FEATURE | Interview with the Kalamaja archaeological time team ({{commentsTotal}})

Coin minted in time of master of the LIvonian order Livonian Bernd von der Borch (1471-1483).  A lot of coins came from the Jahu street site, alongside this example were coins minted in Tartu and Novogorod, Russia.
Coin minted in time of master of the LIvonian order Livonian Bernd von der Borch (1471-1483). A lot of coins came from the Jahu street site, alongside this example were coins minted in Tartu and Novogorod, Russia. Source: YIT

This summer, what would appear to be just another Tallinn construction site became something of a celebrated case as the preliminary digging work led to the discovery of a wealth of mostly domestic artefacts from the late middle ages. The find, in Tallinn's Kalamaja district, effectively filled in a gap in knowledge about society in Estonia in the 15th century.

The bulk of the finds are from the late 15th century, but some go back as far as the end of the 14th, with the most recent from the early 16th century. The normal, every day site gave up what would have been normal, every day items at the time they were used.

To avoid getting too carried away with the enormity and variety of the haul, theories about the site and its artefacts, and what would happen to the finds subsequently, we sat down back in July with the chief archaeologists on site, Rivo Bernotas, Erki Russow and site manager Keiti Randoja, to get some sober and expert opinion.

Beginnings of a huge haul of artefacts

Once the size of the find, over 20,000 items, became clear after the site at Väike-Patarei 6/Jahu 1 started to yield a far greater range of archaeological material than preliminary digs at the site, where the YIT construction company is building residential blocks, had suggested it would. A petrol station and garage had occupied the area some time in the Soviet period, but once construction began apace it was soon apparent that the plot had been in use for much longer, and had a far more engaging history.

Kalamaja is situated close to the Baltic shoreline and just outside the Old Town, and the area would have seen a lot of changes since then, not least that the sea is further away (partly due to the building up of the harbour area) than it was 500 years ago, but it is still possible to build up a picture of how it might have looked then.*

The excavation site at Väike-Patarei 1/Jahu 6 in Tallinn's Kalamaja neighbourhood. 15 June, 2018. Source: Aurelia Minev/ERR.

In any case it is an area long in use by humans (some items dating back to the later neolithic period had been found in the yard of a house just across the street, Rivo tells me) so on the one hand it's perhaps not surprising that at least something would be found once the soil layers stated to be removed. However, find density – the sheer number of artefacts found in around a metre deep strata of earth, compared with the size of the area, was unheard of for Estonia and not common on a Europe-wide scale, and it is this which transformed a routine process into something much more noteworthy. But surely the scale of the finds has a knock on effect in terms of the human resources needed to cope with it?

''The stages after the excavation, conservation etc. usually take at least two times longer to carry out than the excavation itself, with several more people involved and a separate expert for each category of find, glass, metals, wood, textiles etc.'' says Rivo Bernotas.

Head archaeologist on site, Rivo Bernotas. Source: Jan Vutt/ERR.

''As well as identifying the finds, which Erki is helping us with, we need to clean them up, tag them and so on.''

Site owners and developer considerations

''The fact that this is a commercial site hasn't been an issue,'' says Rivo, when I ask if YIT have been a bit miffed at their proposed development being held up courtesy of people from the middle ages.

''We have a good relationship with them, and we have been able to work round each other,'' he goes on.

Speaking of things commercial, one obvious question to the casual observer might be, how much are the finds worth, in total?

''They are priceless. It's not something you can put a figure on and to us as archaeologists, the real value is inherent in the finds themselves and the job satisfaction we get from being a part of it,'' says Keiti.

Metal carved figurine. 15th/early 16th Century. Source: YIT.

And the finds have been noticed outside Estonia too. While at a conference in Lübeck, Germany, Erki was approached by a Latvian colleague who told him she had spotted him, and the finds, in the Latvian media, while Rivo, who has studied archaeology in Finland, has been told the same by colleagues there. Further afield, they have also been approached by the news editor of Current World Archaeology, a major English-language magazine on the subject, for comment on the excavations.

But just how do the two teams of excavators, one retrieving delicate medieval artefacts, the other putting up not-so-delicate concrete blocks for the new apartment buildings, fit round each other in the same small area in practice, even if they are on the same side in principle?

''Obviously the construction start date was postponed due to the find, but we are now synchronised with their work. We could even have worked a little bit faster and, having finished the Väike-Paterei streetside of the site, started on the Jahu street side, but there's the constant logistics on site to think about with the big trucks carrying concrete elements etc. for the new build make it something of a constant puzzle site,'' he continues.

What the site actually was

It's perhaps fitting that the current state of the site looks a bit chaotic since the layer of finds from the late 15th century (primarily, see note on the whole timeframe above) in fact constituted the-then equivalent of a refuse dump. However, trying to determine even the nature and extent of this requires a lot of evidence and even then can rely on conjecture or alternative theories.

