Archeology – a surprising kaleidoscope of world history


Are there professions similar to the craft of an archaeologist? Some people believe that archaeology is for romantics, captivated by the search for great civilizations. Different people, when hearing the word “archeologist”, imagine a person driven by the desire to find treasure. And of course, only those who have really dedicated their lives to this extraordinary profession know for sure what really awaits a person on the path to archaeology. Andrey Epimakov, doctor of historical sciences, doctor of historical sciences, main researcher of the SUSU Eurasian Studies Research Center, head researcher of the Ural Region RAS Institute of History and Archaeology shared his rich experiences.

– What does archaeology give people?

– Archaeology gives people the feeling that they are not the first nor the last on this planet. In addition, archaeology challenges humanity with its mysteries. Sometimes archaeology is seen not as a science, but as a type of forensic science, which looks at the past. In that way, archaeology is related to detective stores: they read them and write them. The majority of people don’t tie the word “archaeologist” with the place where they live, which is principally incorrect, since archaeology exists everywhere. In different periods of history, people have lived practically everywhere except, maybe, Antarctica, leaving behind signs of their living there. Typically, local archaeology isn’t interesting to people, after all in some places there are such great constructions as the pyramids, Stonehenge… So, my main goal as an archaeologist, researcher, and specialist is not just gaining new knowledge, but also passing it along to a broad audience – show people that we stand on the shoulders of giants, thanks to whom humanity has moved forward, from primitivity to civilization. After all, much of that, which we use daily today was created in the distant past, and archaeology gives us a chance to see the sources of these items, skills, and technologies. Archaeology is very multifaceted: some are attracted to its adventurous side; some people are interested in its intellectual components – everyone finds something in archaeology for themselves.

– What inspired you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

– Chance. However, there is the caveat that you can choose archaeology by chance, but staying in it by accident is impossible. Very often, young people are attracted by the romantic side of archaeology, the possibility of touching the mysteries of antiquity. Soon, however, the understanding that this is a very small part of archaeology comes. After all, the bulk of the work for an archaeologist is not in the field, but in the mind, when consideration and analysis of that which was found happens, the search for analogies and ties, determining the application of one item or another. My path into archaeology started at a young age – a group was formed at our school for an archaeological expedition to northern Kazakhstan and to the Ural region, and I ended up among its participants. I didn’t know where they were taking me or what this would be. A month without internet and mobile service, and physical labor – for today’s students this is a catastrophe. But we had great company, the older guys helped us, and we felt very comfortable having received valuable experience of being around different people. We learned everything on the fly, including the art of interpreting findings. At the time of excavating, the monuments weren’t very interesting, we only found fragments of ceramic vessels without any ornamentation. But none the less, this expedition was enough for me to be infected by archaeology forever. Thanks to my successful graduation from a school of physics and mathematics and the knowledge I received, for which I am eternally grateful to my schoolteachers, I was able to begin my dive into archaeology with confidence. After all, it requires both a mathematical understanding and an understanding of many physical processes. I chose the faculty of history when I enrolled, with further specialization in archaeology, which gave me a broader view on my chosen area. Today, in Western universities, archaeologists are trained more specifically, that is, they skip the study of history. Maybe they teach their students the craft well, but they don’t instill any historical vision.

– How did your professional life begin?

– I had a chance to walk the professional archaeological path while I was still studying. All field work must be licensed, special approval has been called the “Open Sheet” since the days of Imperial Russia. The procedure for receiving it is quite difficult – you must verify your qualifications. Thanks to an expedition on the river Zingeika I received this document alongside the right to complete independent field work while still in my student years. Further, I was able to work in a school, serve in the army, get a job at Chelyabinsk State University, then I began working at Chelyabinsk Pedagogical University, and then they called me to work for the state service for protecting objects of cultural heritage in the Chelyabinsk region. In 2000 I came to work at South Ural State University, where te historical area of study was just forming, and I became one of the first teachers. Finally, I joined the Institute of History and Archaeology of the Ural Regional RAS, staying on as a teacher at SUSU; this “parallelism” continues to this day.

