The Desyatinnyi Trench in Novgorod the Great

In 2008 large-scale investigations were carried out in the north-western part of medieval Novgorod’s “Lyudin End” not far from the Desyatinnyi Monastery of the Nativity. The four trenches involved had a total area of 3,400 m2 and research was undertaken into levels from the 10th–17th centuries.

Although the cultural layer in the Desyatinnyi trench was not very thick by Novgorod standards — some 2 to 2.5 m —, it yielded up rich material for our study of the period, in a part of the city that was first settled and populated in the late-10th and 11th century. It is also important because it produced material relating to the topography and the layout of properties and to features of the material culture of the 12th–14th centuries. The collection of artefacts from this site came to approximately 7,000 finds.

Within the excavated area more than 30 properties of between 300 to 800 m2 of the 12th through to the early-15th century were investigated. They were along the sides of two streets, Dobrynya and Volosova Street, the first mention of which in the written sources dates from 1130–1160.

At the end of the 10th century the area in question was divided up into rectangular plots by drains let into the natural soil. They had been laid along earth roads, which led westwards from the ancient settlement on the bank of the Volkhov River, which formed the core of the city’s future Lyudin End. The original plots were not used for some reason and for several years the area was no more than a ploughed field. The furrows in the natural soil and the ploughed layer have been traced throughout the whole of the excavated area. In the cultural layer hand-moulded and early wheel-turned pottery have been found, a terminal from a wooden plough, Arab coins, glass beads, belt plates and an amulet from a bear’s canine tooth.

In the 1020s near Volosova Street a complex structure was erected, which could be compared with an oubliette or prison. The underground part of this structure has survived in the form of a pit 5 m in diameter and 3 m deep and with remnants of a building consisting of vertical planks. In the 1030s it was replaced by a log structure, square in shape and measuring 230 x 240 cm, which had survived to a height of 28–30 log rows. At the bottom there were two benches and a latrine in the form of a pit. It would appear that the oubliette had been in existence around 20 years.

In the second half of the 11th century the territory was divided up using wattle fencing into plots for orchards and allotments. In one of these several dozen trunks of apple trees had survived. In that layer West-European coins were found, belt decorations, cross-pendants, spades and scythes.
At the beginning of the 12th century the streets were paved with wood for the first time and the spaces between streets were taken up with properties divided off from each other by palisades. In the 12th-century deposits five levels of structures and roadways were found, which had been in existence around 100 years and in which a highly representative range of finds was concentrated. In all the 12th-century properties traces of various crafts were noted.

At the beginning of the 13th century the territory under investigation had fallen into a state of neglect. The emergence of properties had come to an end and the streets had also ceased to be used. The vacant territory was taken up with vegetable gardens. It was not until the end of the 13th century that new wooden roadways were laid out, where the former streets had been. Along these roadways properties containing numerous buildings came into being again and during excavations significant collections of artefacts were obtained. Remains of roadways and log buildings could be traced in the habitation levels up until the beginning of the 15th century.

What points to the particular status of those who had lived in the excavated properties is the range of coins and lead seals collected in the area. Among the coins were 12 silver dirhams of various dynasties of the Arab Caliphate in the 8th–10th centuries and 51 West-European denarii dating from the late-10th and 11th centuries.

European coins are represented by two hoards dating from the 11th century, consisting of 23 and 4 coins respectively and also 24 single denarii. The first hoard contained 22 German denarii, mainly from Saxony and Friesland and one Danish denarius. The second contained coins from Friesland, Saxony and Lower Lotharingia. Among the individual coins there were denarii from various German states dating from the second and third quarters of the 11th century and imitations of the latter, English pennies of the late-10th and early-11th centuries, and Scandinavian (?) imitations of English coins. A Czech coin found in one of these hoards, from the reign of Boleslav II and dating from the end of the 10th century, was the first of its kind to be found in Novgorod.

The collection of seals totalled 70 items: 59 medieval Russian seals dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries, 8 blanks and 3 Byzantine seals of the 12th century and also approximately 380 Russian, pre-Mongol lead seals and five West-European merchant seals of the 15th and 16th centuries. Among the seals there were 15 bullae stamped using new matrices.

The unusually high concentration of merchant seals indicates that the local inhabitants were involved in 12th-century trading operations linked with the delivery to Novgorod of the skins of fur-bearing animals from the distant forests of the Russian North. West-European merchant seals indicated that Novgorod was trading with the countries of Europe, from which it imported various kinds of textiles — mainly those of the fine and expensive variety.

The 15th, 16th and 17th-century levels in the trench turned out to have been badly disturbed by subsequent activity but they contained a rich range of materials.

P.G. Gaidukov, O.M. Oleinikov and N.N. Faradzheva

Digital publication