World during the Great Northern War unearthed under Tartu parking lot

More than a few exciting items have been unearthed.
More than a few exciting items have been unearthed. Source: Arheox/UT

A lot of people in helmets have been busying themselves at a construction site at Jakobi 5 in Tartu for several months. They include, in addition to construction workers erecting the new study building of the University of Tartu Institute of Education, archaeologists who have discovered exciting finds from a bygone era.

December weather is no hindrance. We meet with the dig supervisor, CEO of Arheox, the company in charge of the archaeological effort, Rivo Bernotas and site supervisors Keiti Randoja and Kristjan Kreos in a snow-covered courtyard where people have been parking their cars for years. Even archaeologists did not expect to immediately strike old walls not shown on any map, Maarit Stepanov writes in the journal Universitas Tartuensis.

"Archaeologists were surprised when surviving walls were unearthed almost immediately after the first layers of asphalt were removed," Randoja says. That something would be found was expected. "One is bound to unearth something when taking a shovel to the dirt in Tartu," Bernotas remarks.

Dig site at jakobi 5 in Tartu. Source: Arheox

Wealthier people

Bernotas points out that the area between Jakobi and Lutsu streets is surrounded by three major churches and was a good way to approach the St. John's Church, Church of the Virgin Mary that used to stand where the university main building is today and the cathedral on Toomemägi. "It is such a central location that wealthier people probably lived here," he says.

The earth has revealed the walls of a typical medieval block of houses and buildings that stood until the Great Northern War. "Peter the Great conquered Tartu in 1704 but had it destroyed in 1708," Bernotas says. "These walls are from the period before." The walls were covered by rubble from the war. Bernotas explains that rubble from destroyed houses was likely spread out trapping exciting and even rare items in the ground.

Keiti Randoja and Kristjan Kreos pull a number of Minigrip bags from a larger paper bag each one containing a recent find. Laid out in my palm is an ivory-colored cylinder a few centimeters in length. "The oldest dateable clay pipe found in Estonia," Kreos knows. The year 1632 is clearly visible on the pipe's surface.

A 1 ore coin from the same era (1629) that is almost the size of a chocolate medallion and depicts Gustav II Adolf is next. The coin is surprisingly heavy – one can feel the weight of the currency in the palm of one's hand. The coin has helped archaeologists to date other finds from the parking lot. "The earliest coin we have found depicts Tartu Bishop Bartholomäus Sawijerwe who served in 1441-1459," Bernotas says.

The rarest coin uncovered was likely not used to pay for goods. "The date on it is 1545 and a circular object seems to be depicted on it. After consulting with numismatists, the scientists have come to believe it could be a commemorative coin. "We can speculate that the coin was handed out at the ordination ceremony of Bishop of Tartu Jodokus von der Recke in 1545. No others of its kind have been found in Estonia."

There have been other exciting finds. The item that has caused the most public excitement is a brick with an imprint of a dog's paw. The archaeologists find it amusing. "The public is not interested in furnaces and walls but a single brick," Randoja says, laughing. They list different media channels that have covered the paw print and add that there is hardly anything unusual about the find. Bricks were made using a mold and laid out to dry. A dog, cat or bird walking across the heap was hardly exceptional," Bernotas explains.

A coin believed to have been handed out at the bishop's ordination in Tartu in 1545. Source: Arheox

Medusa and Neptunus

Furnaces are a source of far greater excitement for archaeologists. The walls hide two heat storage hypocausts. One can be viewed almost in its entirety and the viewer does not need an overly vivid imagination to see a stoker throwing logs into a soot-covered furnace mouth. "A heat storage hypocaust was an arched furnace on top of which stones were placed. The latter were located beneath the ground floor in which there were slabs with holes in them. When a fire was lit in the furnace, the stones were heated and hot air rose above into the room," Bernotas describes.

