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Wandering with Sam
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Posted: Oct 25, 2005  17:43

Slavic Excavation Along the Elbe in Niedersachsen


Vietze, a small village located between Hamburg and Berlin.
In September 2005, I spent four weeks participating in an archaeology excavation in the village of Vietze along the Elbe River in Northern Germany. Vietze is a tiny village in the eastern part of Niedersachsen and located about halfway between Hamburg and Berlin.

The Seminar für Ur-und Frühgeschichte (seminar for prehistory and early history) at Göttingen University has been excavating Slavic settlements along the Elbe River over the past several years. The Slavic people are the ancestors of many of the modern nations and languages of Eastern Europe and they occupied the area along the Elbe in Germany until they were absorbed into the Christian and German speaking culture in the late Middle Ages. This excavation focused on the late Slavic period of the eighth to eleventh centuries, so roughly contemporary with the Carolingian, Ottonian, and Salian periods of imperial rule in what is now Germany.

Excavation at a Slavic settlement.

The archaeology group consisted of an instructor and a couple of graduate students from Göttingen who basically ran the excavation, and a group of about ten students who were there for a four week session. Most of the students were Germans, also from Göttingen, but there were a few of us from other countries as well, including Poland, Belgium, Ireland, Japan and the United States. The local newspaper, the Elbe-Jeetzel-Zeitung in Dannenburg, even featured a photo of the foreign students in their article about the excavation (17 September, 2005).

The attic where Sam slept after a long hard day.
We all lived together in the top two levels of a large house in Vietze. Although most of the other people had to double up in rooms on the main level of our apartment, I had a small room in the attic pretty much to myself, although I was quite close to the moths and spiders that lived in the dusty timber and thatch walls outside my room.

Our living quarters were fairly crowded, but more than adequate. It beat sleeping in tents, which is what I was half expecting when I first applied for the program. It only seemed crowded in the morning when we clustered around the tiny kitchen at breakfast or when everyone needed to get into the bathroom. Breakfast and lunch was typically bread, cheese, and cold cuts of deli meat along with coffee and juice. I swear I was so sick of sandwiches after a month of them twice a day! After breakfast, we would head to the excavation site, either in a VW van or by bicycle.

Sam at the excavation site.
The excavation site was located in a potato field on the outskirts of the village next to a swampy river. On a typical day, we would arrive at eight in the morning. First we would clear all the animals that had crawled into our trench overnight, including frogs, salamanders and sometimes mice. Then, we would retrieve our tools from the Bauwagen (farm trailer); shovels, spades, trawls, foam pads for our knees, red string, measuring rods, color pencils, drawing boards, buckets for soil samples and plastic bowls for finds. A couple people would set up the surveying equipment, which was a surveying level on a tripod (like what surveyors use) and a rod with metric measurements.

The trench was divided into areas of interest, referred to as Befunden, and each of these was supposed to contain evidence of Slavic material culture. This was largely pieces of ceramic pottery, animal bones, charcoal, occasional iron items like a knife, and even more rare items like a tenth century German coin.

An Otto II coin with labeling.

Our perpetual job was to gradually remove layers of soil from the areas of interest while recording as much as possible the extant evidence of Slavic occupation through photography, drawings, data, and proper labeling of any finds. The typical strategy was to divide an area into four quarters, then to gradually remove layers of soil from each quarter, one at a time. Every five inches or so was considered to be a level or a planum, which would be photographed, drawn, and described individually. So each area would have several layers, referred to as Planum 1, Planum 2, etc. Once I had worked down to the next Planum, I would then carefully clean away all the loose soil so that the tightly packed surface and any bones or shards of pottery in situ would be quite evident. After wetting the surface with a water canister, we could then photograph it. Wetting the surface made the color contrast between different types of soil more evident.

Once I worked through all the layers in the first quadrants, I would then photograph and draw a side profile of the two exposed cuts in that quadrant. By excavating the feature in quarters, we can record the feature with four levels of drawing and four side profiles (one on each side, and two that form a cross through the middle. This abstract approach allows for a somewhat three dimensional visual record of the area.

The area that I spent the four weeks working in, Befund 19, consisted of a six foot wide and probably three feet deep deposit of very dark and grainy soil, rich with burnt loam (hardened orange clay like substance), charcoal, and fragments of bones. This area included a likely fire pit, numerous shards of broken pottery, two rusted iron knives, a spindle whirl (a weight for a spinning loom), animal bones, thick fish bones, fish scales, small pieces of charcoal, chunks of burnt loam, clay deposits, and a possible post hole for a building, all from about a thousand years ago. The posthole was conjectural, because it was simply a six inch wide column of dark soil which also could have been caused by an animal burrowing through there. An adjacent site to mine included a stone hearth for an oven and possibly more post holes in addition to trash piles and burn piles.

