the king Niuserra. Ptahshepses was an important historical personage and his tomb with unique architecture, inscriptions, etc., was the largest non-royal tomb of its time found so far in Egypt.


   In 1976, after the conclusion of the excavation in Ptahshepses´ mastaba, the Institute succeeded to gain a new large archeological concession in South Abusir. The work in the new concession started with the discovery and unearthing of the pyramid complex of Queen Khentkaus, a wife of the king Neferirkara, and with the excavation of the tombs of members of the king Djedkara´s family from end of the 5th Dynasty.


   At the transition of the 1970s and 1980s, the pyramid complex of Neferefra was discovered. The pharaoh, known from only few written documents, died very early and his funerary monument, the so-called Unfinished pyramid and several other adjacent buildings were finished only by his successors. In the pyramid temple, there were discovered unique papyri with administrative texts, royal sculptures, numeral wooden statuettes, clay sealings, faience tablets with inscriptions, ostraca, etc. The excavation in Neferefra´s pyramid complex was concluded in 1998. At the same time, the work in a small pyramid no. 24 belonging to an anonymous queen (a wife of Niuserra?) from the 5th Dynasty was concluded, too.


   Simultaneously with the work in Neferefra´s pyramid complex, the Saite-Persian shaft tomb of Udjahorresnet has been excavated. Udjahorresnet was a high official who played an important role in the country after the conquest of Egypt by Persians in 525 BC. After the conclusion of this excavation in 1995, the work was moved to the neighbouring shaft tomb belonging to an important priest Iufaa from the 5th century BC. At the bottom of the large, 25 m deep shaft an intact burial chamber with a large sarcophagus and the original burial equipment was found. The walls of the chamber were decorated with religious texts and vignettes from the Late Period version of the Book of Dead. In 1998, in the presence of the representatives of the Egyptian government and important international media the intact sarcophagus of Iufaa was opened. The examination of other rooms, also intact, in the substructure of the tomb still remains to be done.


   At the beginning of 1990s, the work of the Czech expedition moved to South Abusir, where private tombs of officials and priests from the Old Kingdom (2700-2180 BC) were revealed. Among the most important monuments discovered so far ranks the tomb of Ity, the overseer of the royal granaries from the beginning o the 4th Dynasty, Kaaper, the scribe of the royal army from the beginning of the 5th Dynasty, and Kar, a hitherto unknown vizier and his family from the 6th Dynasty. Of great importance is also a cemetery of priests dating from the early 6th Dynasty.


   In accordance with the Egyptian regulations, a great attention is paid by the Czech expedition at Abusir also to the reconstruction of the unearthed monuments. In the field, the so far largest project represents a huge reinforced concrete dome protecting the burial chamber of Iufaa. Of great importance is also the reconstruction of the 10 m high entrance, with unique lotus columns, to the mastaba of Ptahshepses, and the reconstruction of the tomb of the vizier Kar.


   Currently, the archeological exploration of Abusir concentrates on three main fields basically important for the understanding of the development of the necropolis and for the history of Egypt namely,


1.      Royal tombs – the pyramids of the 5th Dynasty (25th-24th century BC)

2.      Saite-Persian shaft tombs (6th-5th century BC)

3.      Cemeteries with richly decorated private tombs dating from the 3th-6th Dynasty (28th-22th century BC)