home page
wersja polska
The Lion of Palmyra is PCMA new logo


Seventy Years of Polish Archaeology in Egypt

The exhibition Seventy years of Polish Archaeology in Egypt, presented at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the fall of 2007, has been prepared by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw in commemoration of 70 years that have passed since Polish archaeologists first started excavations in Edfu in Upper Egypt.

The team of scholars from the University of Warsaw directed by Prof. Kazimierz Michałowski, founder of the Polish school of Mediterranean archaeology, carried out their first excavations in Egypt in association with the Institut français d'archéologie orientale in Cairo. The French generously befriended the Polish expedition, which had only started making its way in Egypt. After a long interval caused by World War II and its aftermath, Michałowski returned to Egypt in 1956 with a research program that initiated a long standing cooperation between Polish and Egyptian specialists. For the past 50 years this collaboration has fruited in several important archaeological-conservation-reconstruction projects, of which Deir el-Bahari and Alexandria are the flagships.

Today, referring to these important dates in the development of Polish archaeological research on the Nile, we are beholden to the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass for his initiative and considerate support, which have made the organization of this exhibition possible. We thank Dr. Wafaa El Saddik, General Director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, for opening the halls of Egypt's most important museum to this presentation spanning several decades of excavation work. Dr. El Saddik and her staff have also generously provided space and assistance in all matters of display and organization, elementary for the preparation of the exhibition. Not the least, we are deeply grateful to the Supreme Council of Antiquities for generous permission to transport finds from Polish excavations, currently stored in site storerooms and local museums.

Nine out of the twenty six sites where Polish missions have worked in the past or are working now are represented at the exhibition. Beside Edfu, the list includes Deir el-Bahari and Sheikh Abd el-Gurna in West Thebes, Naqlun in Fayum Oasis, Saqqara and the Delta sites of Tell el-Farkha, Tell Atrib, Alexandria and Marea.

The objects from Tell Edfu, normally on permanent display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, will grace the exhibition for its duration. Finds from Deir el-Bahari, also on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, as well as at Luxor Museum, have also been moved to the exhibition temporarily. The Coptic Museum and Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo have loaned objects discovered at Tell Atrib and Deir el-Naqlun. From the National Museum of Alexandria come manuscripts recently unearthed at Sheikh Abd el-Gurna, while the Ismailia Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina have loaned objects originating from the Kom el-Dikka excavations. Objects from the above mentioned sites, as well as from Saqqara, Tell el-Farkha and Marea, have been brought from site storerooms.

The measure of any excavation is its impact on the broadening of historical knowledge of relevant periods and the cognitive value of finds put on public display. The research program of Polish archaeological missions working in Egypt in the past 70 years has contributed substantially to many of the chapters of Ancient Egyptian history. The goal of the present exhibition is to illustrate excavation issues through a selection of objects originating from the various digs, starting with Tell Edfu and ending with last year's impressive discoveries made in Tell el-Farkha. Since Polish research covers all periods in the development of Ancient Egyptian civilization, a chronological arrangement has been adopted, providing through the displayed objects a panorama extending from the Predynastic period to Egypt's Byzantine and Islamic ages.

Thus, opening the exhibition are two figures of gold sheet discovered in Tell el-Farkha in 2006. These male statuettes from the late Predynastic period and a deposit of Early Dynastic date comprising 62 small votive figurines of bone, faience and stone are merely a hint at the riches that the excavation of the site yields on a regular basis. More importantly, this is the first time that this exquisite assemblage is on public display. Its discovery has already brought new light to bear on the processes accompanying the emergence of the Egyptian empire. Tell el-Farkha is the latest in a series of Polish digs investigating the beginnings of civilization in the Nile Valley on a number of sites in both Egypt and Sudan.

Research on the Old Kingdom period is represented by objects from Tell Edfu and Saqqara. Excavations at Tell Edfu in 1937-1939, initiating Polish participation in Egyptological studies and including a necropolis of Old Kingdom date, brought important data on the architecture and furnishings of funerary mastabas. Calcite vessels of excellent quality presented at the exhibition belong among the finest objects found at Edfu. They were discovered in the mastabas of nobles from the end of the Fifth and the early Sixth Dynasty, the nomarchs Pepinefer and Isi, among others.

