What a joy to find... anything!

Merilyn Säde
, reporter
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Since end of June, archaeological excavations are on in Märjamaa Commune, Rapla County – at a burial area. By now, some 700 items have been unearthed.

It’s in the midst of fields and meadows. At places, people have been making hay. Under the blazing summer sun, volunteers are down on their knees. Tiny shovels in hands, they keep on digging away and sifting the dirt.

Oh what a dark cloud the sifting conjures... Soon, stones of many colours emerge, and little button-sized pieces of bone, and the occasional potsherd. With tremendous luck, a guy or gal may hit upon an ornament or what not. When that happens, the eyes of archaeologists and volunteers light up with great joy.

Busy digging, museum staff was overheard pondering what they might find at all: «If one keeps digging in this spot for an hour and a half, and there ain’t nothing, a piece of a bone will bring great joy.»

To this, all agreed. With a determined grunt, the people then proceeded.

This summer, Maida in the historic Läänemaa has already yielded all kinds of stuff such as a five-legged horse shaped eardrop. Over this curiosity, great pride is being felt. But then there’s also the sugar churro eardrop, a sword, spearheads, and lots of human bone fragments and pieces of clay jars.


Spurred on and fascinated by the findings, the archaeology lovers have set up their tents quite close to the mound. From there, every morning they head out to face another day of «treasure hunting». Equipped with a miniature kitchen corner – electricity, fridge and all – plus a shelter boasting a long table, they sit down at noon and night, eating, chatting a having a good time. 

Among other luxuries is the shower, complete with plastic sheet walls and an iron barrel on top of it. The water in it is direct-solar heated free of charge, daily. The users claim hot water heats up to a whopping 35 degrees Celsius.

Chief of the Excavations Mati Mandel (69), research fellow and curator at Estonian History Museum, provides some backdrop on daily routine: on a not-too-hot day, it is breakfast at 8 am and then the toil begins.

They dig and they dig till 1 o’clock, and having had their pause, the next stop is at 6 pm. «Well we do not have a strict schedule really as this here is voluntary and nobody gets paid,» said the archaeologist.

Asked why the excavations in Maidla, Mr Mandel laughs out loud: «Totally a quirk of mine!» He’s been having his quirk hereabouts ever since 1983...

Great, then, was the research fellow’s surprise when he was told there actually was an untouched area here, never examined.

Making no bones about the bones

«That was such a surprise, as we had been going over the area with a georadar and it showed nothing,» said Mr Mandel and explained that this had been due to the unevenness of the surface. «The archaeologist Heikki Pauts, currently dwelling in Holland, just happened to be there with a detector and out pop two upright spearheads.»

After that, the digging erupted. And the more they dug, the more impressive the stonework discovered.

The stones, tight together and sized about an ostrich egg, are a sure sign of human activity. «They think the stones were to keep the dead from coming back,» said Mr Mandel, adding that whoever died was supposed to stay that way.  

The items found this summer date back to 10th to 13th centuries, mostly. «This year’s diggings may be claimed to be top notch diggings, because no one has such findings,» beamed Mr Mandel.

To his knowledge, mounds of this era are not searched at all right now – while this is where one finds the best stuff. «In fortresses, for instance, there isn’t such an abundance to be found,» thinks the man.

Realising the area is where many have been laid to rest, the archaeologists take a reverent and quiet approach. «But then I have also been thinking that I’m not doing this just for myself, but for the Estonian culture,» said Mr Mandel and went on to explain that the findings, bones included, are never mistreated.

«I personally see to it that these bones be gathered together and placed in a storage somewhere, properly,» said Mr Mandel. According to him, collecting the bones is a thankworthy job as it lets us know the gender of the dead and at what age they passed away. «Thus blood relationships can be researched, this adds a lot to our cultural history.»

Other excavations

•    Gallows Mount (Võllamägi), Haapsalu – follow-up diggings starting today

•    Viljandi Castle Mount (Lossimägi) – diggings kick in next week

•    In Tartu – rescue excavations related to some construction sites

•    Käku, in Kaarma Commune of Saaremaa – unearthing a smithy

Source: University of Tartu’s institute of history and archaeology