“So – that’s it. I think.”

Day 3. 29 July 2003

Tuesday. It’s the first morning on Saaremaa and I wake early – this time due to the uncomfortably hard beds – or boards – as we like to call them. The mosquito guard seems to have worked anyway and I have yet to unpack my sleeping bag, finding sheets more than enough to surface.

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I shower and dress and make my way over to the baar for 8 o’clock for breakfast. This consists of cornflakes, juice and coffee, followed by a plate of white and malted black bread, two forms of cold meats, cheese and salad prepared for us by staff.

Our bus arrives a little after twenty past nine and we set off to Valjala where we collect our tour guide Ester. We take more twisting, turning roads between fields of barley, potatoes and farmhouses surrounded by orchards, arriving at last outside one. A set of ruins – old houses to the untrained eye – Ester soon explains to us enthusiastically that these are fifth century graves and very important to the history of Saaremaa.

Tuulingumäe tarand – grave at Tõnija

In the years 1995 – 1997 archaeological excavations under the guidance of archaeologist M. Mägi took place at the Tuulingumäe (“Windmill Hill”) tarand – grave which is situated at Tõnija village near Valjala. The excavations were financed by the Saaremaa Museum, the Valjala Municipal Government, the Estonian Institute of History, the State Board of Antiquities and the fund “Estonian Archaeology”, organized by Gordon and Mary Snow in England. The finds of the excavations were stored in the Saaremaa Museum.

A tarand grave (the area of the digging was 139 m2), consisting of four tarands, was unearthed. The size of the tarands was 6 x 2 m on average, they were oriented from the south – east to the north – west. Tarands III and IV were the oldest, Tarands I and II were built after them.

Plenty of human bones and grave goods, some of them valuable items imported from the south – eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, dating to the 4th and 5th century, were found in Tarand II.
Under Tarand I which contained almost no finds an earlier grave from the turn of the era was found. Mainly animal bones and potsherds and only a few human bones were found in Tarand IV. Some funerals could be dated as late as the 7th and 8th centuries.

Although most of the human bones found in the grave were unburnt, the archaeologists could not find any skeletons in the correct anatomical order: various finds, human and animal bones were scattered throughout the stones used to make the graves. Each skeleton was represented by selected parts only. Almost all of the burnt human bones were pieces of skulls. In the opinion of archaeologists and osteologists, secondary burials could have taken place here. All in all the bones of 32 people could be differentiated – both men and women, most of them having died between the ages 18 to 35.

Nearly one – third of the buried were children. Research of the bone material allowed scientists to draw some conclusions about the diseases and health situation of those buried (lack of iron in the organism, thinness of bones, osteoma, occurrence of caries, bone fractures). The primary diet of the inhabitants was grain, but domestic animals were also raised: pigs, oxen, sheep and goats; they also hunted and fished for their food. As for the remains of domestic animals, it is interesting to note that the oldest known bones of a cat in Estonia were found there as well.

The people buried in Tuulingumäe apparently lived in a big farm situated nearby. To the end of the Viking Age they held a prominent position in the community. In the 12th century a new centre was developing in Valjala; we can therefore assume that the superior status of this locally important family declined in this period. Scarce written data and occasional finds testify to the continuation of settlement in the vicinity of Tuulingumäe.

(Reproduced from Yearbook of Saaremaa Museum. All rights reserved.)

Where we stand at Valjala is a the very centre of Saaremaa, if you take the old meanings that this is the name given to all of the western isles. The people who lived and who were buried here would have been very important in the community – possibly holding some power or a seat of government. It was also unusual in that the finds of bones had been cleaned carefully in round pits along side the graves. The reason why? No one knows…

Ester then takes us to another site, only just discovered and excavated, and she hopes shortly to be restored and preserved. This one has no pit, but would have been sunken into the ground with a low dry stone wall surrounding it and covered by a wooden canopy. It would have been in 400—500 AD a hospital for the sick – a Death House. The local people would have feared this place, believing it to be a bad place full of death and misery. Here they found more human bones alongside jewels and precious stones that the dead would have been buried with. And it was here that Tim, picking around in the dirt after gold, finds a tooth – a human tooth from the 5th century AD. Had he know what was going to befall him in the week ahead, he would perhaps have chosen to leave it here…

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Next we are taken to an old fort, but the stories are waning and Ester, realising our need for excitement takes us to visit the Church at Valjala – the largest church on Saaremaa. She tells us of the history, of how the doorway has been damaged when, under the Soviet rule the doors were turned around to open outward and make it easier to defend against invaders. Ester, who despite having very very good command of English, insists that she enjoys these tours because it’s her only opportunity to speak English, has an interesting turn of phrase that we grow to love. So – that’s it. I think. But another interesting thing is that that’s not it. She has so much more to say. So. That is all … I think.

