Jaroslav Černý
Rock shrine
Back to top
Last updated on October 14th 2012
Professor Jaroslav Černý (1898-1970), a Czech Egyptologist, devoted most of his life to the study of
the Deir el-Medina community. He was the world's leading authority on several aspects of the
Ramesside period (1295-1069 BC), especially in the field of the hieratic script, a cursive form of
writing used on papyri and ostraka. He excelled in Late Egyptian language, the form used in Ramesside
literary as well as non-literary texts. He helped to bring past lives to life through his deep
understanding of the way the ordinary people at Deir el-Medina managed their affairs.  
Jaroslav Černý was born on August 22nd 1898 in Pilsen, Bohemia. The first interest in history of
ancient Egypt was already awaken in the pupil at the primary school by his teacher. After graduation
from high school in Pilsen, Jaroslav became a student at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in
Prague. Initially he studied under Bedřich Hrozný, who established the Hittite studies and then in
1919, when František Lexa became Assistant Professor at the same
faculty, he attended his Egyptological lectures.
At this time he also frequently travelled to Berlin to read specialized literature not accessible in
Prague. While there, he met Professor Georg A. Erman, who inspired his passion for the study of  
late Egyptian language.
During his doctoral studies, Černý worked as a bank clerk. The topic of his thesis was the life of the
workmen of the Theban Necropolis in the New Kingdom (1300-100 BC). He often travelled to the
Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, where he could research objects originating from excavations at Deir
el-Medina which were conducted under the leadership of Ernesto Schiaparelli. During his stays in
Turin, Černý became acquainted with many Egyptologists of the time.
In 1925 Bernard Bruyère from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo was looking for
an epigrapher for his excavations at Deir el-Medina. Černý became a member of the team. In 1927
he published his study about the cult of Amenhotep I at Deir el-Medina. Between 1928-1933 he
worked on the catalogue of hieratic ostraka in the collections of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Černý's real academic career began as late as 1929, when he was nominated in a private capacity at
the Faculty in Prague. The Faculty employed him in an administrative position, limited to a six month
contract each year. That allowed Černý to dedicate the other half of the year to his work in Egypt.
He lectured at the University in Prague from 1930 until the start of WW II, at which time he
happened to be in Paris.
"Deir el-Medina is the name of the valley extending approximately from south to north and bordered up
to the east by a hill called Qurnet Murai, at its eastern slope extends the village of the same name, and
to the west by the mountains that we have already seen from Luxor and that reach far into Libyan
desert, which is part of the Sahara. A pathway runs at the bottom of the valley and to the left of the
path on the hill slope is the cemetery of Deir el-Medina, our workplace. Deir el-Medina is an Arabic
name and it means "city monastery". The "Monastery" is the temple dated to the Ptolemaic period located
at the northern edge at the exit from the valley. The word "city" is connected to the city of Djeme,
nowadays called Medinet Habu, the ruins of which come from the 10th century and lie within about 15 to
20 minutes' walking distance along the temple of Ramesse III.
At the foot of the hill we alight from the donkeys, let them go, and ascend the path to the house, which
will henceforth be our home. It is located almost at the highest point of the hill, so that the climb to it
is, above all in the heat of the day, not exactly alluring. It has, however, the advantage that the entire
necropolis and to the north and south, also the entire Nile valley, can be easily overlooked from here.
The view to Luxor is blocked by the opposite hill Qurnet Murai.

The entire hill descends in several terraces and the house is standing on the highest of them. Its oldest
part, consisting of only three rooms, two living rooms and a kitchen, was built by Schiaparelli, leader of
the Italian expedition, in 1904. The house now belongs to the Antiquities Service, which lent it to the
French Institute together with the concession. The director of the French excavations Monsieur Bruyère
later extended it to the north and south, so that it now has 8 living rooms. It is built out of  mud bricks,
the usual building material in Egypt. The roof is made of logs covered with paper on which sand and stones
are scattered. In Upper Egypt such building material can be used, as there is almost no rainfall. I
remember only once that it rained about 5 minutes, but the raindrops dried the moment they touched the

...The old part of the house is built into a former grave; the middle, smallest room, which is mine and
which I am too conservative to change for another, more spacious one, leads into a room cut in the rock,
which had once been the tomb chapel and now serves as a storerooms for various antiquities, as well as
whole mummies and their parts; he who believes in the mummy's revenge, which is fashionable in Europe
today, would probably die of fear here. Under the floor, which is now of cement, there is the shaft that
leads into the underground room, where the mummy of the tomb owner had once lied. As the rock is not  
particularly solid at Deir el-Medina, it can often be heard, above all in the still of the night, how the
walls of the shaft crumble and the stones fall down into the shaft. I hope I will not once wake up at the
shaft's bottom.
...The day, when the workers are hired, all hell breaks loose in the morning. On hiring day, several
hundreds of men, boys and even a small number of girls assemble and occupy the entire slope, patiently
squatting and waiting until we finish our breakfast and come down. But then everybody squeezes around
and all want to be hired. Only a few of them can, however, be satisfied as the nature of excavations at
Deir el-Medina and the difficulty of control do not allow us to hire many people. As far as I remember,
we had around 200 people at most...

...Immediately after the hiring is over, the work begins. The workers stand in a row on a place that the
director of excavations has determined beforehand, children stand behind the workmen. All have brought
their tools with them. Men have hoes with short wooden handles, called turi, children small reed baskets
with two handles, muktaf. The workmen dig with the hoes and fill the baskets with stones and sand, and
the children then carry these baskets usually on their heads or shoulders all the way to the carts,
where they empty them...

...To transport away the debris, we use the field railroad of the Decauville system, which has two
tracks, one called Nord-Sud after the Paris subway from north to south, the other at its northern ed;
this leads from west to east. The debris is being transported out of the valley onto a place that had
been carefully examined beforehand to make sure there are no antiquities under the surface. Here, a
huge hill is being formed, called "Cavalier de deblais", magleb in Arabic. Usually two carts are being
filled and two others emptied at the same time. There must be people on the magleb too, in order to
spread the debris over the largest possible area...
...I do not have to stress the fact that dust is being churned up during the work, because the earth
is always completely dry. The place of excavations can be recognized from kilometres away, after a
column of dust rising towards the sky.
We work eight hours, from 6:30 with a quarter of an hour's break for breakfast to 12, and from 1
to 3:30. The workmen bring their food with them in bundles, as no one is allowed to leave the area of
the necropolis during working hours. The transgression of this rule is punished by immediate lay-off.
We work all days of the week except Tuesdays, i.e. even on Sunday. On Tuesday there is a market
at Luxor and so we have a day off so that everyone can make their shopping for the entire week...

...At the bottom of the valley lay the village of the royal workmen, the remains of which have been
preserved. It has hitherto been only partially excavated by Italian and German expeditions, and also
the French Institute has once conducted a trial excavation of a few houses. It will have to wait until
the entire necropolis is fully excavated. Last year we were forced to excavate at its very southern
edge in order t get some space to extend the magleb for the lower locations. The site used to be a
waste disposal area, where inhabitants threw all waste, all remains and all useless things. From these
remains of ancient human settlements, a special kind of soil was formed, which is used in Egypt as
fertilizer in the fields. It is called sebakh; it is of black colour and it smells awfully. To watch the
workmen for 8 hours a day in the heat and swirling sebakh dust which penetrates into the nose, ears,
eyes and mouth was almost beyond our power and we were relieved when we finally reached the other
side of the waste disposal area, again white dust and stones of the necropolis. But the site was very
rewarding. We found a large number of vessels, both complete and fragmentary, toys, damaged tools,
weights with given weight, baskets, amulets, fragments of payri and above all a few hundred ostraca.
... The ostraca that we found last year are very big - sometimes they are whole halves of jars over
a quarter metre tall - and completely covered with inscriptions. They contain records of daily events
in the village of workers, lists of persons and inventories of objects, accounts of supplies of ratios
which the workmen received for their work, records of legal processes,about works and their
proceeding, sales contracts etc. Other ostraca bear copies of literary texts. These will surely be
important to the history of ancient Egyptian literature. A whole series of ostraca contained
artistically valuable paintings and sketches...
...We use our free time in the evening and on Tuesdays to visit and study the surrounding monuments,
above all temples and tombs. Nearby is the Ramesseum, built by Ramesse II; at the back of the
building, storerooms and granaries are still well preserved...
...Trips up to the hills are much more time-demanding, above all the ascent to the highest point
of the landscape, which we call simply el-Qurn. It is over 400 meters high and from afar it has
the form of a pyramid. From the top there is a nice view over the surrounding landscape. At day
the ascent is very tiresome because of the sun and heat, but on a moonlit night, the walk in the
mountains and the ascent to the hill leaves a fairy tale impression...
...We perform a special sport in the surrounding hills - the searching for graffiti, i.e. engraved rock
inscriptions which were made by ancient visitors. One of us is searching texts in the front, and another
one immediately makes preliminary copies of all texts and records their position, so that it could be
found again for the definitive copying, which demands a lot of time...
...This year, excavations at Deir el-Medina began unusually early, already in the second half of
November. In a month, the Bruyère will already welcome me in Deir el-Medina and I hope that
also this winter I will witness things that will be worth telling you in a year."

