Even in fighting the battle against the pandemic and living through all the restrictions, scientists at the Lebedev Laboratory of Archaeology, Historical Sociology and Cultural Heritage at St Petersburg University are continuing seasonal archaeological fieldworks, which help to bring the past back to life. In particular, they have discovered Swedish redoubts and a site where it is presumed the Chapel of Wanderer Aleksndr Krainev might have been located. Additionally, scientists started to research into a medieval burial site in Vsevolozhsk district. The Head of the Laboratory Elena Mikhailova told us about what cultural deposit could be found in St Petersburg and Leningrad Region, how archaeological expeditions were held, how the scientific theories should be revised, and what archaeology was all about.
How do you find archaeological sites? Who selects the site? How do you know where and what to dig? How is an expedition organised? What do you do with the archaeological finds?
For a start, archaeology today is a wide-ranging science that concerns with the earliest life on Earth, relatively recent periods of human history, and architectural monuments to name but a few. Throughout its history, archaeology has accumulated a wide variety of material remains. There are many things in the science that are still to be better understood.
The principles of what we know about the archaeological monuments today were well formulated by our predecessors in the past. Our students can get the basics from the course ‘The Fundamentals of Archaeology’. This is mainly about what types of monuments and artefacts are typical to certain periods and regions, what methods we use, and how to date archaeological finds. And then the most interesting part begins. This is how to solve the unsolved problems, delve into the details, and prove or disprove hypotheses.
As a rule, we research into what can provide a new insight into how to solve research problems. This can be either through studying monuments or carrying out excavation works. Archaeology has as many research problems as any science does. Through carrying out excavation works and related research of ancient settlements, we can study how people had lived, how they had developed their settlements, and what defence structures they had built to name but a few. Each recorded fact is a kind of piece to solve the puzzle of the past which archaeologists have long been attempting to crack.
Sometimes, we select the site by the force of circumstances. The monument of archaeology can be in a state of disrepair or ruin as a result of age or located at the site for construction or land development. This is the case of rescue archaeology. It is also included in archaeology, uses the same methods, and results in research reports.
In a sense, archaeology is a destructive science. Once an archaeological excavation is over, we have so-called virtual models of the objects, i.e. they are accurately described in the scientific reports and we have a collection of the archaeological finds. Once a site is excavated, it is gone forever. Therefore, the idea of ‘digging for the sake of digging' is not welcomed in archaeology today. For these reasons, archaeologists generally excavate only when there is a reason why we should dig into the culture of the past. We are well aware that our successors will obtain much more information from the same objects in, say, fifty or hundred years.
Once the dig is done, archaeologists have a professional responsibility to analyse all the artefacts and information obtained and to report on their research. The report includes all information obtained in the finest detail. What we have seen and analysed during the excavation is transformed into a detailed account accompanied by the drawings, photos, and images. Anyone who reads the report can get a clear picture of what we have gained and how the excavation has been organised. The archaeological finds should be listed, restored, drawn, and photographed. Once all the procedures are over, the finds are stored and preserved in museums.
Yet the brightest and ‘richest’ monument is like an island. To get the whole picture, we should compare it with what we have already obtained. It is time-consuming. Archaeologists repeatedly refer to what we have already gained, i.e. archaeological materials, reports, collections, and publications. Every time we ascertain a new fact, we face new questions and problems.
Are digital technologies and gadgets of any help to archaeologists? What new methods do you have?
Of course, they are! Yet we don’t have any brand new methods, but today’s digital technologies can ensure that we work in a faster and more accurate way. We can make digital models of the objects. Topographical land survey is becoming more accurate now.
Besides, we use GIS technologies.
What difficulties do you face?
All kinds of difficulties. Any expedition is an incredibly arduous project. Difficulties are inevitable. Yet they can be smoothed over to a certain extent. Sometimes, weather can be a hindering factor as well as issuing necessary documents and preparing a research design to name but a few. Sometimes, we can find something incredibly interesting and it can make digging longer than was preliminary planned.
What projects are you currently carrying out? What are you planning to do next?
Winter is usually a time for reporting and introducing the previous years’ results to the scientific community.
