A (last) day of archaeology on the Hemmaberg/ Austria

cleaning of equipment, sorting of finds

final cleaning of trench 3

students returning equpiment to the site hut on top of the hemmaberg

excavation in the late antique cemetery on the hemmaberg

My Day of Archaeology 2017 coincided with the last day of my first field season in the late antique (5./6. century AD) cemetery at the Hemmaberg in southern Austria. After having finished all documentation, cleaned all equipment, paid the last bills and finally dropped off everyone and everything safely at their respective homes at last I can sit down and write my contribution for Day of Archaeology – something I’ve been following for the past five years but never managed to contribute, till now.

But let me first introduce myself: I am the head of the human bioarchaeology research group of the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna/ Austria. Founded in 2015, the group now includes seven bioarchaeologists and students working in projects from Austria to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. My own research currently focuses on life and living conditions at the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Medieval Period based on the bioarchaeological analysis of two large cemetery sites in southern Austria.

While the Austrian Archaeological Institute is a pure research institution, I am also external lecturer at the Institute of Prehistory and Historic Archaeology as well as the Institute of Physical Anthropology in Vienna – two completely separate entities, as elsewhere in Continental Europe, bioarchaeology is not a thing in education in Vienna. Simply put, this means teaching archaeology students some bones and bone students some archaeology. This year, these efforts manifested in a joint field school with a focus on excavating and documenting human remains.

The site chosen for this undertaking is part of my wider research project, the late antique cemetery at the Hemmaberg, a stunningly beautiful piece of earth in the very south of Austria. Associated with one of the earliest Christian pilgrimage sites in central Europe, parts of the cemetery had already been uncovered in the 1980s. But since 108 graves appeared a bit to few for 200 years of settlement and bone recovery in the early excavations was not entirely satisfactory, I decided that some more field work was in order.

After four intensive weeks of field work, I now sit in a deck chair with a glas of ice cold cidre, somewhat tired but very happy with the results brought about by 22 students (12-13 archaeology undergrads and physical anthropology MSc students at a time) and three staff members. The cemetery proved a bit elusive, thanks to its position on a slope, agricultural activity and 1500 years of alpine climate but nevertheless, it is now clear that it extended far further than previously thought. The students quickly got the hang of how to deal with the fragile bones and also got a good lesson in taphonomy – sometimes being located in humus less than 10cms below present surface, bone preservation was not entirely ideal, but hey, welcome to bioarchaeology.

On the Day of Archaeology 2017 we ended our field season. This included packing of the bones and finds for transport back to the lab in Vienna, cleaning of the equipment, documention of the final surface with drone and laser scanner, a final beer with the property owner and a final Schnitzel at the local restaurant. From next week onwards, our days of archaeology will take place in the lab and office again (with some conferencing in between).