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Regular version of the site

HSE Researchers and Students Discover Burials on Archaeological Expedition

HSE Researchers and Students Discover Burials on Archaeological Expedition

Photos courtesy of the members of the expedition

History students and colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences travelled to an excavation site in the North Caucasus region of southern Russia. HSE News Service spoke with Professor Andrey Vinogradov of the Faculty of Humanities about the burials they discovered, field work, and the joys of archaeology.

On Expedition Goals and Confirmed Hypotheses

My colleague Viktor Chkhaidze from the Institute of Archeology and I are engaged in architectural archaeology—we study medieval religious buildings. This year, for the second time, we worked in the Middle Zelenchuk Temple, which dates back to the mid-10th century and, according to our estimates, is the oldest fully preserved temple in Russia. We also did additional excavations of the Senty Church, which we know was built in 965.

We had a hypothesis about how exactly the Middle Zelenchuk Temple was erected, and, over the course of our work, we were able to confirm it. We discovered architectural structures that allowed us to reconstruct the sequence of the building’s construction. Now we know for sure that the intended structure of the building was the same as it is now, but without a northeast aisle and with stone choirs. The construction, however, was interrupted (perhaps due to the defeat of the Alans by the Khazars in about  932, which led to the rejection of Christianity and the expulsion of bishops and priests). It is likely that the structure was completed by someone else: they added a new chapel and built wooden choirs instead of the planned stoned ones.

On Artifacts and Their Subsequent Fate

We did not plan to excavate burials, but those were exactly what we discovered both outside and inside of the temple. In total, we found the remains of about 15 individuals, though the skeletons were incomplete. In some graves there were no skulls, while in others, the bones were not in anatomical order. While the males were buried without any objects, we discovered various objects in the female graves: a silver bracelet adorning one woman’s hand, a bronze mirror (from the 11th century, judging by its typology), and beads from a young girl’s hat.

We transfer all artefacts to the local museum at Karachay-Cherkess State University. Some of them are first restored (this is required, for example, for metal objects), and some are carefully studied. Bones can tell a lot about the past: scientists can determine not only the individual’s sex and age, but the person’s diet, whether the individual was injured, how he or she lived (whether the person was a warrior or a farmer, for example). In order to find out all of this, we conduct special analyses at the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. I hope that this time we will learn something interesting.

In addition to burials, we found pieces of ancient frescoes. Most likely, they crumbled in the 1990s when a ‘restoration’ of the temple was attempted. According to our data, back in the 1980s, restorers saw these huge murals which depicted two holy warriors facing the altar and fighting a dragon and a wicked king. Unfortunately, the elements we discovered cannot be pieced back together.

On the Joys of Archaeology and Student Impressions

When you discover an artefact, you experience a range of emotions. First is surprise: we were not expecting to find so many burials this year, especially since there was not even a hint of them in past excavations.

Secondly, a confirmed hypothesis brings great joy—it is something you work on for a long time, write about in research articles and books, and then, during an excavation, you are proved correct. At the same time, you learn that while you correctly pieced together the general picture, you were mistaken about certain details. This part is sobering. Of course, in expeditions, you always come into contact with antiquity. As you dig the earth, you enter into a past world. You draw closer to people of the past and plunge into the Middle Ages.

Anastasia Ermolaeva, 1st year student of the Master's Programme in Medieval Studies

I did archaeological training in Gnezdovo, volunteered on a Bosporus expedition, travelled to Tsimlyansk, and excavated a Neolithic cave in France. But the expeditions to Karachay-Cherkessia have been the most memorable. The Karachay people are incredibly hospitable; they love long toasts and crowded feasts. And the landscape here is incredibly beautiful! We worked inside and outside the temple, and we found about 18 burials. I had never excavated human remains before, so this was a new experience for me. The anthropologist Ongar Chagarov from the Russian Academy of Sciences told us how we can determine what a person of the 10th century looked like and what he ate by studying his bones. During the excavations, it is important to always listen to the leaders and not overdig, since it is no longer possible to restore the mixed cultural layer. One must be prepared for life in a tent, mosquitoes, rain, and cold. But all these inconveniences are insignificant, and participation in the expedition is definitely worth it.

In ancient fortifications, of course, there are always stories about ghost monks who haunt the area at night, but I have not encountered any mystical occurrences or pharaoh curses. The students did not experience any frights; to the contrary, they became quite close with the deceased and even gave them Alan names. This actually gave rise to a small scandal: the students labelled one of the packages that was meant to hold a set of bones ‘Soslan’ (an Alan name) instead of the ‘Burial No. 5’.

