From burial mounds to palaces: Archaeological excavations at Tsaritsyno

August 19

The grounds of the Tsaritsyno State Museum-Reserve have been seen as a model archaeological microregion for about 150 years. Check out the story below prepared by and Mosgortur (Moscow Recreation and Tourism Agency) to find out how the excavations began, what the project helped to prove, and what questions remain unanswered.

The lure of Vyatichi barrows

Historians began to delve into the cultural artifacts of Tsaritsyno and its environs in the second half of the 19th century. The numerous burial mounds of the Vyatichi, a union of East Slavic tribes that lived in the Upper and Middle Oka basin in the 8th-13th centuries, including what is now Moscow and the Moscow Region, were a magnet for historians, archaeologists and anthropologists of that time. Tsaritsyno kurgans (mounds) had attracted the descendants of the former Vyatichi even before that; for example, they were mapped in minute detail on the plan of the Chornaya Gryaz village drawn up in 1775 as the property was purchased by Catherine II to be shortly renamed in honor of the tsarina.

Due to easy access and proximity to Moscow, the mounds later became a kind of testing ground for Russian archaeologists. Unfortunately, located where anyone could access it, many of the ancient burial sites had at different times suffered serious damage from amateurs and robbers.

The first official digging was done in 1872 by members of the Ethnography Department of the Society of Natural History, Anthropology and Ethnography Lovers at Moscow University. Nine years later, remains from the ancient culture near the village of Tsaritsyno were studied by members and students of the Imperial St Petersburg Archaeological Institute; it is believed that their findings now form the core of the Vyatichi-related collection at the Hermitage.

In the 1890s, two leading Moscow archaeologists of the time, founder of the Historical Museum, Ivan Zabelin, and museum scientific secretary, Vladimir Sizov, did researched at Tsaritsyno. These are just a few of the archaeological research projects carried out at the present museum-reserve before the 1917 revolution.

Those excavations produced an entire collection of characteristic Vyatichi jewelry, including blade temple rings, lunar pendants, lattice rings, carnelian and quartz beads, twisted bracelets, torcs (stiff metal neck rings), and bell pendants. The unearthed household items and pottery helped to reconstruct the lifestyle of the predecessors of today’s Muscovites.

Since the 1920s, excavations and descriptions of the Tsaritsyno mounds have been made almost every decade. Research continued even during the war. Five Moscow State University professors – Artemy Artsikhovsky, Vladimir Blavatsky, Boris Grakov, Georgy Debets and Sergei Kiselyov – led a landmark project in 1944 and discovered an iron carpenter's tool, a scraper, which was a historical breakthrough. Until then, archaeologists had found no tools except knives and sickles there.

The study of the Vyatichi mounds continues to this day.

Ancient residents of the future Tsaritsyno Estate

With more anthropological information accumulated on the Vyatichi, the focus of research in Tsaritsyno also expanded. Since the 1970s, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to artifacts from the Iron Age and the Middle Ages.

That brought about another bombshell, of the same kind as the scraper apparently used by a Vyatichi carpenter – the finds from the end of the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age showed that the Slavs were far from the first inhabitants of the region. Artifacts of the Fatyanovo (III millennium BC) and Dyakovo (7th century BC to 5th century AD) cultures were discovered at Tsaritsyno. The defensive moat found in one of the local settlements dates to no later than the 8th-6th centuries BC and is one of the oldest defensive structures on the territory of modern Moscow or the Moscow Region.

The finds have made it possible to link the settlements in Tsaritsyno park with the Dyakovo settlement located just a few kilometres (on the straight) away – one of the oldest permanent settlements on Moscow land. It existed for over a thousand years, and now some remains can be found at the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve. Historians believe some Tsaritsyno settlements could be part of a larger and complexly organised settlement area with Dyakovo as its centre.

