What does a long-term expedition change in the lives of researchers? Expedition Life!

In the media we often hear about the research of Czech Egyptologists led by Professor Miroslav Bárta in Egypt and Sudan. Of course, theirs is one of the most interesting Czech research achievements. But what does a long-term participation in an expedition team mean for scientists themselves? And what are the qualities they must possess to become indispensable for such a team? This is what this little Odyssey is about, inspired by the story of Vladimír Brůna, as well as other important Czech expedition researchers who regularly set out to explore the… er… world.

Imagine the late 1970s. Husak's children scream in Czechoslovak maternity hospitals. In the factories, the screws of the sixth five-year plan are being tightened. Western civilization is recovering from Vietnam, Watergate, the DDT ... and discovers disco parties. Stephen Hawking delves into the theory of black holes, while flying into space with a human crew paradoxically approaches its "event horizon".

In the middle of it all, two schoolboys are waiting at a bus stop in the town Most one morning. Pushing a pebble around with the tips of their sneakers, they are thinking about their future. “How about the polytechnic school in Duchcov?" memorable words fall from Vláďa Šerý’s lips and thus trigger  the career of a surveyor, mining measurer, geoinformatics specialist, landscape ecologist, photographer, manager, car mechanic, butler, social worker, cook, psychologist, educator, dragon tamer and diplomat, but above all, the founder of the Department of Informatics and Geo-informatics at the Faculty of Environment of JEPU, and a long-time participant in archaeological expeditions of The Czech Institute of Egyptology at Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, in Abusir, Sudan, and the Western Desert of Egypt: engineer Vladimír Brůna.

The Coordinates of One's Career

If you are scratching your chin now wondering how a person from the bus stop in Most got into one of the most renowned Czech scientific-research expedition teams, you're not alone. Nevertheless, the path to such a career has not been straight but rather crooked for sure. Let's try to find coordinates for the route.

After the Duchcov polytechnic school, still in the bleak years of totality of the 1980s, Vladimír Brůna goes to the Faculty of Civil Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he specializes in remote sensingand land reclamation in the field of geodesy and cartography. From higher education, heading “damn low” to the mine Ležáky Most, Mr Brůna becomes the leader mining surveyor. Surely a dream-come-true job for a university graduate at 23, but he has yet to serve in an army engineering unit as a soldier-geodesist labouring at the nuclear plant construction site Dukovany.

The young geodesist engineer spent the turn of the eighties and nineties in the north again, this time, for a change, surrounded by intellectual elite, in the Most branch of the Institute of Landscape Ecology of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. The workplace became the regime repository of undesirable, or “too clever", intellectuals. Vladimir thus met with landscape ecologists and archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Prague over phenomenal minced-meat “Čevapčiči” cones and Rakia shots under the wings of a then famous Club of Czechoslovak-Bulgarian  Friendship. Political as well as scientific discussions ran constantly and, eventually, the heated debates of representatives of the two seemingly completely different disciplines resulted in a revolutionary seminar Archaeology and Landscape Ecology at that time. It was 1991 and Vladimír Brůna became a co-editor of the seminar proceedings.

Let's summarize now. Surveying, designing projects, geographic information systems, landscape ecology, a bit of construction, some of archaeology, light brown coal dust poisoning, the air of Dukovany army dog and a pinch of post-normalization Czechoslovak dissent cultural decadence. Is this the particular recipe leading to the qualities of an ideal participant in a research expedition?


What are the ideal “parameters” of an expedition researcher? And can they be generalized at all? Perhaps we shall all agree that anyone voluntarily leaving a cosy office, lab or other academic award-winning chair, setting out to explore a desert or permanently frosted plains have traces of an adventurer in them.

Perhaps it would not seem obvious at first sight. Their „Hand Made in Papua" woven bag could have been bought in an ethno shop around the corner and the tan could have been scooped on an all-inclusive holiday in Thailand. True adventurers unveil themselves once you trigger a talk about their work. They will most likely tell you that they do not do anything special teaching geodesy and cartography to hardly grown-up students at Králova výšina in Ústí nad Labem and a week later a few meters below the ground, searching through thousand years abandoned spaces within Egyptian pyramids. You may even be told the alternating between their garden in Chotěboř, Ústí University and a hut in Philippines is a common standard. The sparkles of excitement in their eyes, though, will glitter so much that you would seriously consider leaving your boring life behind and joining them in their adventure.

What else should expedition researchers carry in their imaginary backpack? Excellent expertise in their field? “Sure, high-level theoretical knowledge is important. However, if you are profiled too narrowly, you do not have enough experience with real work or are afraid to get your hands dirty, you’d better just dream of an expedition,” says Vladimír Brůna. In the desert, without a signal, burdened by the responsibility for a lot of expensive devices (and wellbeing of even dearer colleagues) you must be able to cope with anything thinkable. Including fixing a puncture on a jeep tire or diplomatic intervention in the event of a clash with different customs both cultural and associated with dining. Saint Exupery’s fox providing practical advice for many such situations will hardly appear somewhere within reach…

Vladimír Brůna thus considers the time just after graduation spent labouring in harsh, uncomfortable and socially diverse conditions of mines and construction sites a good starting point for his later professional route. In addition to practical skills, he gained adaptation skills, he learned to find solutions in all situations, how to communicate with people from different socio-cultural backgrounds and got to know the limits. His own for sure. “The field shows very quickly who is useful for the research practice and who is not. So, you got a PhD? Well, climb down the hole and hold the measuring band for me now…,” he shrugs evasively at the inquisitive question of how successful he has been looking for equally enthusiastic collaborators among young colleagues in the field.

