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Archaeology, Classical & Medieval Archaeology in Romania by Hannah Clayton

Romanian dancing

I first heard about Projects Abroad in a school assembly informing us about different activities we could do on a gap year and the thought of adventuring overseas and doing something different appealed to me. An archaeological placement seemed ideal, as I had always dreamt of being able to make my own ‘Indiana Jones’ discoveries!

It was also my interest in history that drew me to Romania - I had heard of its turbulent political past and wanted to see how that had impacted the country. I booked my place on a whim, not really thinking about the fact that I had never travelled abroad on my own. This is how I ended up in Romania during a two-week half term in school. Luckily my impulsive decision to take the archaeology placement would not disappoint.

As I had travelled from the airport in Bucharest to my host family’s house in Brasov in the dead of night, I hadn’t really been able to tell what sort of place I would be spending the next two weeks in. The following morning, with some instructions from Alex (my Projects Abroad supervisor) I managed to find the town centre.

Archaeology project

When I finally got there, I was struck by the picturesque setting. At the centre was a large fountain, which I was later to learn was the favourite meeting place of all the local volunteers. I then wondered round the many shops, picking up a chocolate pretzel to munch on the way. On my way round, I noticed an imposing gothic church - little did I know that I would be lucky enough to spend my time working in the grounds of that church.

My Archaeology placement

As I was only able to stay for two weeks, I spent my time working in a single location. I spent my time excavating around the historic Black Church. The reason the excavation was taking place here was that when any location of historical and archaeological significance is to be built upon; it must first be excavated to ensure that any possible artefacts or information that can be gathered from the site are preserved.

Upon arrival on my first day I was given a speedy tour of the site and a brief introduction regarding what I would be doing. As we were working in the church grounds, I was told that inevitably there would be many skeletons (particularly as some of the work was undertaken on an area, which used to be a graveyard). However, I had no time to be squeamish as roughly ten minutes later I had been handed a trowel, scalpel and brush, and was ordered to scramble down the trench and begin cleaning a skeleton, which another worker had just uncovered.

Archaeology placement

Although I only worked on a single site, the work was varied and I learnt a great deal in a short space of time. My time at work was spent digging, cleaning finds, measuring the depth at which discoveries had been found as well as photographing them in situ and bagging anything of interest.

Finds made during the time I was there included part of a wall, jewellery, pottery and human skeletons. We also found a group of skeletons buried in a strange manner. From the upright position of one it was deduced that it could have been buried alive. There was also a clay semi-circle.

Due the fact that every time we tried to work in this trench after this discovery something happened to prevent us (like a fearsome storm in the night) it gained the nickname the ‘mouth of hell’. However, this was not merely us being overly dramatic - the expert archaeologists on site did in fact admit that they believed it could have been the result of an ancient Hungarian burial ritual, dating from before Christianity had been introduced to Romania. Not bad for my first experience of archaeology!

Exploring Transylvania

Most volunteers have the opportunity to undertake independent travel after their placement, allowing them to travel around the country (or surrounding countries) of their placement at leisure. However, due to the short amount of time I was able to stay in Romania, I was unable to do this so I was determined to squeeze in as much sightseeing as I could.

Weekend trip

Naturally, this had to include a visit to the famous Bran castle, where Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is supposedly set. The castle defied my expectations completely - it wasn’t spooky in the slightest, but was rather a small and charming castle. We were lucky enough to have picked a day when there was some sort of celebration going on (we couldn’t tell what exactly!), so were treated to a performance of traditional Romanian dancing by some adorable local school children.

The next day a small group of us took a bus to Bucharest, as I was desperate to visit the National History Museum. Being in Romania for so little time had its perks, as it meant that everyone was happy to let me decide what to do! Finding the museum turned out to be an adventure in itself, as the taxi driver took us to the wrong museum. However, thanks to the help of a kind Romanian lady who pointed us in the right direction and even rang another taxi for us, we got there eventually, meaning I was still able to visit the museum.

As I have a strong interest in Roman history, the replica of the Trajan column was a highlight for me. The ‘Treasures of China’ exhibition was also a highlight, as we were able to see some of the renowned terracotta warriors.

Leaving Brasov

When being introduced to the other volunteers and workers, many had expressed disbelief at the fact that I was only there for two weeks. This surprised me as I had originally thought that two weeks would be ample time for me to gain a taste of archaeology and to explore Brasov and the surrounding area. However, time of course flew by and before I knew it I had to leave.

Bran castle

I had arrived anxious at the prospect of spending what seemed to me a very long time with a group of people I had never met before, as well as staying with a family who spoke little English in a foreign country. However, I left wishing that I could extend my stay - something that I would have done if I didn’t have to return to school the following week!

My host family had been warm and welcoming from the very moment I stepped through the door. They ensured that I stayed well fed and my host mum always made sure I left with a coat and an umbrella. Most of the other volunteers were older than me, either taking a gap year or gaining some work experience during their time at university. This meant that I was the baby of the group and everyone made sure to look out for me!

Upon arrival I had no idea of what to expect both from the country itself and from the people I would meet. My worries proved unfounded, as I left feeling as if I had grown as a person and knowing that I had made lifelong friends who, despite coming from all around the world, I would stay in touch with.

One of the great things about taking up a volunteer placement, regardless of whether it involves archaeology or teaching drama, is that it draws like-minded people, who often share the same interests and values. I had so many new experiences and I’d say that travelling to Romania on my own certainly helped me to gain a sense of independence and achievement.

Read more about Archaeology in Romania

Hannah Clayton

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