Tartu Ülikooli arheoloogiakogud: minevik ja olevik


  • Andres Tvauri
  • Heiki Valk




Archaeological Collections of the University of Tartu: Past and Present

Andres Tvauri PhD, Heiki Valk PhD, UT Institute of History and Archaeology


Archaeological collections are the main source material for the study of prehistory and in the context of Estonia, and a most valuable source also for the study of the Middle Ages, especially of the native rural population. The archaeological collections of the University of Tartu are the oldest and second-largest in Estonia. Foundation to the collections at the University of Tartu was laid by the Learned Estonian Society (founded in 1838). During the Czar time, the collections gradually increased, involving also a multitude of finds from the Latvian part of the province of Livland. The collections were located at the Vaterländische Museum zu Dorpat that existed in Tartu in 1861–1921.

When Estonia became independent after World War I, the teaching of archaeology as a speciality began at the University of Tartu in 1920. In 1921 the Cabinet of Archaeology (Arheoloogia Kabinet) that became responsible for archaeological research together with the Museum of Archaeology were founded at the chair of archaeology. The archaeological collections of the Learned Estonian Society were now deposited to the University and in the first half of the 1920s also some other archaeological collections were deposited there. By 1940, the collections included 3868 main numbers already.

During World War II and also for some time after it, the continuity of teaching archaeology and archaeological collections was preserved in Tartu. When the Soviet system of the institutes of the Academy of Sciences was introduced in Estonia, the archaeological collections of the university were delivered to the newly founded Institute of History in 1947. When the chair of archaeology was closed in 1950 and the institute was moved to Tallinn in 1951, also the archaeological collections and archives were taken to the capital of Estonia soon.

In the early 1990s teaching of archaeology as a speciality began in Tartu again. The new research unit Archaeological Laboratory (1990–1992) laid foundation to the new archaeological collections and archives again. On the basis of the laboratory, the Cabinet of Archaeology was re-established in 1993 and the new archaeological collections continued constantly growing. In 1997 archaeology gained new rooms with special store rooms and conservation laboratory at Lossi Street 3. In 2000 and 2001 the old archaeological collections of the Learned Estonian Society (with the exception of collections of coins and silver artefacts) were returned to the University of Tartu. In 2011 archaeology moved to the new rooms in Jakobi Street 2, freshly reconstructed for the needs of the speciality. There the new complex of archaeology includes special store rooms also for human osteological and zooarchaeological collections and for archaeological samples. To the complex belong also room for work with finds, a big conservation and research laboratory, as well as archives and library. Presently the new archaeological collections include ca. 2200 main numbers, gained as a result of field inventories (mostly in southern and eastern Estonia) and archaeological excavations carried out by the University. In the university store room are located also the old collections of the Learned Estonian Society, and some deposits from several local museums of southern Estonia.

The two largest archaeological collections of Estonia – at the Institute of History, University of Tallinn (that keeps also the collections of the University of Tartu from 1921–1950) and at the University of Tartu – do not belong to the system of state museums but have the status of scientific collections. The location of collections at research and teaching institutions has granted a flexible access to them for research and teaching purposes. Archaeological collections and archives are the main basis for the archaeological research conducted at the University of Tartu. The existence of collections and conservation facilities is also crucially important from the perspective of teaching archaeology. Participation in the work with finds forms an important part of practical teaching of archaeology. The presence of collections has provided a most essential contribution to the quantitative and qualitative progress in the research and development activities, in schooling of new specialists and in the development of the scope of archaeology at the University of Tartu. We also cannot deny the role of old collections at making and keeping academic university atmosphere at the department of archaeology. The success story of archaeology at the University of Tartu during the last decades is connected not only with people, but greatly also with material preconditions for research and teaching, including the archaeological collections and archives.


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