Czechs Rescue Antiquity

Scientists and students salvage relics and record evidence of the past. ARCHAEOLOGY

JAROMIR BENES stands atop a steep ridge of bulldozed dirt and gestures to a vast expanse of cratered wasteland populated by enormous machines which ceaselessly gouge out more earth from a devastated site stretching to the smog-clouded horizon. It looks like a scene from a post-nuclear science fiction film, but in fact it's the Maxim Gorky opencast coal mine.

``This is where I work,'' Mr. Benes says with a laugh. He is an archaeologist, not a miner, but his job is to dig things out of the ground - things other than coal.

Attached to the Czech Archaeological Institute's branch in Most, Benes is a specialist in ``rescue archaeology'' - the attempt to salvage important relics and record the evidence of the past before it's wiped away by current and future developments.

There are rescue archaeology operations in countries all over the world, but the urgency of the situation is particularly clear near Most, a town in the heart of northwest Czechoslovakia's polluted mining and industrial zone near the East German border. This region has been settled for thousands of years and its archaeological evidence can shed much light on the development of civilization in Europe.

``Here we have an encyclopedia of the history of the past 6,000 years,'' Benes says. ``There's everything from Neolithic to Iron Age to Roman, all the way to the Middle Ages. We have many unique sites.''

But opencast lignite mines like the Maxim Gorky have transformed the countryside for many miles around into an eerie artificial ``moonscape.'' About 150 local villages and innumerable sites of prehistoric and historic development have been swallowed up in the process, according to Benes.

One of the casualties was the 13th-century Gothic town of Most itself: It was totally destroyed by an encroaching coal pit in the 1970s, and all its inhabitants were moved to a newly built prefabricated town nearby.

Rescue archaeologists sifted through the centuries-old buildings before the final demolition took place, and today the relics are stored in the one building salvaged from the doomed town: a Baroque church that was physically moved half a mile to escape destruction.

``It was really horrible,'' says Tomas Velimsky, an archaeologist who worked on the excavations of old Most.

Benes's job is to excavate as quickly as possible the areas directly in the path of the encroaching coal mine to preserve any important finds and to register and record whatever traces of human settlement he finds. The Maxim Gorky pit has an edge four kilometers (2.5 miles) long and, Benes says, it moves forward by 250 meters (820 feet) a year.

``I carry out my work in two micro regions, each 30 square kilometers (11.6 sq. mi.) of landscape,'' he says. ``We carry out so-called total excavation - trying to look at everything that's under the soil ... really, we're taking samples, because it's impossible to rescue excavate everything.''

Among recent finds have been traces of more than 40 prehistoric buildings called long houses that date back to the Neolithic period about 4,000 BC, including evidence of prehistoric carpentry shops and other scientifically important details. The tomb of a nobleman from the Roman period, which contained many finely worked ornaments, was also found.

``There are about 10 mining areas near Most, and we're digging only in two of them,'' Benes says. ``It's a compromise. We don't have the chance to excavate everywhere, so it's better to concentrate in those two areas which we know are good excavation areas.'' All told, he says, there have been some 1,200 rescue excavations in northwest Bohemia since the 1950s.

Most may be the most urgent region for rescue archaeology, but the process is also going on in other parts of Czechoslovakia - though not as thoroughly as archaeologists and historians would like. This is partly the result of a lack of funds and personnel, as well as apparent lack of interest in preserving this heritage.

``Ninety to 95 percent of the damaged archaeological sites are not known,'' says Martin Kuna, of the Czech Archaeological Institute in Prague. ``Most was an exception - the region was so destroyed by the mines that something had to be done. In other regions, the process is not so organized.''

Mr. Kuna oversees rescue archaeology operations in the Prague area, at sites where highways are being built, pipelines are being laid, or other major construction is taking place.

NEAR the Prague suburb of Dablice, for example, four sites, possibly as old as the Early Stone Age, were found on the edge of a 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of trench where a water pipeline has been put in. Volunteers and students, paid a pittance, spend weekends painstakingly unearthing potsherds and other relics.

A quarter of a mile away, in the path of another pipeline, there are indications of dozens of tiny Roman iron forges, as well as traces of prehistoric settlements. Archaeologists will have only a month or so to see what's there, and put it on the map.

Just walking across the plowed fields near these two sites, Kuna picks up a small handful of pottery dating back to both Roman and Neolithic times.

``This area was intensely settled from prehistoric times,'' he says. ``Rescue archaeology is basically recording things. Learning the type and extent of settlements, and also classifying them and clearly positioning them on the modern map.

``We mustn't have the illusion that we can record everything,'' he says. But he adds that everything recorded provides another piece of the puzzle representing the history of humankind - and thus is important in understanding human development. ``The landscape is changing so rapidly,'' he says, ``it has to be done now.''

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