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Obituary of Werner Kaiser

His pioneering work brought new aspects of ancient Egyptian art and archaeology to light.

Werner Kaiser, who died on 11 August, aged 85, was one of the most important Egyptian archaeologists and art historians, making fundamental contributions both in publications and in his dedicated work on developing institutions and research projects. He brought a distinctive and extremely valuable perspective to a largely philological field.

Kaiser was conscripted into the German army near the end of the Second World War, subsequently entering the University of Munich, where he studied under Alexander Scharff and then Hans-Wolfgang Müller, respectively the most prominent archaeologist and art historian of Egypt in Germany at the time. His unpublished 1954 doctorate on the chronology of the prehistoric Egyptian Naqada culture (fourth millennium BC) was of ground-breaking importance. While few have seen its full form, a short article of 1957, in which he reported his key findings and methods, transformed understanding of the period. More than 50 years later, almost all scholars use his terminology “Naqada I–III” to describe and analyse the major phases of Egyptian prehistory.

After some years in the University of Heidelberg, Kaiser was appointed the director of the Egyptian Museum in West Berlin in 1962. At that time, the collections, which had been split between East and West after the war, were still packed away. Kaiser led the team that installed them in a 19th-century dependency of the Schloss Charlottenburg. He also made major acquisitions, notably the lost stela of the sculptor Bak and a very fine head from the second to first century BC. The display, opened in 1966, included world-famous items such as the bust of Nefertiti. Its excellent quality, both aesthetically and in its highly informative presentation, was applauded alike by public and colleagues; much of it remained in place for more than 30 years. An outstanding catalogue he edited in 1967 remains the fullest illustrated publication of the collection.

In 1967, Kaiser moved to become the director of the Cairo branch of the German Archaeological Institute, a position he held with great distinction until his retirement in 1989. There, he introduced major changes and developed all aspects of the institution, supporting projects on periods of Egypt from prehistory through ancient, Graeco-Roman, and Christian, to Islamic. He laid great emphasis on site conservation and management, presiding over the restoration of some major Medieval buildings in Cairo.

Major digs

Two projects stand out among the many Kaiser initiated and led. Excavation on Elephantine Island, next to Aswan, became one of the longest-running investigations of an urban site in Egypt and continues to this day. Phases from late prehistory to Medieval times have been recovered, and nearly 20 volumes published, in addition to numerous reports in journals. In 1998, Kaiser published—anonymously—a short and very accessible volume with an excellent guide to the restored site.

In the late 1970s, Kaiser returned to the earliest royal tombs of Egypt at Abydos, working with Günter Dreyer. This fieldwork was remarkable in the near-complete confirmation it produced for the reconstruction Kaiser had offered of early Egyptian history, from his restudy of old, often inadequate excavation reports. Such a testing of hypotheses is seldom possible in archaeology.

The Abydos excavations moved into hither­to untouched areas and led to the discovery of a much older royal tomb that contained the earliest known Egyptian writing. This sensational find could never have been envisaged without Kaiser’s pioneering research.

Sculpture and scholarship

Kaiser contributed to and advanced several other areas, such as the interpretation of archaising architecture and reliefs. His most recent publications returned to an old interest, the ordering and dating of indigenous Egyptian statuary of the third to first century BC. Here too, his meticulous approach and extraordinary command of the material produced major results that are important also for understanding the interplay of Egyptian and Hellenistic culture under the Ptolemies.

Kaiser never published a large-scale monograph, working through often lengthy articles, many of them written in collaboration. His creative ideas became better known in the German-speaking world than outside, no doubt in part because of his writing style. When, as a beginning undergraduate moving over from advanced German, I tackled his revolutionary 1964 article on the fourth-millennium unification that made Egypt into the world’s first nation state, I was seriously concerned that I might have lost my command of the language. After ten years, during which I often noted how people failed to take account of Kaiser’s ideas, I reread the article, but then I wondered what my problem had been. Many colleagues were not as fortunate as I.

Recognition came quickly to Kaiser, whose career moved steeply upward. Quite early in his career he was elected to more than one learned academy. He was, however, a ­modest and unassuming person who focused on his goals in his field, not on self-promotion. It is characteristic of the man that his Berlin catalogue and Elephantine guide were ­published anonymously.

John Baines

• The writer is the professor of Egyptology and a fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford University. He is the author of Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt, 2007, and his book, High Culture and Experience in Ancient Egypt, is due to be published next month by Equinox Publishing

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 250 October 2013