Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mounds of Staraya Ladoga

Oleg's Grave in Russian Staraya Ladoga

The earliest known town in northern Russia is Staraya Ladoga, located south of Lake Ladoga at the easternmost point of the Baltic Sea. Staraya Ladoga is important to historians, because it appears in some versions of the Russian Primary Chronicle as Rurik’s original seat. To archaeologists it is significant because it is the only northwest Russian medieval town with an unambiguous eighth-century cultural layer and with excellent preservation of organic and metallic materials due to the waterlogged soil. Based on the findings from Staraya Ladoga, archaeologists have reconstructed a great deal of information related to the process of state formation in early Russia, including the development of a specialized economy, the appearance of social stratification, and the role of these factors in the process of urbanization and state formation in Russia.

Staraya Ladoga is situated in an ideal position to monitor access to the main communication routes through Russia, the Dnieper and Volga Rivers. In the mid-eighth century, the earliest settlement at the town developed along the southern bank of the Ladozhka, at the point where the tributary entered the Volkhov River. This location probably was chosen as the best spot for a harbor. The town grew rapidly. During the mid-ninth century, the north bank of the Ladozhka was settled, and by the tenth century the town had expanded to both sides of the Volkhov.

Early development of Staraya Ladoga was haphazard, but after the mid-ninth century there is evidence for town planning and public works, suggesting that a town administration had evolved. The center of Staraya Ladoga was fortified in the second half of the ninth century. In the tenth century, the town’s streets were laid out on a grid, and a princely residence was built with provisions for military protection.

More than one hundred and fifty buildings have been excavated at Staraya Ladoga. Almost every excavated building turned up evidence of craft production, suggesting that manufacturing was an important part of the town’s economy and that a majority of permanent residents were engaged in craft production. Other activities include agriculture, stock raising, and hunting and gathering, but these appear minor compared with craft production and trade. Staraya Ladoga’s economy was organized around two main spheres: a local and regional exchange area and a long-distance exchange area. The local and regional economy centered on manufacturing and trading utilitarian objects and importing prestige goods and raw materials for the elite. The long-distance economy involved exporting furs and other materials, importing foreign prestige goods, and transferring foreign goods to other trading centers in Scandinavia, Russia, and the Near East.

There is no clear evidence to suggest that any particular ethnic group founded or administered the town, or participated significantly more than any other in its core activities of trade and manufacture. In the earliest layers of Staraya Ladoga there are Baltic, Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, and Slavic materials, integrated throughout the settlement. Over time the material culture began to appear more homogenized, suggesting that the town’s diverse ethnic groups were assimilating a new, local identity. Archaeological work carried out throughout the Lake Ladoga region indicates that ethnic integration existed outside the town as well.

There is also evidence of status differentiation among the people of Staraya Ladoga. The town must have had an emerging elite, whose position was communicated clearly and reinforced by their consumption of luxury goods and construction of showy burial mounds. The ordinary folk used utilitarian objects and buried their dead in more humble cremation graves. The elite probably did not organize or control the economy of the town early in its history, but their influence and authority over the town and its activities increased through time. Staraya Ladoga is best understood as a trade and manufacturing town, one link in the network that connected Scandinavia, the eastern Baltic, and the Far East. From its earliest days, the town had far-reaching trade contacts and an economy based largely on commerce and the production of trade goods.

Staraya Ladoga developed around the same time that new peoples were moving into northern Russia, notably Scandinavians and Slavs. These newcomers, together with the existing population of Balts and Finns, played an important role in stimulating trade and the growth of towns and thus ultimately encouraging craft specialization and increasing class stratification. The participation of numerous ethnic groups in the same range of economic activities seems to have contributed to the development of a new local identity and the minimizing of previous ethnic differences.


Early settlement at Staraya Ladoga has been thoroughly and systematically excavated, resulting in a detailed picture of life in an eastern Baltic trade town from A.D. 750 to 1200. A total of 3,600 square meters of medieval Staraya Ladoga have been excavated, of an estimated settlement area of 15 square kilometers. The waterlogged soil at the site has resulted in excellent preservation of finds, and dendrochronology has allowed the finds to be dated precisely.

As a result of the extensive excavation program, archaeologists can sketch a clear picture of the development and character of early Staraya Ladoga. The Earthworks Fortress quarter of the town was settled the earliest, beginning in about A.D. 760. This area probably was the most suitable place for a harbor. Settlement expanded into the Varangian Street quarter in about A.D. 842. Once established, these early settlement areas were occupied continuously throughout the Middle Ages. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the trade town began to appear more urban, with more clearly defined areas and functions. Staraya Ladoga was given wooden fortifications in the 860s and stone fortifications in 882. Dwellings and public buildings were concentrated within the town walls. Sacred places and cemeteries were located outside the walls. In the tenth century, a regular street grid was established. At this time the population of the town was slightly more than one thousand persons.

More than one hundred and fifty medieval houses have been excavated at Staraya Ladoga, dating from the eighth century through the eleventh century A.D. The medieval buildings are of two main kinds, a small and a large type. The small buildings are approximately 5 meters square and have a corner hearth. The large buildings measure approximately 13 by 10 meters and have a central hearth. Archaeologists have not found an explanation for the coexistence of the two building types. At one point scholars believed the larger buildings might have predated the smaller buildings, but this hypothesis has been rejected. Likewise, attempts to identify the building types with different ethnic groups living in Staraya Ladoga have been unsuccessful.

One well-preserved building in the Earthworks Fortress quarter is of exceptional size. Built in 894, it measured approximately 17 by 10 meters. A hearth was located in a walled-off interior room measuring approximately 10.5 by 7.5 meters. More than two hundred glass beads and thirty pieces of amber were found associated with the building, suggesting that its occupants were involved in trade. Ibn Fadlan, an Arabic scholar, wrote in 921 or 922 that the Rus traders who sailed down the Volga River built large timber structures that could house ten to twelve people.

Burial mounds were erected along the Volkhov River, in locations where they would be visible from a distance. More than thirty burial mounds are still extant at Staraya Ladoga. It is thought that one of the largest mounds at Staraya Ladoga was built for Oleg (879–912), the ruler who united northern and southern Russia. The cemetery of Plakun is notable for the ten or so Scandinavian boat burials. Other cemeteries at Staraya Ladoga include Baltic, Finno- Ugric, and Slavic burials.



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