Last week I was desperately trying to access an e-book to avoid going all the way to the library (as you do, being a lazy student). Eventually I messaged my friend Charlie and asked her to access it through her uni instead. And waited. In the meantime, I went on the hunt for another book. I knew this one was hanging out on my hard-drive somewhere, so I checked all my recent folders; then my old folders; then my back-up folders. And what do I find? No not the second book, but that first book I asked Charlie about hours earlier. I actually had it on my laptop all along. The interesting thing about this story, is why I had it: my Romanian friend and excavation director Iulian had uploaded it to my drive in the summer of 2013, so I would have something to read when there was no internet or light in the evening. It is a book on Hittite history fyi – because that counts as good night-time reading among archaeologists.
Part 1: Wait, this isn’t Troy?!
So, why would I need something to read in a dark Romanian room? Take a couple of steps back with me. In 2013 I was about to participate in the holy grail of excavations. An American team had convinced the Turkish authorities to take over excavations at Troy, and I e-mailed my way to a spot on the project. However, when I arrived at the site, it was a little… deserted. Staff at the restaurant/hotel next door explained all the archaeologists had suddenly cancelled their reservations. Not sure why. True enough, an e-mail soon arrived in my inbox: yeah, the project got cancelled. Thanks for keeping me updated I suppose?! Really, the e-mail was about 3 lines I think? 3 lines that made on hell of a difference to my summer. I was now on a dusty mountain in Turkey, with no job or accommodation. See, I had cleverly moved out of my expensive Cambridge room, to save some much needed money. Booking a last-minute ticket from Istanbul to London and then paying a month`s extra rent on top of that was… not in the budget. It would be fair to insert some swearing here.
Fortunately, I have very resourceful parents. While I was contemplating in which restaurant to ask for work with my limited Turkish, they got in touch with a friend. Does he know some excavation for their daughter? Oh yes, sure he does. This is where Iulian comes in. Iulian in Romania could really use an extra hand. Google quickly showed a flight from Istanbul to Constanta was infinitely cheaper than returning to London, so the choice was easily made. Onward to Romania! (Side-note: it turns out the excavation was cancelled because of all the protests that had been taking place that summer. Remember it in the news? Yeah the Turkish government revoked a few hundred excavation licenses in retaliation. Hmm.)
This is already a rather long story to tell, so let me skip over Taksim protests and move on to landing in Constanta. I was so lucky to be picked up by Iulian and his wife Florina, because I am not sure I would have ended up on the right bus otherwise, and I am very sure I would have gotten off at the wrong stop. It was not exactly a stop see, it was a crossing in the middle of nowhere I would have had no way of recognising, maybe ca. 50-70 km outside of Constanta in the Romanian countryside (I refer you to the above map). They explained that most locals would do the last few km. to the site by donkey, but we were going to get picked up by the one and only car! Whoo! (Mental note: no way back now…)
Part 2: Hello Histria
They gave me a quick tour: toilets (yes!), but they do not always work (oh, no…). Showers (yes!!), but they do not always work (f…). Electricity (yes! laptop-charging!), but light attracts vicious mosquitoes (always bring a mosquito-net kids). Internet? Well, at the restaurant down the road, if you are very nice to them, and buy something (it is called Cherhana Histria and does a fantastic lemonade) (overpriced for the tourists). See all in all this is pretty good, but … I was not prepared. I had prepared for a nice summer with some Americans, who like toilets and showers and internet. This was essential for that particular summer, because I was writing my MPhil dissertation. I had promised my supervisor I would dig a bit in the morning, and then write the rest of the day. So that was going to be a lot more difficult. I cannot buy infinite amounts of lemonade you know. I think Iulian and Florina could probably read maybe a sprinkle of shock on my face, which is how I got to stay in the ‘nice guest room’ the first few days, and the ‘good upstairs room’ afterwards. I cannot tell you how hospitable they were. I must have seemed so I don`t know, innocent, annoying, foreign… panicking about internet all day every day like it was the end of the world. But you try telling your Cambridge supervisor you just decided to spend your summer at a small Romanian excavation without access to the outside world. I am not sure if they told me to feel better – but it did make me feel better: apparently in the past students had turned up at the site and left within 5 minutes. (I wondered: HOW?! There was just the donkey…!)
It does not end there. Having wrapped sheets around the slightly mouldy mattress, they explained there are dangerous millipedes in Romania which can paralyze if not kill you (essential Romanian vocab: carcaiac). So I proceeded to millipede-proof the room with notebook-paper and illustration-tape. No holes or cracks left uncovered! It turns out, this was insufficient, and something distinctly hairy materialised, crawling along the wall. Admittedly, I got a little scared. Being an adult is tough sometimes ok. So I ran to Iulian. Yes, I really did, poor guy. And he identified my hairy foe as a friendly millipede. I was still highly suspicious however, and unable to sleep. Upon which he offered me some Hittite reading materials. So that is the story of the book. It is not the end of the Romania (miss)adventures though!
