Czechs Rescue Antiquity Scientists and Students Salvage Relics and Record Evidence of the Past. ARCHAEOLOGY

Article excerpt

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. …