The earth has also revealed signs of fancier heating solutions. Archaeologists have found a number of well-preserved and richly adorned medieval and early modern period glazed tiles. "If usually, digs produce a few fragments here and there, we uncovered an entire tile furnace base and a number of complete tiles that are beautifully adorned," Bernotas says. "One fully intact tile depicts Gustav II Adolf whose statue stands 50 meters from here in the direction of the university."

The archaeologist explains that if modern customs see photographs of heads of state hung on walls, rulers could also be seen on furnace tiles in times past. "Several pieces with images of the kind have been found in Estonia." Other tiles unearthed at Jakobi street bear flower motifs, olive branches and angels. One tile depicts the Roman god of the sea and rivers Neptunus, while another has an image of Zeus' son Perseus hold the monstrous head of Medusa.

Such decorations were common in 17th century Tartu. Bernotas hints that it is possible the tiles were made by potter Johann Rehn who worked on the Dormition (Uspenski) Cathedral and based on European fashions of the time.

The buildings were also adorned with painted glass, while the scenes used can only be imagined today. "Medieval glass usually depicts religious motifs – a saint or religious scene – while the fragments we have found have had letters on them," Bernotas describes. The message remains a mystery as fragments are all that remains.

One glazed tile unearthed depicts Gustav II Adolf. Source: Arheox


The operation on Jakobi street is a so-called rescue dig. This means that only locations that will be built on are studied and the rest is left untouched – the archaeologists will not be digging through all strata. Bernotas knows that there are strata under the parking lot that could tell us about life in the days of Yaroslav the Wise in 1030-1061. "We have only found items from early antiquity in a single place on the plot – near the Jakobi street sidewalk where district hearing pipes were laid for the new building. One pipe had to be installed so deep in the ground that digging revealed a Yaroslav-era cultural layer," he says.

The author manages to see a few still open ditches the walls of which are multicolored like an onion, a red streak trading places with a brownish one, quarry stones with bricks. Keiti Randoja says that the strata are from different eras. "Here we can see the supporting walls of buildings. They have been built and been in use at different times. The lowest layers made of brick are definitely medieval, while the higher layers with natural stones in them were laid during the Swedish era. People have inhabited this place for a long time," she adds.

Randoja explains that new buildings have been erected on the walls time and again and materials recycled because the property had fixed boundaries and it was impossible to build anywhere else. "Because the old stones were there, there was no need for new material to be brought in," she adds.

It is probable that imposing buildings such as the ones erected in medieval times and the Swedish era were no constructed there again after the Great Northern War – newer buildings were likely made of wood and have not survived. "To the delight of archaeologists, a lot of the area has not seen serious construction work since the Great Northern War that would have destroyed signs of earlier works," Randoja says.

However, the researchers are quite certain that history under a nearby gym built in the previous century is largely lost. A pipe laid next to the building and its surroundings reveal earlier generations' attitude toward archaeological finds.

While modern archaeologists use tiny shovels to clean a brick wall in the ground next to the building, Soviet people who dug a ditch for the pipe and stumbled upon the wall simply made a hole in it. More than a few valuable finds might have been lost in the process. However, some things have survived – archaeologists were delighted to learn that the ditch has been filled in using soil from the same location. "We did find medieval and Swedish era ceramics there too," Randoja says.

Seeing the monstrous pipe, one cannot help but wonder at the well-preserved cellar arches just a few steps away one can even crawl under. That is where the rare clay pipe piece was found, while a lot of the soil had not been studied yet in December. "We need to keep digging here to understand how things were situated," Randoja points, adding that stairs leading to the old cellar can probably be found by digging deeper.

The plot has not yet revealed a courtyard area characteristic of medieval buildings. This also means that something archaeologists consider winning the lottery – a trash box for items that were no longer needed in the households – has also not been found. "There is a simple explanation – we simply haven't gotten as deep yet," Bernotas says. "Figuratively speaking, we have only just scratched the surface and reached the period after the Livonian War and a little before the Great Northern War." Because construction work does not need to go any deeper, earlier strata will have to wait for archaeologists of the future.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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