By Viktar Andreev
In 1812, Russian troops blocked the retreat of Napoleon’s army near the Belarusian town of Borisov, at Brilevsky Field. Many years later, ethnographers wrote legends told by local residents of French treasures sent to the river bed and lost in the field. For many years, such stories were seen as nothing but fancy. However, evidence has now been found of treasures — although they appear to date from the time of the Vikings.
The Brilevsky treasure was discovered in 2000 and has been on show to the public at the National History Museum of Belarus. The hoard includes over 290 silver dirhams (Arab coins), 10 small weights, a fragment of a silver neck grivna (a torque necklace) and a sword. This arouses questions among archaeologists and numismatists alike; neither can immediately provide answers.
Nobody imagined that findings from over a millennium ago would be discovered in Brilevsky Field. Initially, Mr. S. Zakharov, an artist and restorer at the Belarusian State Museum of Great Patriotic War History, discovered sword fragments which he thought dated from the battle of 1812. However, he later realised that the sword must date from another epoch entirely. He returned to the bank of the Berezina River and unearthed a whole treasure hoard, with coins merely scattered along the edges of the river’s sand!
Soon, a team of archaeologists arrived, headed by Oleg Iov of the National Academy of Sciences’ History Institute. Belarusian State University professor Valentin Ryabtsevich joined the team and immediately understood that more treasure was to be found. A ‘black digger’ had already sold 25 coins to the state, found in Brilevsky Field.
Andrey Prokhorov, Deputy Dean of the Belarusian State University’s History Department and Mr. Ryabtsevich’s colleague, believes that the most important issue is not the number of discovered coins (although this is impressive) but the fact that these are now available to the whole world. The dirhams have been exhibited at the museum and published in a special catalogue in Belarusian and Russian.
Curiously, the finding may change our ideas regarding Belarus’ past. Coins from the treasure were minted from 742 to 891: the time of the Old Russian state being created and the ‘inviting of the Varangians’. These were Scandinavian merchants and warriors, who comprised the elite of the local ruling Rus class during the first centuries of its existence. They controlled the waterways crossing contemporary Belarus and Eastern Europe. Scientists connect the appearance of coins on the bank of the Berezina River with the expansion of the Varangians. The sword, supposedly created in a German workshop from the Rhine River, also testifies to Viking origin. Arabs were actively trading with the whole Ecumene, so their currency — dirhams — was widespread. These coins were greatly appreciated for containing a high content of silver alloy and were exchanged by weight, like pure metal, rather than using an exchange rate.
The treasure was declared on the eve of Polotsk’s 1150th anniversary; Belarus’ oldest city is thought to have been founded in 862 by Varangian merchants and warriors as a centre of tax collection from neighbouring tribes. Sergey Tarasov, who has spent many years researching Polotsk, believes that the treasure proves that Belarusian lands were long part of major trading routes and accompanying culture, crossed by Varangians and Arabs. Sadly, this also resulted in periodic conflict.