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Students Dig Transylvania, Romania


This summer Assistant Professor of Anthropology Colin Quinn, along with Jada Langston ’20, Sophia Coren ’21, and Lana Dorr ’21, are conducting archaeological fieldwork in Transylvania, Romania. The MARBAL (Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmet Bronze Age Landscape) Project is a collaborative partnership between Hamilton College, the University of Cambridge (UK), and Muzeul National al Unirii-Alba Iulia (Romania).

The MARBAL Archaeology Project

July 17 - Blogger Jada Langston ’20 describes what the team has been doing during the first month in Romania in this Q and A post. 

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Jada Langston ’20 takes notes while collecting soil samples. Photo: Colin Quinn
Where are we digging?

We are digging at an Early Bronze Age site in the commune of Râmet in Transylvania, Romania. This is a human burial site, so we are not excavating dinosaurs (those are paleontologists). During this time, about 2700-2000 BC, people would travel from the valleys to high peaks of hills and mountains to bury their dead. Many archaeologists speculate that they did this to mark territory – people would see the mounds in the distance and know someone lived there or they created these mounds to create links to the land from their ancestors. These mounds are found throughout Transylvania and could be seen on many hilltops throughout the area.

Why are we digging on the edge of the mound instead of the on top?

Usually when archaeologists are excavating at a burial mound, the just dig straight down the mound to get to the burial site with all the artifacts. However, the mound that we are excavating is much bigger than usual mounds and would take multiple years to fully excavate.

So, co-directors Colin Quinn, Jess Beck, and Dr. Horia Ciugudean chose to start excavating the surrounding area of the mound for the first year of excavation. To do this, we opened nine 2x2 meter units and three 1x2 meter units from along the edge and extended it up onto a small portion of the mound. These outer units were to give us more context of what was happening around the burial site as we try to get a full view of the landscape or a complete picture of the site at the time it was built. So far, we have found multiple features that suggest some activities occurred in the area surrounding the mound.

Why are you taking so many sediment samples?

During excavation, we had taken 68 sediment samples from around the site. A soil sample is a collection of about 100ml of dirt in a plastic bag that was taken from a specific point (northing, easting, and elevation) within the site to be used for specific scientific analysis such as X-Ray Fluorescence or an isotope analysis which both are used to give insight on what the elemental composition of the rock or material is.

Also, when combined with GIS, these different techniques can give us spatial awareness of the site, such as if calcium was found in a specific area or phosphorus was found all around a specific unit. This can give you more information on the possible activities that took place around the mound and be used for further research.

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Horizontal excavations at the Râmet site help us understand different activities that occurred on and off the large burial mound. Photo: Colin Quinn
Future Research?

Next summer, Colin, Jess, and Dr. Ciugudean plan to come back and resume excavations on top of the mound into the burial. Hopefully, they are able to exhume the skeletons and other possible features, such as post holes, and artifacts within the mound. If they find ceramics with a particular design, they can pinpoint a certain time period of when this burial was made and used. They can also do isotopic analysis on the skeletons to find out what they were eating and how they may have died.

Possible DNA analysis can be done to figure out whether the people living in the site where relatives or if this tomb was shared by multiple groups that were in a possible alliance with each other. There is so much more research that that could be done at this one site. This is only the beginning.

July 13 - In this post, Sophia Coren describes “rescue archaeology” and the steps involved in excavating, sorting, and classifying artifacts found at the site.

The National Museum of the Union in Alba Iulia has thousands of unsorted artifacts that have been recently found during rescue archaeology excavations. Rescue archaeology is often carried out before construction or land development. Due to time constraints and lack of resources in the field, the artifacts found during these excavations are bagged and then brought to the museum to be analyzed and stored. Last month, we went to the museum to begin sorting artifacts from a rescue archaeology site that was excavated in Alba Iulia last year. We ended up taking a total of 12 large crates of artifacts for analysis.

