1 Month, 1 Object, 1 Archaeologist - November-December 2018



Pion (board game figurine) from 10 Fortuna Street (Castle District of Buda) chosen by Tamás Szolnoki



We have started working at 10 Fortuna Street in January 2018 during the renovation of the Hungarian Association of the Order of Malta’s headquarters. We have carried out archaeological excavations a number of times in this essentially medieval house. Since it has been inhabited since the second half of the 13th century, it was transformed and expanded many times over. Signs of these works were also noticeable underground – many archaeological layers attest to the major developments that have taken place here.


During the 13th –14th century, the level of the courtyard was lowered by approx. 3 meters. In the 14th–15th century, it was filled with excavated soil that was transported here from somewhere else as well as some stone debris and communal waste. The latter is a highly valuable treasure for the archaeologist, since what used to be garbage has now become an abundantly rich source of information. However, unearthing such objects in itself is usually not sufficient – we also need a conservator’s help so that the item in question can be interpreted and exhibited.   


Carved stone game board from an excavation by László Zolnay, 14-15th century


The pion I have chosen was definitely in need of some restoration after it was discovered in the layer from the 14th–15th century among a bunch of ceramic fragments, animal bones and metal objects. What distinguishes it from the other mentioned objects is its uniqueness. We know relatively few objects like it, so it was definitely a rare treat. Made of a metacarpus (cannon bone) of a cow, this game board figurine from Fortuna Street is approx. 2.5×2.8 centimetres in size. The approximately square-shaped object is decorated with five drilled holes framed by a double line on all four sides.   


Game board from Buda from the Middle Ages. Illustration


According to previous researches, such objects were used in nine men’s morris or siege games as game board figurines. The games usually included a linear course and some kind of logical set of rules. A number of researchers believe that less wealthy people played with stones or round pieces of pottery, while the more affluent used so-called pions carved of bone such as the object in question. Since we already know that the house under 10 Fortuna Street was owned by wealthy merchants, it is highly probable that this figurine was actually used by them.     



Mini interview with archaeologist Tamás Szolnoki


How did you become an archaeologist? Was it a childhood dream or a career choice that came later in life?

I believe that people inherently have diverse interests and that a general openness can take you to multiple captivating subjects. At least that is what happened in my case: besides physics and geography, I have also been attracted to history both in elementary and high school. My interest in the latter was piqued by my maternal uncle as well as the books of Gyula László. For a long period, it was not at all obvious that I am slowly gravitating towards archaeology – however, there was a point when I discovered that it is actually a perfect mixture of my initial interests. It has always been one of my general beliefs that an archaeologist’s job does not only revolve around historical data (which is primarily found in charters) but also geology, pedology, hydrology, scientific research methods, historical zoology and botany, among many other subjects. Long story short, by the time I graduated from high school, it was clear that I wanted to be an archaeologist.          


Which period is your specialty and why?

The Middle Ages is my specialty – more precisely, medieval settlement history and topography. Besides that, I am mostly interested in the material culture of medieval people, the tangible everyday memorabilia of that period. There are plenty of written sources about the historically relevant deeds of the people of the past, however, archaeology is the tool that provides a glimpse into their everyday lives as well. 


What is best part of your job?   

Although it is a rare thing in a city like Budapest, but I have to say that the tranquillity. In an ideal case, an excavation is not only about digging around hastily, but also the deeper and more precise understanding of the layers of the past. However, deadlines and fast-paced jobs can be inspiring, too. In addition to that, I also consider it highly important to cooperate with colleagues, and to persuade the wider public about the importance of our work by presenting our results.       


What is the hardest part of your job?

Time. Nowadays, the amount of time dedicated to archaeological exploration is a fraction compared to previous decades, and we must adjust our pace according to the demands of modern times. I feel that there is even less time for processing and recording the findings, not to mention writing and publishing papers – one job usually follows another directly, so you need to pay extra attention to managing your time. It would be amazing if we could spend more time with museum and field work, with education and the practical application of modern technologies as well as organizing conferences – and the list goes on.   


What was the greatest surprise at an excavation for you?

Every excavation is different, and every single one has unique little surprises. I have yet to encounter something especially outstanding, but I have to say that finding a World War grenade is always a bombastic experience.


Why did you choose this particular object?

I chose the pion since it is definitely not a thing that you find at any excavation. However, we are proud to say that the museum’s medieval collections contain numerous objects that are similarly unique and interesting. I also chose this item since the Middle Ages may appear as a series of dark centuries filled with wars whose history was written in blood, where, in spite of all of this, an enormous development took place in the intellectual sphere. That development was reflected in common people’s lives with such games of logic which were played to avoid boredom. Those seemingly dark ages had a more kind and more human side – this small object is a witness of that.



About the series


The Castle Museum of the Budapest History Museum has started a series entitled 1 Month - 1 Object - 1 Archaeologist in October 2017. Since August 2018, parts of the series are also available in English.  


All of the archaeological excavations in Budapest are carried out by the employees of the Budapest History Museum – the archaeologists of the Castle Museum are responsible for the ones connected to the Middle Ages. The objects unearthed during these digs become part of the Castle Museum’s collections.   


The aim of the series is to showcase the beauty and the importance of archaeology through personal stories by the employees of the Museum. There is always an interesting or exciting story connected to the object they one of them chooses in a respective month which not only tells you more about history but also about the relationship of the archaeologist to the item in question.


The series 1 Month - 1 Object - 1 Archaeologist is about showing the people behind the exhibitions – the ones who investigate, search, dig and look for connections between the past and the present; the ones whose choice hopefully provides something exciting to the visitors, joining together personal stories with historical knowledge strictly based on facts.   


The object chosen for a certain month is exhibited in the Királypince (King’s Cellar) which was originally a part of the medieval gardens.  


Parts of the series: