During archaeological works prior to construction of M-12 Moscow - Nizhny Novgorod - Kazan highway, the expedition of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) discovered pre-Mongol villages between the Volga and the Oka rivers while exploring three medieval settlements in Vladimir region.
For the first time archaeologists were able to fully reveal rural estates and establish how villages of the 12th century looked like, when studying pre-Mongol settlements of the Volga-Oka region. It turned out that previously rich fenced settlements with street planning, nobility courtyards, forges and potteries were situated where the M-12 highway was supposed to pass.
These settlements of Chaadaevo-5 and Katyshevo-1 around Murom and the village of Stolbishche around Vladimir were discovered in 2020, during historical and cultural expert investigation of the territory for the future highway construction. The archaeologists collected primary data and determined boundaries of the heritage sites, and, in 2021, the settlements were explored.
“Ancient Russian rural settlements, the network of which had covered vast territories from Kiev to Ladoga, are familiar to archaeologists, mainly from the materials of exploration and minor excavations. Only a few of them have been investigated on a large area sufficient to represent their spatial organization, economy, structure of farms, and daily life of their inhabitants. In 2021, for the first time excavations resulted in important materials that are fundamental for characterization of rural settlements of pre-Mongol period in the Volga-Oka region: we saw how the estates were arranged, and collected extensive materials for studying the culture of Murom land as a special historical region of medieval Russia, undeservedly remaining on the periphery of researchers' attention", academician Nikolay Makarov, the director of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said.
The excavation area of all three settlements in the highway construction zone turned out to be quite large: from 12,000 sq. meters in the settlement of Stolbishche up to 20,000 sq. meters in the settlements of Chaadaevo-5 and Katyshevo-1. For the first time excavations on such a large area allowed to reveal the planning structure of the settlements of the XII-XIV centuries in the Volga-Oka interfluve. Each of the three settlements had its own individual history, however, common features characteristic of a medieval village are noticeable in their planning, buildings and material culture.
The settlements were surrounded by fences: the archaeologists found grooves - traces of palisades that surrounded the settlements and individual estates in all settlements. In the settlements around Murom, traces of entry into the settlements were found: these are two-meter breaks in the palisade grooves, marked by large post pits, in which, apparently, the gates were fixed.
Remains of ground structures have not survived in the cultural layer. However, archaeologists revealed pits with household waste, burnt stones and plaster from destroyed hearths in the areas where houses were located. In all three settlements, deep rectangular undergrounds with traces of wooden structures were found - most likely, these are the traces of cellars that were located directly under the houses.
Murom settlements had street layouts. Thus, both settlements had a central street - a strip free of buildings up to eight meters wide - that lead from the gates to the center of the settlement. On both sides of it there were estates ranging from 1000 to 7000 sq. meters with palisade fences. In some places, the lines of the palisade grooves branch out and intersect - this indicates that boundaries of the courtyards were changing from time to time.
Burial grounds were on the outside of the fence of Murom settlements, not far from the entrance to the settlement: two burials were found in Katyshevo, and 46 burials in shallow ground pits, forming four rows, in Chaadaevo.
The archaeologists have collected more than 4500 items from the cultural layer of the settlements, that characterize the features of the economy, life and culture of Murom and Vladimir villages. In all three settlements, various household items are presented in abundance: knives, flints, parts of locks, keys. Tools were found, such as slate spinning wheels, awls, needles, whetstones, fragments of axes, as well as metal dress decorations, and vest crosses. In addition, the archaeologists have found weapon items and military equipment, a stylus for writing, book clasps and some other status items related to the everyday life of social elite in Murom settlements.
The best preservation of the cultural layer and the highest concentration of finds were discovered by the archaeologists in the village of Chaadaevo-5. The main period of life of this settlement is determined within the 12th century. The first half of the 12th century is characterized by final settling of the territory of the Lower Poochye by the Old Russian population and completion of the assimilation process of the Muroma, one of the tribes of the Volga Finns.
