August 15 is Archaeologist’s Day in Russia. The professional holiday does not yet have an official status, but this does not prevent the archaeological community from solemnly celebrating this date. The head of the department of archeology of the State Historical Museum, Kirill Firsov, in an interview with RT, spoke about the origin of the holiday and the traditions associated with it, and also explained what problems Russian archeology is facing today and what damage “black diggers” cause to scientific work. At the same time, he noted that the so-called rescue excavations play an important role – for example, scientists collected a large amount of data during the construction of the Tavrida highway in Crimea. Firsov also spoke about the new technical methods used by archaeologists to search for and analyze valuable artifacts.
– Kirill Borisovich, every year on August 15, Russia celebrates Archaeologist’s Day, although the holiday does not yet have a state status. Please tell us about the origins of the holiday and how it is celebrated among archaeologists?
No one knows exactly how this holiday came about, but there are several versions. The first is connected with the Novgorod archaeological expedition (1932-1962, Veliky Novgorod). At some point, archeology students wanted to take a break, and they told the head of the excavations, Artemy Artsikhovsky, that August 15 was supposedly a big holiday – the birthday of Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. This is how the tradition of celebration was born. The second version is connected with the expedition of Vladislav Ravdonikas in Staraya Ladoga – archaeologists also decided to take a break and proposed to establish Archaeologist’s Day on August 15. According to the third version, the fact is that August 15 is the birthday of Tatyana Passek, a famous researcher of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, which was widely celebrated by archaeologists from her expedition, who worked on the territory of Moldova. Gradually, the celebration grew into a common tradition for the entire professional community.
Today, among archaeologists, it is considered good form to celebrate this day on expeditions. There are usually ceremonial events. For example, they meet new members of expeditions and such meetings are often arranged in the form of theatrical performances. The holiday ends with a friendly tea party.
Sculpture depicting Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus Gettyimages.ru © sneska
— Tell us about the process of archaeological excavations. How is one or another place chosen where the work is carried out? Which regions are the most difficult for researchers, due to soil characteristics, local architectural traditions, burials, etc.?
— Archaeologists do not just come to the place and start digging. Before starting archaeological excavations, experts study the scientific work of colleagues who have worked in the area before, and study reports on previous field studies. This allows you to predict whether there may be an archaeological site in this place. In addition, the terrain is being studied – hills, rivers, etc. This also helps to suggest whether a settlement or a ground burial could have been located at this place in ancient times.
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Also, ancient settlements are often distinguished by their relief – they may have ramparts, ditches, some kind of high platform, etc. Archaeological excavations are often started by random finds of local residents made during agricultural work or construction.
Of course, the preservation of artifacts is highly dependent on climatic conditions. If the soil is damp, then organic materials are well preserved in it, and in dry soil, bone remains are quickly destroyed.
As for the distribution of archaeological sites, in Russia they are most found in the Krasnodar Territory – the region has good natural conditions, since ancient times it has been an attractive place for people to live.
– And what methods are used now to search for artifacts?
– In recent years, all modern technical trends have been actively penetrating into archeology. To open monuments, we use new geophysical methods, as well as innovative equipment for the study of already found objects. In particular, to search for artifacts hidden in the ground, magnetic prospecting and reconnaissance with the help of georadar are used. Lidar technology (Lidar, Light Detection and Ranging) is also widely used – the earth’s surface is scanned by laser pulses using a device mounted on a drone. Further, the collected data is processed on a computer, and as a result we get a 3D map of the area.
LIDAR survey of the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia Legion-Media
Archaeologists and tacheometers are used – digital optical geodetic instruments that allow topographic surveying of the monument.
Already discovered artifacts are also being studied today using high technologies – for example, X-ray fluorescence analyzers allow us to find out the composition of some ancient metal, and tomography or radiography allows us to look inside the object. New technologies provide tremendous opportunities for archaeologists, and our colleagues from the natural sciences help us in this. Our museum, for example, cooperates with the Kurchatov Institute, we jointly study artifacts.
