Finnish burial sites from the first half of the I millennium AD in Suzdal Opolye

Finnish cultures of the I millennium AD constitute an important element in the overall panorama of cultures from the forest zone of Eastern Europe in the Iron Age and the Early Medieval period. We know that the Finns are the historical precursors of the Slavs in the Volga-Oka interfluve, yet searching for their funerary sites of the period from the first half to the middle of the I millennium AD remains a difficult task in many parts of this extensive territory. This applies, in particular, to the territory in the centre of the Rostov-Suzdal Lands — a region where the Primary Russian Chronicle locates the Merya tribe.

In 2007, for the first time in the 150 years during which archaeological investigation of the Suzdal Opolye has been carried out, archaeologists succeeded in identifying burials from the first half and middle of the I millennium AD in this area. The discovery of a burial-ground near the village of Bolshoye Davydovskoye was one of the results achieved by the systematic survey of the Suzdal Opolye undertaken by the Institute of Archaeology, which has been ongoing since 2001. This area constitutes the main historical core of North-Eastern Rus. The excavations carried out in 2008–2009 at this newly identified burial-ground involved the investigation of 17 grave-pits containing the remains of 22 individuals.

The deceased had been laid to rest in narrow, roughly rectangular pits forming two regular rows. In some of the pits remains of structures from inside the graves were recorded and these were made of lime-wood. Most of the deceased had been laid out in a supine position and with their heads pointing east. It has been established that the osteological remains of 12 individuals were the bones of children aged between 2 and 11 and that ten skeletons were those of adults. Burial 3 was particularly interesting because it contained the remains of five individuals — two adults and three children — with some heads pointing east and others west. To judge from the anatomical order of the skeletons, which had been laid out parallel to each other, and the presence in the grave of a single funerary structure, the deceased would have all been buried within a short period of time. In 19 of the burials, items of metal jewellery were found and in 6 utensils. Weapons were found in two of the burials. Of particular interest was the votive assemblage found in Burial 3: this included approximately 40 bronze objects, many of which had been smelted and also iron scissors and the remains of a bone comb.

The items of women’s metal jewellery include temple rings, torques, bracelets, plaques and buckles worn on the chest, pendants worn on the chest or suspended from belts. Among the most striking items of jewellery are 19 temple rings with a lobe, which were found in 9 of the burials: large four-edged torques of the “Azelin” type; round open-work fasteners, a bronze ring-shaped fastener with trapezoid ledges, a bronze penannular fibula cast in one piece and with three axe-shaped ledges – an example of East-European barbarian enamelled jewellery; large round plaques with decoration consisting of concentric circles, an opening in the centre and appliqués arranged in the shape of a cross.
The artefacts found in the burials could be dated to the period from the second half of the 3rd to the beginning of the 5th century. This date would be compatible with the results of radio-carbon analysis of specimens of the decayed wood found in five of the burials.

Burial-grounds consisting of flat graves, in which the deceased were buried together with a rich range of metal jewellery, weapons and tools, such as appear in the Volga-Oka region in the early centuries AD, are usually regarded as a striking phenomenon characteristic of the culture of the Finns from the Volga region, reflecting the emergence of their cultural traditions and their settlement in the extensive Volga-Oka Basin. Yet Finnish cemeteries with inhumations are relatively few in number and are not spread evenly within the territory of the Volga-Oka region. The distribution area for these burial-grounds with burials of the 3rd–5th centuries, of which only 40 have been found, is confined mainly to the territories on the south bank of the Volga and the Oka. For the Finnish population of the north-western part of the Volga basin a different sort of funerary rite was typical — burial-grounds with cremations, deposited in structures above-ground — small “Houses of the Dead”, either on the ground surface or in shallow pits.

The burial-ground at Bolshoye Davydovskoye 2 is to the extreme North-west on the map of Finnish burial-grounds with burials from the period of the 3rd–5th centuries. The grave goods from the burials here are in general similar to the assemblages from burial-grounds of the Ryazan-Oka culture, the distribution area of which lies 250 km south of the excavation site. Yet many features of the funerary rite and the finds can, with justification, be regarded as a reflection of links with other territories and cultural groups: with the cultures of the Kama valley and the Oka-Sursk-Tsna interfluve, with the sites of the Dyakovo Culture in the valley of the Moscow River and with the Baltic region.

The discovery of this burial ground provides a rare opportunity for investigating the antiquities of the Volga-Klyazma interfluve from the historical era at the transition from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval period and for establishing the nature of the culture of a previously unknown local group of Finns from the Volga Basin. It serves to supplement the picture already pieced together of the pre-history of the Rostov-Suzdal Lands with new and striking events, the details and significance of which will need to be determined in the future.

N.A. Makarov

Digital publication