Czech Republic, Svojšín

How I became an archaeologist

Workcamp: Summer in Svojšín

The story was written for us by Agata Kozłowska and was awarded in the competition of workcamp memories in November 2012.


Finland, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, Turkey. In all these places I had already been for projects. How about something closer now? We make the basic mistake of going further and skipping our neighbours, so close and yet so little known. That’s why I decided on a Czech workcamp. And if it’s the Czech Republic, it must be in a castle. Like a princess. A princess of dirty work, because it is also physical work.

Svojšín is a small village (town…?) in Pilsen country, in the western part of Bohemia. Few inhabitants, one shop, two pubs, post office. It used to be a cultural mix as Germans, Czechs and Jews lived here. And a baroque castle with two faces on a small hill. From the front, it looks like a fairy tale – a golden façade, numerous windows reflecting the sunlight, orange tiles laid evenly, a romantic park with trimmed lush green grass and alleys paved with fine gravel. At the back it is like an uglier sister. The windows and doors are missing, the paint is flaking off, the red bricks are grinning. And only to the right is the whitewashed church, completely renovated with the help of some workcamp.
So we live in a castle. Two Czechs, two Poles, a Russian, a Frenchman, a Turk, a German, a Hungarian, a Korean, a Taiwanese and a Spaniard. We have had enough of dumplings after a few days, but we can never have too much Czech beer. We cooked ourselves a hellishly spicy Korean rice, a satiating tortilla, a Hungarian paprika dish, ratatouille and much more, after all it’s been two weeks. Distrustful at first, by the second evening we were talking as if we had known each other for ages. This one-of-a-kind voluntary community is forming. It lasts only a short time, but it is extraordinary. Warm, open, full of trust. It cannot be explained, it has to be felt. It doesn’t always come about on a project, this summer we were lucky. The right people came together at the right time to give something of themselves. And at the same time get to know the Czechs and Bohemia.
The work. Above all, it makes sense. You can see that we are helping the community. The most important thing in volunteering is that our work gives something back, that something remains after us. We just left behind new footpaths at the back of the park. Countless strokes with a pickaxe, we pick with a shovel, then cotton, stones and finally light sand. We clear the older ones of weeds, although this is a bit of a Sisyphean task. And it would have been like this for two whole weeks, if not for the discoveries which changed the character of the whole project. An antique well unearthed and the remains of an old castle. Because no matter where we started digging, we found fragments of historic walls and walls everywhere. And such things need to be properly uncovered. Dig around, check where it ends, clear the soil and call an archaeologist. Let him look, tell what and how. By the way, little treasures were found. Old coins, baroque vessels, unusual stones, which the archaeologist called “baroque” and had them put away in a separate pile. This is not new, there is an exhibition of objects found by previous projects in the castle. And so the workcamp turned into an archaeological one. And the girls with pickaxes and shovels, working in the sweat of their brow in the sun, after a week were no longer surprising and were affectionately nicknamed “babinec” (obviously pronounced with a Czech accent).
As usual, a pile of memories and photos remained. Blisters on my hands that quickly disappeared. New acquaintances, which maybe will survive, maybe not. Our work will certainly survive. A slightly less neglected castle, new paths in the planned park at the back, an exposed former brickyard in the woods and a well in the inner courtyard. The people who said goodbye to us with a smile.

The workcamp took place in 2012.