Schela Cladovei Excavation: Part II

The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action.
– Felix Adler 

Often times, there’s nothing but soil. A lot of times there’s just soil. But sometimes, you get to be the first person to see something in 6000 years. Most times it’s pottery or stone. Sometimes with the right conditions it can be organic material. But again, you have to be in the right spot at the right time. A lot of archaeology can be surveyed and mapped, but a lot still comes down to luck.

I got lucky this excavation. I got super lucky.

About two weeks into the dig, with thunderheads looming across the Danube and a clear rain shadow in Serbia, we were pressed to finish our squares before the storm drove us out. I was nearly done with my square when I realized I had something at the edge continuing into the next section. It looked like a distal end of a bone. I alerted one of the dig supervisors, a professor from Bucharest. With one glance at the bone she said, ‘Human.’

I looked back to section of bone sticking from my square. That was a person. Then I looked to the square next to it. I didn’t know how far the bone extended into the next square, if it did at all. For all I knew the bone was broken. But, it might not be.

The storm rolled across the Danube and we rushed the equipment back to the dig house. The next day we returned to the site and I was given the next square. Carefully I started to scrap at the surface with my trowel, peeling back layers of soil. The bone kept getting longer and longer. No breaks.

It turned out to be a fully intact femur, except for wear on the distal and proximal ends. It was short, belonging to a sub-adult.

A teenager from the Neolithic.

During finds processing, I carefully scrubbed 6000 years of dirt off it with an old toothbrush. If I’m completely honest, it was disorienting. This person had died in the Neolithic, some odd 6000 years ago. Who they were will remain anonymous. Their age can be estimated by size of the bone, but not their sex. Sexual dimorphism is really only present in the pelvic and sometimes cranium bones. I’d like to think they were female, a teenage girl like me, but again there’s no way of knowing.

What I did know is this was once a person. Alive. They died young. I’d like to think they were missed. But they had been lost to time. Forgotten. Their burial disturbed by a later feature, leaving their bones disarticulated until some amateur archaeologist from Kansas stumbled upon one of their 206.  Their femur of all their bones as well.  Where had this person walked?  Where had they traveled?

I’ll never know their full story, and it’s their anonymity that is so frustrating but irresistible at the same time. Where was the rest of them, the other 205 bones that once made up this person? They might be deeper in the trench. They might be gone. It’s the archaeological enigma.

I believe that archaeologists who excavate with the intent of finding out the whole truth will never be satisfied. The ones who recognize they can only catch quick glances into the past are the ones who succeed.  The same could be said of today’s people. We will never fully understand everything. Hell, I barely understand my own days sometimes. But, we can catch glances.  It’s about holding onto the small details in life and using those to make the bigger picture, with each memory connected like a spider’s web.

I think archaeology is not so much about discovery as it is about memory – the human memory. It’s about uncovering the memory of the past.  Personally, I don’t believe things are so much lost as they are forgotten. Whom ever the bone belonged to is long gone, but they are still communicating with us. Their bone can tell us about who they were and the world they lived in. It’s like a fragment of Sappho’s poetry, the broken lines already so telling and beautiful.  We are left wanting more, but to our bitter disappointment we have nothing else.

It is one of the many things I believe the ancient Egyptians got right. They believed so long as the memory of a person survives they will live on forever.  I know that my 3 weeks in Romania was but a small part in the greater scheme of understanding Romanian prehistory.  But, as I looked down to the bone I held in my hand, a gracile reminder of a human life, I got my glimpse into the past.  A glimpse that once again gave a voice to whomever that person was.

And, honestly knowing my luck that person was probably some bratty Neolithic teenager.



Schela Cladovei Excavation 2k16: Part I


I’m back in Edinburgh after spending the last three weeks in Romania on my first archaeological excavation.

Just to recap: the excavation was based in Schela Cladovei, a Mesolithic/Neolithic settlement on the banks of the Danube in southern Romania (basically on the border between Romania and Serbia).  Located in the region known as the Iron Gates, Schela Cladovei had been a primary location of fishers and early farmers.  Other history in the region included battles between the Romans under Emperor Trajan and the Dacians were Trajan built a pontoon bridge across the Danube #nbd.

So here goes the longest blog post ever. I’m actually going to split this into two parts.  This will be the boring  ‘this is what I did part.’ Part two is the touchy-feely ‘I’m going to cry about old things’ part… coming soon.

The trip started out on May 21.  A group of us flew from Edinburgh to Heathrow and then onto Bucharest (the capital of Romania).  Our flight arrived at 12:05 AM, with the train to the city centre at 8:40 AM.  It was a long wait. (Read: I spent 6 hours sleeping on a plastic chair in the Bucharest airport and it wasn’t even a nice chair. It had one of those annoying hand rails between each chair and they were attached.  Like who does that?)


Finally when the sun came up we got to a smaller train station and boarded a train that would take us to Gara Nord, the central station in Bucharest.  From Gara Nord we took the 10:40 AM train to Drobeta Turnu-Severin, the larger town near Schela.  The train was a six hour journey through southern Romania.  Everyone was super tired and tried to sleep, but it was really hot and stuffy on the carriage so I got maybe 2 broken hours of sleep.  The train was also delayed by 2 hours.

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However, we finally made it to the dig house in Schela.  I had hit the ’24 hours of travel’ mark long, long ago on the train so I went right to sleep.

Our first morning of the excavation started with a quick lecture about the logistics and history of the site.  Then we walked down to the river so uncover the site.  We removed polystyrene blocks and tarps to uncover the trench.  The trench was a large square divided into metre squares, five long (509, 510, 511, 512, 513) and five wide (Q, R, S, T, U).  Those metre squares were then divided into four labeled from left to right (A, B, C, D). So squares would be labeled for example Q509A – row Q, metre square 509, box square A.

The trench had a mixture of dark soil and yellowish soil.  Dark soil is an indication of a ‘feature’ basically archaeological terms for ‘something did something here to disrupt the soil.’ Yellow soil is the undisrupted soil.

We started excavations the next day.  Our daily schedule started at alarms at 6 AM.  We left the dig house at 6:50 to be on site at 7:00.  We set up the equipment and worked until 8:30.  Breakfast was brought to site by a local Romanian woman who lived near the site.  It consisted of really, really, really, good fried egg bread and usually some meats, cheeses, and spreads.  A few days we got warm loaves of bread.  She also brought really good coffee that definitely was strong enough to snap anyone out of being tired.  We worked until 11 AM and then took a break for water/food/sunscreen until 11:30.  Then we went back to work until 1 PM.

The weather in Romania is really humid this time of year.  It’s also really hot with temperatures reaching 32C.  We started early to avoid working in the hottest parts of the day.

After returning to the dig house we had a break for lunch/showers/sleeping until 4.30 PM.  At 4.30 PM, we started cleaning our finds from the day or sorting dry finds.  This was a really fun part of the day because often times when you excavate you can’t really tell what you find because it’s so covered in mud… you just know that you’ve found something.

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Dinner was a 7 PM.  It was usually cooked by the same woman who brought breakfast to the site.  After dinner, everyone usually just went back up to the rooms to chat and relax before going to sleep.  The days were very long and often everyone would be asleep by 10 PM.

We had Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday off.  Usually we hung about on Saturdays and would go into town for shopping trips on Sundays.  We actually went to the cinema one weekend to see the new X-Men film.  It was still in english but had Romanian subtitles.

And then the day repeats for three weeks.  It was awesome.