When things look bad (again, at the time, in the context of my dissertation crisis) they tend to get worse. After not showering for a few days it was suggested we try the salt-water lake. The photos make it look beautiful, but dancing around frogs and small snakes while trying to wash your hair is simply not ideal. I also did not know it at the time, but somewhere between Turkey and Romania I had attracted head-lice. Honestly. I figured it out upon returning to England, where after a few good washes I was still surprisingly itchy. Turns out it was not the sand, but the lice. It was really a high-point in my life, telling 20 Cambridge PhD students they needed to wash all their belongings in case I had transferred anything to anyone in the house. And then I have not mentioned shall we say the moment supreme: when our entire team got food poisoning. We had gone on a trip to the beach on our day off, but half-way through it started to look like the surprisingly wide-spread car-sickness was really a different kind of sickness. We had to stop several times, for several people. So, in the summer of 2013, I found myself on my hands and knees vomiting in a random Romanian garden. I am so sorry unknown Romanian family.
Part 3: The Donkey Road Trips
Ok, come on, from there on out, things can only get better right? Our food poisoning was cured by a baptism we were spontaneously invited to. I will never forget little Vlad, that is for sure. We were offered food and drinks until very early in the morning; and said drinks must be what finally killed off the food poisoning. Also, I mentioned the donkeys before. On a different day off, when we were all feeling better, we went to a nearby town by donkey-drawn-carriage. Now, you have to know this first. As a vegetarian, my Romanian countryside diet consists largely of hard white cheese, tomatoes, and fineti (yeah where the food poisoning came from is a good question). Anyway. We spent 3.5 hours donkey-cruising along the Romanian countryside, before reaching … a small pizzeria in Cogealac (it is called da Villaggio, if you ever visit. Tell them I love them). This has got to be, hands down, the best pizza I have ever eaten. And, guess what, they deliver. So the next week, we ordered pizza to the site. I don`t know who thought of it, but this counts as the best idea ever had.
We also made our way to Istria village where the majority of our team was living. Everyone was extremely welcoming and multiple people offered food and drinks. They do a lot of brewing-drinks-at-home in Romania (pálinka); be careful with that. Everyone said hi to Iulian, and we saw little Vlad again as well. At Histria we joked, played football together, and exchanged Facebook details. However, as I have mentioned before, I always feel extremely uncomfortable when I am meant to be the educated leading archaeologist giving orders and that sort of thing. It is hard to understand how people working with us do not take offense. Some have been there for over a decade and would identify artefacts much faster than I could hope to do. I know it is nice to provide local work opportunities, but I do prefer to avoid Downton Abbey type situations.
Hi tortoise friend : )
Part 4: Everyday Life
Of course I have to talk about the actual archaeology a little bit as well. Histria was a Greek colony. Yes, Greek; they made it as far as Romania back in the day. Iason and the Golden Fleece? That story begins in Georgia. It was founded by Milesian settlers (yep, the guys from Miletus, Turkey) in the ca. 7th century BCE. And of course it was ruled by the Romans for a while. Ovid? He was banished to Constanta, just down the coast. Our excavation focused on a temple with Hellenistic as well as Archaic layers. All the way at the bottom we found an anchor, indicative of some interesting worshiping practices. Our days were usually 6am-breakfast, then breakfast-lunch and lunch-3pm. Although we even switched to 5am for a few days because of the heat! And wow, no, I cannot dig holes without breakfast. Remember, always pack emergency biscuits. (And in this case, fineti.)
In the afternoons, I drank a lot of lemonade. The cool, refreshing taste of research! The restaurant was very nice. It had functional toilets and air-conditioning and everything! Sometimes some of the other students joined as well, and we spent ages just chilling and internet-ting. When I decided enough money had been spent on lemonade for the week, I would illustrate the site ceramics. They already had a great illustrator (Florina) but I managed to digitise some pieces in Photoshop. Also, since I was really missing my Irish boy back in Cambridge, with whom I was unable to communicate most days, I decided to learn Irish. I downloaded a bunch of audio files from the BBC which I played while working in Photoshop. As you do, in the Romanian countryside.
In the evenings we often stayed up late talking. This talking happened in Romanian. After a few days they cautiously asked whether I was not bored and would prefer to be excused. I declined because a) that would mean more time alone in the dark with the millipedes and b) my understanding of Romanian was rapidly increasing. It is a lot like Italian = Latin, with some bits I recognise from Bulgarian and Turkish. While I definitely cannot utter a sentence in Romanian today, in 2013 I could certainly follow a conversation. We also spent a lot of time playing cards. Which is, fortunately, universal.
The way back home was no less eventful than coming to Romania. They had suggested I lift my huge purple suitcase onto a carriage and go to the airport by donkey… but fortunately the day I was leaving the site had visitors, and I could catch a lift back to Constanta. The navigation system got a little, or a lot, confused however, and we ended up directly crossing the field with cows in which the airport is located; making it there with only 40 mins. to spare! In Istanbul (where I had to go back to because I had not changed my original flights from the UK) I was kindly allowed to stay with a friend near Taksim for a night. You can imagine, that after my entire Romania adventure, caused by the protests there, I ran across the bloody square. Sadly no one was actually at the apartment for a good few hours, and since I had depleted all my energy, I just sank down on the floor. Not sure what the neighbours thought. Way beyond caring. And then, as you know, upon returning to the UK, there was the head-lice thing.
My friends and family insist that as a result of my (miss)adventures I am never allowed to return. However, looking back now, this was one of the greatest summers ever. Once I got a millipede-routine sorted and stopped crying over my dissertation I was able to appreciate the fantastic archaeology and the even more amazing people. I will try to return, even if it is only to ensure Iulian how incredibly grateful I am for his unfaltering support.