I Dig Up the Dirt

18 July 1858

Hallstatt is a quaint little town, squeezed between a lake and a mountain. The only reason anyone ever built a village in such a ludicrous location is because of what is in that mountain--salt.

Salt is called “white gold.” It is more than just a seasoning. In the days before refrigeration, it is one of the few ways to preserve meat, fish, butter and cheese. These mines have lured men here since ancient times, making Hallstatt one of the oldest communities in Europe.

I came here with two missions. One was to record the Hallstatt of the nineteenth century, which I believe I have done well. The other was to meet Johann Georg Ramsauer. This task proved more difficult.

Herr Ramsauer is a very busy man, being the current Bergermister of the salt mines. While an important position, it is not what history will remember him for. Ramsauer is a legendary pioneer in the field of archaeology.

Ramsauer had been intrigued by strange items occasionally found deep in the mines. These were primitive looking chisels of bronze and iron, leather rucksacks, wooden scoops, and other tools, all preserved by the salt. He also stories of the “Salt Man” found in the last century. The workers had found the mummified remains of a miner, apparently killed in a cave in. There had been a huge debate in town over whether to give the poor blighter a church burial, since he obviously was not Christian. That would have made the remains very old indeed!

In 1846 Ramsauer found an ancient cemetery high in the mountains. A superstitious man would have left it alone. A greedy man would have dug it up for possible treasure. Ramsauer knew the real value of this place was what it could teach us of these ancient people. He decided to carefully excavate each grave.

I was interested in meeting this man and seeing his work. I had sent a message telling him I was an “antiquarian.” I had yet to receive an answer. I didn’t know if it was because the message had not been delivered, Ramsauer was too busy to respond, or was simply ignoring me. I had mentioned I was from Cambridge, hoping to impress him. Afterwards it dawned on me that may not have been the wisest move. Germany and Britain are currently not on the best of terms.

Last Friday, while reading a book at a café, a gentleman approached me. He asked in English if I spoke German, for he noticed the book I read was in English. I told him I spoke German like a tourist. He found that funny and introduced himself as Wolfgang Gruber, a history professor from the University of Vienna.

He noticed I the book I read was on ancient history. I told him I had a degree in classical history from the University of Cambridge. Of course, I did not tell him I would receive my degree twenty years in the future, and that I got it while studying 19th century college life for 27th century Cambridge.

Gruber was quite delighted to run into another historian, even if my German is as imperfect as his English. He told me he had come to Hallstatt to meet Johann Ramsauer. The two had corresponded and Ramsauer had invited him to join him at a dig. The two had arranged for a meeting Saturday. He asked if I would like to come along. I could not believe my luck!

This morning we met Johann Ramsauer at his home. He apologized for not meeting Gruber earlier, but he was a very busy man. Noticing all the youngsters running about, I could easily believe that. History reports he raised twenty-four children!

Gruber introduced me, and asked if I could come along, vouching for my character. Ramsauer looked a little embarrassed. “So, you are this Howe fellow who sent me that note? When you said you were an antiquarian, I thought you were a treasure hunter.”

I assured him my curiosity is merely academic and I am not here to disturb his excavations or interfere in anyway. He smiled, and told me I would be more than welcome.

Ramsauer took us up into the mountains to his latest excavation. He asked us not to reveal the exact location, least grave robbers come looking for plunder. I was already wearing my glasses/camera, so was recording everything, but I told him truthfully I would not tell anyone alive where I had been or what I had seen. (After all, the people I was recording this for would not be born for several centuries.)

I’m an temporal anthropologist, not an archaeologist, but I have taken a couple of courses on the science. Like anthropology, archaeology is a new science in the 1800s, so Ramsauer’s operation would be considered primitive by today standards. His procedures, however, are most professional. Rather than ransacking the grave, he carefully and methodically uncovers it. Each grave is numbered and the contents and their location recorded as best he can. I must say, I am very impressed with his methods. Although an amateur, he richly deserves the title “archaeologist.”

Ramsauer said he has uncovered hundreds of graves. I didn’t tell him that he would eventually find exactly 993 by the year 1863. And there will still be hundreds more for future archaeologists. He said all the burials seemed to have funerary goods in them, mostly pottery and tools. Occasionally he ran across a final resting place of wealthy individual with gold or silver jewelry. However, the burials pointed to a fairly equal society, rather than one where a few powerful men grabbed everything.

Gruber and I spent the day helping Ramsauer excavate. I have had a few archaeologists tell me temporal anthropologists are brave for wanting to go back into the past, but let me tell you, archaeologists are no skackers! It’s back-breaking, tedious work, and while I enjoyed being able to work next to Ramsauer, it is not something I would want to do for a living. Temporal anthropologists have it easy!

We stopped before it got dark, so we could make it down the mountain without injuring ourselves. Once back at the village, Ramsauer showed us some of the relics he has collected, not only from the graves, but from the salt mines.

Ramsauer said the workers are very good about turning things they found in the tunnels over to him. He also said, that while he tries to keep the excavation site a secret, he know full well the natives would have no problem finding and ruining it. The townsfolk treat his project with respect, perhaps as a bit a civic pride. These are after all their ancestors and family history.

I think one of the most amazing things in his collection is a scrap of clothe found in the salt mine. It is a herringbone twill in green and brown plaid. Thousands of years old, it looked like it had come from an Victorian Englishman’s trousers. I almost had to laugh.

How fitting it should be plaid. The Hallstatt excavation will give it’s name to the Hallstatt culture, the first culture that can truly be called Celtic. The Celts would eventually spread all the way from Ireland to Turkey. There is some controversial evidence they may have gone as far as China and America!

How much information and evidence would have been lost if another man other than Ramsauer had first found these graves and ransacked them? How much would have been lost if the good people of Hallstatt had not left the site alone. Historians all owe them a big debt of gratitude.

I was invited to join Ramsauer and Gruber Sunday after church for more excavating. While my muscles are sore, I can hardly say no. Who knows, maybe I’ll find something exciting.

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