Excerpts from Jaroslav Černý's lecture held in Cairo on April 4th 1932, transcribed from his
manuscript held by the Archive of the Ancient Near East and African Department, National
Museum - Náprstek Museum, published in printed form in 2007.
(From Mynářová, 2007, p. 21-33)
1.Théby : město bohů a faraónů = Thebes : city of gods and pharaohs /
Jana Mynářová & Pavel Onderka (eds.)
Praha : Národní Museum, 2007.
2, Málek, Jaromír: Life and achievements of Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav
Černý (1898-1970). IN: Archív Orientální 66, 1998, p. 27-30.
3. Růžová, Jiřina: Písař Místa pravdy : Život egyptologa Jaroslava Černého
Praha : Libri, 2010.
Černý's bad eye sight prevented to fulfill his wish to be conscripted into the French army. Eventually
he arrived in Egypt and was able to take part in another excavation season at Deir el-Medina. In
1940 Černý's work for the Czechoslovak government in exile began. He worked as an attache at the
Cairo embassy.
WWII significantly changed Černý's life, which until its outbreak was equally divided between his
work in Egypt, Prague and England (where he worked with Alan Gardiner). Until that time his work
concentrated on sources and history of the New Kingdom. During the war however he collected Old
Kingdom inscriptions in Saqarra, compiled a corpus of early dynastic inscriptions, and for
lexicographical reasons he studied Coptic language. Fear for his family and friends back home and the
direct threat of German attacks in Egypt caused him to have a nervous breakdown. During his
convalescence at Helwan he began to collect material for his study of the grammar of late Egyptian
language. At the end of 1943 he went to London to work for the embassy. He stayed in London until
the end of the war. During this time he worked closely with Alan Gardiner. After the war Černý
temporarily returned to lecture at the University in Prague, where Lexa suggested he should be
appointed Professor. The suggestion was refused by the Ministry of Education, which argued that for
such a small discipline as Egyptology there was no need for two professors.
In 1950 Černý experienced a second nervous breakdown, which required a long-term hospitalization.
Having recovered in 1951 he received the offer of a position at the Queen's College at Oxford and
shortly before moving there married Marie Sargant, born Hloušková, who loved him and cared for him
for the rest of his life. Černý was the head of the Oxford office for 14 years until he retired in
1965. Even then he continued to travel to Egypt. He actively participated in the UNESCO project to
rescue the monuments of Nubia and he copied texts in the temples of Amada, Gebel esh-Shem and
Abu Simbel. He spent four winters in the Theban necropolis. With his Egyptian colleagues he made a
detailed map of the occurrence of hieratic graffiti. In 1965 he was partially rehabilitated by his
mother country, when elected honorary member of the Czechoslovak Institute of Egyptology, which he
personally accepted during his visit in 1967. In the last years of his life Černý had to forsake field
work due to his increasingly bad eye sight and decided to concentrate on teaching. Between 1965 and
1966 he was visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania and in 1967 at the University of
Tubingen. Jaroslav Černý died on the 29th of May 1970 at Oxford on the way to the Griffith
Institute. The second volume of his monograph about the workmen of the Theban necropolis
unfortunately remained unfinished.
Thanks to Gardiner's recommendation Černý was offered a post of Professor of Egyptology at the
University College London. The post enabled him to spend a third of the year in Egypt. In London he
worked on translations and inscriptions from Sinai, the
collation of which he already began before the war. He also started work on a book of Egyptian
religion. The new politics of post-war Czechoslovakia deprived him of his Czechoslovak citizenship and
membership of the Czechoslovak Academy of Scientists and denied him a chance to visit family and
friends living there. Although it was possible for him to acquire the British citizenship he decided to
remain without an official citizenship.
The following excerpts come from Jaroslav Černý's manuscript of his lecture called
"Ten Months on Excavations in Egypt", which was held in Cairo on April 4th 1932.
University College London
Queen's College, Oxford
Photograph © Jana Tejkalová 2008
Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock and Jana Tejkalová