Wooden comb, 15th Century. Many wooden items at the site were well-preserved due to being buried within layers of manure. Source: YIT.

''A lot of it seems to be waste from latrines; both human and animal faeces in other words, something confirmed when we sent a sample to the lab,'' says Erki.

However, there are literally some sparks of gold here and there in the mire; one of the key finds (''my favourite, because it fits me!'' says Keiti) was a gold ring. But who throws a gold ring into the toilet?

''Well you don't, but it could get be lost or dropped in the toilet,'' says Erki.

At the same time, the huge range of different finds – eating utensils made from wood and metal, chess pieces, glass including coloured glass, stove tiles, whistles, tools, even a 'medieval ipad', a kind of wax writing tablet with a stylus, which could be erased using the flat side of the stylus, have all been found – suggests that they weren't all casually or accidentally discarded?

Pilgrimage souvenir from Rome, one of three important pilgrimage destinations in Medieval Europe. 15th Century. Source: YIT.

''It's a very complicated story,'' Erki goes on. ''Some of the items were woodworking production waste, there was window glass, pilgrimage badges – these aren't things which normally get thrown into the toilet so there must be some other explanations, for instance some of the refuse might have come from the site of a chapel or other religious building,'' he goes on.

''Even if the refuse was simply from a demolished building it doesn't explain why we are getting predominantly window glass, floor tiles but nothing from the walls,'' says Rivo, who also contends that the material was placed more deliberately in addition to being waste disposal, perhaps for levelling out the ground in preparation for a later building, and consisted partly of the debris from demolished buildings.

Broken window glass from the site included perhaps one of its signature finds, this painted piece depicting a mummer-type figure in costume and playing a medieval musical instrument which was blown and struck with a wooden stick remains one of Rivo Bernotas' favourite pieces – he also found it! (c. turn of the 15th/16th centuries). Source: YIT.

''At the same time, some things, such as stone or wood, can be recycled once a building is destroyed, but glass etc. not so easily so it's not impossible that we're finding construction debris,'' concedes Erki.

Site reflects changes in Tallinn at the time

This would tie in with how Tallinn was developing during the period in question. Whereas most of the buildings earlier than our era would have been wooden, with only a few stone buildings around, Tallinn was expanding towards the end of the medieval period, in the late 14th century, with buildings being now made of stone as the city started to emerge along the lines of what is familiar to us today as the Old Town.

This change also hints at why the Old Town itself hasn't yielded a find of a similar size from the same era.

''We have quite a few finds in the old town from the 13th and 14th centuries when there was less of a need for concerted waste management, but from the second half of the 14th century there was some kind of change in waste management and we don't find items from that period in the Old Town, but we do in 'suburban' areas like this one.''

Carved bone chess piece. Source: YIT.

But for me, it's a dump site. Everything you didn't need, you dumped here, says Erki.

I don't dispute that, reiterates Rivo, but at some parts of the plot, ie. at deeper areas it seems to have been dumped a lot more deliberately than a regular refuse site, with different strata in the profiles, manure, then a layer of gravel, then another of manure etc.

''Land management,'' summarises Erki.

''Unlike in Tartu [where many waste boxes/cess pits from the previous century, ie. the 14th, have been excavated] where the waste pits or boxes from the fourteenth century weren't emptied, they seemed to be managed more in Tallinn,'' says Rivo, noting that the Tartu excavations hail from an earlier time, the 14th century, than the mostly 15th century Kalamaja finds.

Items well preserved

The very fact that the Kalamaja finds were buried in what was probably managed waste also explains why a lot of things were so well preserved, including organic matter such as a large number of different wooden items, animal bones and even human (and animal) hair.

''This is largely due to the presence of manure which has helped to keep conditions where things can be preserved, including the necessary lack of oxygen – a bit like canned food,'' says Erki.

Clothing decoration, 15th Century. In the later middle ages it was common to decorate clothing with such ornamentation. Source: YIT.

''This wasn't a burial pit, so there haven't been any whole skeletons or anything like that,'' he adds in response to my rather morbid question as to whether a 15th century mummy or similar could have been found.

''For example in Tartu we did find one cat skeleton from a cesspit,'' says Rivo, ''but not a human. The cat probably died and its body was thrown afterwards into the cess pit, so the skeleton was well preserved''.

Notable density of finds

The range of finds has been immense at the Kalamaja site, and whilst the number is small compared with some other sites in Europe, notably Cologne, German, where around 80,000 shards of pottery have been found, mostly pieces of amphorae from the Roman era, the find density is unusual; the other European sites would have been much bigger than the c. 7,000 sq. m that makes up the Kalamaja site (the excavation area measured c. 4,000 sq. m).

The finds fall mainly into two groups, domestic everyday items, and religious artefacts (in pre-reformation Europe there would have been something of a crossover of the two in any case).

