In memoriam – Dirk Huyge (1957 – 2018)

Curator Prehistoric and Early Dynastic Egypt


Dirk Huyge was born on April 18th, 1957 in Bornem (Belgium). From 1969 to 1975 he studied Latin-mathematics at the Heilige Maagd College in Dendermonde. Already during his time in high school, he developed a keen interest in the past, particularly the prehistory of Belgium, and it was no surprise that he enrolled to study Archaeology and Art History at Leuven University. Following his interest in local prehistory, he studied under professor Pierre Vermeersch, who besides doing archaeological research in Belgium was also excavating in Egypt. He gave Dirk, while still being a student, the opportunity to participate in the excavations at Elkab during the Winter of 1978-1979. It would be the start of a lifelong interest for the early history of Egypt. Dirk would return to Egypt many times, particularly to Elkab.

Already during his years as a student, Dirk published several short contributions on archaeological discoveries in which he was involved. In 1980, he graduated with a thesis on the Late Mesolithic at Weelde-Paardsdrank, almost immediately followed by a temporary position as a research collaborator at the Laboratory for Prehistory under the supervision of Pierre Vermeersch. Dirk became responsible for the inventory and registration of an important collection of prehistoric artefacts, deriving from different places and periods which was kept there. Situated in the Redingenstraat at walking distance of the city centre of Leuven, it was a very dynamic environment where several close friendships developed. Among others, Jean-Paul Caspar, Marc De Bie, Gilbert Gijselings, Rob Lauwers, Etienne Paulissen, Veerle Rots and Philip Van Peer were active at the Laboratory during all these years.

During four field seasons between 1981 and 1986, Dirk documented the rock art in the immediate vicinity of Elkab. His main focus was drawn to the rock art sites situated in the Wadi Hellal at only a few kilometres of the site of Elkab. With this, he had found his principal and most important area of interest. In those days, there was hardly any interest in Egyptian rock art, as most attention went to the more impressive looking temples and tombs. Egypt was known for its pyramids, not for at first sight unattractive rock drawings. Dirk was the first to go beyond compiling simple catalogues and his main concern was to establish a chronological framework for these rock drawings. He integrated rock art into Predynastic and Early Dynastic iconography and opened new lines of research. The documentation he collected in those days remained important for the future development of his scientific career.

With the exception of a few short interruptions, Dirk directed several excavations at different prehistoric sites in Zonhoven (Belgium) from 1984 to 1988, which resulted in several publications, both scientific and for a broader audience. In the same period, he also participated on a yearly basis in the excavations at Elkab or those of the Belgian Middle Egypt Prehistoric Project (BMEPP), the latter being directed by Pierre Vermeersch. Those at Elkab were supervised between 1965 and 1988 by Herman De Meulenaere and from 1988 to 2008 by Luc Limme. Following the accidental discovery of a decorated Old Kingdom tomb in the rock necropolis of Elkab, the tomb and its immediate surroundings were intensively investigated. In collaboration with Ingrid De Strooper, Stan Hendrickx, Eugène Warmenbol and others, 20 more rock tombs were discovered between 1986 and 1988, among which an intact tomb with a double burial chamber from the 6th dynasty.

Yet, developing a career in archaeology was not obvious. Funding for the excavations at Elkab became problematic as a result of the reorganisation and the federalisation of Belgian archaeological research abroad. Because of this, Dirk Huyge was no longer active in Egypt between 1989 and 1994. During almost two years, in 1990 and 1991, he was a journalist and editor for Campuskrant and Academische Tijdingen, two journals of Leuven University. Fortunately, from November 1991 to September 1993, research fellowships from Leuven University and the National Fund for Scientific Research (NFSR) allowed him to prepare a PhD on the rock art of Elkab. Supervisors were professors Pierre Vermeersch and the late Jan Quaegebeur. He obtained his PhD in 1995 with greatest distinction.

