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Excavations in Gnezdovo near Smolensk
Veronica Murasheva, Tamara Pushkina
Ancient Rus '; proto-urban centre; 1Oth century; ancient field; flood-land area

Gnezdovo archaeological complex is situated
at the Western Russian border, about 1 3 km
from one of most ancient Russian towns, Smolensk. It is known as one of the largest archaeological sites of the period of state formation in
Eastern Europe. As early as at the beginning of
the 20th century two hill-forts bordered by extensive non-fortified settlements were fixed in
association with about 4000 mounds, the latter forming some strictly outlined cemeteries.
The history of Gnezdovo studies commenced
more than 125 years ago, but only in the late
forties of the 20th century it had become
rather regular and purposeful. The nucleus of
the comple,. is comprised of the central hillfort surrounded by a settlement and cemetery
with more than 3000 mounds, divided into
two mound groups; a small mound group situated on the opposite Dnieper bank is also a
part of the named nucleus. A few more mound
groups concentrated around small settlement
in the mouth of one of the Dnieper tributaries
were revealed to the west of the central settlement.
As a result of many years of studies it was established, that mounds and settlements were
synchronous and nearly all were dated as belonging to the period from the 9-1 Oth century
up to the beginning of the 11th century. The
primary non-fortified settlement in the central
part of the site gradually transformed into a
fortified centre of the crafts and long-distance
trade with the peak of its prosperity at the middle to second half of the 1Oth century. The excavations resulted in the finding of inhabited
buildings and workshops, the latter related to
bone, non-ferrous and ferrous metal processing. Defective and half-finished articles, crucibles, casting moulds being clustered in certain

areas of the settlement comprised a significant
part of findings. Gnezdovo jewellers manufactured different ornaments of Baltic and Scandinavian type; the peculiarities of Scandinavian and Slavonic blacksmith handicraft are
distinctly traced in the products of iron
processing (Eniosova 1999; Pushkina/ Rozanova 1992). The pottery produced by Gnezdovo
craftsmen is characterised by typical Slavonic
The polyethnic and socially heterogeneous
composition of the permanent Gnezdovo
population is strictly documented by the materials of mound excavations. The cremation
burials are predominant but a significant part
of the mounds contain inhumations, with a
good deal of chamber-graves (Zharnov 1992).
The topographic separation of different ethnic
burials was not observed. Ethnically peculiar
decorations are also almost uniformly distributed within the settlement area. The role and
significance of the polyethnic settlement controlling the route "from Varangians to the
Greeks" is also demonstrated by the abundance of numismatic materials and the concentration of coin hoards dated predominantly to the middle of the 1Oth century and jewellery (Pushkina 2000, 215-224). The largest
settlement area covering about 16 ha is also
corresponding to the period of its prosperity.
The size and general character of Gnezdovo
archaeological site stands against a number of
small rural settlements over the area of 2-3 ha
associated with a few dozens of mounds. The
monument scale and materials obtained after
its study allow us to compare it in terms of several criteria with such northern European
proto-urban centre as, for example, Birka
(Bulkin/ Lebedev 1974).

A new period in Gnezdovo studies began
1995 and was characterised with a combined
method of investigations. In 1996-2001 the
project was supported by the Russian State
Science Foundation, so a number of investigations on soil science, dendrochronology, paleobotany etc. were conducted. The studies
were performed at the same time within the
area of the central settlement and certain adjacent mounds. The aim of the project included
the reconstruction of the paleolandscape, the
settlement border contouring as well as the
evolution of their changes, the improvement
of settlement intensive period dating, the collection of materials characteristic of the economical activity of its population.
Two main discoveries were made during the
Project: ancient arable land was detected and
areas with central settlement cultural layers
were newly found.
Traces of ancient arable land are situated below the Dnieper mound group to the west of
the settlement at the margin of the first terrace
above the flood-land. The traces of some arable instrument were observed along nearly 30%
of the excavated mounds. According to the palinologic data the plough furrows contained the
pollen of wheat, some species of weeds as well
as plants peculiar of pasture land. At the same
time, a number of wheat, barley and rye grains
were detected within the cultural layers of the
settlement: the palinologic analyses showed
the remarkable admixture of hemp, the latter
being reported in several archaeological sites
of the same period in Northern-Western Rus'
(Zazovskaya/Bronnikova 2001,199). It is worth
while to point out, that the traces of arable
land are exclusively rare findings in the synchronous sites. Such traces were described
only twice; below the cultural layers of ancient
Novgorod and ancient Moscow and never
within the areas occupied by mounds.
According to the preliminary conclusions the
ancient field was situated approximately 1.5 km
from the central settlement and presumably
was abandoned because of the cemetery growth
in the middle of the 1Oth century.
Special studies of the soil structure and the
composition of several excavated mounds, belonging to different mound groups, allowed us
to improve the standard burial rite scheme in
Gnezdovo and many similar mounds of the
same period of ancient Rus' history. According
to a generally accepted point of view, firstly