Eating utensils such as spoons, both wooden and metal, pottery and ceramics ware, stove tiles, combs and other household items are all well represented.

Metal Spoon, 15th Century. Such an implement is likely to have been used only by the more well-heeled. Regular citizens would have used wooden spoons. Source: YIT.

The dining items also cover all strata of society, from the crudest implements to the finer stuff. It's possible that the 'lower born' in this more rigid society than ours would have been confined to the latter and the better quality things were for the higher status people.

''At the same time, it could also be that, as is the case today, the better dining items were just for special occasions (which in this time would have included religious festivities) and that even the wealthier people would have used more functional utensils in the day-to-day,'' Rivo explains.

Where the artefacts were made

Many of the items come from much further afield than Tallinn, or even the surrounding area, with ceramics from Valencia in Spain, from the Low Countries, and Baltic amber items all being found.

This was not the case so much in the earlier Tartu find ''but you would expect that,'' says Rivo ''due to Tallinn's location it inevitably had a much greater throughflow of traded goods than Tartu''.

Fragment of luxury ceramic bowl, probably from Valencia, Spain. 16th Century. Source: YIT.

''It's not clear what the trade routes were and exactly how they reached Tallinn, even in the case of Baltic amber [which even today is found in the southeastern angle of the baltic coastline, from the northeastern part of present-day Poland, through the Kaliningrad exclave, the Lithuanian coast and the coastline of the Kurzeme region of Latvia-ed.]. It might be that the amber items were traded via a different European route and did not come directly to Tallinn from further south on the Baltic,'' Rivo goes on.

Religious dimension

One of the most intriguing aspects of the find is the number of religious items which it yielded. These include not only figurines but also pilgrimage badges. The badges, which came from as far afield as France, Italy and Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain (seven badges originating from the latter place were found), would probably have been worn by those who had made such a pilgrimage in the past, and are particularly intricate.

At the same time, a lot of the religious figurines, also finely-detailed, were missing their heads or other appendages. One interesting possibility is that given the time frame of the Kalamaja haul, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation,** the heads were deliberately broken off, being by that time seen as idols of some kind.

15th Century ivory or ebony carved figurine, possibly of St. James, replete with head (and arm) broken off (see text). Source: YIT.

''We can't really say that is the case,'' says Erki. ''We would need a large number of examples of this happening to be more certain. With only a few such damaged pieces, we can't conclude that the damage was ideological. If you think about it, the head is something of a weak spot on a figurine and thus more likely to be broken when it was in transit or being buried in the refuse, and not deliberately,'' he goes on.

Fills in a blank spot in history

Most significant however, is how the find fills in a blank spot in our knowledge of Tallinn's history. We had plenty of archaeological evidence from the 14th Century from Tartu, but not from the 15th or early 16th centuries, so the find is hugely significant from that perspective.

''I hadn't said this before, but we can now say that whereas before, we had been looking through a 'keyhole' at the period in question in Tallinn and Estonia, the door has opened somewhat with this find; not completely, but it is a considerable improvement'' says Erki.

Now as August draws to a close the team have wrapped up their work on the Kalamaja site for the time being for a four to six week break, with excavation recommencing in mid/late September. However, it is only the beginning of the categorising and cataloguing task, cleaning up the items, repairing those which it is possible to repair (such as a kettle which was broken up into four pieces, all found close together) and of course exhibiting. Some of the items are going to temporarily to Tartu for washing, conserving and cataloguing. Their next destination will be the Archaeological Research Centre at Tallinn University, which has an unofficial archaeological museum, and an exhibition of the finds is planned for 2019. What is most certain is the finds will continue to intrigue laypersons and experts alike in the future and draw to a close a hitherto unfinished chapter in Tallinn and Estonian history.


ERR English hopes to publish a further piece or pieces on the subsequent stages of processing the finds.

*Even 3D modelling can be used to get a clearer picture of how the area would once have looked.

**But barely. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517 – indeed the 500th anniversary of the event was celebrated by some last October – but in so doing he did not 'start the reformation' so much as issue a debate challenge on what he saw as abuses in the established Church at the time. It was only four years later with the Edict of Worms that Luther was anathematized by the Emperor Charles V, and even then, it would have taken some time for Lutheranism to spread. The spread of Lutheranism was moreover largely done wholesale by the various rulers in the northern European states, unlike the more grass-roots reformed ideas which followed and usually come under the umbrella term 'Calvinism', for their own religious, nationalistic or political reasons. Estonia being under Baltic German, and later Swedish, rule would have made the transition to Lutheranism this way.

Evidence from the coin finds, items which literally have the date stamped on them, tends to refute this 'reformation theory', since the newest coins to be found date from the late 15th century. The most recently-minted coin comes from 1482, minted in Tartu during the bishopric of Johannes II Bertkow (1473-1485). Of course, it's possible that these coins lay in situ where they were discarded for many years before being transported to the site with the rest of the waste, but this is far from certain.


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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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