In 1995, excavations in the rock necropolis of Elkab finally continued. Dirk participated in the five campaigns that were organised between 1995 and 2000, with the exception of one study season. The most important result of this renewed activity was the discovery of a mud brick mastaba tomb in a completely unexpected location, high on top of the rock necropolis. Even more remarkable was its date in the 3rd Dynasty, making it the oldest tomb in this burial ground. During the final two seasons, between 1999 and 2001, another cemetery was discovered at the foot of the rock necropolis which consisted primarily of tombs of children with only a limited number of grave goods, but the way the tombs were organised and concentrated was noteworthy.

In 1993, Leuven University initiated the international advanced master’s programme Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology for which Dirk Huyge held a position as secretary from 1993 to 1995, but also as lecturer of a course entitled “Rock art of the Eastern Mediterranean” between 1997/1998 and 2006/2007. From 1996 until April 1998, he was appointed post-doctoral research fellow for the NFSR and the Research Fund of Leuven University. In this capacity he participated in 1996 in the excavations at Shenhur under the direction of Claude Traunecker. Dirk was responsible for the excavation of early Islamic settlement remains which can be considered as a chronological exception in his work in Egypt.

On May 1st, 1998, he was finally appointed as curator at the Egyptian Department of the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH) in Brussels and became in charge of the Prehistoric and Early Dynastic part of the collections. He was also named director of the archaeological excavations in Egypt.

His participation in excavations on Easter Island constitute an exceptional chapter in the career of Dirk Huyge. This at first sight strange leap from Egypt to Easter Island had its origins in a new research project that focused on the archaeological context of one the RMAH masterpieces, the moai Pou Hakananonga. This monumental statue was brought to Belgium in 1935 without paying much attention to its original setting. However, its location was very well known and together with Nicolas Cauwe, Dirk acted as co-director during four consecutive seasons of fieldwork which not only led to a better understanding of the statue itself and demonstrated that the Brussels moai is one of the oldest monumental statues of the island, the results of the excavations also questioned the “ecocide” hypothesis that has long been accepted as an explanation for the end of the tradition of moai fabrication.

Throughout the excavation campaigns at Elkab in the 1980s and 1990s, Dirk used his spare time exploring the wider area for rock art sites. With or without the company of other members of the excavation team, he tried to survey in a systematic manner the region between Elkab and Gebel Silisila on the west bank, and between Elkab and Kom Ombo on the opposite shore of the Nile. Dirk was able to locate and identify a number of interesting sites, most of which were already known by the work of Winkler and other pioneers. However, thorough documentation was not possible given the available time. In 1997, he relocated several rock art sites at el-Hosh, already known since the 1930s and the work of Hans Winkler, but he was unable to interpret or date them. In 1998, the wider area of el-Hosh was systematically investigated and a large number of drawings were documented. Dirk demonstrated convincingly that the earliest rock drawings date back to the Epipalaeolithic and were about 7.000 years old. The most conspicuous drawings consist of curious mushroom-shaped designs. Their identification as fish traps fits well with the subsistence strategy and Epipalaeolithic way of life and particularly with the favourable conditions of the local landscape which was most suitable for this type of fishing. These rock drawings were published and announced as Egypt’s oldest art which caused some controversy among rock art specialists who were not all convinced of their high antiquity. Dirk countered their criticism with solid arguments and meanwhile his conclusions are accepted as beyond doubt. The excavations of a presumed Predynastic cemetery at el-Hosh proved to be less successful in spite of the discovery of an exceptional so-called Decorated vase in the only intact tomb that was found.

