Archeologists open historical mysteries

Scientific expedition makes number of discoveries in ancient Polotsk

The oldest church in Belarus, which still stands today, is Polotsk’s Transfiguration Church, dating from the 12th century. Its frescoes are the originals painted when the walls were first erected. They are the only such fully preserved works in full. It is unique even in Eastern Europe. Recent excavations have shown how it was once larger than it appears today, completely altering our understanding.

The seal of Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya

It was believed that the church received little alteration until the early 19th century, when its façade, in classical style, was simplified. However, exploration of the foundations tells another story, explains Denis Duk, who has been heading the dig. The Pro-rector of Polotsk State University for Educational Work, tells us, “The foundations of the church have been studied by teachers and students at our university, headed by Alexey Kots, working with experts from St. Petersburg’s Hermitage: Yevgeny Torshin and Piotr Zykov. It turns out that the building had galleries along its sides, and there was an extension in front of the main facade; these significantly increased the volume of the building. Under the galleries was a crypt for burial, which was concealed by the collapse of the galleries.” To date, reconstructions have been false, and the church should be restored in light of new discoveries.

During excavations, scientists have been lucky more than once. In the crypt to the right of the main entrance, they have found the seal of St. Yevfrosiniya: the founder of the church and the nearby monastery. Inscribed on the seal, it reads: “Good Heavens, Help Your Servant Yevfrosiniya.” How did the seal of the Holy Belarusian saint find its way here? Mr. Duk implies that it came from some other place, from which soil was brought to fill the crypt.

Another historical mystery has been revealed during excavations: the remains of terracotta floor tiles, showing evidence of fire damage. These may date from the earlier days of the church, although we cannot yet determine whether the predecessor was of stone or wood. Fragments of frescoes have also been unearthed, showing that the 12th century church was painted inside and out.

The dig continues, and the decision on whether to reconstruct the church will be guided according to findings. The main question is whether reconstruction is as close as possible to the 12th century original.

By Victor Korbut

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