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Louise Benson James - Archaeology, Classical & Medieval Archaeology in Romania

Me and the view

Emerging from the airport in Bucharest, I scanned the crowd for the 'Projects Abroad' sign and its imposing bearer. I had been warned of Leo's Italian Mafia appearance and demeanor, and I was not disappointed. We had a three hour drive to Brasov and it was a pleasant journey. The first town we drove through consisted of rows and rows of huge filthy concrete flat blocks; 'in the Russian style' I was informed. Past this we met wide open fields, endless sky, and the sun setting over the mountains on the horizon. Leo told me some more Romanian history... well his own take on it; that the Romans invaded for three things; the beautiful dark red haired Dacian girls, the bees and their honey, and the fishing. He was also an avid admirer of Vlad Tepes (otherwise known as 'the impaler' and 'Dracula' for those who didn't know).

Eventually we reached aforementioned horizon, and drove up into the mountains of Transylvania, right up into the clouds which cast the most apt atmosphere of ancient eeriness and mystery as dusk set in. Especially as I was being told to wear a cross and garlic, being 'too lovely a lady to be lost to the vampires'. Feeling a bit more secure when we drove into bustling Brasov, with its name in lights set into the mountain like Hollywood, I said goodbye to good old Leo 'your first best friend in Romania' and was taken in by my host family. Monica and Razvan were so lovely, as was their little boy Alex. He knocked on my door and said 'excuuse meee diinner is reeaddyy' and hid and jumped out shouting 'BOO' when I got home.

Imposing mountains

In the morning, Razvan took me on a walk round the gorgeous old Hungarian style town. The architecture is incredible and there's an amazing atmosphere around Brasov. We wandered down to the Projects Abroad office where I played table tennis with Leo and spoke to the archaeology supervisor - George (of the jungle as Mircea calls him) on the phone. I wandered round the town after this, visiting the Black Church and fascinating streets. I walked through the park, past the roses and gaggles of old men playing chess on stone tables.

Monica cooked a noodle soup and delicious lamb spinach stew for dinner. All the volunteers met up in the square every evening to sample Brasov's fine array of bars and pubs for a pint or a hot chocolate. I met volunteers, had chats with a lovely Romanian taxi driver (everyone's friend Alex) and occasionally got cuddled by a drunken Romanian. It was lovely to be able to meet so many great people from different parts of the world, doing a range of volunteering projects but well met together in Brasov.

I took a train to Alba Iulia to begin Archaeologising. The landscape on the journey was very beautiful, somewhat akin to vast miles of English countryside, only completely unbroken by cityscapes. I watched George arrive knowing exactly who he was as his hairy description has somewhat proceeded him. I was presented with my own trowel and so was quite excited about the dig. A normal day consisted of walking to the site early and troweling away layers of earth. I found some pottery and a tooth, part of a jaw and a handle. There's something special about the experience of uncovering things, they feel like your own. We worked until it got too hot to continue, and then had a school dinner style lunch at the university. Fruptura du pork was the dish of choice.

Church in the forest

There is a wonderful system of change-giving in shops. You very rarely get coins, just Lei notes, so never are you able to pay the odd 40 bani. So the shop owner will give you your notes, and then gum change, or chocolate change, or cigarette change. It's genius.

After the dig, back in Brasov, we visited Bran castle, the setting of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was impressive and gimmicky but disappointingly lacking in an eerie gothic atmosphere. We also went onto Rasnov citadel, which was full of old torture implements and had pretty amazing views of the mountains, where I got chased by a donkey. The next day we went to Sinaia, and visited Peles and Pelisnor castles, which were the summer residences of the first King and Queen of Romania and their adopted nephew and his wife. Peles was breathtaking. Every inch of the inside was lavish and expensive. The halls were high-ceilinged; there was a hall of mirrors, a room carved all around with little figures and paintings and had an ornate spiral staircase. There were carved walnut walls and ceilings in the king's study, a secret door in the bookcase, and paintings by Rembrant and Klimpt.

One evening each week was Quiz night at the Brasov Projects Abroad office. It was a real laugh. Afterwards we tended to go to bars, for instance the 'Crew bar', a ship themed pub, plank and all. Or the Scottish pub, complete with posters of Ewan McGregor, or the 'For Sale' bar, where the floor is coated in a thick layer of monkey nut shells and we engaged in monkey nut missile warfare. I learnt the odd bit of Romanian. Pot Avea unu ciocolata calda te rog? Cit costa? Multsumesc. Sint Obosita. One evening, a few of us went to a grassy clearing up at 'the fortress' on a hill. It was a wonderful couple of hours sitting there in the dark, taking turns on a guitar and swigging from big bottles of Romanian 'posh brand' beer. Alex played some Romanian folk and Gypsy traditional stuff as well as some good old Beatles.