Each crate was filled with bags of artifacts, and each bag had to be sorted separately since they were from different features, such as pits and houses, within the site. We used plastic trays to organize the artifacts by type.

After we finished sorting a bag, we put each type of artifact into a new clear, plastic ziplock bag labeled with the site name, complex, and type of artifact. Most bags contain ceramics, stone, daub, faunal bones, and occasionally shells.

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Bronze Age artifacts. Photo: Sophia Coren '21

We also found a couple cart wheels and ground stones as well as figurines and lithics. Ceramics are classified as either diagnostic or nondiagnostic. Diagnostic ceramics have distinguishing characteristics such as shape or decoration. These characteristics tell us something about the artifact such as what part of the ceramic it belonged to (base, rim, or handle) or what time period/culture it was from.

Daub, like ceramic, is made from clay; however, the two are usually easy to tell apart. Ceramics have two distinct sides and are tempered with small pieces of rock and sand. Daub is clay which has been added to a wattle structure. It does not have a distinct shape and is usually only preserved if it has been baked (e.g. if the structure was burned down).

We spent over 15 hours sorting during the past week. This saves time for our Romanian collaborators by allowing them to focus on analyzing only the materials they are interested in. Sorting has also allowed Dr. Jess Beck and Professor Colin Quinn to select samples of animal bone for isotopic analysis at Cambridge and ceramics for pXRF analysis back at the Hamilton College Archaeology Lab.

Sorting these artifacts has helped me better understand the archaeology of Transylvania and what materials were available at the time. I found the diagnostic ceramics to be the most interesting; the designs are intricate and unique to either the Copper Age or Bronze Age. I was also fascinated by the small, clay cart wheels that we found. These miniature cart wheels were attached to small toy carts and are replicas of the real, wooden wheels that were used at the time.

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Sophia Coren '21, Lana Dorr '21, and Jada Langston '20 are working with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Colin Quinn in Romania.

A Different Era, A Perfect Place to Dig Up the Past

June 26 - In this post, Lana Dorr recounts her experience of the first trips to the archaeological site of Ramet-Gugului, an Early Bronze Age tomb high in the Apuseni Mountains in Alba County. Check back weekly for updates from the group.

It’s 6 a.m. when I crawl out of bed for our first day in the field. Getting ready is a slow process with my sleepy brain still barely able to function. As I look out the window of our apartment I see thick white fog covering the rooftops and I dread the idea that we’ll make our hour drive into the mountains only to find torrential downpours.

Our large van makes its way through the city and then outer neighborhoods until we hit a bumpy dirt road that starts to slant up. We are in the thick of the fog now, right inside of a big cloud that just barely lets us see the green of the forest lining the road. We zigzag uphill farther and farther and suddenly we exit the cloud and the view becomes clear.  

We are on a narrow road high up on one side of a huge valley. Below us slopes lush forest and in the distance tall mountains complete the valley’s other edge. The mountains are steep and green with some faces covered in exposed limestone. When we finally park I look out on a storybook landscape. Rolling hills fill the valley, covered with swaying golden grains and speckled by the yellows, purples, and whites of thriving wildflowers. The mountains seem even more immense when I spot the tiny terracotta roofs and bright white church steeple in the distance. They sit on the mountainside, specks of manmade color in the sea of green trees that coat the slopes. One hill near us sprouts tall green birch trees at its top, this grove is where we’ll dig for the next three weeks.

The goal of our excavation is to study the remains of a Bronze Age tomb in order to better understand this culture’s mortuary practices, which can, in turn, reveal important details about their way of life.

The next day the wind blows harshly as I look between the white tree trunks that surround our site at what could be the picturesque Sound of Music set. Golden hills and green mountains surround me and to my delight, a flock of sheep crests one side of the hill and makes its way toward us. An excited shaggy sheepdog skips around the flock and soon I spot their shepherd. With a small staff in his hand and fluffy white sheep at his feet, he fits the landscape perfectly. This valley feels like a different era, the perfect place to dig up the past.

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