Historians with shovels: How Moscow archaeologists work

Historians with shovels: How Moscow archaeologists work
Thousands of archaeological artefacts are found in Moscow every year including pieces with thousand-year old histories, ancient treasures and household items from people who lived many centuries ago.

15 August marks Archaeologist Day in Russia: the unofficial holiday of specialised scientists who don’t have offices but look for treasure just under their feet. Over the last nine years, Moscow archaeologists found 45,000 artefacts.

This year excavations will take places at about 200 sites, the main ones at the Bolshaya Polyanka Street-Staromonetny Pereulok intersection and in Kitai-Gorod where the Tyoplye Trading Rows once stood, at Novodevichy Convent, Khudozhestvenny Cinema Hall and the former Goncharnaya Sloboda in the Yauza Region. Excavations are also underway in the Troitsk and Novomoskovsk administrative areas: archaeologists are studying the Stolbovo 1 settlement in the village of Sosenskoye.

Experts believe you have to gain experience and learn for a long time to see scientific evidence in a handful of dirt. On the eve of this professional holiday, mos.ru spoke with archaeologists who have found hundreds of priceless items and made big discoveries.

Cubometres of history

The cultural layers of Moscow are deeper than 10 metres in some places, so archaeologists can find items with a rich history. In the city, excavations are carried out ahead of repairs or street beautification projects in most cases. Defining the borders of cultural and architectural heritage sites is another part of the work.

“Previous generations of archaeologists left us a lot of information about the artefacts they found. Unfortunately, they are often just points on the map. The borders must be set strictly for them to be protected,” said Vladimir Berkovich, historian and archeologist, deputy general director of Archaeological Research in Construction. He has been studying various districts in Moscow for 30 years.

Vladimir Berkovich, deputy general director of Archaeological Research in Construction

According to Berkovich, in recent years a lot of work has been carried out in the Troitsk and Novomoskovsk areas. Scientist Mikhail Gonyany, who passed away recently, worked there a lot. He found ancient barrows and a mine where white stone was produced in the Troitsk and Novomoskovsk administrative areas.

The entire city centre within the Kamer-Kollezhsky Val blocks are considered an archaeological heritage site. Archaeological monitoring must take place during any construction project there. This year archaeologists worked with contractors at projects being built in the fight against COVID-19, in particular, at Hospital No. 31, according to Head of the Moscow Archaeological Office Konstantin Voronin.

“We are a small part of the city infrastructure. Many projects cannot proceed without our research, and the city services cannot approve them,” he added.

Moscow archaeologists can work in the winter as well as the summer.

“When the weather is warm, a simple shelter from the rain is built at the site. And in the winter, large tents are erected over the excavation site: stationary, heated with fans, or mobile tents. At night, the soil is covered with insulation so it won’t freeze over,” Vladimir Berkovich explained.

In the spring archaeologists suspended field operations due to the pandemic, but they resumed digging in late June. Nevertheless, many valuable artefacts have been found this year, such as a safe from the late 19th–early 20th century with evidence of tampering, 18th century painted tiles, a pottery fondant jar and a 19th century nightingale-shaped clay whistle.

Konstantin Voronin said that during the time there was no excavation work, the archaeologists worked at tables to process the items they gathered and write scientific reports.

“We have completed the academic research on the items we found several years ago. And, importantly, we completed the renovation of a magnificent weapons complex found in a log building from the early 17th century. Fragments of European armour with items from Eastern military culture were found. This centre clearly shows Russia’s place on the border of east and west,” said the head of the Moscow Archaeological Office.

Moscow Neolith

Last year was especially rich in findings: over 10,000 items.

“A unique collection of tiles with animal and human figures, and antique characters and Biblical stories were found at an excavation site on Gogol Boulevard. Moreover, weapons were found there: the defensive walls of Bely Gorod, or White City, stood along boulevards. But a flint dart from the Neolithic era (4,000-3,000 BC - mos.ru) was the most interesting find,” said Vladimir Berkovich.