I was struck by the fact that two of our students were wildly delighted by the skulls we discovered. They practically fussed over them like children, and they wanted to learn about these people as much as possible.

On the Difficulties of the Expedition and the Ideal Team

We always stay literally two hundred meters from the excavation site. Life in a field camp is not the most carefree, so everyone needs to be prepared for stress, inclement weather, and other inconveniences.

In addition, when you’re on an expedition, it is very important to work well in a team, because in addition to excavations, you need to go into the woods for firewood, be on kitchen duty, and constantly be in the company of other people.

Moreover, the work is sometimes not so difficult physically, but rather tedious and long. So, you will not get by without having a strong interest in the work. Sometimes, of course, you need to carry heavy rocks, and do a lot of heavy shovelling, but no one on our team was not up to the task.

On our expeditions, we ensure that our students are not only involved in excavating, but that they learn new things, so it is important to have a desire to learn and grow when embarking upon archaeological trips like this. This year, we held nightly lectures on Byzantine architecture, anthropology, and the origin of various Caucasian peoples. Several times we went on excursions to other monuments, and we arranged several movie nights where we screened classic and contemporary films about the Caucasus.

On Karachay-Cherkessia and Medieval Alania

In the late Middle Ages, Karachay-Cherkessia was part of the state of Alania. It also occupied territory south of Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

The participants of the second joint expedition of the HSE School of History and the RAS Institute of Archeology spent 16 days at the excavation site. Andrey Vinogradov supervised of a group of 16 HSE students. HSE students, along with researchers from the Institute of Archeology, participated in excavations in Karachay-Cherkessia last year as well. They plan to continue work in this region in the summer of 2020.

Karachay-Cherkessia was the religious and pontifical centre of the state: it was here that the most outstanding temples and churches were built. The people of the region adopted Christianity in 912–914, that is, almost a hundred years before the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, so Alania is one of the oldest Christian civilizations in Russia. In addition, the fabric of the local culture contains Byzantine, Transcaucasian, Alanian, and Abkhazian threads, making it particularly rich and unique.

Moreover, Karachay-Cherkessia is very beautiful. Its landscape has remained practically unchanged over the centuries. It is a special feeling to be surrounded by nature in its pristine form. The sky is breathtaking: we worked at an altitude of 1200 meters (nearby is the largest astrophysical observatory in the North Caucasus) and at night we admired sprawling star constellations directly above our heads.

On the Significance of Archaeology

We are interested in the North Caucasus: right now we are working in Karachay-Cherkessia, and in the future I would like to find the church centre of Zikhia, the ancient Adyghe diocese on the Black Sea coast. In general, there are many places in the country where excavation is still possible and needed, but they are not evenly distributed across the regions. For example, the tundra in this respect ‘loses out’ to the Northern Black Sea Coast and the Caucasus, but nevertheless, Arctic archaeology is an important (and rather complex) area of ​​research.

Often, what can be unearthed dies before our eyes during construction, so the field of rescue archaeology is now especially important. We’ve seen recent examples of this: during the preparation for the Olympics in Sochi and the construction of the Crimean Bridge, a lot of archaeologists were needed. Therefore, this field, as well as history, is not losing its importance.

On His Experience with Archaeology and Ancient Greek

My parents are archaeologists, so I spent a lot of my childhood traveling. I went on my first excavations in the early 80s, and since then I have been on expeditions to Crimea many times. I came to the Caucasus in 2005, and now my main research interests are concentrated in this region. My colleague Denis Beletsky and I went there more for field observations; only last year did we begin our own excavations down there.

For people who want to study history and archaeology, I would advise that you study ancient Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, many historians do not have enough knowledge of these languages, but you need to have a good handle on them when working with writing. I can’t say that Latin is much more complicated than German. These languages ​​belong to the Indo-European language family, like Russian. The same goes for Ancient Greek. Historians studying the Middle Ages, in my opinion, need to know the four main European languages: English, German, French, and Italian. This is the basic linguistic foundation, comprised of four contemporary languages and two ancient ones, that is key. It is a pity that that no one tells young researchers about this.

See also:

HSE Archaeologists Make Significant Discovery during Excavations in Agrigento

In 2019, HSE will begin accepting students to its new Master's programme in Classical and Oriental Archaeology for the first time. Prior to admission, however, prospective students had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological school in Sicily, where they discovered rare bronze phialae dating back to the 6th century BC during the excavations.

From Archaeological Dig to the Lecture Room

In 2013 the HSE Saint Petersburg Campus organized archaeological field work for students over the summer in Staraya Ladoga, about 120 kilometers away from the city. Adrian Selin, HSE Professor of History, told us about his impressions of the expedition and his future plans for archaeological research.