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Digging dirt in Siberia: A student tale

DIGGING THE DIRT: Emily Hunter was one of four U of T Scarborough students who spent five weeks in Siberia on an archaeological dig. (Photo compliments of Emily Hunter.)

by Emily Hunter

Surrounded by cliffs that resemble giant pieces of jagged broken glass. Working near the world’s deepest lake, one that’s as cold as we imagine outer space might be. Digging dirt over ten-hour days in a remote valley in Siberia.

Although this may not sound like an ideal summer for many students, for four archaeology undergraduates at U of T Scarborough, it was the experience of a lifetime.

This past July, four of us left for Siberia, where we volunteered five weeks of our time to help uncover history, or rather pre-history. We were part of the Baikal Archaeology Project (BAP) near Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.

Students Miral Kalyani, Erik Mandawe, Pauline Dobrota and I (Emily Hunter) were part of a team excavating a site called Sagan-Zaba II. Archaeologists believe that this terrain, located near Lake Baikal, was a hunter-gather habitation site, and it is estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old.

“Even though it was very different from my normal lifestyle, the trip was an amazing experience for me,” said Kalyani. “I learned so much, and I took so many great lessons back with me.”

Camping on the rugged grounds of Siberia, Russia, the volunteers excavated from dawn until dusk and dealt with extreme weather conditions that ranged from tropical daytime heat to Antarctica nights. In our leisure time, we hiked over unexplored terrain, sang by a bonfire, and, instead of taking baths, swam in sub-zero Lake Baikal.

The BAP team consisted of 25 volunteers and four head scholars. Most of the team members were native Russians, but seven came from other countries: Canada, the United States, India, Romania and Poland.

The main languages spoken were Russian and English, though few were bilingual. This made for some communications challenges on site. Each day we learned something more about one another’s languages and cultures.

At the excavation site, the finds were numerous, Kalyani said. “Every day we found something interesting. During the five weeks of the project, we found artifacts and items from ancient cultures, including pieces of pottery, weapons, and even a large harpoon that was estimated to be 10,000 years old.”

The two main cultures that inhabited the Lake Baikal region were the coastal Kitoi people (who are believed to have thrived from 6,800 to 4,900 BC) and the mobile Serovo-Glazkovo culture (estimated from 4,200 to 1,000 BC).

The very existence of these cultures defies more than 50 years of archaeology in the Baikal region, according to Dr. Andrzej Weber, one of the foreign heads of BAP. Evidence of these two groups has redefined the area’s history, and discoveries about these cultures are ushering in a new chronology that re-examines the place of past groups in this area.

The purpose of the excavation was to advance this revised chronology, and to shed new light on the merits of Dr. Weber’s new research into the chronology of the region. The team hopes to gain further insight into the peoples and the cultural changes that have taken place in this area.

Weber says Lake Baikal is one of the best areas for the study of prehistoric foraging (hunter-gatherer) adaptations. These types of sites can serve as a model for refuting past archaeology chronologies that he says are overly simplistic and ignore too much of prehistory. Discoveries on the sites can help researchers gain new insights on the past, according to him.

Further research has included radiocarbon dating – a method of estimating the age of items based on carbon output. This approach is more accurate than past estimating methods, archaeologists say. This technique has helped in revising and supplying new chronologies to such places as Lake Baikal, which had hunter-gatherer populations.

New radiocarbon dating techniques are revealing startling results for the Baikal region. Studies seem to suggest that one culture did not even exist, two cultures previously believed to be separate may turn out to be the same culture, and it is possible that one of the civilizations existed 700 years earlier than was previously believed. These results have created a need for BAP to conduct further research.

The Baikal Archaeology Project is a long-term collaborative research initiative between two universities in two nations: the University of Alberta in Canada and Irkutsk State University in Russia.

Prof. Hugh McKenzie, formerly of U of T Scarborough and now at Alberta’s Grant MacEwan College, was one of the head researchers at BAP. He is an expert on Baikal archaeology and was a former professor of all four of the U of T Scarborough student volunteers. McKenzie had said he wanted to promote the BAP program to students at the Scarborough campus, which our students said opened the door to another world for them.

“If it weren’t for Dr. McKenzie, I would have been working some part-time job where I didn’t learn anything new,” says Kalyani. “Instead, I have gained academic experience that taught me about another place and time, something I will value for the rest of my life.” She says this volunteer experience will help to further her other degree, International Development Studies.

Some students like me went to Siberia to earn an academic credit, while others were drawn to the chance to experience something new. Students Erik Mandawe and Pauline Dobrota said the trip gave their first opportunity to do field work in a career they hope to pursue – archaeology.

“I hope to study medical anthropology, and this gave me a foot in the door,” said Mandawe, who plans to pursue a Master’s degree next year.

“I want to find another volunteer archaeology project like this in the future,” said Dobrota. “Now I know that this is the kind of work I want to do. “

Many students may not feel that studying abroad is an option for them due to financial constraints. In most cases, they would be right, but for students at U of T Scarborough, it may be different.

Thanks to a new program called the Student Academic Travel Fund, pursuing academic interests studying abroad may be more affordable for students. The fund certainly helped those of us who went to Siberia.

The Academic Travel Fund at U of T Scarborough is a pilot program now in its second established program that It offers cost reimbursement to students who travel for academic purposes. Whether it be excavating in Siberia, presenting at a conference in the United States, or taking aattending conferences and research groups in Japan or Kuala Lampur ,summer course in China, students may have access to some financial support.

All four BAP participants from our campus received funds that reimbursed some of their travel expenses, including a portion of the costs for plane and train tickets and other expenses. The Academic Travel Fund made the summer archaeology experience possible financially for all of us. “I wouldn’t have made it to Siberia if it weren’t for the fund,” says Kalyani.

Thanks to the travel fund and U of T’s Summer Abroad programs, the doors have opened onto a new world of education. For more information, here are some web site links:

• U of T Summer Abroad:

• UTSC Academic Travel Fund:

• BAP:

Emily Hunter is a student of anthropology and journalism at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

© University of Toronto Scarborough