Medieval Transylvania Cemetery Excavations


The Jucu de Sus medieval cemetery excavations, Cluj, Transylvania

Transylvania Bioarchaeology is a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to investigating the bioarchaeology of the Transylvania region in Romania. It runs summer fieldschools that allow students and graduates of archaeology and other related fields at institutions worldwide to work on real archaeological research projects and gain valuable experience. Since its foundation in 2012, the organisation has concentrated on the post-excavation analysis of a collection of skeletal remains from a 5th – 7th century cemetery in the area of the Gepids but in 2014 a new project was initiated, in collaboration with the Institute of Archaeology and Art History, Cluj-Napoca, to continue the excavation of an 11th – 12th century cemetery at Jucu de Sus, around 30km northwest of Cluj, partially excavated by the Institute a few years before. The project would be a lesson in international collaboration and how to marry the needs of fieldschool students and the demands of archaeological research.

The previous excavations had revealed that the cemetery was dug into and around the walls of an abandoned Roman villa rustica (countryside villa) and contained poorly furnished west-east aligned single inhumation graves, with relatively good preservation of the skeletal remains. There were also a small number of cremation burials recovered from the periphery of the cemetery that probably dated to the 8th century and were associated with a nearby settlement. The site had originally been investigated in advance of development of the area as an industrial park, with parts of the cemetery left unexcavated following preservation orders, and was now within the confines of a solar farm.

I was to co-direct the site for Transylvania Bioarchaeology, my first time working in Romania, alongside my Romanian colleague, Dr. Ioan Stanciu, with assistance from Transylvania Bioarchaeology staff Katie Hunt and Nick Ogden. We had eighteen students, some of whom had travelled from as far away as Australia, China, the USA and Canada to take part and who had varying amounts of experience, with most of them having never previously been on an excavation. By the end of their four weeks on site in June and July 2014, the aim was to have given them the best possible training experience in all aspects of excavation and site recording, whilst also ensuring that the work they undertook and the records they produced were of a standard that could be used in future publications of the site.

The beginning of the project was certainly a steep learning curve for the students but the staff were not immune as we had to face challenges from the weather, the idiosyncratic Romanian public transport system—trains that even the staff in the main station didn’t appear to know had stopped running for the summer—student illness, and language barriers: the site had to be run in a combination of English (which my co-director could partly understand but not speak), French (which I understood a little but couldn’t speak), and German (a language we luckily shared, although with nothing near fluency on my part!) We also had to deal with wandering sheep destroying our carefully laid-out site grids—although we were able to use this as an exercise for the students in remembering and recreating what we had taught them the previous day!—and discovering that far from there being a good 30 – 40 cm of topsoil and subsoil covering the graves, as we had been led to expect, unauthorised levelling of the site with heavy machinery had left a number of the burials just a few centimetres under the surface. This resulted in some unfortunate accidents with mattocks and skulls, although luckily (if this is the right word) this only happened to members of staff, which actually gave the students more confidence to not be scared of the archaeology as even experienced excavators couldn’t prevent things like that from happening.

The project was also a slightly different experience for me as on previous excavations, I may have been expected to do some training and supervision but I was largely able to get on with my own digging and recording. Here we made the decision that the students would be doing all of the work themselves, from laying out the grid to excavating the graves, taking the photographs, filling in the paperwork, doing the drawings and working the level. This required a great deal of initial training and then a high level of supervision and monitoring on a day-to-day basis, not only to make sure that everybody was happy and knew what they were doing but also to ensure that there were no mistakes with the recording that would create major problems when everything had to be written up. Having eighteen students on site asking constant questions and needing help to resolve problems with planning frames and Harris matrices was a full-time job for all of the Transylvania Bioarchaeology staff, although at times it was also difficult to resist the temptation to take my trowel into a grave just to be able to do a bit of “real work”.

The strategy we had decided to adopt for the project definitely paid off as, at the end of four weeks on site, we had excavated ten graves with the drawings, photographs and paperwork being completed to a standard that I would have expected from much more experienced archaeologists than any of our students were at the beginning of the project. We had succeeded in giving them the skills they would need to be able to work very competently on other excavation projects and we can hope that the project also inspired them to want to carry on with archaeology in some capacity, whether that is as a career or a hobby.

The project is contracted to run until at least 2019 and with the possibility that there are up to a thousand graves remaining to be excavated, we are looking forward to welcoming a whole new group—and hopefully some students who want to come back and do it for a second year—to the project and to the ups and downs of archaeological fieldwork.

Katie Tucker
Transylvania Bioarchaeology and Department of Archaeology, University of Winchester

Image: photo by author

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