Explorations of the area west of the Djeser pyramid in Saqqara, undertaken first in 1987, uncovered rock tombs and brick mastaba structures belonging to nobles of the Old Kingdom, but the coup of the early work on the site came with the discovery of a mastaba of the vizier Merefnebef from the times of the Sixth Dynasty. The funerary chapel of this mastaba was found to be richly decorated with murals, most of which have been preserved in good condition). Visitors to the exhibition should take note of a presumably ritual wooden harpoon, unique because of its carved decoration. Also important are the three wooden figures of Nipepy found in his mastaba. Bowls of Meidum ware from a ritual shaft and utensils used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony hold importance for a study of funeral ceremonies.

Research on New Kingdom sacral architecture, begun in 1961 by Polish Egyptologists, architects and conservators, are being continued in the famous terrace temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari. The project is a flagship example of comprehensive large-scale Egyptian-Polish cooperation in the fields of Egyptological studies, archaeological exploration, and architectural, conservation and reconstruction work. Focus on the most ruined Third Terrace of the temple has resulted in a reconstruction of the chambers around it, the team accomplishing the awesome task of repositioning a few thousand original blocks in their respective places in the walls. In the early stages of work by the Polish expedition, clearance of rubble led to the discovery of a completely unknown, ruined temple of Tuthmosis III fitted between the temple of Hatshepsut and the complex of Mentuhotep II. Photographs presenting the results of many years of work in the Hatshepsut temple can be admired on plates shown at the entrance to the exhibition and in the part devoted to finds from this site. Cartonnage fragments and examples of grave furnishings from recent excavations, seen here on display, constitute an important contribution to studies on the Third Intermediate Period and the significance of the Deir el-Bahari necropolis at this time.

The objects on exhibition meriting special attention are the finds from the unknown temple of Tuthmosis III discovered by the Polish mission during work on the Hatshepsut complex. Foremost were the thousands of limestone wall blocks recovered from the rubble, featuring well preserved relief decoration covered with fine polychromy. An absentee from the current exhibition is a monumental statue of the enthroned king, completely preserved, also found in the rubble with other statues. This masterpiece of the sculptor's art can be seen on permanent display in the Luxor Museum. Central in our presentation is a bust of Tuthmosis III, unusual in that the king's countenance was discovered by the Polish mission, while the bust (with the back of the head) is a cast of a piece held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Years of studies leading to a reconstruction of the architectural form and shattered wall decoration of the temple of Tuthmosis III have been presented in the form of drawings shown next to the blocks on display, illustrating the awesome task of putting together all the hundreds and hundreds of broken pieces.

The richness and variety of archaeological finds from the last phases of Pharaonic Egypt and the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods, originating from Polish excavations, have contributed importantly to studies of ancient urban agglomerations in Egypt. For years several Polish teams have been part of this trend which started in the 1960s and which has changed research perspectives, pushing Egyptian archaeology more extensively than ever before toward an interest in ancient town architecture and its revalorization. The process is particularly well observable in the Delta, which is undergoing a veritable archaeological boom in effect of long-range research objectives set down for foreign missions by the Egyptian authorities.

Ptolemaic period burials discovered in the upper layers of the Old Kingdom necropolis in Saqqara have been studied comprehensively, revealing important new material concerning burial customs during this period. Typical examples of tomb furnishings of the time - a richly polychromed Canopic chest and a figure of Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris - can be viewed on exhibition.

The first excavations in Tell Edfu explored the Old Kingdom necropolis, but they also cleared part of a Ptolemaic and Roman town quarter. The male herm on exhibition was found in the entrance to a Roman bath. It is an excellent example of Roman provincial art with Hellenistic roots developing in the Egyptian hinterland.

In Tell Atrib, which was the first Egyptian site after World War II where Polish archaeologists were given permission to dig in 1956, the team identified relics of the foundations of temples from the Late Period, as well as the remains of town architecture, permitting a partial reconstruction of the urban layout of the Ptolemaic-Roman city. Exploration of particular layers yielded a rich and varied assemblage, including a statue of Aphrodite shown in the current display, and an extensive set of terracotta figurines and ceramic relief vessels. These objects of fine artistic workmanship came from a local workshop district, testifying to the high quality of the local arts and crafts, and their obviously strong ties with the Alexandrian metropolis.