Pottery shards found at the excavation site.
Pottery seems to be a very important archaeological find because it was so ubiquitous and the styles from different periods often provide a means of dating. However, the pottery was always fragments, never a complete vessel, like what can be seen in major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is because intact pottery vessels tend to be those created specifically for being sealed into a burial tomb until it is discovered by archaeologists’ centuries later. The pottery vessels in a settlement were used for water storage or cooking and were only thrown away when they were broken or no longer useful.

As I wiled away the long hours of scraping away one layer of soil after another with a spade, I formed a mental image of the Slavic village. I imagined a small cluster of ten feet wide wooden buildings with reed floors and burning fires clustered around an open space near the shores of the Elbe River underneath a full moon. I could visualize fish carcasses hanging near the shore of the river, the days catch being hung out to dry. Perhaps they had small boats pulled up on the shore, and perhaps some of the buildings functioned as more specialized buildings like potteries, smithies, or weaving looms. This settlement would have existed and thrived along the shores of the Elbe River at the same time as Henry IV’s period of penance in the snow at Canossa in 1077, or when William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel to Hastings in 1066. So I was handling every day material objects that would have been contemporary with that time period, and perhaps were last handled by people back then.

I also enjoyed being in a natural setting where I could hear the wind blowing through the trees, hawks circling in the air, and noisy flocks of geese heading south for the winter. Also, I saw countless animals that lived in farm fields and who inevitably burrowed their way into our excavation site, such as the frogs and salamanders that we had to rescue every morning. And the other ubiquitous animal presence was thousands of potato beetles or Colorado Beetles that continuously migrated across the trench. I had never seen these tiny striped beetles before, but apparently they are an import from North America. Because they are so damaging to potatoes, many Europeans actually believed that Americans deliberately sent them to Europe to destroy their potato crops in an effort to starve them or to become dependent on American exports. This was the official propaganda of the Third Reich and of the East German Government, but I think it is more likely that they ended up in Europe by accident.

For most of my four weeks, the temperature exceeded ninety degrees, so the days could seem quite long and exhausting, especially with the hot sun beating down on me all day. I would go through about a gallon of water every day to offset dehydration. Also my arms and my face were really sunburned at first. Towards the end of the four weeks, it cooled down considerably, so that it was quite pleasant to work outside. We did not work outside when it rained, especially because that made it impossible to record our findings, but this was only an issue on two days.

Sam and the group he worked with at the Altmark Megalith.
We usually worked in pairs. Most of us worked quite silently, focusing on our tasks with a very serious no nonsense approach. Even people who were more outgoing in the evening tended to be quite silent and focused during the day. But a few people tended to be a bit more livlier, especially us foreign students, with our side discussions and a bit of humor. How else could you get through a long day of meticulously scraping dirt away from a large trench that was just going to be filled in again at the end of October as if we had never been there? We covered just about every discussion topic possible, including prophetic dreams, spiritual healing, and politics. A student from Ireland, a self-proclaimed “wind up merchant”, loved to push people’s buttons, which meant that he always had a comment about Yankee Doodle Land or how the Germans could be excessively precise when it came to measurements. And there was a Polish student who did not speak any English, so I had to use my broken German to communicate with him, which he found amusing. So we had a myriad of different personalities working together in that trench.

Sam and Agnes at the end of a hard day.
At five o’clock, we were ready to haul all of our tools back to the Bauwagen and head home for dinner. Everyone took a shower to clean all of the grime off and then we prepared dinner. We had made an arrangement with a local dairy farm in which they would prepare a meal for us that we could just heat up on the stove (we didn’t have a microwave). Typically the meals consisted of potatoes (Kartoffeln) and some variation of pork (Schwein), but it was often a casserole or soup, all made from fresh local ingredients, and tasted quite good. Germany would be an organic consumer’s delight, since genetically altered crops apparently are illegal. We typically ate dinner together, sometimes outside in the "garden" under the stars, despite the numerous mosquitoes from the swampy Elbe shore.

Since there was nothing to do in Vietze as far as nightlife goes, we would usually sit around and visit in the while drinking a few beers, or we would watch Hollywood movies overdubbed in German, MTV, soccer matches, or the news, which at that time was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the upcoming German election. Sometimes I would try reading one of my books, but because we spent so much time outside working hard, I was usually dozing off by ten o’clock.


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