In the suburbs of ancient Polotsk

[b]In 1973, teenagers found 20kg of silver on the bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River, in Polotsk (a district centre in Vitebsk Region). Now, this unique collection is on show for the first time[/b] It’s not known how the treasure came to rise to the surface; perhaps, a local field was ploughed in spring or the treasure rose of its own accord. The discovery was astonishing, comprising over 7,500 Kufic Dirhams, minted in Central Asia and Northern Africa and containing inscriptions in Kufi...
In 1973, teenagers found 20kg of silver on the bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River, in Polotsk (a district centre in Vitebsk Region). Now, this unique collection is on show for the first time
It’s not known how the treasure came to rise to the surface; perhaps, a local field was ploughed in spring or the treasure rose of its own accord. The discovery was astonishing, comprising over 7,500 Kufic Dirhams, minted in Central Asia and Northern Africa and containing inscriptions in Kufi — an Arabic language. In the 8th-11th century, this was the ‘single currency’ from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Many of the countries through which the ‘Varangians to the Greeks’ route passed lacked their own money, so used Dirhams.
The boys played for some time with their findings but later brought them to the local history museum, where the treasure was announced to be the largest and most unique collection of Dirhams to date. For almost four decades, this interesting find has remained in storage. However, the wonderful coins are now on show, to the delight of amateur-numismatists.

Protected by ancient walls
Sophia Cathedral is probably the most famous sight in Polotsk. Among its treasures are several dozen Dirhams from the unique collection — as known to everyone. However, until recently, only a few specialists were able to see all 7,663 original coins. Being a journalist, I was made an exception. As true rarities, the Dirhams from the ‘Kozyankovsky’ treasure (discovered in the village of Kozyanki) are kept in a safe at the department of precious metals, behind several doors and down some winding stairs. The unique collection is kept behind iron bars, with the coins placed in paper envelopes, kept in cardboard boxes.
My guide, Inna Pesina — the chief guardian of the National Polotsk Historical-Cultural Museum-Reserve, takes out an envelope and removes a coin minted in Samarkand in 914, during Nasr bin Ahmad’s rule. Experienced numismatists would love to be in my shoes! Meanwhile, I feel rather embarrassed. Unlike ancient Polish or Russian metal coins, this Dirham weighs almost nothing. As if predicting my question, Ms. Pesina explains, “It’s no wonder. These coins were minted onto a thin sheet of silver, so they weigh just 2-4 grams. It’s thought that the treasure might be part of a robbers’ haul; the most ancient of the coins were minted from 738-747. We also have broken (or cut) coins, which were fake, being made from copper, with only a thin layer of silver. Some bear inscriptions, while others were minted somewhere near modern Tunis. The latter are totally unique, as no other world museum has anything of the kind.”

Digital coins
Taking into account the fact that 50 Dirhams were enough to buy a horse and a slave cost 300, the haul found near Polotsk was worth a fortune. It has never been exhibited in full before, as Tamara Dzhumantaeva, the Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the National Polotsk Historical-Cultural Museum-Reserve, explains. She notes, “It’s impossible to mark the coins from the collection, or make inscriptions on them, while paper tags simply fall off, so it’s extremely difficult to collect them back after scattering them through an exhibition. Only a few specialists can read Kufi, even in our post-Soviet states, so the treasure has never been placed on show to the public.”
Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor Valentin Ryabtsevich, a lecturer at the Belarusian State University, was among the first to study and describe this unique collection. “To make his research open to the public, we decided to digitise the ‘Kozyankovsky’ treasure two years ago,” says Ms. Dzhumantaeva. “A DVD holding 8 gigabytes was made, bearing photos of all the silver Dirhams, together with descriptions. Interestingly, it was awarded at the 13th International Festival for the Automation of Museum Activity and Information Technologies (ADIT), held recently.”
From now on, anyone can take a virtual trip to the treasury of precious metals, enjoying its unique exhibits.

On the edge of future discoveries
The DVD honours the memory of Valentin Ryabtsevich, now departed, and has been realised with financial help from the Belarusian Foundation for Fundamental Research. Among its contributors was Hermitage expert Vyacheslav Kuleshov, who helped study the ancient coins. The Head of the National Polotsk Historical-Cultural Museum-Reserve’s Scientific-Information Department, Vitaly Gavrilov, personally organised around 16,000 photos, explaining, “We’ve developed a special programme to prevent deletion of the coin photos from the disc and have endeavoured to allow our colleagues and collectors access to materials which may help them make future discoveries. As our Hermitage colleague, Mr. Kuleshov, says, any treasure — especially such a large one — is a ‘potentially endless numismatic source, with great significance’.”
Several dozen copies of the disc have already been distributed to the largest Belarusian and Russian museums. Meanwhile, the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ B.I. Stepanov Physics Institute has conducted unique laser spectral analysis of 500 coins from the treasure, defining their chemical composition. If similar data from other collections is available, a comparative analysis could be made. A portable device — developed by Belarusian physicists especially for working with the ‘Kozyankovsky’ treasure — already enjoys wide demand.
A digital version of the collection will soon be available at info-kiosks (due to be installed at Polotsk museums). It could even be transferred online, or become available for general purchase by tourists coming to Polotsk. The ancient city is known as a cradle of Belarusian statehood and spirituality and celebrates its 1150th birthday next year. In a few months’ time, UNESCO is to proclaim 2012 the Year of Polotsk — the ultimate proof of its significance to global culture!

By Sergey Golesnik
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