Berkovich said that at first archaeologists thought it was a thunder arrow: people found such worked stones, believed they were heralds from heaven and wore them as amulets.

“However, when we continued the excavation process, we found Neolith ceramics. This means we found the remains of a temporary settlement of that era,” the expert added.

Several interesting items were also found on Pyatnitskaya Street. Archaeologists found layers from the 15th-16th centuries with fragments of ceramic ware and coins between the modern layers. During the renovation of the trader Vargins’ house, a unique collection of almost 1,000 tiles used to adorn estate ovens were found. The tiles with images of animals were exhibited at the Moscow Zoo, and then the collection moved to the Museum of Moscow.

Almost 1,000 more items were found at the former Education House at Kitaigorodsky Proyezd. It is one of the few Moscow buildings that survived the 1812 fire. It will soon be renovated, and today scientific research is being carried out there.

“Among the 16th-19th century artefacts, Neolithic ceramics were found there, as well as a horse skull found in an 18th century drainage well,” said Vladimir Berkovich. Scientists believe that the ceramic pieces found there indicate that an ancient fishing settlement was located there.

The archaeologist believes these finds are the most valuable.

“I have been digging in Moscow for a long time, but it has been in recent years that I have found items that made me look at the cultural layer a bit differently,” Vladimir Berkovich noted.

He recalled that before, archaeologists rarely found Neolithic artefacts: for example, one was found by chance by a brigadier at a construction site. It was an ax from the Fatyanovo culture (3,000 BC – Bronze Age).

“And now we find a lot of items from times long before Moscow was founded. A flint spearhead from the Neolithic era and a piece of polished ax were found on Soimonovsky Proyezd; a similar piece was found in Zaryadye at the same time. During the next field season, we found Neolithic ceramics at the Education House as well as ceramics and a flint arrowhead from the same era on Gogol Boulevard. This means the finds from early times are not just casual finds: they prove that exploration of the Moscow area started in ancient times,” Vladimir Berkovich said.

In the Neolithic era, many ancient civilisations were only beginning to form. Back then, humankind was progressing from hunting and foraging to agriculture and cattle breeding: there was no ancient Rome or Greece back then.

Time stamps

Konstantin Voronin said one of his most spectacular finds was a treasure from the early 17th century. Five years ago his team found 20 kilogrammes of silver coins at once. But he recalls another find with special warmth. “It was the burial of a cat with a cross. This cat lived sometime in the late 15th century. We call her the "Orthodox cat," among ourselves. This find touched me very much, I treat this cat not only with scientific but also human warmth,” added the archaeologist.

Konstantin Voronin, Head of the Moscow Archaeological Office

Voronin said archaeology sometimes reveals such unexpected stories without written sources. He believes it sometimes depends on presentation whether a find is considered valuable or not. “If you write a good article about an artefact, it will be known as valuable, if you don't write it, then the artefact isn't known as valuable. I believe that any find has a certain value simply because it is a legacy of the past: from a piece of ceramic to a coin."

How exact this science is can be judged by the signs of the recent past.

“When we worked near Vasilievsky Spusk, we had wonderful finds from the late 20th century. They illustrated the events that took place in the country then. For example, when inflation was high in the 1990s, there were lots of coins in the cultural layer with a face value of five to ten kopecks because these coins were worth nothing. And since the 2000s, when life changed, foreign coins appeared in the cultural layer: from China, America and the European Union (countries with the strongest economies that closely interact with Russia). This is how archaeology works historically. Without understanding it, we make up some kind of material culture that our descendants will explore,” said Voronin.

He explained that the cultural layer is formed year by year from many lost things, including coins, keys and hairpins. Considering that Moscow was not all covered with stone for a long time, there were no pavements from which trash could have been removed, and all of it somehow remained in the ground. “It turned out to be a kind of code for human life. Each of us forms a historical memory of our existence,” added Voronin.

