Volunteers reflect on life after digging at Halmyris

In archaeology, making the transition from the classroom to the field is tricky and the inverse is true. Thus excavating with a team who cares about your personal success makes all the difference. I found my time excavating with the Halmyris Archaeological field school to be wonderful academically and socially.

When I first arrived on the site I only had an introductory course under my belt, an enthusiasm to learn, and cautionary warnings from professors advising that I may not like fieldwork. Each day in the field assuaged any worrying because most of us were new so I was surrounded in like-minded company. Each day brought new finds! Amidst the dirt and rubble we found corroded coins, an overwhelming amount of pottery, large slabs of stone that functioned as a floor, and portions of walls bordering multiple rooms whose purpose we can only guess.

The month I spent working in the sun shoveling endless amounts of dirt was inspirational because I found not only good friends but also a research project for my senior year. The pieces for my senior thesis came together unexpectedly. I didn’t intend on relishing my time in the field so much; nevertheless, I remembered little research had been conducted on the early Christian martyrs that brought Halmyris to notoriety. I saw an opportunity for new research where I could pioneer my skills as a freshly minted Roman archaeologist. And at the end of the year I won an award from my college for my research but not without help from those I excavated with.

I felt lucky to have returned last year and spend a month way out in the Romanian countryside with good people. I have Halmyris to thank for giving me opportunities to practice a craft in a beautiful environment full of unpredictability with whatever we found amongst the ruins and layers of soil. Keeping in line with the previous thought, the directors presented to me a chance to supervise my own trench. The duties included being responsible for my own crew and ensuring I signed off on all documentation from my trench. Goodness! I took the opportunity in stride and while I didn’t know the answer to every question asked by my crew or myself, I deferred to my friends- the other supervisors for guidance and help.

I believe half the battle of engaging students in a topic they know little about comes from genuine ambassadors willing to explain and break down complex ideas into understandable bits of information. Usually a teacher or professor takes the honor of being that influence in many students’ lives, whether the acknowledgement is spoken or silently appreciated after the fact. Personally, I owe debts of gratitude to many a person. Yet attributing a month constantly surrounded by 40 or so people who changed your life in a totally different direction is a unique situation altogether.

Archaeology isn’t ordinary. In fact, the discipline has its own adventures that rival Indiana Jones! Most adventures in the field aren’t bombastic but rather quiet and subtle. To quote an observation made about the discipline, “[you’re] trying to locate a spark of the human life that had once touched that spot there.” When you excavate in the field alongside living people, you must be aware of their humanity, then the culture you’re investigating becomes easier to understand. Or maybe it’s the other way around, if you appreciate the past then you can appreciate the living. I know that Halmyris helped me love archaeology and has made me want to pursue it as a career. That’s the impact one month can have.

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 My first excursion to Halmyris really did change my entire career path towards being an archaeologist.  I graduated from my undergraduate school with a double major in Classics and Earth and Environmental Science, but still didn’t have a very good idea about what I wanted to do for my own research. The idea of studying something like Rome or Athens never really appealed to me, because so many others had already taken that path. Archaeology seemed like the most logical fusion of my two interests so I decided to dig that summer for 11 weeks at three separate excavations. Halmyris was the only one that I ever returned to because something about the site fascinated me.  It is one of few sites that is being systematically excavated in an area of extreme importance during the later part of the Roman Empire. Perhaps more important to me, it is a site that is far removed from the cities and glamour of the core Roman provinces and cities and thus represents a different quality of life. I soon found an interest in the landscape surrounding the fort and how this region was shaped during the later years of the Roman Empire in response to a myriad of external threats and invasions.  Thus, Halmyris has become the main focus of my work in just a little over five years and can offer a tremendous amount of research potential to other scholars as well.

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Halmyris was, for me, an important stepping stone in pursuing my path in the field of archaeology. I was a member of the Halmyris project during the summer of 2014. Halmyris provided me with the opportunity to collaborate with scholars from many different places, interests, backgrounds, and skill levels. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to further develop my excavation skills and techniques. Recently I was accepted to my top choice MA program in archaeology, and the experiences I gained and the people I met at Halmyris were all vital to this accomplishment. The people I met and learned from at Halmyris have written recommendation letters for me, proofread papers for me, created thesis writing playlists for me, given me indispensable career and life advice, and have introduced me to more and more scholars over the course of the past few years. I think anyone, especially someone who is planning a future in archaeology, could greatly benefit from participating on the Halmyris project.

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Spending four weeks on a site like Halmyris is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. During the excavation everyone has the opportunity to work together and learn about archaeology in a hands on way, regardless of prior experience. But a month spent at Halmyris is about more than just digging, it is also an opportunity to learn about cultures. The excavation team in past years has consisted of people from all kinds of backgrounds and has included Americans, Canadians, Brits, Belgians, Australians, Barbadians, and French just to name a few. Aside from learning about each other (a particular favorite activity of mine was showing off what the currency of your country looked like), we also have the opportunity to learn more about Romanian life in the village of Murighiol. During the month, the dig crew really gets to know the villagers and make friends with them, sometimes in spite of the language barrier. The crew’s greatest friends, however, were Murighiol’s collection of stray dogs, which we learned all had their own personalities and territories. Some dogs would wait for us outside our homes and walk with us to breakfast every morning in the attempts to get a treat or two. Also, we learned more about the culture through the food we eat, which is prepared by local women for us every day. In sum, the experience I have had at Halmyris has been incredibly unique, both in terms of what we find during the excavation as well as the level of diversity of the dig crew and surrounding village.

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From a very young age I always had an instinctive interest in history, but for many years this interest often felt more like a hobby than anything representing a potential vocation. As an undergraduate student at the College of Wooster, I fulfilled the requirements for a double major in history and classical studies, which unbeknown to me at the time, initially set me on a course to pursue classical archaeology as a profession. In the Spring of 2008, I attended the College Year in Athens (CYA) where I first met Professor John Karavas, whose expertise in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine history and archaeology paralleled my own growing academic drive to study Roman imperialism and material culture.

In the summer of 2013, following the completion of a twenty-seven-month Peace Corps, I reconnected with Professor Karavas at the Halmyris Archaeological Excavation, located near modern Murighiol, Romania. The 2013 field season was the first archaeological excavation at which I had ever participated. As a Romano-Byzantine military instillation along the Danube River between the second century CE and the seventh century CE, the archaeological site aligned well with the academic interests that I had pursued as an undergraduate student and that I have continued to foster throughout my graduate student career at both Brandeis University and Durham University. Following the 2013 field season at the Halmyris archaeological site, I decided to pursue classical archaeology as a potential profession.

The history and archaeology of Halmyris captivated me as a novice graduate student and I have been present for the past four annual archaeological excavations and have arranged to return for the 2017 field season as well. In the first couple years at the Halmyris, I was taught the basic on-site practices for archaeological excavation and material analysis under the guidance of the co-directors, Prof. Mihail Zahariade and Professor Karavas. Since 2015, I have functioned alongside other experienced graduate students as a field supervisor at Halmyris. The field supervisors are each responsible for a group of participants within a certain area of excavation.

In the past five years, I have watched as the Halmyris archaeological site, under the direction of Dr. Zahariade and Professor Karavas, develop into a well-staffed and well-managed archaeological excavation. The Halmyris Archaeological Excavation continues to entice undergraduate students, graduate students, professional academics, as well as other volunteers to return each year, which has resulted in an established and cooperative management structure.