My own experience: 6 weeks in Russia, excavating

As a linguist wanting to do interdisciplinary work, getting to know the other disciplines is vital. I had one class, “Archaeology and Indo-European Studies” which provided me with a basic understanding of archaeological methods. I then specialized in the Scandinavian Bronze Age and the portrayal of the Indo-European warrior for my term paper.

Some months later, I got the chance to join an excavation in Russia, the URVCP[1] project (June-July 2019), with James A. Johnson as our project director, where I would learn about archaeological field work. I had never tried this before, and had no idea what to expect, except hard work. I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with fieldwork, but I did.

Fieldwork and lots of dirt.

We were a team consisting of Johnson as director, 4 students from Denmark (me and another one had no fieldwork experience), 2 from the USA, and our Russian colleagues (including Johnson’s co-director) from Chelyabinsk. I got to work with one of the more experienced students, so he could supervise and teach me.

Our excavation site was Chernorech’ye 2 in the Uy River valley (Chelyabinsk Oblast) of the Southern Urals region of the present-day Russian Federation. The focus of the project was to shed more light on pastoral everyday life and its relationship with material culture, something that is often overlooked, because of the pastoralism’s mobile nature. Johnson (and the Russian team) had done work in the area before, and he would compare our findings with the ones from his earlier surveys and excavations, to gain more knowledge about pastoral materiality. Johnson’s ongoing research into the existence of pastoral ‘communities of practice’: how different groups participate in shared socio-technological knowledge and practices, and how these practices were passed down through time. For this, we excavated the midden of a large Late and Final Bronze Age settlement, ca. 1800 – 900 BC. Of special interest was the pottery, which Johnson wanted to analyze so as to recreate their paste recipes, and the overall process of pottery making. He seeks to illuminate how pottery making developed into durable, situated, and quotidian socio-technological practices that contributed in some communities to long-running material genealogies (Johnson 2014, 2016).

James A. Johnson taking over the excavation of a horse skull

We dug in the northernmost region of the Sintashta heartland. The Sintashta cultural period is in the Middle Bronze Age, approximately from ca 2100-1700 BC. There is evidence that social complexity became more pronounced in the Late Bronze Age, even as the Sintashta period communities dispersed (Johnson 2014, p V, 2016, and forthcoming). Following was the Andronovo horizon (Late Bronze Age), which is constituted by a multitude of cultures, such as Petrovka (for example Stepnoe I, which was close to the modern village of Stepnoye, where we lived during the excavation), Alakul’, Fedorovo, and others (Kuz’mina 2007, p. 17 ff.). In chapter 10 of her book, Indo-Iranians (2007, p. 163-168,) Kuz’mina concludes that the peoples of the Andronovo horizon[2] were Indo-Iranian speakers.

We lived in a dig house in Stepnoye, ate at the café of our host, Mikhail Gorbunov, every morning and evening, and drove to and from the dig site in a van. Lunch was taken in the field. The recovered material was taken to our house at the end of the day for cataloging and analysis. When I arrived, Johnson and part of the team had already dug profiles to select where we would locate the primary excavation units. Each unit was appr. 2x2m and was excavated by two people in the beginning, whereas later on we got our own units. We started removing the grass to create an even surface and excavated in 10cm levels. Since Johnson is using the data to make a detailed 3D model of the units and all location of the artifacts, being as accurate as possible was important, and we measured our units (coordinates, elevation) fairly often with both total station and a “dumpy level”. Each of us kept notes about our unit (soil changes, special findings…), which were turned in at the end of the excavation. Large pieces were kept in situ on pedestals and documented with the total station after each level was finished; the soil was sifted so we could also separate the smaller pieces and keep them in bags marked for each unit and level. Soil samples were taken for later flotation.

Me, doing flotation on the porch

Distinguishing the small fragments of stone, bone, and ceramics was challenging for me in the beginning, but after a few days, I noticed the difference in weight and feel. It was very interesting to see the soil change color when we got to the cultural layers, and soon had lots of pedestals to record. I was lucky enough to learn all the basics, from distinguishing materials, measuring, drawing the unit, taking levels, sifting and the various methods of digging. Johnson as well as our Russian colleagues were very patient, answered all questions and taught us what we needed to know about the fieldwork we were doing. Back at the dig house after dinner, we washed pottery sherds and lithics and cleaned the bones.

Erin, cleaning bones and ceramics

The first 4 weeks were dedicated to excavating and then backfilling the excavation units. After that, the Danish team returned home, while the Americans would do the materials analyses. Due to the lucky coincidence that I brought my digital camera with a macro lens with me, and macro photography being my hobby, I had the opportunity to stay 2 more weeks and photograph all the important artifacts and all the ceramics (about 3000 photographs). This gave me the chance to learn more about pottery and pottery making, to collect clay samples, learn how to do flotation and observe the American students doing the analysis of faunal and lithic remains. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience how archaeologists work in theory and practice (both Russian and American methods).

My “professional” photography setup – creativity is the key! Our host Mikhail Gorbunov built a Lightbox for me.

I cannot write about the conclusions of our excavation, as this will be the topic of a series of articles to be published between 2020 and 2021. But I am looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the pastoral communities in the area we have excavated in, and I hope to be able to go back for another excavation.

I have attached a few more pictures from our excavation – I hope you will enjoy them!

Mikkel, screening while being filmed by Russian TV
Our home in Stepnoye
Hunting for clay samples
Ice cream break in the shadow
A view over the steppe, Stepnoye in the upper right corner
Ruins close to Stepnoye
Lunch break
Version 2
Poisonous baby snakes
The Chelyabinsk meteor


[1] Uy River Valley Communities of Practice, funded by the Wenner Gren Anthropological Foundation

[2] Kuz’mina also calls it the ”Andronovo culture”, even though she acknowledges that it is constituted of a variety of cultures, which is why I chose to call it the Andronovo horizon, to not mistake it for a single culture.

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