The mid-eighth century of a settlement at Staraia Ladoga.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This was situated beside the inflow of a settlement at Staraia Ladoga. (See Map A). This was situated beside the inflow of the little river Ladozhka into the river Volkhov, 13 kilometres up the Volkhov from Lake Ladoga. At Staraia Ladoga in the late twentieth century only the area nearest the town is cultivated. The surrounding countryside consists of forests and enormous stretches of bog, no less impenetrable in the early middle ages. A surface area of 2,500 metres has been excavated systematically. The bottom- most substratum of the lowest stratum, 'Horizon E 3 ', has been dated precisely with the help of dendrochronology, the technique which seeks to establish an absolute chronology from the sequences of tree rings discernible in the wood used for structures, paving and so forth. Dendrochronology's methods of dating are more or less free of controversy and the dating of the settlement's earliest 'micro-horizon' to the 750s has met with general acceptance. Almost as certain has been the attribution to a Scandinavian craftsman of a set of smith's tools, found in a 'production complex' for working in wood and metal in this same substratum. The 26 pincers, hammers, tongs and so forth found in the 'complex' have precise analogies in kits found in Scandinavia proper. In other words, persons from afar were working at Staraia Ladoga from the first. 

In construction technique and lay-out the large wooden houses with heating apparatus in their centres are not dissimilar to those of indisputably Finno-Ugrian settlements, but they could as well be Scandinavian workmanship, and the virtual absence from the stratum of the eighth and earlier ninth centuries of finds of ornaments or tools classifiable as Finnic is striking. The indigenous population of the surrounding countryside was Finno-Ugrian, but it was very sparse indeed. Thus outsiders, and probably only outsiders, were the founders. This is shown most clearly by the finds of leather shoes, combs and other personal belongings characteristic of Scandinavians. The combs are found from the lowest substratum onwards. They are believed to have been made by itinerant craftsmen. 

The earliest types of combs are likely to have been brought to Ladoga by their owners, or were worked up on the spot: they were not objects of barter or gift exchange. For most Scandinavian adults of either sex possessed a comb, and made frequent use of it on their hair. Combs were valued, and had some decorative features, but they were not de luxe. Clay pitchers of the type known as 'Tatinger ware', made somewhere in Francia, have also been found at Staraia Ladoga - as well as at other trading settlements in the Baltic region. Scandinavian-style tools and everyday articles have, then, been found at Staraia Ladoga, and an obvious inference is that the earliest frequenters of the site were Scandinavians. They were not, though, the only ethnic group at Staraia Ladoga in the first generations of its existence: Baits were also present. There must have been some activity or commodities which attracted a medley of persons to this seemingly inhospitable and previously uninhabited spot in the mid-eighth century. The question is: what? 

The answer comes from joining up the three above-mentioned developments in a straight line of cause and effect. Staraia Ladoga's formation may be seen as a function of the influx of silver dirhams into the north-west, while this in turn could be regarded as the consequence of the Abbasids' less belligerent policies and their striking of huge quantities of dirhams. The arrival of dirhams in the north does in fact seem most likely to have been a by-product of the Abbasids' accession and active promotion of commerce. The hoard whose youngest coin dates from 786-7 is the earliest to have been discovered in the north up to now. This suggests that exchanges between the Middle East and the far north-west started or resumed soon after the Khazaro-Arab warfare abated. The location of this hoard was none other than Staraia Ladoga, and it is not a freak phenomenon. Another apparently complete hoard, having a youngest dirham of 808, has been found to the south of Staraia Ladoga. Still more significantly, oriental coins have been excavated on the site of two successive wooden buildings at the bottom of the settlement's 'Horizon E 3 '. Thus silver coins from the Middle East were to be had at Staraia Ladoga in the very earliest buildings and in effect they constituted its basic raison d'etre. This would mean that news of the Abbasids' output of silver coins reached the shores of the Baltic within a few years. But we cannot be sure that trade between the Middle East and the fur-yielding regions to the north of the Kama ever stopped entirely. And the Swedes probably continued to go on hunting or bartering expeditions to Lake Ladoga after the sixth century, while their settlements on the Aland islands continued. They may also have been intermediaries in the long-distance connections between the Arctic north and Anglo-Saxon England: by the late eighth century walrus ivory was being used in Anglo-Saxon carvings.