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And then she asks us: would anyone like to go up the tower? Our driver has already fetched out a ladder from the vestry and propped it up between the nave and the alter. We all say yes, of course, and so she climbs the ladder, swings open the wooden hatch in the wall, clambers up, and remains to help us up. Jane is first, and I am second. We go up, through the walls on crumbling steps, round a corner, narrower, and up, and round again. and then up a wooden plank onto the rafters above the church roof and beneath the pan tiles. The rest follow us, each offering their own gasps of amazement and joy at what we are doing. Slowly are eyes adjust. We move further down the length of the church, and Jane, finding another ladder climbs higher, but it goes no further, than another ledge in the dark.

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Here, Ester tells us the townspeople could store food and water, and come to hide when under attack. And another interesting thing … would we like to go up the tower. She leads us out through another door, and up a tower, constructed partly from the stone of old gravestones to the very top where the bell hangs. The view is tremendous, and the drop from the doorway up here, great. We descend down the tower to the bottom and out through the door at the bottom.

We have a little time now, to take pictures and visit a craft shop over the road, where most of us buy butter knives, ladles and salad servers made, by hand, from the local birch wood, and which smell with a hauntingly fragrant scent. I am tempted by the wrought iron fittings, or swords to go in my parent’s new oak-framed lounge, but decide in the end on something that weighs a fraction less!

The Crazy Gang have been in the same seats (different bus) as yesterday, at the back of the bus, and can hear Tim just in front as he makes conversation with the Estonian volunteers. At one stop, as Tim makes to disembark, it has to be asked, and is, what does she think of Tim and his conversation, to which Mari replies quietly and truthfully and honestly: “He asks many questions”. That he does.

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Next stop is at the local supermarket where we stock up on water, ice cream and crisps, but we are soon on route again to the farm where we will be working tomorrow, and the lunch that they will have prepared. Lunch itself, is served in an outhouse, wood paneled dining room and is hot meat soup served from a big pot with BIG ladle, and is so deliciously tasty that both Jane and myself find it necessary to go back for seconds. Desert is Karma, the porridge that I tried back in Tallinn but when mixed correctly and drunk from cups is really very nice.

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A brief siesta later out in the garden and we are called upon to visit the work site (Tom needs to make his site visit so that he can fill out all the necessary paperwork: risk assessments and the like…). We get told to get in the van. No! Not the nice comfortable minibus. The van. We look at where the farmer has opened up the door of this old, distinctly unroadworthy piece of scrap metal with the coach seats and the wood pallet positioned precariously in the back of what, I am sure, was once a much prized Russian van. Talk about risk assessments?!! Ah well, nothing ventured nothing gained. We pile in, and even before we go anywhere the air within starts to take on the feel of a sauna. It’s windowless and the ventilation holes are taped up with brown parcel tape, and they have to start it with a cranking handle and a bit of a shove. The fumes seem to empty straight into the interior, and we instantly feel like a load of asylum seekers. It is only then that those in the van realise that there is alternative transport – a car and a truck (although the MOT possibility of either are similarly dubious). Still, the trip down the narrow country lanes is an experience that will certainly stay with me as are the bruises sustained when that tree route took out part of the underside of The Van – the mobile sauna. We arrive at our destination, a field close to the coast, and pile out, coughing and wheezing, and literally falling about over the grass, our clothes wet through with sweat.

This is where will be doing the hay-making. We size up the work. Looks okay. And go for a walk to the coast, taking in the woods on the way back and the eerily haunting Russian army coats hanging in the tree. And then it’s back to the farm. There are few of us who refuse pointedly to ever set foot inside the van again – for myself I’m not fussed either well – but for all it’s rapidly building stories and mythology, it seems to have an incredible draw, and in the end we have to call back the likes of Hannah and Marie to join Tom and myself in the Ford Anglia-esque car.

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Our next stop is the coast, and a walk and a wade out to see the native horses, who sensibly enough have moved to where the horseflies aren’t. The native horses, like the ponies in the New Forest back home, are privately owned but let to roam, although they tend to stay in their groups. They are very friendly and allow us to be photographed with them. On the way back to land though, as the farmer strides back across the water effortlessly, there are moments, when I feel my links sink half their depth into the mud, and Jane almost ends up face down in the water. Had we thought about it, we might have realised then, just what Tim had brought upon us…

…What Tim had brought upon us we discover later, back at camp. He discovers that he has lost his camera case, his big zoom, his passport. The truth is realised. He has removed an 1500 year old artifact from it’s burial place and has been cursed … the curse of the tooth.

The day’s events seem to brave taken their toll on the wider group, and as Paul drifts off to his hut to bed, it is left to the original Crazy Gang to stay up drinking Sprite and/or Saku and playing cards. It is during the game of Hearts that Steve reveals his secret to us: that he knows more about Tim than meets the eye – that they work for the same government department (or be it in different offices) and that Tim’s legendary Leaderly antics are well know. The challenge is set, and the wager is made. How many times will Tim mention Leading, or Leadership of BTCV holidays tomorrow? The rules are simple. It must be said in the hearing of one or more member of the Crazy Gang, and he must not be enticed to speak on the subject by any member of the Crazy Gang. The bets are recorded: Jane, 8; Thomas, 7; Steve, 13. The winner will receive a drink tomorrow from the other members of the Crazy Gang…

Day Four: Making hay in the meadows with Hagrid and the fate of Mr Weasley’s car…


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