Reflections of a volunteer – part 1

by Pasi Välkkynen

I heard about this excavation in Archipelacon (a science fiction/fantasy event in Mariehamn at 2015) in which Kristin had a wonderful presentation about viking age Åland. I was so impressed that when she told about the chance of participating in the excavations as a volunteer, I knew immediately that this is what I want to do next summer if I can arrange my holidays to match with the schedule.

I have an engineering and computer science background and absolutely no experience of archaeological excavations. I have always been interested in history, but like most people, I knew very little about archaeology. My “knowledge” of arcaeology was a kind of mix of knowing that sometimes someone finds magnificent treasures like ancient Egyptian graves, or legendary lost cities like Troy, with a hunch that maybe those are not common occurrences and it is not as glamorous as those famous finds let the public perceive archaeology. But someone must have found the artefacts in the museums and uncovered those ancient sites, right? So, my expectations on the other hand were very mixed, and on the other hand I didn’t have any real expectations. I was prepared to come to the excavation site and do what I was told to do, and to see what is going on on the site.

Archaeology as I have experienced it at this excavation has been surprisingly physical work. I was expecting to be digging with small, delicate tools and carefully measuring the location of each thing I might find, by millimetre precision. During this week we have been examining the plough layer through 1 m by 1 m sample squares and cataloguing the amount of different things we find from each square. Since all the material at the plough layer has been moving around for more than a thousand years, the millimetre-precision location of a single bone fragment is not very significant as we are more interested in the distribution and number of objects inside the sample volume. Pick and spade have been some of my best friends this week. Digging through the dry, tightly packed soil and the occassional even more tightly packed clay has been hard work and sieving has been quite physical work as well. In fact, my activity meter scored between 165 and 180 percent of my daily activity recommendation every day (I reach something like 50 percent during a normal day at the office). I bet the machine was really confused when I was shaking the sieve box. 🙂

Sieving was so exciting (at least during the first week of doing it) as you never knew what treasures the water would uncover. Even though I didn’t find anything significant, I was quite surprised at the joy of finding and recognising even fragments of bone or iron age pottery. Speaking of recognising things, I was expecting it to be easier. I mean, anyone should be able to tell the gold coin from a rock, right? Too bad there were no gold coins in my pit, but plenty of things looking like stones. Especially anything made of clay is quite hard for an amateur like me to tell apart from rocks, so I have been collecting loads of pebbles and small stones just in case they turned out to be something interesting when I would examine them more carefully in the cataloging phase. Many of them turned out to be just stones, but I still found a nice pile of burnt clay, bone (both burned and unburned variety), and even some iron age ceramics pieces among other things. I also learned about identifying finds by knocking them on my teeth, tasting them, etc. I still have sand in my mouth. 🙂

In summary, this excavation turned out to be nothing like I expected (mostly because I had no idea what to expect) but extremely interesting in any case. It was really great to get to know real archaeological procedures and methods and to be able to talk with these professors, researchers, students and other hobbyists about our finds and their meaning. I was not at all surprised to find out that it was not very glamorous work (no complete golden necklaces), but just really about paying attention to details, finding — or sometimes as importantly not finding — small, insignificant things that would not necessarily be important as themselves but that would contribute as a sample to a bigger picture about the site. Just like any research, and just my cup of tea. Getting to spend a part of my summer holidays increasing the amount of knowledge about our common history was awesome.

 

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