Brasov street

I spent a few days at a Romanian rock festival in Sibiu. We got the train, and before we even arrived at the festival encountered numerous George look alikes, with his trademark crazy long black hair and beard. One was even dancing around with a big bunch of flowers and leaning right out of the train while we zoomed along waving them and shouting. When we did arrive at the festival, the George trend became utterly ridiculous and slightly creepy in its consistency. We set up camp and taxied back to the square, entering the festival to receive a 'Sibiu, European capital city of culture 2007' flag. My realization that this was in fact more of a metal festival than a rock one struck home when I noticed hordes of black clad make-up clad long haired bearded goths and metallers wandering round in the sun with pink ice cream. My first experience of the music was a loud Romanian heavy metal group. At this point I wondered what I'd let myself in for. But it was wonderful to see the capital of culture, and an interesting musical experience!

I spent the train ride to our next dig site in the corridor watching the scenery. As the sun rose red and gorgeous above the hills into the clouds, we zoomed past many strange things. A town which consisted of three graveyards and three wooden huts with a sheep pen perched on the side of a hill. A solitary wooden church in the middle of vast fields. A pig munching in the cabbage patch. Mist that hung above a river like specters. George's bees. And of course the wonderful endless rolling green landscape of Romania. The best sunrise ever.

We arrived in Simleu Silvaniei and were shown to our building site accommodation. It smelled like sawdust and there was rubble everywhere, and we were constantly attacked by flies and couldn't lock the toilet doors. There was no fridge or cooking facilities, it was quite exciting. Basic as the place felt, there was something poetic about it. I felt like putting on a long flowing dress and wandering the decaying halls looking lost, perhaps wailing a bit. Miss Havisham of 21st Century Romania. There was also an army of mosquitoes. The closest to Dracula I came, bloodsucking little... The site was really interesting; I looked forward to getting my dig on.

On a dig

The dig itself was great fun. I got to clean a burn in the earth inside the building we were excavating. An archaeologist with huge thick glasses said it was 'very unbelievable for a girl to like this sort of work.' After lunch, George bought a bag of fresh apricots from an old woman and we sat under a tree at the dig eating them. We were told that some archaeologists found some wine in a container from ancient Greek times. It had turned to a very strong alcoholic jelly. For the rest of the day we hoped to find some ancient wine. We were disappointed, so in the evening we went for a drink. Back at our building site, George played us some traditional Romanian mountain music. It has a very specific beat. It was a ritual song that young unmarried men dance to in a circle at sunrise, beating the ground and screaming certain things.

On the weekend we went on a wander round some of the town. It was really gorgeous and very different to Brasov. It was a tiny place, not in the Lonely Planet, not touristy. Mostly old crumbling Hungarian buildings. We also went for a walk in the woods, up the mountain into the trees. There were some absolutely fantastic views from the top of the hill. We sat down overlooking the town under some trees and told jokes and ate wild blackberries as traditional music from a wedding or something drifted to us on the wind.

The dig was very hard going sometimes; I really worked myself into the ground (haha). I've never been so overheated, exhausted and dirty. On our last day of digging, we washed pottery all day. I like washing pottery; it's quite like opening presents. All the pieces are caked in dirt, different sizes and shapes, and you take one at a time and remove the mud to discover what's inside; a glaze, pretty patterns, letters, finger dents from the potter. Of course there are the boring presents which are just very plain clay pots but the interesting ones make it worthwhile. Every day is Christmas when you're an archaeologist. Leaving aside the fact that I did spend time cleaning fragments of a medieval chamber pot.

The archaeologists cooked for us one evening, a yummy Romanian dish with 'mommaliga' (polenta) and then a sauce of onions, sausages, peppers and tomatoes. As they cooked, George played some bands and had an occasional break to head bang in the kitchen. We ate at the sheltered tables outside and drank wine as a storm raged.

I returned to Brasov, and it really felt like coming home. On my last day I went down to the office to say goodbye the Projects Abroad team. I wandered round Brasov looking into art galleries, churches, finding 'the smallest street in the world', watching the old men play chess on the stone tables at the park, taking photographs of the streets and old buildings. I had my last meal at 'home', Razvan and Monica's house, and then went out to meet everyone at the fountain. I'll never forget my time in that immensely beautiful and strange country. I left part of my soul there.

Louise Benson James

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