22nd European Meeting of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics in Barcelona

– What is your interest in the bronze age of the Ural region tied to?

– I must confess, that understanding the full depths of this era did not come to me right away. Earlier, I worked on monuments of the iron age with beautiful burial mounds and discoveries. For various reasons, we often had to work with living areas and burial grounds of the bronze age, including when we participated in excavation of the now well-known living areas and burial grounds of Sintasht. Over time it became obvious that a huge amount of information about the bronze age required thought. It was requested that I work on this research, but I didn’t have any special enthusiasm for this, because this meant one thing – I would have to start “from scratch”: new literature, new finds, new techniques…. Later I understood how crucial and productive my decision was. I have been studying the bronze age for more than 25 years already, turning new pages and discovering new finds about human history. The study of this period opened up the wealth of interpretation before me. I studied settlements, burial grounds, animals, and people, which game me a chance to recreate an important part of the general picture of the world.

– What are you working on now?

– I am not able to work on just one thing. There are a number of long-term projects I am participating in. Many years ago, I was one of the first to suggest a scheme for radiocarbon dating for the bronze age. To this day, this project is in-demand by many archaeologists to date and put in order materials in Russia and abroad. Specialists in the stone age, the early iron age, and the middle ages have shown interest in the topic, and as a result, the field of activity for cooperation with them has expanded greatly. Now I am receiving suggestions for further research in this area.

In addition, in the last years my colleagues and I have been working on social archaeology or the archaeology of society. We are trying to reconstruct the relationships between people, familial ties, which requires both knowledge of archaeology and requires a multidisciplinary approach. At this time, we are reconstructing the diet, health, and genetic structure of the population using human remains. For the first time, we are able to discuss such questions as population movement with some justification, after all, proof of migration is a very difficult question; things can be dispersed separately from people, and if we see genetic similarities between the Ural population and the central-European population, this suggests relationships between them, proving the migration of the population. Of course, our partnership with geneticists is just on the brink of its development. You might say that the first collection of information is happening now. The work is very expensive and high-tech, so a lot of the research is funded by the west. I, for example, am working with researchers from the Harvard Medical School, the University of Copenhagen, and a number of different colleagues.

One more project I’m working on is studying the history of war and conflict in the South Ural region. This is a topic rich with interesting materials and needs complex analysis, so, I can say that I’m just beginning to lay out my path in this, too.

Overall, archaeology today is not history with a shovel, but a technically difficult area which works with practically every science, including botany, soil science, zoology, geology, and physics. You can list them forever. The synthesis of so many kinds of information is a huge problem that we must cope with.

Excavations of Kamennyi Ambar Settlement. International archaeological expedition

– So, an archaeologist must be able to understand everything?

– There are specializations in archaeology too, but archaeologists must understand how one method or another works, otherwise he can’t complete quality analysis of the results. The same data can be interpreted by different specialists in different ways. Of course, the majority of archaeologies are bound to their particular era and a number of common techniques, but to recreate a full picture of the history of humanity, you must get outside of these bounds. On the one hand, archaeology brings together information from all sciences, so the issue of the need for its synthesis is quite important now. On the other hand, archaeology is the information finder, offering colleagues a description and analysis of various objects both natural and manmade. The closer we work with different disciplines, the better we understand each other, the more dependable and broad our results. Archaeology balances between two extreme positions. On the one hand, it’s a generalizing position, when we are trying to create predictions or understand tendencies. The other extreme is an attempt to study the tiniest details in their context. Both of these extremes are necessary to an equal degree, but combining these two extremes in one brain is a difficult task. Leading Soviet and Russian archaeologist Lev Samulovich Klein once said, that archaeologists much have the sight of an eagle with excellent panoramic and concentrated vision. Getting deeper into your specialty, when you know more about less, is much easier, but then that synthesis which leads to the understanding of the world picture doesn’t happen.