the area of a future burial was prepared by
"cleaning by fire", then the burial pit or the
chamber-grave was excavated, in other cases
the cremated remains were transferred to the
ash layer behind the burial area; finally the
mound was erected. All our studies show that
the mound base contained the burial turf or
the ash. We should point out, that a small
patch of the ancient terrain with remnants of
similar buried turf was found within the frag·
ments of repeatedly rebuilt buildings dated to
the second half of the 1Oth century.
One of the main events in the history of Gnez·
dovo studies is evidently the discovery of the
occupation deposits within the Dnieper flood·
land. Firstly it changed the knowledge of the
settlement area and topography. Secondly, the
layers situated below the first terrace is gravely
spoilt by the repeated ploughing. Finally, the
moist soil contains some wooden fragments,
this fact allowed us to apply the dendrochrono·
logic method, and for the first time in the Gnez·
dovo studies the wooden objects were identi·
fied (Pushkina/Murasheva/Nefedov 2001).
During three years of excavations (19992001) an area of flood-land directly adjacent
to the first terrace and part of the terrace slope
were studiedr its area being 96 square metres.
The cultural layers at the flood-land part were
overlaid by loamy deposits of 50-60 em thick·
ness of natural alluvial origin. The undisturbed
occupation deposit on the terrace slope is
overlaid by the redeposited ploughed material
from the terrace. At the surface of the cultural
layers under the ballast a number of green fur·
nace tile fragments were disclosed. It was es·
tablished, that tiles of such type began to be
used in Smolensk at the end of the 16th to the
beginning of the 17th century. The appearance
of tiles in Gnezdovo could be explained as the
result of Catholic bishop Pyotr Parchevsky' re·
sidence within the central hill-fort in the 17th
century. Discoveries of tile fragments at the
cultural layers buried surface allow us to claim
that the Dnieper flood-land was not subjected
to regular and intensive flooding till up to the
middle of the 17th century. Evidently the
abrupt changing of the Dnieper hydrologic re·
gime commenced not earlier than the afore·
mentioned period, and only after the 17th
century the originally inhabited area had be·
gun to be liable to flooding. Recent Dnieper
spring floods still completely cover the flood·
land and partly a slope of the first terrace

above the flood-land. These floods affected
the ballast layer formation which overlaid the
occupation deposit and preserved the latter
from the successive mechanical disturbance.
The investigation of the layers overlaid by the
ballast allowed us to make a reconstruction of
the development of the area. The lower part of
the deposit is presented with the thick (up to
60 em) sand layer (horizon 5), clean sand layers being alternated with sand enriched by humus. Presumably, a certain old channel or a
swampy mould stretching along the Dnieper
terrace slope was located on this place up to
its filling up as a result of the improvement of
the area. Some chaotic clusters of chipped
thick branches, pieces of small tree trunks
were found within the area in question. Perhaps these present the remnants of bridges,
which repeatedly crossed the swampy mould.
A small wooden deck consisting of sharpened
tightly packed stakes (of secondary usage?)
with lengths in the range of 45-135 em was
disclosed. Some wooden objects were found
in the sand layer, especially the arclike rib and
a stick with incisions ("counter stick" - fig. 1)
are of peculiar interest.
The described sand layer is overlaid by the peat
(horizon 4) of 25-30 em thickness . The origin

Figure 1.

