We first met for dinner amidst the alleys of the Old Town in Bucharest with statues that served to remind us that Vlad the Impaler once trampled through its magnificent infrastructure. The world had descended on Bucharest that day; Americans, Australians, Europeans, Canadians even Mexico and me from Trinidad. The night ended with archaeology enthusiasts and history lovers from every part of the globe getting to know each other. I got to know that I wasn’t alone, that others like me existed, for whom history, its secrets and thoughts of buried treasure kept us up at wee hours.
I had heard of other archaeological digs before at our college’s annual Archaeology Day. Colleagues would return with tales that included descriptions of hot, humid, dry, digging for hours even as the sun lay taunting them, sunburn, bruises and perhaps even dangers. Halmyris was all that and they warned us well, by the second week the heat would make you question your life choices. I knew this was going to be a challenge and adventure is certainly not for the faint of heart but Halmyris turned out to be much more than that. Beneath each layer we uncovered, history dared us to reach further. The first day I had seen the possibilities that lay ahead, with the western gate looming ahead, inviting us into a world no one hears much about as they do Stonehenge or the Pyramids. We honeycombed our way from the bath complex and the martyrical crypt, from ancient tower to tower with no less than a scholar from Oxford guiding us. Halmyris was this great mystery only now coming into light and we were still among the pioneers since most of it still lies covered. It had so much to offer among its multiple layers. Everyone had passed through Halmyris, from ancient Getic-Dacian tribes who roamed the area to the arrival of Greeks at Histria and then off course was there anywhere the Romans didn’t go? Inclusive was Byzantine influence as well.
The professors and directors were welcoming and gave so much hands on training and allowed everyone the opportunity to see how an excavation of a trench took place from beginning to end and that’s the great part about Halmyris, the unique archaeological opportunities to learn around every corner from how to hold a shovel to marking the outlines of the new trench, making records of what we found to figuring out what finds were important and those that was just another rock! We had archaeological commandments to follow, who has heard of that? It was as though the ancient past spoke to us with every layer we revealed.
In the evenings we learnt how to take care of the pottery and then we had lectures, more history.If the Europeans were around you could count on practicing you German as well. Some of the best minds lectured us even “God” himself, a charming Romanian archaeologist, who knew every corner of the place. The lectures were fascinating and some even took place in real time at archaeological sites such as the one at Histria. I remembered it as a perfect evening. Where else in the world could we be standing among the ancient ruins of an early Greek city with class taking place among fallen columns that your hands can reach and touch as the sun was getting ready to set. This Greek archaeologist had gathered us to transport us back in time. I heard of no such greater opportunities for learning from the myriad of sites my friends in NYC had been to.
Of course fun was never far from round the corner. We had our nightly share of activities even with our leaders at the helm. A young energetic American scholar and one of our lecturers always made sure our experience was anything but mundane. You could play pool and if you chose the right corner from which to hit the ball you could win every time, just saying, having a good drink with new friends, having more drinks on weekends in all out parties, everything was an excuse to celebrate at Murighiol, the village we stayed at nearby. I distinctly remembered one of our fellow mates and trench leaders commenting as we got off the bus the first day, “there goes the neighborhood.”
Yes our village was extremely tiny and sometimes we had Wi-Fi problems but, I never heard of an adventure that went smoothly. It gave me the chance to get off Facebook and go take a walk in the countryside, because I lived there! I could literally stop and smell the roses, take a walk to the magnificent Danube river three blocks away and sometimes just stop and stare at the moon because it always shone so brightly over our garden or perhaps gaze at the Delta as it changed from gold to purple at dusk, a chance to reminisce on life in the ancient world here and be contemplative.
The Romanians were quite generous, welcoming and kind. Our landlord was always willing to lend a hand and thank god they cooked food for us on weekends because I might have been lost at the general store and I mean general, they had everything from food to business suits. The food was nothing less than delicious and exceptional. Now I’m stalking Romanian restaurants in NYC to see who has any mici on the menu. There was always dinner and entertainment since there was among us, one who was exceptionally crafted by the muses with the skill for comedy as well as history.
Every weekend we had the opportunity to learn about our host country. I recall we explored the Danube one weekend and trekked ancient Histria, Tomis and swam in the Black Sea the next. I realized this was not Greece or Rome itself but, it was a chance to explore one of Rome’s frontiers and the people they had ruled over in Dacia and Scythia Minor. It was a chance to explore outside the boundaries of my own degree. Romania is one of those countries that had a lot to offer. It is where Bram Stoker and tales of Dracula arose from the real life exploits of Vlad and to see how the hearts of the Romanians beat proudly whenever his name is mentioned.
By the end of it all you do not leave Halmyris finding great friends but, a new family. One which does not ask you to change the channel when it’s the History Channel. They are the kind of people who would help make such stories possible we see only on TV; the explorers, the innovators, the scholars, the archaeologists, we have come from different countries, different scholarly backgrounds and yet we found common solace in our love of the ancient world. I spoke this way about Halmyris at the recent conference Hunter College hosts each year for International Archaeology Day in New York City. Halmyris turned out to be a star, I gathered, since I was faced with so many questions, my lecture lasted surprisingly longer than expected. As I once again listened to the other budding archaeologists speak I found myself thinking I’m so glad the gods guided my hands in choosing Halmyris as my first dig.