'The most important “inside” project now is to analyse the collection of objects obtained during the reconstruction of the Corner Chambers of the Alexander Menshikov Palace (Graphite-like walls and lemon-coloured capitals: St Petersburg University explains how the Menshikov Palace originally looked). Archaeologists from St
Petersburg University discovered thousands of artefacts that date back to the 18th – early 19th centuries. They are mainly found in the areas between the floors and basements. Now archaeologists have to identify, date, register, photograph, and make a drawing of each object. It is rather time-consuming and monotonous. Yet it brings a collection of artefacts to exhibitions and research. Moreover, it will provide an insight into how the First Cadet Corps had been evolving (Archaeologists at St Petersburg University make over 10,000 finds in the First Cadet Corps)'.
At the same time, we are preparing our works for publication. They were mainly carried out in Petrogradskaya Storona in St Petersburg, Leningrad Region, and Pskov Oblast. In the coming field season, we are planning to continue what we have started. Our expedition has been researching into a complex of monuments in Kotorsk burial ground (Archaeologists at St Petersburg University find valuable objects neglected by the ‘black’ diggers). The site is located in the north of Pskov Oblast. The archaeological finds are of incredible importance in gaining a better understanding of how the Old Russian culture and state originated and evolved in the north-west of Kievan Rus’. Besides, we are planning to finish our excavation works at the medieval burial ground Stremlenie located in the west of Leningrad Region. They continue our work on locating buried evidence in the north-west of Russia. The important part of our work is a historical and cultural expert evaluation of the sites exposed to the construction of houses and public buildings. These sites should be researched to find out whether they contain archaeological remains. If they do, we should propose what action to take to preserve them or start rescue excavations.
What archaeological finds do you think are of high interest that were made in the last season or during all of the time you have been working in archaeological excavations?
Difficult to say. They are all important. They all have knowledge of the past. It can be a tiny bead that can help with dating the whole settlement or a fragment of pottery that can shed light on how people had lived. These are just a few of what we discovered during the previous season.
At the border-crossing point Torfyanovka in Vyborgsky District of Leningrad Region, we found a range of stone constructions. They are spiral-like labyrinths and layers. Objects with a structure closely similar to what we found were also discovered in the south of Finland and on islands in the Gulf of Finland. These constructions have a shape of a ring, a spiral, or a complicated labyrinth. Sometimes they can be elongated or under-rectangular in shape. They can be found as separate buildings, basements of the stone burial grounds, or so-called stone piles.
Near the village Bolshoe Stremlenie in Kingiseppsky District in Leningrad Region, we partially excavated the mediaeval cemetery, i.e. a so-called burial mound.
Excavations of the burial mound in Bolshoe Stremlenie
The burial mound was discovered by Olga Konkova in 1978. She was a fifth-year student at the Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of History at Leningrad State University. In autumn 2019, the Laboratory of Archaeology, Historical Sociology and Cultural Heritage initiated an archaeological expedition to study over 1,100 sq. m and discovered 112 tombs. The research showed that the burial mound Bolshoe Stremlenie had been an Orthodox Christian cemetery where people living in the nearest village had been buried. The cemetery was active in the 13th–15th centuries. Probably, even longer. We identified how the cemetery had been planned, i.e. how the tombs were rowed or grouped together, especially the tombs of the members of one family. We revealed some peculiar details about how the funeral ceremonies had been observed, i.e. they had put granite boulders near the head, chest, and legs in the tombs. As the tombs are placed evenly, we can suggest that each tomb had had a wooden cross that has not survived.
Excavations of the burial mound in Bolshoe Stremlenie
From the layer of the cemetery, we obtained a collection of pottery. These objects had been left there after the funeral feast. In the tombs we discovered various knives (they look like penknives), rare earrings and fasteners, and a small axe, presumably a battle axe.
There is evidence that Vyborg, Priozersk, and Staraya Ladoga are to become a tourist mecca. Leningrad Region is interested in developing a project ‘The Silver Necklace of Russia’. Were there any excavations in these towns? What sites in Leningrad Region do you think are promising for archaeology?
Definitely, such brilliant places as Ladoga, Vyborg, and Priozersk must be well preserved and visited in all their splendour. Yet this requires our endeavours in archaeology, management, preservation, and conservation. These medieval towns have long been at the focus of science. The first excavations were held in Staraya Ladoga as early as 1708. Our laboratory is closely collaborating with those who work there.
Yet we are more concerned with what is located outside the city. These are rural settlements, burial grounds, fortified settlements, fortresses. Leningrad Region is rich in such sites. They are all scientifically promising as they all have something to say about the past. What is more important is that they can shed light not only on great historical events, but on the history of villages and settlements that are alive today.