Travelling is like reading a book from the inside out. Every new place reveals itself like the unread side of a turning page. Passages of a journey string themselves together; one word; one foot after another. And with every chapter; every place; a newer version of yourself is created.
‘It’s, like a quest’, Said Dragan, one of the Serbian archaeologists at the site of Gradište Iđoš, where I would be excavating for the next month.
We were standing at the foot of a complex of Serbian apartments outside the town of Kikinda, waiting for the the rest of the team to join us for a few beers in the local bar.
“The people, the characters and their stories,” he said, “they are golden”.
I had been in Idjos for three weeks; as an extra shovel hand, helping with site photography and to give a lecture on Experimental Archaeology to the UCD and Cardiff University students who were there as part of a fieldschool. A break from making our Viking house at my University, making longbows and sailing Viking Longships in Northern Norway, meant a chance to complete some fieldwork and to travel. After Serbia I would be heading to Crete to visit some key Archaeological sites on the Island. After which, I would then continue on to Athens to begin research on an exciting new Experimental Archaeology Project I had started.
The archaeological site of Idjos in the south-central Great Hungarian Plain in Serbia was occupied periodically for over 5000 years, from Europe’s first Neolithic farmers to the builders of an elaborate Late Bronze Age fortification. Excavations were first conducted in 1913 and then again in the 1950’s and 70’s. Today, the project is led by an international team with a diverse of expertise. This year, UCD and Cardiff students as part of the Borderlands: ARISE field-school are investigating two features that appeared on geophysical surveys: a possible Neolithic house and the entrance to a Bronze-Age Rampart.
The bus hummed and rattled along the straight but pockmarked road to Idjos. The tips of green leafed huskless corn-plants flew in a blur passed the windows. The sun seemed to have only risen, but the orange hue that made the inside of the bus glow, reminded its passengers to apply their sunscreen and wet their bandanas before stepping into the heat.
Every second seat held a body and in the seat next to it, a backpack with personal gear: a lunch, 2 litres of water, a hat and trowel. My gear comprised of the same with the addition of a tripod and camera bag. In it, a Canon DSLR with a 24-70mm zoom and a 10 -20mm wide angle lens, for both portrait, working and landscape shots. While the Sony-NEX 6 with a 30mm macro lens was used for detailed shots and artefact photography.
“It wasn’t long before this patch of rural countryside, coated thickly in green vegetation, began to transform into an archaeological site…”
“The dew from the night before weighs down your boots… while everything above the foliage simply swelters”.
AS THE DAYS CONTINUE; feet pushing spades into the earth; shovel loads flying; sherds appearing; bagging; tagging; lunch in the shade; crickets screaming; mosquito swatting; dust brushing; photo taking; site needs cleaning; water, sipping; I take my boot off and watch the dirt fall out as I turn it over onto a spoil heap that grows higher by the barrow and bucket load.
It wasn’t long before this patch of rural countryside, coated thickly in green vegetation, began to transform into an archaeological site. Straight edged trenches, half a meter down, spoil heaps gathering on all sides and naturally trampled pathways through cornfield greenery from trench to trench revealed our network of activities. And then, the archaeology emerges.
Typically and often described as a cake, as soil is stripped away, different stratigraphic layers of time can be distinguished by differences in colour. But this is made difficult by animals and humans who time and again mess it all up by digging holes, trenches, pits and ditches; emptying and refilling them. Layers intersect; they mix and blend. Some can only be seen in the right light, while others can only be felt with a trowel. But as these features are removed they begin to make sense.
For example, after removing the topsoil, you might hypothetically find that the ancient layer is made of tightly packed yellow soil. But running straight through the yellow, is a speckled strip of greyish black. You know that the yellow stuff is natural, because it’s compact and undisturbed by an ancient pick or shovel. You are now standing on the ground that Ancient people walked on. But the greyish speckled stuff running through it? That’s not natural, it’s grey and speckled because it has been disturbed sometime in the past and refilled. The speckles are bits of the natural stuff mixed in with other debris, and sometimes, artefacts.
You carefully remove the black, leaving the yellow alone and paying close attention for any tiny pieces of archaeology you might find. You notice that the black strip is getting thinner. You follow the yellow sides of the ditch you have started to dig out, and realise while removing black, that the yellow sides are coming together, like a ‘V’ in section. It must be a ditch. You follow it until all the black is removed and only natural remains. What you are now standing in, is a ditch that was made by someone in the past. From when, depends on its context, established by the dates the finds (a piece of charcoal, a known type of pottery) discovered while digging it out.
“… taking it directly from the ground seemed to push that modern experience deeper into the past; to see the real thing and pass my own hand over the imprint of an ancient one was simply thrilling”.
Miroslav, one of the head excavators was working away on the edge of the rampart. With a keen eye, he spotted the smallest speck of green and removed the dirt around it slowly until he saw what it was. Knowing too well my obsession, he called out. I heard my name and grabbed the camera to capture the commotion. As I knelt down to take the photo, so low to the ground my ear was touching the dirt, I saw this fragile green triangle through the viewfinder. It had a double edge that lead to a narrow point; slightly barbed and although no trace of a wooden shaft remained, a shallow, conical recess in the base, showed that a longer socket for an arrow shaft had long since disintegrated.
