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Looking For Evidence of Early Humans in Eastern Europe

Looking For Evidence of Early Humans in Eastern Europe

University of Arkansas anthropology graduate student Ashly Romero spent part of her summer doing paleo-anthropological research in Romania. Accompanying her advisor, Claire Terhune, assistant professor of anthropology, Romero was part of an international team trying to identify evidence of early humans and their environments in Eastern Europe. Below is Romero’s account of her experience.

More about Romero’s experience and the Oltet River Valley Paleontological Project can be found at

Sitting on the plane awaiting touchdown and my first field experience in Romania, I imagined my trowel becoming my closest friend over the next few weeks. I thought about the precise methodology with which I would be taught to use it. These ideas are thanks to my roommate’s archaeological experiences, which were shared with me extensively. I forgot about the week of collections organization ahead and the city we were thrust into upon landing.

Bucharest looked exactly how I envisioned an ex-Communist, Eastern European city. Large buildings constructed during the Communist era filled the skyline. Everything felt slightly different and made me stop and evaluate my idea of normalcy.

The first week of work took place in the Institute of Speleology, which is about a mile or so from downtown Bucharest. Our work room was damp and cold. We turned on two space heaters to keep the temperature just bearable with a sweater on. Colder temperatures are the norm in many collections, but this room was surprisingly chilly. But once we got the fossils out on the table, the cold was forgotten. I was in my happy place, surrounded by the once living.

Romero with a woolly mammoth tusk.

Throughout the week in Bucharest, I performed a variety of tasks. I 3D-scanned carnivore skulls and identified various mammal bones. It was tedious and dusty work, but the knowledge I gained is extremely valuable and can be applied to future research and fieldwork. At the end of the week, we may have been delirious, but we accomplished most of the tasks set before us. We had unpacked, identified, scanned, and examined hundreds of bones. We were ready to get out to the field.

After a five-hour drive from Bucharest, we found ourselves at a small inn in the Romanian countryside. It wasn’t fancy, but it had running water and functional showers and toilets, so I was grateful.

Our group was divided into two teams for fieldwork – survey and excavation. Fieldwork required a constant readjustment of expectations. For example, assigned to the survey team for the first three days, I envisioned systematically walking and looking for fossils, but that was nothing like how a survey worked in a Romanian river valley. Instead, we drove around looking for landslides. When we found one, we hiked to it and searched for fossils. By this, I mean we looked everywhere and dug around with a rock hammer. When done, it was back to the car and on to the next exposure.

Romero digging.

This type of work is essentially hiking with very little direction or purpose. Growing up, hiking was always about getting to a place with a view or a campsite. I rarely ventured from the path, afraid that I couldn’t find my way back. On survey, there was hardly ever more than a goat path, and it seemed like the point was to get lost rather than to actually get to a particular place. We walked ridge after ridge searching for exposed sediment, and frequently walked many kilometers around the exposures we found. The landslides don’t follow a path, so neither did we. Once I got used to wandering through the wilderness, I started to really enjoy it, so much so that I plan to buy a GPS unit when I get home and use it to hike through parks in Arkansas.

I was then assigned to the excavation team, whose goal was to excavate the remains of a large woolly mammoth. The major dirt removal had already been completed, so I was tasked with the much more tedious fossil removal. I much prefer shovels to small wooden sculpting tools, but I got that chance later. Fossil excavation is a slow and careful process. How the fossils are preserved makes all the difference. These fossils started breaking apart as we removed the sediment around them. I was lucky enough to work on an articulated mammoth spine most of the days I excavated. It gave me a purpose that picking small pieces of sand and dirt from an unknown jumble of bones couldn’t. After two days of working on the vertebral column, I dug out a big part of the site in search of horse fossils. Only one toe bone was found in that area, so the delicacy of wooden picks was not required. I broke out the big tools and went to town. Who needs therapy when you have shovels and hours of digging to do?

Carrying equipment.

Each team had its advantages. I enjoyed the walking and hiking and geographical knowledge required of survey, but excavation allowed me to work out frustrations in a way that survey never could.

No day passed without some humorous personal debacle, including slowly sliding down cliffsides I had worked so hard to climb – while others stood at the top offering useless advice – getting kissed by frogs in the forest, and getting stuck up to my ankles in mud I thought would hold my weight.

Two weeks of fieldwork came and went and we left our little inn to go back to Bucharest. After another week of fossil inventory, scanning, and examining bones at the institute, the field season ended. I learned more than I could have hoped and made friends in unexpected places. These people, this place… I leave a piece of me with them and wish for the best. I’m already looking forward to a new field season.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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