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Conversation: Moscow Underground Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008


(Courtesy Leonid Beliaev, Archaeological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences)

Leonid Andreevich Beliaev oversees the Moscow division of the Archaeological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He spoke with journalist Marisa Robertson-Textor about his recent discoveries within the Kremlin's walls and the impact that today's frantic pace of building has had upon the city's early remains.

Have there been many digs in the Kremlin?
The heart of medieval Moscow lies within the Kremlin's walls, but ours is the first proper, exhaustive excavation. We're digging in a small area of the Kremlin, in the modern-day botanical garden.

What are you finding there?
The area where we're working is in a riverine zone where organic material is very well-preserved in moist layers. So we're finding architectural remains that are much harder to discern in dry layers. We never knew, for example, what the bottom half of 14th- and 15th-century houses in Moscow looked like.

Are there any special security measures you have to deal with?
The Kremlin is an 'object of heightened security,' so of course there are measures we have to follow that don't exist at other sites. For example, as a general rule, foreigners aren't allowed onto the dig site. But these measures haven't affected our work.

With thousands of construction projects underway in Moscow, what's the state of archaeology outside the Kremlin?
It's in great peril. We lack the infrastructure to manage the sheer volume of discoveries. The only way to deal with it would be for half of Russia's 10,000 archaeologists to move to Moscow. We're talking about huge losses to the city's archaeological heritage, 95 percent of which dates from the 14th to the 17th centuries.

With only five archaeologists on staff, how do you prioritize your work in the face of development?
Our task can't be to compete with the builders. The main goal isn't to save every cultural layer, but to answer basic historical questions.

What questions interest you most?
I'm especially interested in agricultural development from the 12th to 15th centuries. Moscow is an atypical megapolis in that it has always been the site of a great number of gardens, orchards, and small fields. Epigraphic sources are also a great interest of mine, especially birch bark letters, which we are finally starting to unearth in large numbers. To date, around 1,000 of them have been discovered.

What are these letters exactly?
These are 12th- and 13th-century documents made from birch bark. They run the gamut from love letters to legal documents. Earlier this year we found an enormous one at our Kremlin dig, documenting the property of a household owner, his cattle, pigs, and in particular horses--several dozen of them.

Do you use many historical documents to guide your research?
There are virtually no written documents pertaining to Moscow prior to the 17th century. This means that archaeological digs are the only way to study the city's early history.

How important is Moscow to Russian archaeology as a whole?
Since the 14th century, Moscow has been the nerve center from which all of Russia's cultural impulses emanated. This means the study of Moscow has implications for cities across the country, from the Urals to the Pacific. The history of contemporary Russia begins with Moscow, but until recently, the city's imperial remains were often discarded in favor of more ancient levels.

Why is that?
The rationale is foolish, but it's in keeping with the silent hierarchy within world archaeology, whereby the more ancient the subject matter, the more inherently 'valuable' it is. This is wrong-headed, and I'm very glad that in the Americas, for example, this isn't the case. The irony is that Russia is much closer in archaeological terms to the United States than it is to, say, France. It may not always be recognized as such, at home or abroad, but like yours, ours is a young country.

One does usually think of Russia as a very old state.
Ninety-five percent of our cities were founded in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. So essentially, we're on par with you--what's 300 years in archaeological terms?