Students and researchers learn from each other at an archaeological dig

Students of ethnology and archaeology participated in the archaeological dig for the Lapland’s Dark Heritage research project in Inari’s Hyljelahti. They brought their own expertise and new perspectives to the project. The research proceeded through cooperation and dialogue.

This year’s dig focuses on the remains of the German base and prison camp close to the road between Inari and Kaamanen, in the woods between the road and the nearby swamp. To the casual observer, the area looks like any other pine forest. On closer inspection, the low shrapnel shields that zig-zag along the forest floor become apparent.

The volunteers on the public dig have already dug open one of the shrapnel shields. Nearby, digging is underway for a trash pit. There is a lot of hustle and bustle, with researchers, volunteers, journalists and curious passers-by. Everyone is welcome. Two students from the University of Helsinki are also involved.

Measuring and modelling

Annukka Debenjak, archaeology student, is not at the dig site, but her red jacket can be seen flitting between the trees. She walks alone around the forest, carrying measuring equipment.

 “I’m using a tachymeter to measure distances. The intention is to draw a map of what was located in this large area. Where were the prisoners, where the guards, the outhouses, dugouts and – an archaeologists’ favourite – the trash pits?”

The fact that there is no internet connection in the dig area has made it more difficult to take measurements. With an internet-connected GPS device, the area could be measured down to the centimetre. Now Debenjak has to survey the area with a tachymeter – slowly but surely.

 “I’m also making three-dimensional models of the dig sites. At first I struggled with the new camera, but now I’ve had some success with the models. 3D models have become popular in archaeology because they’re so fast and easy to make,” Debenjak says.

This is not Annukka Debenjak’s first archaeological dig, but she says this time is different from her previous experiences.

 “The atmosphere is really nice, the schedule isn’t too tight, and the attitude to the digging itself is relaxed. Everyone here is just curious. It’s important that the experience is positive and that everyone has a good time. I was enthusiastic from the moment I was asked to join the project because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Annukka Debenjak says. Like the other archaeologists, she seems immune to the mosquitoes swarming around the site.

Student and social media expert

Mirkka Hekkurainen, student of ethnology, is at the dig for the second time.

 “I was very lucky. I had to delay the beginning of my Master’s seminar, and the other students had already picked their topics. The only remaining topic had to do with the Lapland’s Dark Heritage project, and I jumped on it. I couldn’t understand how that topic was still available. I got to join an archaeological dig in Lapland and work with real researchers,” Mirkka Hekkurainen explains.

At the dig, Hekkurainen conducts participatory ethnographical research. She interviews the volunteers who are part of the public dig as well as visitors to the site. Her research focuses on how volunteers found out about the dig and what working with cultural heritage means to them.

 “I just stand or lounge around the dig with my recorder and talk to everyone. I’ll empty buckets and do whatever they ask me to, but I don’t participate in the digging itself.”

During the weeks of the dig, Hekkurainen’s primary job is social media. She creates content for the project’s social media channels: Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. At the same time, she is researching how the public could be motivated to participate in research projects and cultural heritage work. The goal is to develop tools for the ethnographers of the future.

Last summer, Hekkurainen arrived at the dig as an ethnographer, with no experience or concept of an archaeological dig. She wanted her first experience to be the same as that of her research subjects, the volunteers participating in the public dig. Her plan worked well. However, Hekkurainen became so interested in archaeology that she took three basic studies courses in archaeology over the winter.

 “I wanted to understand what archaeology is about and learn some theory. But I am still here as an ethnographer.”

Cooperation and dialogue

 “As a rule, archaeologists want to include students in the research projects and digs. It’s so obvious to us that we sometimes forget to mention it,” says Vesa-Pekka Herva, professor of archaeology at the University of Oulu and leader of the Lapland’s Dark Heritage project.

 “We want students to be involved in research from the very beginning of their studies. In small fields such as ours, this is important to ensure that research continues and our collective expertise grows. Teaching also feels more relevant this way.”

Students bring their own expertise and perspectives to the research projects, and everyone benefits.

 “Of course I know something about social media, but Mirkka’s command of it is on a completely different level. She’s teaching the rest of us how our project can use social media to make people interested in us.”

 “Annukka’s speciality is 3D modelling. She has taught me all the things that 3D modelling enables and how to do them. And I have my own insights into how the models can be used in archaeology. We research through cooperation and dialogue,” the professor explains.

It is obvious that academic hierarchies have crumbled over the two-week dig. The professor’s raincoat is the butt of a number of jokes, and he is asked to go fetch things just like any of the other researchers.

If the professor does not finish his job and is distracted by new finds made by volunteers he sees while walking past, Hekkurainen has no qualms giving him fairly direct feedback. But it is given with a smile, like everything else on this dig.

Watch Annukka Debenjak and Mirkka Hekkurainen work on the Hyljelahti dig.


Further information about the project and the dig

Follow the ‘Lapland’s Dark Heritage’ project:


Twitter: @darklapland


Instagram: @dig_inari

Read more: Community of researchers and volunteers at Inari archaeological dig

Watch the video where the volunteers on the public dig tell about their experiences.