Contemporarily with the excavations in Tell Atrib, an Egyptian-Polish team undertook archaeological and restoration operations on a major scale in Alexandria. The Kom el-Dikka project initiated in 1960 has gradually turned the site, which is located in the very center of Alexandria, into an archaeological park visited by tourists interested in Late Antique architecture. Exploration of these architectural complexes of Roman and Byzantine date - the Theater Building, Great Roman Baths, unique set of lecture halls and residential areas - abounded in all kinds of small finds, mostly well founded in the Hellenistic-Roman artistic circle. Among the examples of statuary selected for this exhibition are some fine portrait heads, including a representation of the town?s founder, Alexander the Great. A small bone plaque with a relief carving of Dionysus brings us into the Byzantine period. This piece of Coptic art illustrates the vitality of ancient tradition in the Egypt of later ages.

Excavations of a Late Antique town have also been carried out since 2000 in Marea, a lakeside harbor town south of Alexandria. So far, the team has uncovered a Byzantine bath complex and is continuing exploration of a huge Christian basilica. At the exhibition Marea is represented by only one object, but it is an extremely rare find: a special coinage weight used to check the weight of coins.

The last section of the exhibition is devoted to a presentation of objects of Coptic art discovered at the monastic complex in Deir el-Naqlun and at the hermitage in Sheikh Abd el-Gurna. The Naqlun monastery, which has been under exploration since 1986 and which comprises the church, monastic buildings, a large group of rock-cut hermitages and two separate cemeteries, has brought important material for Coptological studies. The medieval cemetery, explored for a number of seasons, yielded examples of furnishings typical of Coptic graves of the 11th and 12th centuries. The most valuable finds, however, are the Coptic and Arabic manuscripts, and among these a codex with the Gospel of St John seen here. Coming from these graves are textiles, frequently with fine colorful border decoration, as well as glass vessels testifying to the high craftsmanship of the period. A hoard of golden Fatimid dinars was discovered among the monastic buildings, and in one of the ruined chambers a richly ornamented casket with Arabic inscription on the front. Sheikh Abd el-Gurna, where excavations started recently, in 2003, is represented at the exhibition by Coptic manuscripts written on parchment and papyrus, found discarded in the hermitage's rubbish dump which accumulated from the 6th through the 8th century. The hermits had lived in the adapted interior of a Middle Kingdom rock-cut tomb.

Closing the display is a funerary stela with Kufic inscription, one of many from the Islamic burial ground that occupied the mound slowly accreting over the ruins of Kom el-Dikka from the 8th to the 12th century.

The finds on exhibition are accompanied by plates with text and photos, providing additional information about each site. Not all of the sites where Polish missions have worked in the past or present could be presented through actual finds, hence the idea to illustrate them in photographs hung on the outside of the screens setting apart the exhibition area arranged in the museum hall. Only after one considers all of these sites together does one form an idea of the scope of the research program implemented in Egypt by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in cooperation with Egyptian specialists. Included in this part of the presentation are: Abu Simbel (operation to save the rock temples of Ramesses II and Nefertari under the auspices of the Egyptian government and UNESCO), Dabod and Tafa (Polish specialists participating in the dismantling and reassembly of these Meroitic temples as part of the same international salvage project), Valley of the Kings, tombs of Ramesses III and Ramesses VI (photographic documentation, philological studies), Dakhla Oasis (documenting prehistoric rock sites), Dendera (French-Polish excavations in the Hathor temenos), El-Ashmunein (architectural studies and revalorization of a Coptic basilica), Marina el-Alamein (uncovering an unknown Hellenistic and Roman town and cemetery), Cairo (archaeological research and restoration in the funerary complex of Amir Qurqumas and Sultan Inal), Pelusium (excavations on the site of a Roman theater and in a Late Antique house), Tell er-Retaba (Polish-Slovakian exploration of a Ramesside fortress in Wadi Tumilat).

The Polish school of Mediterranean archaeology founded by Kazimierz Michałowski comprises foremost researchers and their research projects, implemented not only as part of strictly Polish or combined Egyptian-Polish expeditions, but also as the input of specialists working with foreign missions, such as Elephantine, Karnak, El-Tariff, Tebtynis, Giza, Kom el-Hisn, Minshat Abu Omar and Tell el-Daba. Excavations are only the first stage in the process of study, protection and preservation, the end goals being scholarly publication and public display. It is the latter objective that the present exhibition mounted at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is primarily meant to serve.

Aleksandra Majewska
Exhibition Curator
Keeper of the Egyptian Collection
National Museum in Warsaw

(introduction published in the
Seventy Years of Polish Archaeology in Egypt
exhibition catalogue)

>>>> O R G A N I Z E R S