It never got boring though.  We learned how to excavate, wet sieve, do floatation, take levels, and work the EDM.  Each day different people were doing different tasks.  Excavation involved working in the trench.  Our task for the 3 weeks was to dig 5 cm down from level 19 to level 20.  Wet sieving used a pump and  drum to pump water from the Danube to wash away mud from smaller finds like tiny bits of bone and pottery.  Floatation works similar to wet sieving except that you have to use two sieves to collect fine pollen or seed particulates that would have just been floated out of the drum.  For this we worked with a archaeo-botanist from the University of Belgrade in Serbia.  In August, she will return to Bucharest to analyse the samples.  From the sample she will be able to tell what sort of plants (both wild and domestic) grew in the area.  Taking levels involved working with the dumpy level to tell how much deeper you would need to excavate.  And lastly, the EDM is used to the set the crosses of the squares to make sure that the trench remains consistent.

Besides the dig we got a chance to go out and see parts of Romania.  During our last week we spend some time in the Old Town of Drobeta where we got to see a 16c Romanian Castle.

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We also took a boat trip down the Danube to see sites that had been flooded when the two hydroelectric dams (Iron Gate I and Iron Gates II) had been built.  The dams are actually one of the reasons why Schela is so important, because it is one of the few sites that has not been submerged by the rising water levels.  ALSO! Hi, fellow mountain climbing friends… don’t know how clear the photos are but the Iron Gates are home to some cool looking limestone walls that probably would have some great climbs.

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We also stopped at a cave that had been used by the Austro-Hungarians in the 19c as a border fort between them and the Ottoman Turks.

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We left the dig house on June 10 and took the 9:30 AM train back to Bucharest.  My flight back was at 5:10 the next day and there was not a day-of train that would have gotten us back on time.  So we decided to spend the evening in seeing Bucharest.  Bucharest is a really cool city, but it’s very contradicting.  The Old Town of Bucharest resembles the streets of Paris is its grand buildings, but you can definitely see leftover Soviet buildings.  Remember: Romania was part of the Eastern Bloc until the Romanian Revolution in 1989. However, walking the streets of Bucharest you can really tell that Romania has pushed to become more Western and remove any trace of being a Soviet Satellite.

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Also side note: in Captain America: Civil War, Bucky is hiding out in Bucharest.  There were, unfortunately no Winter Soldier sightings.

Our travels back to Edinburgh where a tad stressful with a delay in Bucharest that pushed our flight in Heathrow to a bit of a sprint.  But, we made it back.  When I got off the plane in Edinburgh the temperature was 12C with a heavy rainy overcast.  It was glorious.

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It was a lot of hard work and the weather varied (I GOT TO SEE THUNDERSTORMS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 7 MONTHS I AM ALIVE!)  but I really enjoyed my time on site.  Finds included a variety of pottery, stone, and both animal and human bones (more on human bones later…).  It was a really incredible time and cannot be more thankful for this opportunity.  I am so excited to see what the next three summers have.

Okay. Stay tuned for a really awesome post about a super cool find that I had the chance to excavate!!! Tears ensured.

(Also side note… I realised that I’m wearing my black and white striped shirt in a lot of these photos… I swear I showered and did laundry!! I’m not a gross human.)

And The Summer Excavation Is…

Drum roll please….

Schela Cladovei in Romania! 

I know, what you’re thinking, ‘Romania!?!’ And yes, it’s definitely outside of my wheelhouse, but this is the perfect opportunity for me to go out and try something completely new (and fulfill my dreams of becoming Lara Croft sshhh archaeologists can still be cool).

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Here’s the excerpt from the Uni about the site:

Set in one of the most remarkable archaeological landscapes in southeastern Europe, the Iron Gates, the site of Schela Cladovei, which was occupied in turn by the last hunter-gatherers and first farmers of the region, is arguably the most important Mesolithic Neolithic settlement to survive flooding of the Danube Valley following the construction of two massive hydroelectric dams.

The site will work with Neolithic Skeletal remains and I will receive training in Osteo-Archaeology!  This is an invaluable skill in archaeology, especially if I want to work on medieval sites in the future that nearly always have graveyards around them (those darn anglo-saxons and their inhumations!)