Expertise, modesty, tolerance, adaptability, patience, ingenuity, social wit ... are these the key qualities? Let's askother experienced expedition researchers.

Team on fire: how to put out the cabin fever

Biologist and archaeobotanist Alexandra Bernardová from the University of South Bohemia has been engaged in research of vegetation development in the Spitsbergen archipelago within the projects of the Centre of Polar Ecology. In response to a question about ideal qualities and skills for a research expedition, she mentions, for example, the necessity of being a team player: “You cannot only see yourself during the expedition. You have to think about the rest of the team. In everyday life we ​​tend to rely on ourselves, but beyond the Arctic Circle, where a polar bear might jump on your back, it's pretty good to know you can rely on others as well.” In this context, Alexandra Bernard also values ​​her Girl scout practice experience as it “… equipped her with the ability to plan and at the same time react flexibly to anything, whether it be a weather change, dysfunctional technology or lack of food, let alone the art of mere survival in such conditions not only due to climate but also in the social context.”

Associate Professor Jan Daniel Bláha from the Faculty of Science, J. E. Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem confirms her words in last year's interview for UNIVERSITAS saying that scouting taught him how to survive harsh conditions, not to give up, and, occasionally, bite through troubles (as tough as they may be).

The project manager of IV CzechPolar2 and the Czech Science Station of J. G. Mendel in Antarctica, Pavel Kapler, also suggests the necessity of being modest and capable of self-denial. His reaction also contains concepts like discomfort or loss of privacy and even cabin fever. Could it be handled? “Enough workload. Just as the saying has it – idle hands are the devil’s playground.” advises somewhat mercilessly yet logically Pavel Kapler. Cabin fevermay pose a real crisis for an expedition and in extreme conditions it may jeopardize health or even lives of an expedition team. "When sailing between ice floats, riding off-road quad bikes that may get stuck in the snow at all times, or when climbing glaciers and mountains, everywhere, all team members must always be ready to help each other," he says.

Vladimír Brůna, however, mentions yet another level of interpersonal relationships that need to be taken care of during an expedition. These are relations with local population. His 20 years of experience makes him a bit of an expert in the field, as he has personally met many local characters "… from the last clay digger to the Minister of Cultural Monuments," he laughs saying so with a slight exaggeration.
Bash Muhandis (Great Engineer) and Abú Kanaka (Teapot Father)

It is obvious that over the years spent researching in one place, you establish personal relationships. You work, eat, sleep, and live there. You become part of a local community. Inventory. You get a label, a nickname, "bash muhandis" (Great Engineer) for this time, and you are simply counted on in the local “ecosystem”.

What does it look like in the field? “You fly to Cairo with a suitcase full of shoes and clothes for the families of your local co-workers and then, on the other hand, you carry it back full of teas and other specialties that you buy mainly to support local “micro” or, rather, “nano-economics”. You get invitations to dinners and to celebrations, but you must keep your distance. You do not cross the borderline to intervene into the local environment complexity, let alone, despite all theoretical knowledge, to criticise or initiate changes,” Vladimír Brůna describes his personal experience. “With Ali, who is a measurement assistant and has been the crucial connection during our expedition to the Czech concession in Egypt, we are basically friends. Nevertheless, every year, when he asks me when I am going to invite him to the Czech Republic, I simply have to refuse for various reasons.”

How do you keep balance on a thin dividing line between two worlds? While on the expedition you are the Great Engineer, you still have a regular private life at home in the Czech Republic. There you do not have any “Abú Kanaka” to brew your tea (a regular job on any Egyptian expedition). There is no “Ministry of Life” that appoints you with your personal “Paperwork Father” to run for you about the offices as is usual in Egypt. You are probably just a father at home. Or a mother. Or a colleague. And following a return from an expedition, a lot of paperwork and a mountain-like heap of duties grabs at your back instead of a bear. Such “switch” between the two situations must be burdensome not only for an expedition team member, but also for their loved ones.

At the same time, as Pavel Kapler has it, "... a well-functioning family or, alternatively, absent family life back home are also necessary for harmonious team coexistence on an expedition." He himself founded his family only when he had gone to expeditions for some time. “My wife knew what she was doing. And the children don't take it too seriously. They simply got used to the fact that daddy packs up for the winter and leaves for Antarctica.”
Alex Bernard met her husband just because of her expeditionary activities in Spitsbergen. “He's a scientist himself, so he has an understanding for me. We have an almost four-year-old son who, fortunately, tolerates my travel quite well, although it is not always easy for the two of us. With children at home one cannot afford and does not want to travel for long time anymore, but even so, the time spent on expeditions or going on conferences adds up. ”

Froth Sand on the Daydream

You too? Beginning to wonder what motivates the people to persist in such a demanding profession even though it is not particularly profitable? Furthermore, not everyone earns a worldwide fame like the director of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, head of the Czech archaeological concession for research in Abúsír and an exceptional scientist Professor Bárta.

