Adalbert Cserni (1842-1916), who is considered Transylvania’s first archaeologist, is very much associated with modern archaeology in Alba Iulia. His family was Czech, and he arrived in Alba Iulia as teacher after completing his university education in the natural sciences and earning a doctorate in Cluj at the age of 40. He became involved in archaeology in the second half of his life. It is not unreasonable to suppose that his adoptive city’s past seemed enticing, with the scattered ruins of the two Roman cities to attract his attention. With the sensibility of a naturalist trained to observe the life of plants, he confessed later to his friend, scientist Alexandru Borza (1887-1971), what it was that drew him to archaeology: “I saw that plants stay the same and animals continue to thrive around Alba Iulia, because Mother Nature takes care of their perpetuation. Conversely, Apulum’s ancient artefacts disappear irrevocably and forever as soon as they come to light: their salvation is an imperious and urgent scientific duty. This is why I became an archaeologist.” He was to serve this professional duty with great dedication to the end of his life.
The establishment of the Society for History, Archaeology and Natural Sciences of Alba County in 1887 played an important role in Cserni’s decision to become an archaeologist, as he was entrusted with the construction of Alba Iulia’s first museum. Over the three decades he dedicated to archaeology, he carried out the first systematic excavations of ancient Apulum, discovering remains that have proven to be of great importance to the study Roman history. The value of this work was reflected not only in his publications, but also in the organization of the museum. The museum was located in a building in the Maieri neighbourhood. The interior of the building was arranged in Roman style, with walls painted in Pompeian red and replete with all sorts of Roman artefacts and sculptures. Cserni often spent his free afternoons here. He collaborated closely with Theodor Mommsen. He started out as an amateur historian but became a dedicated scholar of the classical history of the Dacian capital of Apulum.
Whilst carrying out excavations in the gardens of Alba Iulia garrison in the mid-1890s, Cserni observed a child watching his activity keenly. He allowed the child onto the site and began inviting him to the small museum to help with the work. That child was Alexandru Borza, who would grow up to become a natural scientist and long-term friend and collaborator of Cserni. As Borza amusingly recollected much later, “As I was a little child, he used me to measure the height of the Roman walls” – proof of which can be found in one of Cserni’s photos.
Born in Alba Iulia, Alexandru Borza was an accomplished naturalist and polymath who would go on to become Romania’s first geobotanist; founder of Cluj Botanic Garden, Retezat National Park and the Romanian Academy of Sciences; and a member of scientific societies in France, Switzerland, Finland and Germany. He was educated in theology, and was a Greek Catholic priest and honorary archpriest of Cluj.
The connections between Alexandru Borza and Adalbert Cserni were multiple and long lasting. They had common passions in the natural sciences and archaeology, the latter being born “among the ruins of the public baths, temples and streets of Apulum.” These intriguing surroundings nourished the young Borza’s passion for history and archaeology – a passion that would filter through into the articles and brochures he published as an adult, especially those dealing with Roman times. Borza’s indirect influence on the development of archaeology in Alba Iulia was significant. In a conference held in Cluj at the Congress of Numismatics and Archaeology in 1936, he warned delegates about the long absence of any archaeologists in Alba Iulia following Cserni’s death. Consequently, Constantin Daicoviciu charged Ion Berciu with the reorganization of Alba Iulia’s museum.
Cserni and Borza played a vital role in supporting Alba Iulia’s first archaeological institution. With their backgrounds in the natural sciences, they collected and studied the archaeological history of the city as carefully as a naturalist pressing a rare flower between the pages of a herbarium, demonstrating the utmost commitment to discovering and preserving the area’s unique heritage for future generations. (C.I.P.)