— What problems does Russian archeology face today? Is it always possible to carry out rescue archeology work and how much does it depend on the conscientiousness of developers?
— Indeed, in this matter much depends on the conscientiousness of developers. Construction organizations are not very interested in archaeological work being carried out at the site of the future object – this seriously slows down construction. In addition, excavations must be carried out at the expense of the developer.
However, so far Russian legislation is on the side of archaeologists. Last year, the media wrote about the alleged cancellation of mandatory archaeological excavations, but so far this has not happened, although nothing is ruled out in the future. But we still hope that this requirement will not be revised, because it is on the construction site that a huge number of unexplored archaeological sites can be found.
A striking example is the construction of the Taurida highway in Crimea, when archaeologists found an artifact literally on every meter. This allowed us to discover a huge layer of ancient settlements and burial grounds.
Highway “Tavrida” RIA Novosti © Max Vetrov
– What is the algorithm for archaeological rescue work? Are they mandatory in all regions?
— It all depends on the region. In Moscow, for example, there is an official requirement that before construction begins, the developer must call in archaeologists who will examine the area in order to find an archaeological site on it. Experts must conclude that there is no monument on the territory. If there is an ancient object, the developer must allocate money for carrying out rescue archaeological excavations. And they can last more than one year. Typically, such excavations are carried out year-round.
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These requirements may vary from region to region and may be subject to local laws.
— In recent years, with the advent of inexpensive metal detectors, many people collect coins, arrowheads, etc. and sell them to collectors. How does the archaeological community view this practice? Do such diggers cause real damage to the historical heritage?
– The problem of “black diggers” has always existed, in all eras. For example, in the 17th-18th centuries, almost all burial mounds were plundered in Siberia.
Now, with the advent of special devices, more and more people are engaged in the illegal search for artifacts. Unfortunately, they thoughtlessly pick out objects from the ground, violating the cultural layer of the monument. The thing they take away falls out of the general context, and science loses a huge array of historical information. Most of these people are just amateurs, but there are also real robbers who methodically ruin and plunder burial grounds and burial mounds.
It is important to recall that Russia has a law prohibiting the purchase and sale of archaeological sites and cultural property.
Metal detector Gettyimages.ru © Nikolay Ponomarenko
– Now many expeditions are recruiting volunteers who help archaeologists, gaining interesting experience and impressions. How popular is this practice? Are volunteers helpful?
– Amateur archaeologists who liked the process itself have always participated in archaeological expeditions. Just before such people were not called volunteers. Now volunteers work in almost every expedition, they excavate and explore archaeological sites.
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Many go on the same expedition every year, using their vacation in this way. The archaeological community is very grateful to such enthusiasts, they are of great benefit to science.
— Please tell us more about the excavations carried out by the State Historical Museum. What interesting discoveries have been made?
– The historical museum has from eight to 15 archaeological expeditions annually. This season, 14 expeditions operate simultaneously in 11 regions of Russia. The coverage is very wide – from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages.
And discoveries are made every year. For example, every year we find either coin hoards or some unique items in Gnezdovo – a complex of medieval monuments of the late 7th – early 11th centuries, which date back to the era of the formation of the ancient Russian state.
Last year, the participants of the expedition in the Vladimir region in the Gnezdilov burial ground found a coin with the face of the English king Ethelred II, which dates back to the beginning of the 11th century.
State Historical Museum globallookpress.com © Konstantin Kokoshkin
Ancient expeditions also work for us, for example, the Bosporan archaeological expedition, which explores a settlement from the time of the Roman Empire on the Taman Peninsula. There, archaeologists managed, for example, to find a rare bronze statuette of Zeus. In the Astrakhan region, excavations are underway in the capital of the Golden Horde in the Selitrennoye settlement. Archaeologists study the architecture of the city, found a lot of glazed ceramics.
In general, the museum funds are replenished with several thousand items every year thanks to excavations conducted by our specialists.