Oliver Pateman - Classical & Medieval Archaeology in Romania
Arriving in Romania
The plane landed at Bucharest Otopeni airport at exactly 11 o’clock. I’d snatched about an hour and a half’s sleep since leaving home at 4 that morning. Bleary-eyed, suitcase trailing behind me, I was waved through passport control and onwards to an adventure that would last for two glorious months. I was off to participate on an archaeological project in Timisoara, in the western part of Romania.
The city is saturated with fascinating history. Timisoara was established by the Dacians and lived in by the Romans. Since then, it has been an important strategic city for control of the region, especially for the Ottoman Turks. They established it as the political and economic provincial capital in the second half of the 16th century, and it was this which we hoped to uncover over the course of our archaeological investigation.
The city is known to most Romanians as the place where the 1989 revolution against the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu began. Today it simply buzzes with young people with an up-to-the-minute European lifestyle, a world away from the communist oppression of 25 years ago. The city is beautiful and many of the public buildings, parks and squares were laid out by the Austro-Hungarians, who controlled the city from the 18th century to the time of the First World War.
My Classical & Medieval Archaeology Project
I spent most of my time in Romania in one of these squares – Piata Unirii, to be precise – where our excavation was taking place, mostly around two metres below street level. Four trenches were to be dug on each of the four sides of the square, and over the course of the month, I saw the depth of our trench increase from around 1 metre to 5 metres, at its deepest point. We gradually uncovered a wooden defensive wall; the cellars of dwelling houses and enormous rubbish pits.
I arrived on the site at the same time as Ray, a retired judge from Minnesota, who was my partner. We were given trowels and instructions to work alongside the Romanian archaeology students, scraping the earth for clues from the past. Neither of us had any archaeological experience at all, but we were well taught by the supervisors on the dig and the students. Our first lesson was to look for changing soil colours to identify archaeological features – ditches, post holes and rubbish pits – rather than become preoccupied with the finds.
Despite this, Ray and I both got very excited about the artefacts – coloured glass, glazed pottery, old door hinges and even the leather soles from shoes made well over 400 years ago. The star find of the eight weeks, in my opinion, was a human skull, which we found grinning in one of the rubbish pits, minus the rest of his body. We called him Gihan.
There were other Projects Abroad volunteers in the same city, digging in another square. Over my two months, I met Danielle from South Africa, Nicole from Canada, Catja from Denmark and Jackie from California. They were digging at a Turkish public bathhouse, where I sometimes helped them dig and clean up features such as tiled floors and water heating systems for preservation. It was a very different style of excavation, and certainly towards the end was primarily concerned with tidying up rather than discovering new archaeological material.
There were all sorts of challenges on this site – tree roots, modern electrical cables and a huge sewer pipe which cut the whole complex in half. It was such a shame to see earlier generations’ lack of care for the remains under the ground.
The accommodation in Romania
For the first fortnight, I shared a room with Ray (though after he left I had it to myself) at a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town. Andrea, our volunteer supervisor, arranged our bus tickets and for us to have an evening meal every day. Nicolai was our host. His family was from Vienna and he cooked a mean spaghetti carbonara, as well as lots of delicious Romanian food. The accommodation was very comfortable and just a five minute walk from the grocery store and the bus stop into the centre of town.
Other Projects Abroad volunteers stayed in university accommodation. We would often meet up to sample the beer available in the bars on campus. My favourite was ‘the pirate place’ – a pub decked out like a Spanish galleon with portholes and rigging decorating the walls and where the drinks were all served in gruesome-looking Jolly Roger pint glasses.
On the placement, I didn’t just dig. I was also able to wash and catalogue the finds, and select certain pieces from different contexts for restoration at the museum. One of the curators at the Timisoara regional museum, Mr Fota, was in charge of reconstructing the shards of Ottoman pottery into complete vessels. At the beginning and end of each day, working in the museum without fail, he would offer me, in Romanian, a cup of his extra strong black coffee. Mr Fota was a true artist, piecing together the pottery vessels bit by bit, sticking them together with clay and fastening them with plaster. It was a pleasure to watch him at work.
The weekends and leisure time
Most weekends I tried to get out of the city and go on a day trip somewhere. My favourite was with Danielle to Deva, a city about four hours away by bus. We looked around a fascinating museum with several hoards of beautiful Roman coins and precious metalwork. Ancient altar with stones and bits of classical sculpture practically tumbled down the stairs. There was also a cable car to the town’s citadel, with striking views over the whole surrounding countryside, where Danielle managed to, temporarily, adopt a dog.
However, our favourite part of the whole day was our trip to Hunedoara Castle. It is one of the finest castles in Romania and certainly looks the part with sheer grey stone walls, high battlements and impressive turrets. The Great Hall was decked out with heraldic emblems, and there was even a musician playing the lute. I possibly had the most enormous lunch of my life; at the restaurant in Hunedoara, where I had the ‘menu of the day’. I had a gargantuan pudding – papanasi – fried pastry stuffed with sweet cheese and smothered with cream and fruit. Both of us were almost unable to move, and Danielle even asked for a box to take hers home to eat later!
During Easter, all archaeologists were given a week off, so I was able to explore more. I went to Cluj-Napoca, with a few other volunteers, to a bustling university town in the heart of Transylvania. When we arrived at the apartment where we would spend the next few days, one of us had to use the bathroom. Right on cue, water started gushing from the walls. We were all drenched from head to toe. However, I travelled even further eastward to see the painted monasteries of Bucovina.
I was driven around by Christi the cheerful taxi driver, who took me all over to see the most amazing things. Most of the monasteries I saw were UNESCO world heritage sites, and every inch of them was covered in the most exquisite, richly coloured devotional paintings. Rural Bucovina was very different to Timisoara. It was not uncommon to see horses and carts on the road rather than cars, and wearing sheepskin as opposed to the latest fashions. It was interesting to see this side of Romania too, and served to prove that it is certainly a country of two halves.
The worthwhile experience
I learnt so much from my trip to Romania. I learnt new archaeological techniques, as well as some of the theory behind archaeological practice. I gained an amazing snapshot of Romanian life, from their art and pop music to food and drink. I felt so lucky to be able to visit one of the most beautiful, dynamic and extraordinary countries in Europe and immerse myself in their culture for two whole months.
I’ll certainly miss Timisoara. I’ll miss walking through the rose garden alongside the river, I’ll miss looking out of the bus window at the multi-coloured tiled roof of the Orthodox cathedral on my way to the site, and I’ll definitely miss all the archaeologists, both the Romanians and Projects Abroad volunteers. I loved my time in Romania, and much of it I have yet to explore. Another project beckons for next year, I think.
Read more about Classical & Medieval Archaeology in Romania