Rural archaeological digs underfunded, becoming less frequent

While archaeological finds from the late medieval and early modern period continue to offer up surprises in Tallinn and other cities in Estonia, western Estonia remains neglected, in terms of finds, in funding, and in the knowledge of the history of a particular period – namely the later iron age, one archaeologist says.

One burial site on the borders of Lääne and Pärnu counties, in western Estonia, which has been excavated has yielded bone fragments, jewellery and an axe, dated from the 5th to 6th century and during the Estonian iron age, though there are still large gaps in the knowledge of the period, archaeologist Mati Mandel says.

"As to the Roman Iron Age, one brooch from Ridala (a municipality in Lääne County - ed.) and then two rings that definitely belong to Roman Iron Age, but otherwise it 's like a black hole, as if people haven't been living there at all, and we have this big shortcoming in this investigation," Mandel said.

The era is referred to as the Roman Iron Age, though Estonia was never under Roman rule – the appellation differentiates it from the pre-Roman iron age, which in Estonia is dated 500 BC to mid-first century AD.

Another part of the problem is funding, Mandel added, which tends to focus on urban ares such as Tallinn and Tartu, also often on more recent epochs. "Digging is going on in the city where there is a lot of money behind it, but there is essentially no more excavation work going on in the countryside, just as the Estonian state is not interested in its ancient periods."

The larger, urban digs often accompany modern-day development projects; in other words when a site is earmarked for development, archaeologists will often have access prior to work starting. Examples of this down the years include finds during the construction of an underground car-park under Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak) in Tallinn, construction site on Suur-Patarei and Jahu, in the Kalamaja district.

The recent dig, sponsored by the Estonian History Museum (Ajaloomuuseum), followed an early find at the same site, in a field near the village of Uluste. While the finds dated back to around 450-550 AD, Mandel said that hopes that the burial site would yield earlier artifacts from the 3rd and 4th centuries went unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, another large find arose after renovation work at the Niguliste Kirik (St. Nicholas Church) – actually no longer a consecrated church but a museum – and comprised the tombs of well-to-do 18th century Tallinn-dwellers, daily Postimees reported on its English-language page.

Eight skeletons were found in a collective grave, plus seven more in individual burials, from the 17th to 18th centuries, buried according to Christian custom, with their heads towards the west and their hands folded together, Postimees reported, while the jewelry, silk coverings on the inside and outside of coffins, and the use of brick instead of limestone, a more easily obtained local resource, were among the surprises.

The mass grave on the other hand suggests an outbreak plague, and could date back even earlier.

While the site – which recently saw upheaval due to the installation of an elevator which will take members of the public up to a new viewing platform – has been disturbed before in the recent past, including for the laying of central heating pipes in the 1970s, this had not affected the skeletons, which were only discovered once the Soviet-era concrete flooring had been removed.

Digging a water channel for use in emergency firefighting in relation to the revamped tower led to the communal grave finding

While the remains at the Niguliste kirik were skeletonized, it is not unheard of for such sites to give up partly-preserved or mummified remains also. While a famous dig in Spitalfields church in the area of London of the same name, in a crypt due to be converted to a rehab center, was one example of this, concerns over contagious disease – the graves' occupants were thought to have perished from scarlet fever in the 18th century – led to the remains being incinerated.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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