of such a thick layer could be either natural or
antropogenic. Evidently the terrain under consideration was temporally overwetted and
served as an area for depositing building debris
because the peat layer contains a significant
fractions shiver, wood chips and thin branches.
First light buildings were erected at the surface
of the peat layer (horizon 3) marked by the traces of dense clay patches with thin twig imprints
forming a lattice. Supposedly, those were remnants of walls presented in a form of wicker
skeletons covered by clay. Despite the absence
of clearly identified buildings, the abundance of
artefacts, especially a large number of glass
beads, allow us to expect intensive activity of
the inhabitants at the initial stage of its building
development. High abundance of charcoal
fragments and pieces of baked clay indicate
that the buildings were destroyed by fire.
The upper layer (horizon 2) consists of the
traces of buildings also eliminated by fire: this
layer is related to the downfall of proto-urban
"classical" Gnezdovo. The traces of at least
two buildings were revealed within horizon 2,
both being presumably of frame construction
as the traces of pole pits were not found. One
such building is associated with a very dense
clay patch of 170 x 170 em in dimension . A

Figure 2.


large amount of stones were sited on this clay
patch, some of them being roasted. Evidently
those stones and clay could be interpreted as
the remnants of some heating construction of
unclear structure. A thin ash layer was observed
inside the clay, but its low thickness as well as
the absence of heating traces do not allow us
to read the clay patch as a remnant of an arched
oven. Possibly clay served as a hydroisolation
base underlying the stone oven. Near this
building a small arched oven (60 x 60 em in
dimension) erected on the wooden deck was
discovered. Presumably it was used for economical or manufacturing aims, e.g. for bread
baking. One coin, attributed as a Samanid
dirhem, was revealed within horizon 2 (Nukh
ben Nasr, 943-954 A.C.). Also a pair of
ploughshares (fig . 2) was found in the named
horizon, being the first details of cultivation
instruments during the whole period of Cnezdovo archaeological studies. These ploughshares are slightly asymmetric and were put
one into another. The studied terrain has a surprising grouping of Scandinavian amulets:
those are presented with a pendant of strike-alight shape and two pendants in a form of a
tiny spear and a dagger correspondingly.

The most upper horizon of the cultural layer
(horizon 1) has a small thickness and is located
just below the ballast; it is interpreted as a destruction product of the underlying lower part
of the cultural layer impregnated with charcoal
and organic matter. Several fragments of ceramics dated at the 11th to the beginning of
the 13th centuries support the hypothesis of
the prolongation of peoples activity at Cnezdovo area, even after the termination of the
active stage of this huge proto-urban centre.
The functioning of the settlement was not
completely interrupted: the character of the
settlement changed dramatically.
Thus the complicated stratigraphy of the
studied area leads to a conclusion of several
periods in its development. The dendrochronological dating of wood samples from
the sand layer give the ag~ of wood cutting in
the range of 938 (?) up to 986 (?). Supposedly
the filling up of the swampy mould or a channel was related to the middle to second half of
the 10 century. The complete set of artefacts,
especially the ceramics and glass bead collections allows us to date the building of the area
under investigation at the end of the 1Oth to
the beginning of the 11th century.

Bulkin/ Lebedev 1974

V. A. Bulkin/C. S. Lebedev, Cnezdovo and Birka -Culture of the Medieval
Rus', Leningrad 1974.

Eniosova 1999

N. V. Eniosova, jewelry in Cnezdovo on the mounds and settlement data,
Moscow 1999.

Pushkina 2000

T. A. Pushkina, "Les trouvailles monetaires de Cnezdovo: un marqueur
des relations commerciales", in: Les centers proto-urbains russes entre
Scandinavie, Byzance et Orient (= Actes du Colloque International tenu
au College de France en octobre 1997), Paris 2000.

Pushkina/ Rozanova 1992

T. A. Pushkina/ L. S. Rozanova, "The smithing articles from Cnezdovo", in:
Russian archaeology, N 2, 1992 .

Nefedov 2001

T. A. PushkinaN V. MurashevaN S. Nefedov, "New data on the Central
settlement studies in Cnezdovo", in: Proceeding of the State Historical
museum. Issue 124, Moscow 2001.

Bronnicova 2001

E. P. Zazovskaya/M . A. Bronnicova, " Cnezdovo paleolandscapes", in: Proceeding of the State Historical museum. Issue 124, Moscow 2001.

Veronica Murasheva
State Historical Museum
Red Square 1-2, CUS-1 03012 Moscow


Tamara Pushkina
Moscow State University
Vorobjev gory, Historical Faculty, CUS-117899 Moscow

Parole chiave correlate