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Great moments in archaeology

A Kiel research team is taking an in-depth look at the past in the Romanian region of Sultana. 7,500-year-old settlement mounds are being examined by the international and interdisciplinary excavation workshop on the Lower Danube. And a number of exciting finds have come to light.

Students from the Universities of Bucharest and Kiel surveying and excavating at an excavation site in Tell Sultana.
© Johannes Müller

Students from the Universities of Bucharest and Kiel surveying and excavating at an excavation site in Tell Sultana.

A flash of a small, white or copper-coloured shimmer between a solid layer of earth and loose sand can make the hearts of even the most seasoned archaeologists beat faster. The broadly-based scientific team from Kiel University experienced quite a few of these moments of discovery in Romania this summer. This is the first time that Kiel University – together with the University of Bucharest – has been involved in the international excavation workshop "Sultana School of Archaeology". A total of fifty students and experts from different departments of Kiel University and from all over Europe are researching the 7,500-year-old settlement mounds in the Sultana region on the Lower Danube. The Kiel research is part of the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 "Scales of Transformation", which investigates human-environment interactions in a time window from 15000 BC to the turn of the eras, and is currently (until the middle of 2024) funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

"This excavation is very special," said Professor Johannes Müller from the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at Kiel University who, together with Dr Catalin Lazar from the University of Bucharest, is in charge of the international project. "On the one hand, it is the European perspective of the project group and its interdisciplinarity that advance the project," said Professor Müller. On the other hand, what makes it so special is the subject of the investigations. Around 4500 BC, the settlement landscape on the Lower Danube was probably the most innovative region in all Europe. "Even then, people were already developing copper metallurgy, using it to make tools and to trade with," he added. "A combination of different food resources was also practised in this region, such as hunting, fishing, keeping cattle and pigs, and gathering crops and fruit to feed the rapidly growing population," said Wiebke Kirleis, professor and archaeobotanist in Kiel, who found macro residues of cereals and fruits in soil samples.

However, the experts are particularly impressed by the type of the settlement construction. "New architectural elements such as living on settlement mounds were introduced in the region," explained Professor Müller. The result is the up to nine-metre-high mounds, which can be seen in large numbers at a distance of between five and ten kilometres along the river, because people built new houses on the remains of mud buildings that had been destroyed by age, weather, fire or flood. Layer by layer, they are now revealing their secrets.

Miniature ceramic furniture set
© Agnes Heitmann, Uni Kiel

Well preserved is the miniature ceramic furniture set found during the excavations.

"During the excavations in summer, we discovered an incredible number of exciting things on the settlement mounds, which are known as 'tells'," enthused prehistoric archaeologist Professor Müller. After the preliminary work by the geophysical team from Kiel (headed by Professor Wolfgang Rabbel, Institute of Geosciences), which used ground radar and other geophysical methods to "fully reconstruct the settlement mound for the first time", as doctoral researcher Manuel Zolchow explained, the archaeologists dug themselves down into the solid earth to a depth of up to 4.5 metres in some places. They found the remains of around twenty mud houses of different ages, the ruins of a 4.5m-high palisade complex that served to defend the settlement, and a human grave. Among the finds were also a number of animal bones from cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, tools made of copper, and ceramic vessels for use and decoration. "It is certainly fascinating to dig up a fallen wall unit with numerous pots over what was once the floor of a house – this sort of thing is rare in Central Europe, and it's one of the greatest moments in archaeology," explained Kiel archaeologist Dr Robert Hofmann.

One very special find that not only made the hearts of the ceramics specialists beat faster was a well-preserved miniature ceramic furniture set. "This gives us a good insight into life around 4500 BC," said Dr Hofmann. “Other finds have shown that the people of the Copper Age had already specialised into different professions," explained Wiebke Kirleis. “They practised agriculture and livestock farming, they fished and hunted, and they made tools and ceramics." The archaeobotanist is particularly interested in the eating habits of the people, which she determines from soil samples taken, for instance, from fireplaces.

In addition to the investigations in the settlement itself, the departments of Archaebotany and Geoarchaeology (Institute for Ecosystem Research) are researching how regional changes in the environment, such as flooding and man-made deforestation, affected life in the settlement and food supplies. "We will continue to carry out excavations on site with the international and interdisciplinary team in order to gain a good insight into the way of life of the people, the population size and the nature and vegetation of the landscape 7,500 years ago. We will then analyse and evaluate our samples in Kiel," said Professor Müller, the head of the project, adding that the work in the university's laboratories usually takes about nine times as long as the actual excavating. "But that feeling of exhilaration at the end, when a multi-layered picture of the past can be compiled from individual puzzle pieces, is just as incredible as actually finding the pieces."

Author: Jennifer Ruske