– How are archaeological objects discovered?

– The majority of archaeological objects of the bronze and different ages are visible on the surface. Part of them can be seen from a plane or from space by interpreting photographs. For example, the famous Arkaim is clearly visible from aerial photographs. Such objects can’t always be seen by the eye on land. Archaeological objects can have signs of partial destruction – for example, a ravine or path may go through it, and artifacts are literally laying on the surface. Many finds are not recognized as archaeological. For the uninformed person, ceramic shards will look like trash, while an archaeologist will immediately determine the age it belongs to. Beyond that, there is a group of geophysical methods, for example geomagnetic imaging and georadar, which help restore the internal planning of objects being studies. That is, before excavation there is a rough picture of what was in his place, and we understand where we should begin digging. In other words, there are many methods to find archaeological objects. The main goal is to identify them correctly. Having found a cultural layer, that is, a layer of soil with signs of human activity, we begin searching for artifacts in this place and their interpretation.

Kamennyi Ambar Settlement. Aerial photo and LIDAR. Author: Martin Schaich

– What do archaeologists do when there are a few cultural layers from different ages in one place?

– Unfortunately, in this case, we have to disturb the upper cultural layer. So the area being studied must be studied top-down. There is the sad and well-known story of Heinrich Schliemann who, dreaming of getting to the coveted Troy as fast as possible, practically destroyed the upper layer. The horror of this situation for him lies in the fact that it was later discovered that materials from the time of the Trojan War also become victim to this rush. For archaeologists, stratigraphy (note: the ordering of stratifications of cultural layers in relation to one another) is an absolutely vital science, which allows us to determine what was there earlier and what was there afterwards. This is why settlement digs are completed very carefully and slowly. Completing a dig of any archaeological site, we understand that we are damaging it. And if we haven’t seen something and documented it, this information is lost forever. After many years, you think, “We should have gathered the soil in such-and-such dig, and now soil scientists would tell us what was there, and geomorphologists would tell us what materials there were and if there were metal salts.” And now, this information can’t be recovered. For this reason, digs are work with great responsibility and documentation of information should be completed with all possible methods. Today, we are trying not to resort to excavating monuments without absolute need. Within the Chelyabinsk region we have found a few thousand archaeological sites and it would be great if we could dig even 10 of them. There are objects that are excavated over many years, for example the Uelgi burial ground in the Kunashak region, where archaeologists have been working for eight years already. We began excavating the settlement of Kammeny Ambar in 1990, and we still have not exhausted all the possibilities of this dig. But since science is changing before our eyes, we are trying to save some reserves so that the next generation of scientists can use their methods for this source of knowledge and obtain their own information.

Excavation of the burial mound. Kamennyi Ambar-5 cemetery

– Who do found objects belong to?

– Everything related to archaeology is federal property and belongs to the government. The conditions are very strict, and after processing artifacts we must give all finds over for state preservation. In this sense, SUSU has gotten lucky – the combined efforts of our group with museum staff with the support of the university’s leadership have given us the ability to form within its walls a real, state museum, “People and Technologies of the South Ural Region,” so we are able to keep our finds here and show the most interesting among them. Earlier, we had to give found artifacts to the Museum of Regional Natural History, although it also has a limited number of storage areas, the collection grows each year. Museums, of course, want to present beautiful archaeological materials. But the main bulk of finds are not very nice to look at. In a settlement, we usually find ceramic shards and animal bones. These ordinary collections, none the less, contain valuable information.

Anthropological facial reconstruction of a Bronze Age man. Author: Alex Nechvaloda

– What was your most meaningful archaeological find?

– Bit straps, which are parts of a horse’s harness. These are small objects which were attached to horses’ snouts. Bit straps belonging to roughly the same era can be found across a space from central Kazakhstan to Central Europe. But finds more or less preserving the chariot can only be found in the South Ural region. Chariots and the sacrifice of horses are a topic which bring a huge number of linguistic and technological questions, the issue of ties between the centers of the first human civilizations where chariots were also found, questions about the domestication of horses, and so on. The bit straps that we found are a valuable link in the chain of answers to these questions. With the help of trasology (note: the study of remains) we found out how they were used. We had the idea to reconstruct a chariot which my pupil, when he was still a student at SUSU, tried on his horse. This topic turned out to be of interest to a huge number of people, including Europe and the USA, and with each year ten new projects on this topic turn up. Thanks to this find, which was inconspicuous at first glance, we were able to begin a new phase in archaeological science. So, for an archaeologist, the best find isn’t always some shiny thing.

On digs, people often come up to me and ask if we have found gold. When I answer that we are not here for this, they answer that they don’t understand why we’re here then. A few times I did find gold. For example, I found the burial site of a young man who was laid on his side, and in one palm he had a small piece of gold. Near him there were offerings and parts of a bow. Animal bones were laid out like wings behind his shoulder. In this unique picture, the gold turned out to be just a small detail.

– Please tell us about student archaeological expeditions.

– I have been going on expeditions with schoolchildren and students for many years. It was easier with schoolchildren – they were prepared and had trained in an archaeological circle. It was a different situation with students: the theoretical course in archaeology that they study doesn’t prepare them for practical work in the field. They simply do not have experience in this kind of work, so at first the students are shocked by everything: the tents, strong wind, the burning sun, and the river in place of a restroom. Here, internal preparation is vital. I always tell them that their first week is the hardest, and at the end they’ll already not want to leave. In expeditions, a working rhythm is formed as well as adaptation to the conditions; students even begin to get pleasure from the work. After all, the freedom that a person finds in the field is not something a person in the city can find. Of course, now, there are mobile connects, and it’s much easier for students having those. Recently, parents have started coming on the expedition to see if their students are dealing with the work. For all the years that I’ve taken schoolchildren on expeditions, not once have their parents come, it wasn’t polite. And the children didn’t ask their parents to come. In this sense, of course, there are changes. But my goal isn’t to create a testing arena for students, but to enable a good life and work. For students on the exhibition, this is very valuable and important experience. In the city, we can see how people separate, and in the field you have to learn how to live and work as a team. On expeditions, it’s obvious who is worth what – who is lazy, who is ready to help, who is ready to forgive their neighbors small mistakes, and who is not. Lectures and seminars, working in archives – all of this is necessary, but only on expeditions can students receive the priceless experience of belonging to a collective, when you must do something together or it won’t get done at all. Students learn to hold a shovel, build a fire with wet kindle, set up tents, and cook for a large number of people. When the students return from expeditions, they shock their mothers and fathers by saying they cooked for 30 people when, before that, they had never cooked even once. They gain some responsibility, readiness to answer not only for themselves but also for others: if you sleep through breakfast, you get to work later and you have to suffer in the hottest time of day. If you did something poorly or didn’t complete it, that means the others have to do it again or finish it for you. Girls, by the way, often turn out to be more hardworking than the boys – they fear less and organize themselves better.

Geophysical survey of Kamennyi Ambar Settlement

– What do you recommend to students who have decided to tie their lives to archaeology?

– Be ready for the fact that you must study constantly, otherwise you can just not even try to begin along this path. There are always new pages opening up before archaeologists, so he never has absolute, complete knowledge. In addition, today, archaeology is an international science, so you must have language skills. And of course, you must be ready to read a lot. Archaeology is multifaceted, every person can find a niche for themselves according to their interests, but you have to understand that this science is the crossroads of various areas of knowledge and if a person doesn’t understand how to gain various kinds of knowledge or how to come to one conclusion or another, it is difficult to become a good archaeologist. In any case, archaeologists must always be open to both communication and a constant stream of knowledge, the secrets of which only he has the power to uncover.


Natalya Shankova, photo by Oleg Igoshin, Andrey Epimakov
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