Excavations at the Novosyolki Burial-ground

By the end of the 20th century there had been a rapid decrease in the scale of excavations of medieval Russian burial-grounds consisting of burial-mounds. This was bound up with the shift of archaeologists’ main focus of attention to the study of settlements and also with the fact that most burial-mounds had already been excavated and the remainder had been thoroughly demolished by treasure-hunters. The Novosyolki 2 group of burial-mounds on the bank of the River Klyazma in the Khimki District of the Moscow Region was an exception: of the 20 burial-mounds 18 were undisturbed. In connection with work on the plan for a new motorway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2008, excavations were carried out in the area as a result of which the burial-ground has now been fully investigated. Nearby a previously unknown settlement of the medieval period was discovered to which the burials in the Novosyolki settlement probably belonged.

The whole area of the burial-ground has been studied by archaeologists including the spaces between burial-mounds. Dr. A.A. Golieva, a soil scientist from the Geography Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was able to establish that remains of ancient ploughed land had survived under many of the burial-mounds.
In 20 burial-mounds 27 burials were examined containing a total of 29 individuals: 12 adult men, 11 women and 6 children. Only one of them had been laid out on the ground surface, while the rest of the deceased had been placed in grave pits between 30 cm and 1.30 m deep. In 12 cases the deceased were lying in wooden coffins, nine of which were wrapped in birch bark. All the coffins were made of oak and charred oak pieces were also found in four of the grave pits. At the same time charred pieces of other different types of wood were encountered in the ditches round the burial-mounds — fir, birch, willow, pine and aspen.

The grave goods from the female burials were typical for the Vyatichi in the environs of Moscow and include seven-lobe and ring-shaped temple rings, cornelian, rock-crystal and glass beads, twisted torques, diverse bracelets and rings. Only one cross-pendant was encountered, originating from a grave pit. In two burial-mounds remains of cloth were found — woollen cloth with a checked pattern in a male burial and ribbons bearing gold embroidery in a female one. A unique find was an example of leather footwear discovered in two of the burial-mounds. The discovery of four gold-glass pendants was of great interest, since these were the first of their kind in medieval Rus and the pendants probably originated from Kievan workshops. All these items dated from the second half of the 12th century or first third of the 13th: moreover two large groups of different date emerged, when these burials were being examined. The earlier group dated from the second half of the 12th century and the later one from the first third of the 13th century.

The chronological spread of the burials makes it possible to conclude that the burial-mounds were not constructed in a haphazard fashion but in a strict order. We can probably assume that there were at least two groups, who buried representatives of their community, including couples, in different parts of the burial-ground. One of them used the southern part of the burial-ground and the other the north-western part.

Excavations of the Novosyolki 2 Burial-ground provided fundamentally new information about how burial-mounds were erected and made it possible for the first time to identify a time sequence used within a single burial-ground belonging to the Vyatichi. They showed that investigations of burial-mounds, when carried out using modern methods, can challenge many aspects of accepted ideas.

E.P. Zakharova, V.Y. Koval, A.V. Engovatova and M.V. Dobrovolskaya

Digital publication