When I say “archaeologist” to most of the people I meet, the usual response ranges from “Indiana Jones” to “digging in fields” to “Pardon?” or even “Do I know you?”. By and large, almost every response reveals one common thing: digging from the surface, down.
Now, don’t get me wrong, lots of archaeology does rely on looking at where people lived and died, but here’s the thing that’s true about humans the world over, no matter when they lived:
Humans go everywhere.
Dark, dank cave? They’re in there. Seas or lakes? They’re getting boats ready to go. Dangerously high mountains where the air’s too thin and it’s easy to freeze to death? Too late, the humans are up there and they think the views very pretty indeed, thank you for asking.
Accidents happen, shipwrecks occur, sometimes things are built. Whatever the reason, humans leave a mark, and those marks are siren calls to archaeologists aching to understand why.
So I’ve been out of my normal stomping grounds for about a month now, rolling around in a different country’s dust. Which country? Hungary (as you may have guessed from my last few posts mentioning it)! What have I been working on? Well, the opportunity came up to work on one of the country’s Bronze Age Tell sites at a little town called Százhalombatta.
Before I go into complete Geek Mode, let’s sort out one thing…
“What is a Tell site?”
Glad you asked! A Tell site is one of the most complex and interesting early sites you could ever hope to end up on. It’s an early city, usually on top of a prominent place like a hill or cliff. In some areas of the Middle/Near East, the hills that Tells are built on aren’t natural, they’re ancient layers of the Tell! And that’s the major defining factor of these sites: these cities are built on top of the previous city’s foundations. Every time a building is demolished so a new one can be rebuilt, the rubble isn’t cleared out completely. Instead, it’s often used to level the area before the new building is made. Not to mention that things are lost or thrown away in the course of everyday life, so Tell sites can produce huge amounts of finds. Usually nothing more than pottery shards and old bones, but sometimes you get buttons, toys, scraps of personal belongings… all of these give you a real feeling for the people living back then.
A city, built on a city, on top of a city…. sometimes these Tells were occupied for over a thousand years, making the mound they stood on several metres high.
Százhalombatta is one such place. It was built on a cliff overlooking the Danube river, just south of Budapest. It’s the perfect place to see exactly who’s trying to travel up and down the country, perfect place for stopping these travellers (and so controlling who goes where and with what), but also a brilliant defensive position. The ramparts that defend its land-ward entrance are steep and several metres high. Some of the lads working on site climbed these ramparts to see how difficult it was and they told me later that they wouldn’t have made it up them without using the trees as hand/foot-holds.
When I arrived at this dig, it had already been open and worked on for 17 years. The trench was at least 2 1/2 – 3 metres deep and we were only just entering the stuff from the Middle Bronze Age. 700 years of archaeology (roughly), all contained within a few metres of earth…
I’m from Britain. That’s unheard of here. It’s unimaginable. When we dig on Bronze Age sites, half of the work’s done with pickaxes and shovels! It’s the only way to clear out a ditch without spending half the week on it!
Magdolna Vicze, or Magdi as we knew her, was the head of the local Matrica Museum and the main director of the excavation. She told us that everything we knew about digging in British sites did not apply here. Trowels only, every bucket of waste earth sieved before it was discarded, sort and label finds as you go. We weren’t even allowed to wear boots in the trench – the first time I’d ever been on a site where you were told off for wearing safety boots! We were allowed to wear light shoes that had no patterns on the soles, but usually people went barefoot. It was almost unbelievable until we were reminded that on a Tell, everything is archaeology.
May sound obvious, but hear me out.
On a British site, you can walk over a round house floor and step out of it, straight onto untouched, undisturbed, non-archaeological earth. And that applies to any period of site you may work on. On a Tell? Not a chance. The very earth that floor is built on is a man-made layer from the previous era. It’s all archaeology.
Honestly, I think that if Magdi saw us anywhere near her site with heavy shoes, she might have beaten us to death with her own bucket.
“Okay, so you got to work on a different place. But Bone Digger!” I hear you cry, “What’s so great about this place – other than being nothing but archaeology all the way down?”
First off, how dare you imply that’s not a good enough reason to geek out. Bad readers.
Secondly, it’s all because of Hungarian archaeology in general.
Hungary has thousands of Tell sites dotted around the country, particularly in the Carpathian Basin area where different cultures followed the Danube inland throughout the ages. Guess how many have been excavated?
That’s right, Százhalombatta is the only Tell site that’s been excavated. And it’s still ongoing! Over dinner one night, the excavation directors told me just how nerve-wracking it was when they first approached the excavation.
“When we began, things were very different back then.” Prof. Marie Louise Sørensen of Cambridge University explained. “I asked Magdi, ‘So what’s the literature on these sites?’ and she said ‘You don’t understand – there’s isn’t any!’ We were the very first to begin digging these sites, so we had to be very conscious about how we approached it.”
“Exactly,” Magdi agreed. “We would be setting the example for the rest of the country. If we did it wrong, it would’ve been a disaster!”
And I have to say, the level of detail that goes into the recording systems on this site is amazing. The site is divided into 2m by 2m squares, each with it’s own Master ID number. As the diggers work in these squares, any new features they come across (floors, walls, pits, etc.) is given another number, an individual ID number. If particularly interesting finds are discovered (such as mouse skeletons, encrusted pottery shards, bronze artefacts, etc.), they get their own personal ID number and their position is recorded via a digital mapping system.
Very thorough, very complex, very different from any other British or European system that I’ve worked on, but honestly? On such a complicated site, it works really well. Particularly when you have to work with the finds later on and match up your conclusions to certain areas on the sites. Or when all the information has to be collected and published at the end of it. It wouldn’t be worth following on simpler sites, but I could certainly see its merits on this one.
That’s all for this time round. I may come back to my experiences at Százhalombatta in later posts, but for now…