Archaeologists succeed in re-writing history of ancient city

1150 years ago, Polotsk was first mentioned in chronicles, close behind Kiev — the ‘mother of all Russian cities’

By Victor Andreev

According to the complex development programme for 2008-2012, archaeologists from the History Institute at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus are joining colleagues from the Polotsk State University in conducting comprehensive research on the eve of Polotsk’s jubilee. As a result, the city biography has been rewritten: from the first days of its existence in the age of Ancient Rus until the 14th century, when it joined the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In 2009, during digs at Polotsk’s ancient citadel, Marat Klimov, an archaeologist with the History Institute, unearthed Arab Dirhams, minted no later than 818. The discovery enables specialists to date the appearance of the city on this site even before its first mentioning in the chronicle — in 862. The second sensation is from a dig led by Denis Duk, who heads the National and World History Department at Polotsk State University. He has refuted the common assumption that the citadel (Polotsk’s centre) near the current Red Bridge shifted to the Upper Castle in the 11th century, where St. Sophia’s Cathedral now stands — rather believing it to have taken place in the 14th century. Famous scientist Georgy Shtykhov believed the move to have happened after the invasion of Duke Vladimir (who promoted Christianity in the region).

Lithuanian dukes reigned in Polotsk after the local Rurik dynasty and, by the 14th century, the bishop’s residence had been built on the Upper Castle, near St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Secular authorities once occupied the citadel. Moreover, digs have shown that ancient Polotsk covered a far wider area than previously thought.

Olga Levko, who heads the Pre-Industrial Society History Centre at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus’ History Institute, notes, “We’ve learnt that, in the 11th century, the square of Polotsk’s ‘posads’ (now known as micro-districts) was 2.5 times larger than believed. In the 18th century, the city square covered double the land previously thought. Moreover, we now know that there was an area of the town, situated near the citadel, where the elite merchants, craftsmen and jewellers lived. It is a complete surprise, as this area of Minsk is yet to be discovered.”

Investigations of Polotsk will continue until 2015. Residents of the historical districts of Gorodishche and Zapolotie, which are densely built with private houses, must request permission from the NAS’ History Institute, calling on archaeologists and paying for digs, before organising work on their farmlands.

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