Maxim Denisov,

One of the places replete in archaeological finds in Tsaritsyno is an old settlement located on a high cape on the right bank of the Upper Tsaritsyno pond, known in the academic community as Tsaritsyno-1 or Ceres – in honour of the Temple of Ceres stone rotunda pavilion built there in 1805.

Archaeologists began to explore Tsaritsyno-1 in 2002. By studying the numerous finds, primarily pottery fragments, they outlined four periods of time when different people lived there – the early Bronze Age Fatyanovo culture; the turn of the Bronze and Iron Ages; the late Dyakovo period of the first centuries AD; and the Middle Ages. The pottery found there helps establish the dates of these medieval settlements.

Three 12th century settlements were discovered within 500 metres of Tsaritsyno-1, and on the cape, a 14th century village, which probably existed until the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Why its people left is unknown.

With the expansion of the survey area in 2003, six more settlements of the 12th-13th centuries were found in the region, codenamed, respectively, Tsaritsyno-2, 3, 4, 5, Shipilovo-1 and Borisovo-1.

Archaeology helps architecture historians

The first documented references to this area, referred to as the Chornaya Gryaz (Black Mud) Wasteland (along with various derivatives) date back to the late 16th century. It was part of the royal village land of Kolomenskoye. There is an unconfirmed version that at that time, the lands came into possession of the Godunov family.

For most of the 17th century, the owners of Chornaya Gryaz and the surrounding area were the Boyars Streshnev, and at the end of the century, the Princes Golitsyn, who were related to them. Owned by the Golitsyns, the estate saw an economic heyday, but the princely family soon fell into disgrace after the downfall of Princess Sophia. In the 1710s, Peter the Great, who had taken power, granted the property to the Wallachian (Moldavian) ruler Dimitrie Cantemir, along with the title of prince. The estate belonged to the heirs of Cantemir until the last quarter of the 18th century, when Catherine II, fascinated by the beauty of the local ponds, bought it to build an imperial residence outside Moscow.

The finds of the period before the palace was built are relatively modest – the Golitsyn period is represented by a collection of stove tiles, pottery fragments, coins and household items. Similar artifacts survived from the Cantemir period; the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God the Life-giving Spring built in 1759-1765 in the Elizabethan Baroque style and partially rebuilt in the 19th century, has survived. Also in 2005-2006, archaeologists identified fragments of the cellars of the first half of the 18th century and the foundations of several buildings in the Cantemir Estate.

The next period in Tsaritsyno's history is associated with the names of the architects Vasily Bazhenov and Matvei Kazakov, who successively tried to please the Empress's changeable tastes. Bazhenov supervised the construction in 1775-1785, but Catherine did not like the main palace he had built and ordered to completely torn it down; the architect was dismissed. In 1785-1796, construction resumed, now headed by Kazakov; but in the last years of her life, the Empress lost interest in the project and it was never completed while she lived.

The facts described above have made architecture historians think about the contributions each of the two outstanding architects made to the Tsaritsyno Estate ensemble. To find answers to their questions, they thoroughly study the surviving structures at Tsaritsyno, and search for traces of buildings that have not survived. Archaeologists have found the foundations of the so-called ‘grandchildren's palace’ (intended for the grandchildren of Catherine II) and the steward's house, which was demolished in 1803. During the reconstruction of the Grand Palace, fragments of masonry and foundations of 18th century furnaces were uncovered in one of the rooms. Fragments of gutters connecting various buildings are being explored.

Brick hallmarks of the 18th-early 19th centuries

Other finds are lower-profile, but still interesting – white stone fragments of Bazhenov's structures, pieces of floor tile, glazed tile, bricks with stamps, as well as the remains of metal construction fasteners and various household items from the construction period such as smoking pipes, coins, and ceramics. Other artifacts are chronologically closer to today – from the Tsaritsyno dacha period (the 19th- early 20th centuries) and from Soviet times.

The wealth of archaeological finds from the historical region of Tsaritsyno has been on display as a permanent exhibition at the museum-reserve since 2009.


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