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Prof. Martin Bommas: Deciphering forgotten Papyri

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

In his left hand, he held an exercise booklet, one that he had purchased in the local store, designed for school students. In his right hand was a pencil and scattered in his pockets were crayons. Not fancy tools by any means, but useful for documenting noble discoveries. He wore an apple-green shirt, its sleeves short, since the temperature had been increasing. Khaki pants draped over his legs and finished resting upon his leather workman boots.

"If it can withstand the Australian outback conditions, then it is going to survive in Egypt", said Professor Martin Bommas, his leather wide-brimmed hat a testament to this.

One could argue that he was standing in the sands of history, which wouldn’t be an exaggeration, since Prof. Bommas had established himself on the edge of the river Nile, in Aswan, Egypt, at the Tomb of the Nobles.

Prof. Martin Bommas, a German archaeologist and Egyptologist, had previously stood in the same spot in Egypt, 30 years ago before graduating from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. The then 23-year-old version of himself had said, "One day I will be the director of this research project", the current version could confirm that this was the going to be the case.

Yet, his first archaeological dig occurred because of a different passion; fixing cars and motorcycles.

"I always had an interest in cars. During my PhD, I imported and exported vintage cars. I was good at understanding how engines worked", said Prof. Bommas.

One day he was heading home and he witnessed a moustached man stranded on the side of the road, standing next to a stationary motorcycle. "Do you need assistance?", asked Martin Bommas. "Yes, please", replied the young motorcyclist, who Martin realised was a friend and colleague of his. After fixing the motorcycle, the young motorcyclist said, "Since you are good at repairing cars, and you have been studying archaeology, there is a Mercedes Benz in Pakistan that may need repairing, do you want to join the archaeological dig?"

Since the site required a vehicle, an immobile 1988 G-model donated by Mercedes Benz, sitting 4000m above sea level was going to dampen any work. Martin joined the dig, and thankfully the car didn’t require fixing, as parts were scarce in the middle of the desert.

However, there was another Mercedes-Benz in the middle of Pakistan. Martin Bommas had heard at the time that a very wealthy man wanted to showcase his sheer amount of wealth, so he purchased an expensive ‘Mercedes-Benz S-Class’. He had it flown in via helicopter, since the only way to reach his property was by walking or donkey. It sits at his residence "without a road to drive on", and even if he did have a road, he doesn’t have his driver’s licence.


By 1989, a letter arrived in the mail, stamped by the Academy of Science that requested Martin Bommas go to Egypt. After four days at home in Germany, so that he could get his laundry sorted, Martin Bommas was on a flight to Egypt where he would spend the next nine months exploring and excavating Elephantine. "Nine months, if that doesn’t get you hooked? Nothing will", he continued, "I was hooked."

On Fridays, work would be paused, so the young 23-year-old Martin Bommas chose to hike around Egypt, he ended in Aswan, two kilometres up and across the river. Whilst he had only trained in Pakistan, previously, he looked at the sand-covered slopes in Aswan and said, "This NEEDS to be excavated. I really hope that I can go here."

Nineteen years later, after completing his work at Elephantine, the now Prof. Bommas decided to look into that site at Aswan, the same site he had dreamed of excavating at 23. After applying, he received an email which stated that the site, Qubbet el-Hawa, was now his jurisdiction. “I got it!”, his dreams came true.

But his goal for excavating was different to the usual approach.

Prof. Bommas wasn't interest in tombs, he was interested in social history, “The ordinary man, the struggle of normal people. Not tombs, rather infrastructure, where do people go, and why?”

Within four years at the site, Prof. Bommas and his team began to uncover and understand the people that lived within the necropolis. After having walked through the wet mud of multiple causeways, 4500 years ago, people had left stamped footprints moulded into the landscape. Through a residue analysis of vessels, the foods that they ate were revealed. Prof. Bommas had successfully started the process of understanding the people that lived and breathed at the Tomb of the Nobles and Aswan. He showed that people are fundamentally still the same – whilst the residents of Aswan didn’t understand the multitude of gods, they still knew they had to bury and honour their ancestors.


Prof. Bommas’ passion for deciphering languages began thanks to his father, Walter. Growing up in a small German "spa town" called Bad Rappenau, seven-year-old Martin still remembers being taken home by the local police because he rang his bicycle bell. "I still don't think I did anything wrong. Maybe I was a little over excited with the bell ringing", he laughed. His father was known as the “Mediterranean” but there was no ounce of Mediterranean blood in him. He was an atypical German; he had dark skin, wore dark glasses, and was quite short in stature; but he was very good at Latin and understanding ancient cultures. Walter would take young Martin on Sunday walks to explore Roman forts and archaeological sites along the Limes, showing him how to understand and decipher texts that haven’t been understood for thousands of years. If only his father could see what he has achieved now; from "bumping into Jan Assmann" (a well-published German Egyptologist) at University, which revitalised his passion for history, to directing a research project in Aswan, and now curating a history museum in Sydney.

When Prof. Martin Bommas isn't exploring the sand covered hills of Egypt, he can be found at the Macquarie University History Museum, where he shares his passion for knowledge with both students and the public. The collection combines items from Macquarie University's 'Australian History Museum' and the 'Museum of Ancient Cultures', in one unique custom-built space. Walking through dedicated cabinets showing periods of time, you could witness "a piggy bank from 1905 next to a stela from the Old Kingdom". The museum also houses the largest ancient glass and papyrus manuscript collections in the Southern Hemisphere. Tablets allow visitors to view 3D scans of priceless treasures, or find information about specific pieces in the collection.

Traditionally, museums and universities plan their programs to cater to technical learners, but Prof. Bommas believes that museums should be designed for every type of learner, whether technical, hands-on, enquiry-based or visual.

Prof. Bommas says that, "Every person’s brain works in a different way. There’s no way that we can suggest that everyone learns the same way. This museum cannot cater to just one type of learning. There is stuff that hopefully makes people happy that don’t even speak English, or professors that know more than I do."


With his visa prepared, his leather wide-brimmed hat and workman boots for battling the rugged conditions of the Egyptian landscape, and his book and crayons present, Prof. Bommas is waiting for the opportunity to travel back to Aswan.

Whilst COVID-19 is still present and international travel halted, Prof. Bommas can be found in his museum's papyri collection, doing what his father taught him on Sundays during historic walks to Roman forts. With his notepad and pen, he uncovers the meaning of texts from periods thousands of years before Christ; reading them for the first time since the scribes pressed ink to papyrus, or carved hieroglyphs in stone.

Professor Martin Bommas says with a smile, “It is a thrill being able to learn something that has been forgotten for thousands of years”.

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