And moreover, in the case of Egypt, most of the discoveries are subject to a strict information embargo, so you cannot even talk to anyone about your team's achievements. The found artefacts are handed over to the Egyptian party, and some are even left at the archaeological site. Such was the case of a 4,500-year-old wooden boat, that Professor Bárta's team, following a careful documentation and 3D model creation, simply backfilled with the sand…

Could it be that this profession becomes an addiction for some?
"I can imagine that... “ Alex Bernard says. “I am grateful for every trip. Did I not like the work, I would not stick to it.”
What if the next expedition does not get the funds?
“Then one has to either focus on another area of research or stay at home. Discoveries are waiting everywhere. However, whatever work I do in my life, I need to see meaning in it. ”

Pavel Kapler is a bit more urgent: “Addiction can be developed, indeed. Abroad, I met people who really did not know when to retire. I don't do so much research anymore. I focus more on the logistics and operation of the station. The profession though gives you a sense of uniqueness (who else has the most absurd job in the Czech Republic?) and sometimes it is a satisfaction of doing good job for the development of much needed popularisation of the Czech science. Even though it may sound pompous, it might be the most important thing for me ...”

Who inherits Pharaoh's throne?

All the above are spectacular ideals. But who should they be passed to? In this context, Pavel Kapler shares his personal experience with the generation of so-called millennials, a logical generation of successors. "Their thinking is totally different from that of us "elders", which I fully understand and respect, but I find it very inappropriate for life on the expedition."

What is he talking about? When we ask doctor Barbora Řebíková, who works amongst this generation group at the Faculty of Arts of JEPU, we find that typical millennials are perceived as demanding, confident and unstable. They are described as individualists whose greatest talent is self-presentation and who demand respect they themselves often lack especially when faced with established authorities. They are seen as determined individuals who want to move upwards quickly yet are not willing to work too hard…

Voilà, thus the complete opposite of the qualities that all the researchers above refer to as key to the expedition team. The question of the genesis and meaning of the characteristics of typical millennials is a complicated topic that could possibly take up another article, so let us just note that in the context of an over tech and extremely specialized environment of “developed” countries a cocktail of typical millennial features could become a part of necessary “survival kit”.

This however does not change the fact that finding, enthusing and gradually educating future successors of expedition researchers within the new generation has not been easy. Moreover, in the case of Vladimír Brůna, it is not only the sharing of practical experience, but also the entire contact network that needs to be handed over since it is of almost existential importance for the expeditions to Egypt.

Most of the candidates, he says, end up within the phase of enthusiasm as they refuse to move further on through the pile of "dirty" work necessarily accompanying each, even the most famous and adventurous expedition. Interestingly enough thanks to geo-informatics and modern documentary technologies Vladimír Brůna works with, clay digging can be avoided as the equipment helps discover and document monuments virtually. Such technology is probably the most promising way of further field research, especially in such politically unstable locations as Egypt.

Why? Well, because.

Sitting against respected Czech researcher Vladimir Brůna who, instead of processing the latest TB data from the last Abusir expedition, devotes his precious time to talking to you, puts you in the risk of feeling somewhat inappropriate. You know, you should ask something terribly important, ideally something that would have a potential of putting humans well ahead. You even have several pages scribbled with a load of serious questions. Instead, however, as luck would have it, tongue-in-cheek ideas spring to mind.

What does it smell like in a freshly exposed tomb?
“Mysteriously, hard to describe. Unsecured walls and the ceiling at 15 meters below the terrain do not give you much space to define the fragrance… ”
Can Egyptologists suffer from claustrophobia?
“They can! And they just have to clench their teeth.”
What does fata morgana look like?
"Magically, especially in the egyptian Western Desert, which we visited twice ..."
Would you like to be buried in the tomb like a pharaoh?
"No, my ashes will get scattered over the egyptian Western Desert."
Have you ever been tempted to bring a secret souvenir from the pyramids?
"Forget it!"
Can you throw lasso?
"Oh, come on!"
Eventually, you cannot hold on and utter the terrible cliché: Why have you been doing this profession for almost 20 years? Vladimír Brůna gets you by laconically answering:
"I have always wanted to work outdoors in the air."
Are you not afraid they will say once that you just played in sand all your life?

You shoot out the cheeky question in a desperate effort to pry out at least one non-diplomatic response of the tanned, desert-beaten man you have long since started calling Indy and who, along with Professor Barta in Egypt and Sudan, has literally mined unique scientific discoveries for us all in the past 20 years. He looks calmly in your eyes, and (quite smartly) with a benevolent smile he simply says, "I am not."