From a pit to a museum

If you want to find a valuable artefact, you have to do more than look around, Berkovich says. Archaeologists sort out the soil by hand, and sometimes they need special equipment. “In Moscow, the soil is very rich, so you may not notice a coin the size of a fingernail, but a metal detector will find it.”

The archaeologist remembered one such case: a chess piece with silver coins hidden inside was found on Prechistenka Street. “Without a metal detector, the piece might not have been noticed, but the detector beeped and the person found it and realised that bone could not be detected, untwined it and found the coins,” said Vladimir Berkovich. A similar figure was later found in a museum: the restorers opened it, but there was no treasure inside.

New instruments and laboratory technologies are appearing in the archaeologist’s arsenal, and this means more scientists of other specialties are involved: soil scientists, geochemists, geophysicists, biologists and paleogeographers. According to Voronin, modern archaeology is somewhat similar to forensic science, since it uses a lot of analytical data.

Through natural science research methods, researchers can better understand the living conditions of our predecessors. Pollen samples, for example, can help determine what was growing in a certain area at one time or another, and based on this, the landscape can be restored. Coal from the numerous Moscow fires helps to establish the age of buildings. “The radiocarbon method gives us a more accurate date, which is later confirmed by numismatic findings. So, the extent of a fire in the late 14th-early 15th centuries was identified during excavations. We also found coins there, from the era of Vasily Dmitrievich, the son of Dmitry Donskoi, who ruled at that time,” said Konstantin Voronin.

Archaeologists used another unusual method for collecting data in a project near Gostiny Dvor. They studied the remains of insects that were part of life in the 13th century.

“It turned out that among the insects there were no human parasites (lice or otherwise) and no pests that fed on supplies like flour. Such seemingly insignificant and unexpected discoveries could be an indication of the hygiene of our predecessors. This means that there were estates at this site where people took care of themselves and were civilised. We concluded that Muscovites in the 13th century were relatively clean people, at least in this place,” said Konstantin Voronin.

“But in general, archaeology is a very conservative science; it is called history armed with a shovel. Even with a variety of options, the shovel remains our most important tool,” said Vladimir Berkovich.

After discovering something valuable, experts mark their find on a plan, indicating the exact location and depth. Then it goes to the laboratory, where it undergoes primary processing: the soil is carefully removed, photographs are taken, and dimensions are recorded on a drawing and entered into an illustrated inventory and a special report. If necessary, the item is sent for restoration, which can last from a week to several years, after which the archaeological artefact can be displayed.

“Now we are sending everything to the Museum of Moscow – this is a unique place where archaeological finds have been collected for many years now,” said Vladimir Berkovich.

You can see the main findings of the last decade on the internet. The Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage recently launched a website with an online exhibition that includes toys, household items, stove tiles, Stone Age finds, religious items, coins, seals and even treasures. The earliest ones date from the Neolithic era, and the latest ones are from the beginning of the 20th century. Each artefact is accompanied by photographs and a description that indicates the age, function and location where the item was found. The exhibition will be regularly updated.

New archaeologists

According to Vladimir Berkovich, archaeology is on the rise today – any construction or repair project at a historical site includes an archaeological excavation. And since there are many such sites in Moscow, archaeologists, as representatives of a rather unique profession, are always in demand.

“A large number of professional architects are needed in order to perform the work with high quality in the fairly short time frame of modern construction. Not many archaeologists are graduating now,” Berkovich says.

There is the Department of Archaeology at Lomonosov Moscow State University. In addition, the ranks of specialists can be replenished by graduates of the history departments of other universities who undergo archaeological training.

“There are very few specialists in the country; we literally know them all,” said  Berkovich. He added that more universities are needed to teach archaeology.

However, says Konstantin Voronin, there are many young people who are fond of archaeology today and are ready to work.