In the footsteps of Napoleon, on Berezina bank
Archaeological digging continues for the second year near Borisov. Scientists are eager to unearth anything related to Napoleon’s famous crossing of the Berezina River. Frenchman, Jйrфme Beaucour, inspired by the Napoleonic Crusades, has initiated the work.
By Anton Kostyukevich
International bus ride
Borisov welcomes its visitors in true autumn style. Not a friendly Indian summer, but cool weather and swirling fog. At the appointed time, the smiling Jйrфme Beaucour appears in his sneakers, sweats, a warm pullover and raincoat. He’s dressed like a true archaeologist, and his image is finished off with a Sherlock Holmes’ style cap and small spectacles. You can almost see the Frenchman being accompanied by his own Dr. Watson and, in fact, almost ten assistants, made up of Belarusian archaeologists and other expedition members, work alongside him. The team travel to the site early in the morning, returning home after sunset.
The bus arrives and heads out for the village of Studenka, 10km outside of Borisov. Our French guest is travelling this route for the second week and is full of emotions and impressions. For instance, he loves our kvass, a drink which few foreigners have heard of. Jйrфme says that juice or sparkling water cannot compare to its wonderful taste.
Globalisation is in the air. On their way to the site, the French and Belarusians communicate in Belarusian, Russian, English, French and the universal language of gestures. Translator, Irina Matyushevskaya jokes, “Many hours of talks on history are already in the past. After years of working with Jйrфme, I’ve learnt so much about Napoleon that I could guide tourists. What is difficult is to translate jokes from Russian into French and vice versa. The challenge is to preserve the humour than to simply interpret.”
So today, descendants of the French invaders, who retreated through Belarus two centuries ago, are now heading to the country to conduct the archaeological dig and to throw some light on their history. After all, it was the French who initiated the campaign near the Berezina.
The Centre of Napoleonic Studies non-state organisation, which is conducting this dig, relies on private donations and its goals are clear. Every two years, the Centre publishes a thick magazine (which even contains articles prepared by Belarusian scientists), while its members participate in numerous scientific conferences on the Napoleonic Crusades and hunt for material proof of his grand military activity. Jйrфme focuses on Belarus and the Berezina River, a site which the Emperor personally chose. Interestingly, the continuity of generations comes to mind again. Jйrфme’s father, Fernand established contact with our country long ago and did much to erect a monument to the Napoleonic Army soldiers near Studenka in 1995.
The French often come to the banks of the Berezina. The Centre’s members regularly visit the site on the day of the famous Berezina passing, to pay tribute to the countrymen who died there and to remember their history. As for the excavation, much preliminary work has been done, after a study of national archives and the relevant permissions and documents obtained.
Jйrфme intentionally chose the banks of the Berezina for his digging, as he is interested in the detail related to Napoleon’s river crossing. The Frenchman does not know for sure whether his forefathers were in the Napoleonic Army but aims to find fraternity graves. The work to achieve this continues.
So far, the researchers should feel satisfied with the results achieved so far. They’ve discovered the remains of the bridge which the Emperor supposedly crossed, enabling them to map its location and outline plans for the present year. Currently, archaeologists are digging at the site of a supposed camp. This work is only possible thanks to Jйrфme’s impressive historical studies. His scientific paper was prepared on the basis of archive relics and hand-written maps of Studenka and its suburbs (made by an eyewitness).
It seems the Berezina has never welcomed so many scientists. Apart from Jйrфme, Belarusian Igor Grutso, a Candidate of Historical Sciences, participates in the digging. “Of course, all the discovered artefacts will remain in Belarus, occupying their rightful place in museums across the country. Last year, we unearthed a possible fragment of a French banner, in the shape of an eagle, which was a true success. The study is especially valuable, as it throws light on both the history of the Napoleonic crusade and our own nation. We are also discovering other century’s items here, including some from the 11th century,” Mr. Grutso comments.
However, the true value of this expedition is not merely in historical and archaeological discoveries. Black bullets, cracked cannon shot and rusty bayonets are secondary. Importantly, two nations, formerly divided by the river and the war, are jointly restoring their past, while establishing friendly ties. In the search for the remains of an old wooden bridge, a new bridge of strong friendship is being built.