Earlier this year, news broke of an extraordinary find of medieval artifacts in Tallinn — not in the famous Old Town, but outside of its walls, in what is the now trendy district of Kalamaja. The thousands of artifacts uncovered at the construction site of the new Mündriku Residents complex at Jahu 6/Väike-Patarei 1 have since reached the hands of the Estonian History Museum, among others, but just two months ago, the priceless objects were still being dug up and bagged up by hand — by students.
While autumn is well underway and Estonians are currently enjoying a rare, unusually mild and sunny weekend just as foliage is hitting its peak, this summer saw one heat record smashed after another. Despite the relatively extreme heat, construction work remained in full swing all summer, particularly across the capital city.
On the eastern edge of Kalamaja District, somewhere between Tallinn Creative Hub and the Seaplane Harbour and just a stone's throw from Tallinn Bay, a large plot of land wedged between Jahu and Väike-Patarei Streets was torn up, with different patches thereof under various stages of construction but also, perhaps unsurprisingly to Estonians, excavation.
It was at the Jahu 6 gate that I was met by Rivo Bernotas, chief archaeologist of Arheox OÜ, and Sirle Matteus, project manager of the construction company YIT. I had the foresight to come wearing sturdy hiking boots, but was provided with a hard hat and safety vest on site before being led toward the pit being excavated and introduced to site manager Riho Ilves, who was no doubt the oldest employee I'd yet encountered at the Kalamaja site.
I bring up Ilves' age only as it quickly proved to be in stark contrast to that of almost every person working in the pit below. As I looked over the scene while being brought up to speed on the state of the dig, I noticed that some of the faces peeking out from under the hard hats below were easily ten years my junior.
As it turned out, much of the actual, physical labour involved in unearthing the seemingly endless stream of thousands of artifacts on site — which ranged from shards of cake moulds and glass marbles to wooden combs and even surprisingly well preserved bits of fabric — was done by high school and university students.
In Estonia, it is not uncommon for construction sites to quickly end up the sites of archaeological excavations, particularly in its two largest cities, Tallinn and Tartu. In most cases, these excavations take place in heritage conservation areas, where the need for pre-construction research can be assumed, Bernotas later explained via email.
Heritage conservation areas are under national protection, so landowners are required to order pre-construction archaeological works, which come in three forms: the preliminary survey, which is usually in the form of digging test pits or trenches, monitoring, and full-scale archaeological excavations. The need for a full-scale excavation is usually already determined by the results of the preliminary survey.
In the case of the Kalamaja site, however, it wasn't. The preliminary survey had indicated that the cultural layer on site, or the layer of earth which contains traces or remains of human activity, was not intact. A filling station had been built in one corner of the lot at some point during the Soviet era, and so the assumption was that the cultural layer had been destroyed then already, if not sooner.
But as digging got underway in connection with the construction of the planned new residential complex, artifacts began to turn up in the earth — and not just isolated ones, either. This was the point where Arheox was called in.
Atypical summer job
On site, Ilves, after giving me a brief overview of what I was seeing, gave me free rein to move around the pit being excavated at the time, and I also took the liberty to speak with some of the people working there. I moved about carefully, not wanting to get in anyone's way or — God forbid — accidentally trample something ancient and fragile underfoot.
It was hot, and in this heat, the physical work was gruelling. Giant water bottles littered the site, and short breaks were taken regularly to help avoid heat exhaustion. Tellingly, I was perhaps the only person in the pit wearing full-length pants that day.
To my surprise, a common theme among those I spoke with was that no, they were not archaeology or even history students; this was a summer job, as though like any other. One had found a job ad on a local job listings site; another simply applied for the job together with their friend. Of the couple of dozen people working in the pit that day, only one 20-something man had been doing this type of work for years already. His careful but deft method for sifting each shovelful of dirt betrayed as much as well.
As Bernotas explained, the dig team consisted mostly of university, high school and trade school students, as well as those for whom this was a second job. "During the summer, there are many excavations around Estonia, so the archaeology-background people are scattered around the country," he noted.
The chief archaeologist explained that the main requirements for the job were the ability to do moderate physical work, interest in learning new things (ie learning to distinguish finds), good teamwork skills, and punctuality. Approximately 20-30 people worked in the pit per day, and, also somewhat surprisingly, the schedule actually mirrored that of your typical office job — Monday through Friday, "9 to 5."
15th century dump
While some finds in various parts of the country have included human bones and even entire, intact skeletons, the Kalamaja site was decidedly less glamourous — the site, in fact, had served as an actual rubbish dump half a millennium ago.
According to Bernotas, the site dates back to the second half of the 15th and first half of the 16th century. This range was determined based on several factors, included found coins and the typology of pottery and other artifacts. The site was evidently used as a rubbish dump for residents of what is now known as the Old Town, as indicated by found material that was urban, rather than suburban in nature. Waste, he added, also seemed to have been used as a landfill along the northeastern side of the plot, along Väike-Patarei Street, to raise the ground level in that area.
The thickness of the cultural layer varies by site depending on the nature thereof and the level of human activity there. In the case of the Kalamaja site, the cultural layer was up to 1.7 m thick at Jahu Street, and much of the layer had been deposited there in a rather short window of time, said the archaeologist. In comparison, the cultural layer at a temporary settlement site may only be just a couple of centimetres deep.
Dig, bag, sort later
Each time the excavation of a new section of the plot begins, the pit is divided up grid-style into sectors, which are meticulously excavated one at a time using shovels and smaller hand tools. Any item that is found is placed into a dated plastic bag marked with the address and the "coordinates" of the section of grid in which the item was found, to be dealt with later; there are new bags for each day.
One set of bags is the exception, and in turn contain many smaller plastic bags likewise marked with the address, date and section found. These are items that had been found with the help of a metal detector, which is used every now and then to sweep for anything that may have been missed by human hands and eyes. Undetectable even with the extra help, many of the items found have been made of wood, leather and other materials that typically degrade but were kept well preserved buried as they were in manure and moist earth.
The plastic bags, I was told by Ilves, were important for this reason — much like shipwrecks being lifted from the seabed, after centuries of being buried in the earth, some artifacts could risk damage if they were suddenly unearthed and left to dry in the open air and sun.
At that point in August, Bernotas estimated that hundreds of items were still being found per day, steadily increasing the total of thousands of items found to date. An item, he explained, was any "find that had been made or processed by man." These had included a vast array of items, intact and broken alike, such as bits of window glass, pilgrimage badges, a carved bone chess piece, a tiny metal toy horse, candlesticks, coins, utensils, and jewellery, as well as pieces of shoe leather, bits of textile, wooden items such as combs, and even human and animal hair.
By multiple accounts, the new Kalamaja find was easily one of the largest yet in the Baltics, if not all of Northern Europe, and the items found there will help fill in some gaps in the history of Estonia's capital city. And yet by the time next summer rolls around, the unearthed artifacts will all have been sorted, cleaned and catalogued by the various museums to which they were sent already, and the students who dug them up will have to find a new summer job — perhaps at another, future dig.
But there is still plenty of work left to do for Estonia's archaeologists, historians and museum workers. With any luck, the public will one day get the chance to see these items, once buried below their homes and their feet, up close in an exhibit.
Editor: Dario Cavegn