If movement of populations along the great river valleys of the northern forest zone was more or less incessant, news of traders bearing silver from the Moslem south could have travelled quite rapidly. And that silver could move fast between the Middle East and the north-west is shown by the sequence of coins in structures at Staraia Ladoga. A silver piece struck in Tabaristan in 783 has been found in a structure built over one containing an earlier Tabaristan coin, issued in 768. Silver is not the only commodity of external origin to be found in the earliest substrata of Staraia Ladoga. Amber from, most probably, the coasts of the southern and south-eastern Baltic occurs in the form of small ornaments and also as unworked raw material. The lumps of amber were carved and drilled (without any heating process) into beads and pendants in workshops such as the 'complex' where the 26 smith's implements were found. Amber was highly valued and it was frequently reworked. Finds of amber are fairly plentiful at Staraia Ladoga, in stark contrast to anywhere else in the north-west. Glass beads have been found in very great profusion at Staraia Ladoga. In the lowest two substrata of 'Horizon E 3 ', the variety of shapes and colours is particularly wide, and these layers contain some of the most inherently valuable types, silvered beads and silver beads covered with light-brown glass to give the effect of gold. A workshop for glass-making has recently come to light at Staraia Ladoga and it appears to have started functioning at the beginning of the ninth century. But it probably depended on imported scrap for its raw material, and it cannot have produced every type of bead found at Ladoga. Many, probably most, of the beads represent imports. Furthermore, the beads found are too numerous to have been intended only for use by the earliest habitues of Ladoga. They were continuously being brought or manufactured so as to be exchanged for other commodities, and while at first many of them were made of silver or were of intricate construction, these types gave way during the ninth century to simpler, though still brightly coloured ones. Presumably the latter were less valuable, and reflected growth in the volume of commercial activity. 

This archaeological evidence points unmistakably to the original function of Staraia Ladoga. It was a trading post, and diverse crafts to service the trade were practised there. In fact, there is evidence that amber beads were being fashioned on the spot even before the first wooden structures were built at Staraia Ladoga. There may have been a brief period when workshops with drainage channels were in seasonal operation but no actual settlement had been established. Craftsmen were making things from the 750s in the forementioned 'production complex', whose forge had walls of light wickerwork and lacked any solid roofing. Clearly, business developed rapidly. The decision of the 'founding fathers' then to take up permanent occupation and build a number of wooden residences and workshops would have been quixotic, had they not felt reasonably confident of at least an intermittent supply of goods to buy and to sell. The site of Staraia Ladoga was probably chosen on account of its water-communications. Downstream lay Lake Ladoga, which seems to have debouched directly into the sea in the earlier middle ages, while a few kilometres upstream lay a series of treacherous rapids. Staraia Ladoga's relative isolation, set back from Lake Ladoga itself and in a kind of no-man's-land, recommended it to outsiders seeking to enrich themselves without risk of disturbance from local inhabitants. It was bleak, yet accessible by water. 

Staraia Ladoga's contacts also reached far to the west, judging by the finds of Scandinavian-style combs and Tatinger-type pitchers. These are among the more humdrum of the objects which form a kind of trail, spidery but persistent, eastwards from Hedeby across the Baltic via Central Sweden or along the southern Baltic coast. The earliest firmly datable hoards of dirhams in the Baltic region, of c. 800, form a similar distribution pattern and amber, albeit a natural product on the south shore of the Baltic, is found in only a very few other sites, notably Birka and Staraia Ladoga. Beads belonging to several of the types known in Ladoga have been found in ample quantities at Birka. Their place of manufacture is uncertain, but at least some types were probably made in the Rhineland or elsewhere in Francia or the Mediterranean basin. These scattered bits of evidence imply a nexus of long-distance exchanges and ventures which were essentially for the purpose of gain. They were not primarily objects of gift-exchange between members of ruling or noble elites. The combs made of bone or deer antlers are particularly suggestive in this respect, for they belong to types which have been found as far west as Dorestad in Frisia, York and Dublin. They were everyday objects, of less value than ornaments of precious metal, and so less likely to be kept in use, or on display, indefinitely. They were therefore sensitive to changing fashions in design and decoration and, one might suppose, responsive to the peculiarities of local tastes. Yet combs of the same date show a striking uniformity of size, proportions and ornament. It seems that they were made by itinerant craftsmen who shuttled constantly from trading post to trading post in the Scandinavian world. Using materials which they obtained on the spot, they worked up these combs for local customers.


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