I’ll be on site for three weeks from the end of May to the middle of June.  I will finish up my last exam in May and then hop a plane to Romania!  I am so excited for this opportunity!  It will be brand new part of the world that I have never seen before and I cannot wait to be on site.  Being abroad has really taught me the value of a bigger world view.  I have come into contact with people and ideas from all over the world and I think in this new globalised world we need more people who understand more cultures than just their own.

(Side tangent: conflict always stems from a lack of understanding…)

Yes, archaeology is the study of material culture from the past, but underlying all of that is the question of explaining our present.  We cannot even attempt to understand the present without understanding our past and arguably vice versa.

So anyway, the excavation has been ongoing since 1965 by Edinburgh University and still is lead by a professor here at the University so I will receive training and work alongside the faculty from here in Edinburgh.  We will be staying in a house very close to the site and will have the opportunity to not only attend on-site lectures but get out and travel to other archaeological sites in Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

We might even see some vampires. (Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula was from Transylvania a region in Romania.)

I looked around a lot for excavations and while I found some really interesting ones in Northern Scotland (there was one excavating medieval turf houses near Aberdeen) they were not long enough to fulfil my First Year 3 week requirement (bummer).  But, I am still in contact with those site coordinators, so maybe in the passing years I will be up there.

But, for the summer I will be in Romania!  And I cannot be more excited for it!

This brings me to my second point.


I honestly can’t believe how amazing my life is at the moment.  I’ll only be 19 in April but I am already living in a foreign country attending a world class university.  I have friends from all over the world.  I have seen hundreds of years of history just on my walk to class this morning.

If someone would have told me my freshman year of high school that I would be sitting in a coffee shop overlooking the Royal Mile writing about how I will be attending an archaeological excavation in Romania I probably would not have believed them.

I guess it’s just a testament to hard work paying off.  And maybe a little bit of luck, if you believe that luck is being prepared to seize the opportunity when it comes and not letting it pass you by.

Some F. Scott Fitzgerald for you, ‘Our lives are shaped by opportunities, even the ones we miss.’

Which, I know I am in no place to talk much (still a first year, guys!). I guess I have some credibility to talk to those people still in high school reading this… it’s so worth it.  Write every essay like it’s the most important paper in your life.  Read everything you are given.  Don’t stop trying to push yourself because it pays off.  Talk with your teachers, they are there to help you. (Bless my high school teachers for putting up with my shitty antics.)

Don’t be afraid to pursue a crazy dream.

Because, every last second pays off.

Just go for it.  There’s this quote from Amelia Earhart, ‘the best way to do it is to do it.’  I think it’s great.  So many people just talk about what they want in life and never go out and actually do it.  As Yoda says, ‘do or do not, there is no try.’

It might not be the cool thing, a lot of people are too caught up in trying to be popular and forgot to first like who they are themselves.  You’ll be ostracized.  You’ll be called a ‘teacher’s pet’ or a ‘know it all.’ But, that’s fine.  Embrace it.  You’re in school to learn so that one day you can be the smartest and happiest human you can be.  High school is full of groupthink.  And that’s perfectly okay, some people feel more comfortable in a group.  Some people like having others around them that are exactly the same.  I just know that I never did.

Every person to their own, just do what makes you happy.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is just go out there and carpe the f*ck out of that diem. And the diem after that… and after that… you know, honestly just go carpe vitam.

Go learn as much, experience as much as you can.  But, don’t rely on others to get you there.  Ask for help, learn from your peers, but make sure that you are carving your own way yourself.  And remember not to live too much in the past, I know as a historian that’s a hard statement for me to say, but seriously yesterday is gone.  Move on.  Keeping climbing upward and reaching out for stuff and eventually it will all come together.  I remember this summer when I first arrived in Edinburgh I knew that everything had been worth it.

I’m here now, but that doesn’t mean the hard work is over.  If anything the prep is over and the hard work has just begun.

Okay, time to buy a trowel and work on my Romanian.