After a stupidly early start (I didn’t know there was such a thing as 3.30am in the morning), I make it to the airport, which at that time in the morning was filled with tired, grumpy people. The flight takes me over Denmark and the southern coast of Sweden. We overfly a series of Baltic islands including Öland, Gotland (Swedish) and Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Vormsi (Estonia). It’s a good reminder of the importance of island and coastal landscapes when studying the archaeology of the region; in periods when the interiors of much of the East Baltic were dominated by dense forest shipping routes were obviously a major way of moving around the area.
I get a taxi from the airport to my salubrious dockside hotel. A Russian driver who either had a death wish or a grudge against the English drove the taxi; it is not surprising that Finland and Estonia produce such good rally drivers.
Tallinn is a fascinating city; it stands at the borders of Europe and Russia and also lies on the edge of Scandinavia and Central Europe. This can be seen in the architecture. The medieval heart of the city shows clear similarities with the other important trading towns that lie around the Baltic and the North Sea. At the centre of the old town lies the main square, Raekoja Plats, dominated by the 15th century town hall. In many of the streets around this part of the town the 15th and 16th century houses of the city’s major merchants, which combine domestic space with warehousing. Other clear reminders of the city’s Hanseatic trading past include the House of the Great Guild, which was the headquarters of the German-speaking merchant guild that dominated trade. Nearby is the House of the Blackheads, an organisation for visiting foreign merchants founded in the late 14th century. Both buildings are again typical of late medieval North European architecture.
However, elsewhere there are clear reminders of Estonia’s Russian past. The country was ruled by Russia during much of the 18th and 19th century, and was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. This has left a clear mark on the city. This can be heard on the street, where it is common to hear Russian spoken – Estonia still has a large Russian-speaking minority, particularly in the cities. The architecture also expresses Russian influence. This is most obviously seen in the presence of a number of Russian Orthodox churches, including the spectacular Cathedral of Alexander Nevskii built in 1900 in a typical Russian medieval revival style, with onion domes and the a cross-shaped plan (for more about the changes in Russian architecture in the later 19th century have a look at Orlando Figes’ excellent cultural history of Russia: Natasha’s Dance). However, it’s not only in the sphere of ecclesiastical architecture that the Russian influence can be seen. The relative proximity of St Petersburg can be seen in the presence of the Neo-Classical and Baroque facades on a number of important public buildings, including the castle, which houses the Estonian government.
I head into town to get my bearings and a bite to eat. The weather is great- I am able to sit outside at a street café while I have my lunch. Having digested my beer and visited a few bookshops I head over to the Institute of Archaeology which lies in an historic building behind St Nicholas’s Church, a mainly 15th century building erected by German merchants. I have a meeting with Marika Mägi, the head of the department. We go for coffee in a pub in the basement of the building – the Department even has its own back entrance into the bar. This is an innovation every archaeology department in the UK should follow! We arrange that I should come in the next day to use the Departmental library for my research. By now my early start is beginning to catch up with me so I head back to the hotel to get a bite to eat and an early night.
PICTURES TO COME!!