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Archaeologists Use Moles To Solve Mysteries Of Middle Ages' Fort

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Moles get a bad rap. They dig tunnels destroying gardens and lawns.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

They're not particularly cute or cuddly - I mean, come on, there are games where the goal is to hit plastic moles on the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You never know when you've got to whack a mole. It's Whac-A-Mole.

SIEGEL: Put down those mallets - we're learning that moles may be good to have around.

BLOCK: Danish archaeologist Yesper Yah-mind is working on a site where he believes a medieval manor once stood. He's not allowed to dig on the site because the land is protected by the government. But luckily, it's also home to a colony of moles - so he lets them do his dirty work instead.

YESPER YAH-MIND: On top of these mole hills there sometimes are pottery or sometimes are small pieces of bricks.

SIEGEL: Doesn't sound like much but Yah-mind says, there are mountains in those molehills.

YAH-MIND: We can see where there are the most bricks and underneath the places with the most bricks parts, there must be a building.

BLOCK: The moles are pointing the way and he isn't the only archaeologist to team up with moles. In 2010, British archaeologist Paul Frodsham had a similar idea when he wanted to learn more about a Roman military barracks. Legally, he couldn't dig but...

PAUL FRODSHAM: Moles don't have the law so they just carry on digging so they keep turning up these mole hills every year.

SIEGEL: Frodsham organized hundreds of local volunteers -humans to sift through molehills. They found all kinds of treasures - 2000-year-old coins, beads from a Roman woman's jewelry.

FRODSHAM: Which leads to all sorts of interest - you can probably imagine - all sorts of interesting interpretations on the part of volunteers - why lady's jewelry should be in a place where only men should be.

SIEGEL: Despite these discoveries, Frodsham is at best ambivalent about his furry friends.

FRODSHAM: They're a menace because they're running around and digging holes and obviously disturbing the underground archaeology so I can't pretend for a minute that they're good.

BLOCK: But Danish archaeologist Yesper Yah-mind has a more benign attitude towards the tunnelers.

YAH-MIND: Often we as archaeologists are called moles. We are moles so we have, to a certain degree, a lot of friendship with the moles.

SIEGEL: The moles may have discovered these ruins first but they don't mind sharing the credit with disruptive, two-legged diggers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.