Chapter 9: Digging up Turks

Budakalász is a brisk 30-minute walk away from Pomáz, and no more distinctive. It’s a further ten minutes to the disused quarry and lake, opposite of which a sign points to a mental hospital with a closed ward. A safe distance away is what appears at first glance to be both a regular cemetery and a stalled building development: there are modern tombstones on one side and deep excavations on the other, steel reinforcements for the concrete foundations lying ready to be used, heavy machinery standing idle. Squashed in between, on the dug-up ground and right beside the lake, are little plots covered in canvas or being dug out with small spatulas and brushes by diligent young people working with great purpose and concentration. The centre of the archaeological dig is marked by a small camping table, chair and white parasol. In a safe distance, a small group of about half a dozen subdued-looking men in well-worn blue overalls are leaning on their spades, waiting for instructions.

While Kerstin and Martin survey the scene, a studious-but-friendly-looking bespectacled man in shorts walks towards them, wiping his hands on his trousers as he approaches.

“Hello, you must be Ilona’s friends“, he greets them with an open smile. “I’m Dr Tivadar Zoltan, the leader of the excavation. Please call me Zoltan.“ All of this he says in very respectable German. Martin and Kerstin explain their professional background and current situation – and that, strictly speaking, they have no work permit, but that they could start rightaway, provided the archaeologists had no problem with the permit issue. He looks so elated that Kerstin wonders whether he even heard the last bit.

“A scientist and a designer, that’s exotic! Most of our helpers are archaeology students, they come here for the field experience. If you’re a designer you must be good at drawing.“ He looks at Kerstin.

“I think I’m okay“, she says.

“She’s more than ok, she sold a drawing to a tourist in Szentendre two days ago, and we’re still eating today thanks to the proceeds“, chips in Martin, who is genuinely impressed with people having a proper ’trade’, be it sewing or woodworking or drawing. Maybe that’s because it’s so alien to himself. And in their current itinerant situation, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a skill that can be applied to different uses.

“Sounds good! We need someone to sketch the contents of the graves we’ve uncovered, and the locations of the finds. And we need people digging. Well, it’s more carefully removing earth and brushing, not heavy digging“, he adds, “that’s done by the guys over there“, he nods discreetly at the group of overalled men with the spades. “They’re patients from the mental hospital. Not to worry, they’re fine.” His voice drops to a whisper: “I suspect they are heavily sedated.“ “That was my first thought when I saw them“, says Martin, who, as an anaethesist, knows a thing or two about the subject. “We’re grateful for their labour though“, says Zoltan, “and my impression is that they enjoy getting out a bit.“

The site, it turns out, is an ancient Avar cemetery, right next to the modern one. It’s the common pattern, explains Adrienne Horváth, the other archaeologist leading the excavations. She is short and round-faced with dark hair, tanned skin and a ready, cheerful smile. Her German is as good as Zoltan’s, and it’s clear she loves practising it. “Are you interested in archaeology?”, she asks. “We don’t know the first thing about it”, admits Martin, “but we’re quick learners.”

The Avars, Adrienne explains, were an early warrior tribe, possibly from Turkey, or perhaps they were Tatars from Cental Asia. After a prolonged and tempestuous period when the Avars had fought Emperior Tiberius’s troops, the Carpathians and even advanced into areas as far north as South-Eastern Germany, they appeared somewhat deflated by the 8th century, and seemed to be looking mainly for somewhere in Central Europe to stay. They ended up in the plain between the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains, in what is today Hungary and Transylvania, where they partly fought, partly procreated with the Hungarians.

Digging up Avars is something of a national sport among Hungarians who are endlessly intrigued by their own ambiguous heritage. Their exact origins remain disputed, though some theories hold more ground than others – namely the one that they too came from east of the Urals. A more recent and far more popular theory is that the Finno-Ugrian tribe had walked all the way from the Himalayas, and indeed some of the more characteristic Hungarian features could purport this. Whether the Finns and Hungarians – the only two nations speaking Finno-Ugrian languages in Europe – indeed arrived in Europe together also remains disputed. No significant genetic similarities were ever found between the two populations.

This is the latest and most northern of a number of ancient cemeteries discovered in the region. The people here were buried in the 8th century, say the archaeologists. Based on previous experience with such sites and the graves already uncovered, they have drawn up a rough map of where the other graves could be. Some of the graves so far excavated have been found with the bones in disarray, explains Adrienne, a sign that grave robbers had been looking for treasure sometime in the 17th and 18th century. Avars, a proud warrior tribe, buried their most prominent families with many of the valuables they owned, including their horses, tack and all, so there were rich pickings to be had for thieves. The first grave Kerstin and Martin are helping to dig out is just such a grave: The bones of horse and rider are in a mess, and any gold, silver and jewellery are missing, though they retrieve iron stirrups and bits and some brass buckles.

The next day Adrienne asks them to dig next to the horse-and-rider grave. She thinks they may find a child, or the rider’s wife. The mental hospital patients have already removed the top layer, so Kerstin and Martin proceed cautiously. Soon they arrive at a round, smooth surface. They brush and carefully remove more earth. The pale spherical object becomes bigger until it is clear that they’ve come across a perfectly formed small scull. A child, reckons Adrienne, about 6 years old.

“Careful around the ears, there may be earrings”, she warns, and, after a little more brushing and gentle scraping there they are, two perfect painted clay beads, one on either side. The scull is ghostly white and so well preserved that Martin wonders whether the child was really buried over a thousand years ago.

“Definitely, the earrings prove that”, says Adrienne. “I know what you mean though, they do come like that, occasionally.”

She passes Kerstin the clipboard and pencil, and Kerstin quickly draws the grave and location of the finds.

“Ooh, we’ve never had one this good”, says Adrienne appreciatively when she looks at the finished sketch. She calls Zoltan, and they talk together over the sketch.

“Congratulations!” calls Zoltan, “You’ve just been promoted to illustrator in residence!”

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