Archaeology Scotland News,  Blog post

An Estonian Adventure

In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to be awarded a place on the ARCH NET 5 study trip to Estonia. The trip was funded by the Erasmus+ programme and hosted by the wonderful Maarika Naagel of Vitong-Heritage Tours in Estonia.  An email circulated the Archaeology Scotland offices earlier in the year outlining the visits, and as soon as it popped up in my inbox, I leapt at the opportunity. The timing seemed perfect, having never had the chance to participate in an Erasmus trip as a student, and given our current political relationship with Europe, there was no point holding off for another year.

The first challenge I was presented with was choosing which study visit to apply for. They all sounded amazing. I finally settled on the Estonian trip; the focus on traditional skills, education, and heritage interpretation and management seemed most applicable to my role. Despite knowing very little about Estonia – I knew it was a small country, with a large coastline and a Soviet history – I felt it might have a few things in common with Scotland, meaning anything I’d learn on the trip could easily be incorporated into my work. Turns out Estonia had more than just its small size and big coastline in common with Scotland.

After a 5 am start for an early flight to Tallinn, we were thrown straight into a packed programme of activity.  Our week began with a tour of Old Tallinn, a picture-perfect medieval city.  Our tour guide Markus was brilliant; we were one of his first solo tours, but his enthusiasm and passion for heritage shone through, and we would never have guessed this. This passion for heritage soon became a running theme of the trip.  The city remains one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, and at first glance, there is little evidence of its tumultuous past.  Markus pointed some of these out to us – the cannonballs sympathetically preserved in the walls of Keik in de Kök; the pre-bombing street lines marked out within the cobbles and the colourful Alexander Neviski Cathedral, a building dominating much of the cityscape. The building is beautiful and obviously loved by tourists, yet it is symbolic of Russian occupation.  I didn’t get the impression it was viewed in a negative light, more viewed as an important part of history. Walking through the alleyways of the old town, I was quite taken with an artistic timeline printed in the streets.  Unusually, the timeline extended into the future, a lovely optimistic symbol. We often run timeline activities with the school and youth groups we work with, and this has given me a bit of food for thought on how we can develop these activities in the future.

Museums were a big part of our trip. No two were the same. From the (very) weird (think giant models of fantasy creatures) to the wonderful, and from those developed with millions of pounds in funding, to those run on the passion of volunteers alone. The exhibition at the newly restored Haapsalu castle was a particular highlight.  Interpretation on glass panels was sympathetic to the restoration, showing off the castle walls behind the panels. Jaak, our guide, detailed their decisions to go low tech in their exhibits. The development of the project over five years meant any technology purchased at the start would have been outdated by the time of opening. The museum’s hands-on exhibits were beautifully crafted and would stand the test of time. Exhibits included 3D site models – making the castle more accessible for visually impaired visitors, and old maps and archaeological site drawings printed on Perspex which could be slid over one another showing how the site changed through time (an idea I’d like to steal for Archaeology Scotland!).  My favourite exhibit was the wall of artefacts found during recent excavations. Pot fragments displayed over the outline of the type of pot they came from and bridle parts displayed over a sketch of a horse’s head made it obvious what the artefacts were and were used for in the past – sketches like this would be a great addition to our Artefact Investigation kits.   

I don’t think I’d be alone in saying visiting Mari Lepik was one of the most inspiring parts of the trip.  Mari, who plays in a band, is a mother of five and has a PhD in biology, is more passionate about her heritage than anyone I’ve ever met. In our short visit, Mari had us singing old songs, playing traditional instruments, dressed in traditional costumes and playing old games.  Whilst writing her PhD Mari became increasingly aware of traditions being lost to time. She made it her personal mission to bring these back to life, learning how to make pätt, a type of show worn in Estonia up until the ’60s, studying yarn dying techniques and learning embroidery patterns – documenting and collecting records of each of these skills, and with the help of approximately 20 volunteers producing the Sörulase Aabits. An ABC book of Sörve heritage detailing everything from old recipes to forgotten dialect and grammar from this region.  A stunning resource, the book has been incredibly popular, and a second print had just been produced.

Another thing I found quite striking was the relationship between Estonians and their environment. Estonia’s forest is still relatively intact and is, therefore, a dominating feature of the landscape, with Estonians referring to themselves as forest people. Massive mature trees are a common sight in towns and cities and are offered legal protection, with buildings planned around them.

The relationship with the land doesn’t stop there. Guides were quick to point apple and lilac trees deep in the forest, indicating the spots mansion houses once stood.  Our visit to a countryside school was centred around outdoor learning and its benefits, and the relationship between people and the land was obviously still very important in sustainable food production. I enjoyed hearing how popular foraging still is in Estonia, something that’s seeing a bit of revival at home. We were lucky enough to visit in prime mushroom season; one evening, our entire dinner was sourced within 10 minutes of the farm we were staying on – Chanterelles from the woods, potatoes from the farm, pickles made with cucumbers from the greenhouses and dill and blackcurrant leaves from the garden, and flounders (gutted by ourselves!) caught nearby.   

Military history, which admittedly isn’t my thing, was a huge part of the trip, inescapable perhaps given Estonia’s role in the war and its Soviet history.  I found myself transfixed in Maarika’s stories; she had first-hand experience of so many of the things we read about in museums or were taught about in school.  We spent our final day in Vabamu – the museum of occupations/our freedom, a unique museum detailing Estonia’s recent past from the point of view of its people, and for this reason, I found myself captivated by the exhibits. For me, the people were the most important part of the trip. Listening to Maarika and her friends tell us about Estonian heritage, I felt their stories and their real experiences were the important ones and the ones where their true love and passion for Estonia were most obvious.  It has made me think I should be including people’s stories and oral histories more often in my work at Archaeology Scotland; like Estonia, our people really are one of our greatest assets!

I feel rather privileged that through Maarika we experienced things we would not have had we visited Estonia ourselves.  An exclusive behind the scenes tour gave us the opportunity to meet some of Estonia’s real ambassadors for heritage (including Maarika herself), experience the country’s true vibrancies and energy, and visit some incredible places off of the beaten track.  Since my return, I’ve loved sharing my Estonian tales with colleague’s, family and friends, and despite still digesting everything I learned, I’ll be doing my best to embed it in my work connecting people with Scotland’s past and sharing their stories.

I’d like to thank Libby and Shona from Archnetwork for giving me the opportunity, Maarika for sharing her knowledge and boundless enthusiasm for Estonia, all of the guides and hosts we met during the week and my fellow adventures – Carrie, Cathy, Collin, Matthew, Nina, Rhona and Susan, without whom the trip would have been very different.

Becca Barclay, Archaeology Scotland

This text was submitted to and published in the Archaeology Scotland members magazine.

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