As cool as it was to remove from the earth, bag and tag a find so close to my heart, it wasn’t the find that truly grabbed my attention. A material that is often found in abundance all over the site, but regrettably taken for granted, are pieces of daub. Daub is a mixture of mud and clay that was typically used to plaster the wicker or ‘wattle’ walls of a house. Preserved on the piece I found, were the perfectly preserved, negative impressions of woven wattle sticks.
As we were photographing a collection of pits that had been packed full of the stuff, Barry Molloy, UCD colleague and director at Idjos, handed me a small piece of it.
“What do you make of that?” he asked.
For the past year I have been building a Viking house at UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture. In the weeks before coming to Serbia, my last days in UCD were spent cutting, bending and weaving thin hazel rods just like these over each other to make the walls of an Early Medieval Longhouse. Vikings didn’t use daub on their houses in Dublin, so the research team at UCD, relied on detailed drawings and photographs of preserved wattle sections that were made in the 1980’s.
Since staring the Viking house, wattle is something I feel very familiar with. But taking a lump of archaeology directly from the ground, within which is trapped an example of the real thing, seemed to push my experience of this organic technology deeper into the past; to really see it and pass my own hand over the imprint of an ancient one was simply thrilling.
The Borderlands: ARISE field-school gathers an international collection of students and gears their programme towards giving students a variety of archaeological skills including excavation practices, post-excavation methods, documentation and scientific analysis of finds, environmental and faunal analysis, and applications of digital technology from spatial analysis to object visualisation.
“Students learn a variety of archaeological skills including excavation practices, post-excavation methods, documentation and scientific analysis of finds, environmental and faunal analysis, and applications of digital technology from spatial analysis to object visualisation.”
After a day in the field, the students are given a few hours to freshen up, after which everyone heads to the Kikinda National Museum. Although the building was completed in 1867, the National Museum and Archive were founded in 1947 where today, it houses various finds from archeological, historical and ethnological collections. Its rustic white walls, huge wooden doors, tall ceilings and open courtyard provide the field fieldschool students with the perfect environment to attend lectures, discuss ideas and spend their evenings engaging in post excavation work like cleaning, drawing and cataloging objects.
Being so close to its border, we decided to venture out to Timişoara in Romania. We arrived on a quiet Sunday. Not much to do but plenty to see. One of the Cardiff students made contact with a local Archaeologist who was carrying out a rescue excavation in the city centre. We were guided by him into the site where, beyond a plywood door that separated the main street from the site, was gaping hole into the past.
Imagine a clump of apartment buildings, tightly surrounding a single building at the centre. Now scoop out that central building to reveal all the floors of the previously attached buildings in 360 degrees. This is what we walked into.
Down the group went, following the site director and his translator. Looking up, we felt dwarfed by the crumbling architecture that loomed over the site. Standing on the bottom level, you could see modern rooms with wooden and plastic doorways packed on top of stone-made medieval ones. The director told us the history of the site, the nature of rescue archaeology in Romania and the origin of the area that was once no more than a swamp.
I stepped out for some air. As I waited for the group to finish up, one of the workers came out from inside a room by the plywood door. From his complexion I guessed he was local. He must have known where we had made the journey from, because when he approached me, he said something in Serbian. I told him I didn’t understand.
‘English…’ He said, disappointed and unable to speak it.
He thought for a moment and then asked,
‘Sprichst du Deutsch?’ (do you speak German).
‘Ja, Ein Bisschen’ (A little), I replied. Delighted, he tapped me on the back, shook my hand and smiled from behind a dark but greying moustache; a few gold teeth glinting in the sunlight. And there we were, two none German travellers to Romania, fully conversing with each other ‘auf Deutsch’. He talked about life, work and how he ended up in Romania. Although not from Germany, he told me how his grandmother had thought him German as a child. He noticed the camera around my shoulder and asked if I would take his portrait. We moved to where the light was better and I took a few shots. But with no computer and thus, no email address to give me, I had no idea how he would ever see it again. All he gave me was a cell phone number, that I might use to find out where he is some day in the future, and send him a printed copy.
Standing outside the row of Serbian apartments, the group finally came out and we began making our way to their favourite bar in the main-street of Kikinda.
As we walked, Dragan or ‘Gani’, as he was called, continued. He spoke of the earlier days of excavation, when he was studying and learning to dig. He said that many of the towns he would dig near didn’t even have bars. On the way home from work they would stop by the local market or newsagent, where they could buy a bottle or can of beer.
“This was the local bar”, he said.
There they would sit outside in the sun, drinking beer and sharing stories with the locals.
“This is where the real people were”, Dragan said.
It’s a different dynamic for students today who can travel internationally to wonderful field schools such as Idjos. But in many ways, the things we take away from them are very similar. In the last week I started taking footage for a small documentary film about the dig and interviewed all of the Cardiff and UCD students who participated. When each of them were asked about ‘their favourite part’ or, ‘the things they would miss the most’, they each gave me the same answer: ‘the friendships’; ‘the people’.
‘As I write this, I am sitting in the cafe of a boat/hotel on the edge of the Danube River in Belgrade. I will be spending two nights here before heading to Crete, where I will be starting the groundwork for my next exciting project, which will be revealed in my next article.