In 2004, further research in the wider vicinity of el-Hosh resulted in the discovery of a number of rock drawings of very naturalistically depicted animals, mainly bovids, at only a few kilometres from the previous sites. Their strong patination and their remarkable difference with Predynastic representations hinted at a very high age. These images reminded Dirk of similar petroglyphs that were found by a Canadian team in 1962-1963 during rescue excavations in the Kom Ombo plain. The Canadian discovery had never aroused much interest and was not estimated at its right value. Dirk relocated these drawings in 2005 in the vicinity of the small village of Qurta. With the financial support of Yale University, their documentation and interpretation was successfully initiated in 2007. These images proved to be even older than the el-Hosh fish traps. They date back to the Late Palaeolithic and are at least 15.000 years old. As such, Dirk managed to find the earliest art of Egypt twice. The discovery raised a lot of interest, both from the international press and from rock art specialists alike. To the surprise of everyone, clear links could be established with Late Palaeolithic art from the European continent, such as the famous cave of Lascaux. Comparisons with the Côa Valley in Portugal, where Late Palaeolithic rock art was found in open air as well, also seem extremely relevant. The long distance between Egypt and the Franco-Cantabrian region obviously raises important questions. Until his untimely death, Dirk investigated these issues which also led him to the potential identification of more Late Palaeolithic rock art in North Africa. Unfortunately, the current political situation in the region and the lack of funding made it impossible to verify this in the field. However, there is hardly any doubt that the discovery of Late Palaeolithic art in Egypt opens up new horizons that go beyond the European continent.

On the recommendation of Morgan De Dapper, Dirk Huyge was elected associate member of the Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences (KAOW-ARSOM) in 2006, followed by his appointment as fellow member in 2009. Dirk devoted himself strongly to the Academy and was elected director of the Section of Human Sciences and president of the Academy in 2013. For the academy he organised, together with Francis Van Noten, two very successful conferences on the rock art of North Africa in 2010 and 2015,. Their respective proceedings were published in 2012 and 2018.

In 2009 and after an interruption of several years, Dirk took over the responsibility for the excavations at Elkab. Under his initiative and impetus, research focussed from then onwards on the settlement area of the site. Permanent collaborators were Wouter Claes, Morgan De Dapper, Beth Hart, Stan Hendrickx, Karin Kindermann and Salima Ikram. Assuming that the Elkab settlement was almost completely destroyed in the first half of the 19th century by the sebakhin who used the organic material from the archaeological layers as fertilizer, the importance of these habitation remains were severely underestimated in the past. However, the lowest occupation layers remained intact and excavations made clear that they date back to the early Old Kingdom. Test trenches also proved that the beginning of the habitation goes back as far as the Badari period (c. 4400-3900 BC), making Elkab one of the rare sites where such a long and uninterrupted habitation can be documented. Although the recent excavations already provided important results, the full potential of the site can only be properly investigated by large-scale archaeological research. It is to be hoped that this can be realised in the near future.

After 1988, Dirk no longer participated in the research of the BMEPP and with the exception of a single campaign, under the direction of Salima Ikram, to study the rock art of the Kharga Oasis, Dirk worked solely from the Somers Clarke excavation house at Elkab, not only for his work on the latter site but also for his rock art research at el-Hosh and Qurta. This did not prevent him to work in close collaboration with several other international specialists. Especially the work of Adel Kelany and Per Storemyr on the rock art of the Aswan region, where Late and Epipalaeolithic rock art was found as well, received his close attention. At regular moments, Dirk visited these sites to study the drawings and give his advice. His collaboration with John Darnell, Egyptologist at Yale University, also deserves a special mention. Darnell not only supported Belgian research financially, he also successfully conducts research on the Elkab rock art himself.

Dirk Huyge was a meticulous and particularly well organised researcher who has written no less than about 200 publications. He also paid a lot of attention at the dissemination of his research to the general public. He wrote several vulgarizing contributions for popular scientific magazines such as National Geographic but occasionally also on other cultural subjects for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. With the same purpose, he also delivered many lectures for the general public, both in the RMAH as elsewhere.

Besides his scientific work, Dirk made substantial efforts for the conservation of the historic Somers Clarke excavation house. It was built in 1906 and is the oldest excavation house in Egypt which is currently still in use. Built primarily in mud brick, the upkeep is far from obvious, especially after the collapse of the monumental entrance porch in 2009. The restoration is still not finished, but thanks to Dirk’s continuous search for financial means, he was able to make sure that the house was stabilized again.

The importance of Dirk Huyge for rock art research in Egypt can hardly be underestimated. Following his systematic approach, his discoveries opened up completely new chronological avenues and it is to be hoped that many will follow in his footsteps.

Dirk Huyge was 61 years old and will be forever remembered by his partner and two children.


Wouter Claes & Stan Hendrickx