“Evidences of the Muroma assimilation processes are the rare finds belonging to the circle of the Finnish antiquities: a lunar pendant with an ornament in the form of a braided pigtail, a syulgam, ring fasteners, details of pendants, knives with a straight back, and a bone ear pick. A set of these items is not large, but together with the fragments of molded Finnish dishes, it constitutes a separate group among the finds and, probably, represents traces of an earlier Murom settlement that existed here before the ancient Russian settlement,” Olga Zelentsova, the head of the Volga expedition of the IA RAS, explained.
Finds of glass bracelet fragments, which were most popular in the first third of the 13th century and gradually fell out of use after the Mongol invasion, indicate a possible upper time boarder of the settlement life.
It is likely that the population was mainly occupied with agriculture: in the settlement, the archaeologists discovered pits for grain storage, as well as a sickle and millstones. No archaeologically perceptible traces of handicraft activity have been found in Chaadaevo, with an exception of a few embossment dies used in jewelry crafting.
The writing-related items deserve a special place in the collection of artifacts: 4 styluses for writing, details of book clasps, as well as fragments of a corona lucis. More than 40 amphora fragments used for wine and oil transportation are the evidence of "prestigious consumption". Also, items of weapons and horseman equipment stand out among the finds: a spur, a cheek-piece, and arrowheads. Among the rare finds is a lead pendant seal with a bust image of Jesus Christ and an image of an unknown saint.
In the settlement of Katyshevo-1, people were living from the 12th to the 14th century, with the most significant part of the structures and finds dating back to the 13th century.
The inhabitants of these places were engaged in agriculture: this is evidenced by the finds of sickles, cutters and metal parts of plows. A set of agricultural tools hidden in a subfield of a medieval building is of exceptional interest: four plow plowshares, six sickles, a cutters, a plow knife (colter) and a wedge for cultivator point attaching were found there. Given the number of items and the value of iron at that time, such a set of agricultural tools was quite expensive, and this find, in addition to the reasoning about economy development, enables us to draw conclusions about the level of population well-being.
The wealth and high social status of the inhabitants are also evidenced by the items related to military activities - these are arrowheads, a fragment of chain mail, fragments of spurs, and details of type-setting belts. A large number of glass bracelets (about 150 fragments), unusual for rural settlements, was found at the heritage site - these objects are more typical of urban culture. Rare finds reflecting religious everyday life are an encolpion cross with enamels and a fragment of a corona lucis lattice.
“The two-chamber pottery forge with a vertical system of hot gas inlet has been preserved to a height of 72 centimeters. In the lower part of the forge filling, we found the fragments of four red clay pots with stamps on the bottoms: two squares inscribed one into the other, the corners of the squares are interconnected by diagonal lines. The forge is preliminary dated to the end of the 13th - beginning of the 14th century,” Pavel Rusakov, the head of excavations at the settlement of Katyshevo, said.
Also, the traces of iron-making and blacksmith's craft (a pot with iron remains, tongs, anvil, blanks for tools) and jewelry production (finds of foundry molds, crucibles and metal splashes) were discovered in the settlement.
Stolbishche settlement on the Vorscha river around Vladimir arose no later than the middle of the 12th century and continued to exist until the 16th century. The material collection gathered here is modest in comparison with the one of Murom settlements, but it contains a number of expressive dress decorations and items of Christianity of the pre-Mongol period. The remains of dense buildings from the 15th – 16th centuries have been revealed on one of the sites: ditches of seven underground pits located in a row, dating of which was determined by coins. The village is interesting as a monument reflecting a long continuity of life of a small settlement with periodic shifts in its main core.
“Excavations of the settlements in the Volga-Oka region on Moscow-Kazan highway have provided new materials that are fundamentally important for characterizing rural settlements of the pre-Mongol period. For the first time during the study of these settlements, rural estates have been completely uncovered and the estate-like nature of planning of the villages in the 12th century has been established. Finds of status items related to everyday life and professional activities of the elite in rural settlements confirm the previously made conclusions based on the materials of the Suzdal Opolye about the presence of “the nobility courtyards” in rural settlements, and indicate the prospects for their search," Nikolay Makarov noted.