Libmonster ID: VN-965
Author(s) of the publication: Yuri MORGUNOV

by Yuri MORGUNOV, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology

One of the most viable south Russian defense lines appeared on the banks of the Sula, the Dnieper's left tributary, in the 11 - 13th centuries. Our scientists have traced its development stages from a string of small settlements to a network of extensive fortification complexes. Take, for one, the site of an ancient settlement in the Sampsoniyev Island isolated area near the settlement of Sencha (in our days in Poltava Region, Ukraine). Various artifacts discovered there may tell us how the local population had survived - confronted as it was with constant threats from the outside - by building border fortifications.

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Southern border of Rus at the start of the 12th century.

During the closing decades of the 10th century Kievan Prince Vladimir I (980 - 1015) focused his attention on the need to protect the southern borders of his territory as a result of an upsurge in the Petchenegs' military activity. First, wooden-and-ground long walls were built, i. e., something like what was described as "dragon's ramparts" stretching "from sea to sea", widely used then. In our days the total length of what has remained of them in the area of the Dnieper's middle reaches exceeds 1,000 km. The key spots of this barrier were under the control of the residents of large open (not fenced in) settlements. And "the best men", who had migrated from Old Rus areas spared by marauding raids of their aggressive neighbors, settled on the uninhabited steep open bank of the Sula.

According to the 988 chronicle, in the period of the intensified raids by Petchenegs that followed, Russian military builders switched to more progressive construction methods of the times: they started fortifying weak defense spots by fortress structures, a method that was used for many centuries to come. Their efforts must have yielded fruits, for in the early 11th century the enemies retreated from the borders of the Kievan Princedom, and pretty soon the Polovtsian tribes forced them out of the area north of the Black Sea. In the absence of ever-present danger, activity in building fortifications notably subsided.

The carefree life of the Kievans was but short-lived. In the 1060s the wave of aggressive plainsmen's raids reached the borders of Southern Rus, and at the close of the century the Polovtsian onslaught had mounted to an unprecedented scale. It was met by an adequate response. The chronicles of the period describing the events of those years mention dozens of towns involved, and the remains of an even greater number of border fortifications have been dug up in archeological excavations. Their location was in line with the defense doctrine of the period of rule by Vladimir I that formed the basis of the concentric defense structure of the capital's territorial core. For instance, the close approaches of Kiev were defended by a chain of fortresses over the Vita, Stugna and Trubezh rivers, the remote approaches - by those over the Ros and Sula rivers, while the forts on the Dnieper banks formed the pivot of the entire fortification system.

Meanwhile, the vast dry steppe areas in between the Stugna and Ros rivers (according to the Perepetovo Field chronicles) and the Supoyskoye Plateau (the Taibezh and Sula interfluve) had not yet been settled. The fragmentation of Old Rus into separate princedoms precluded the possibility of mass-scale resettlement of "the best men" to those areas. That is why the former nomads were simultaneously resettled there: "black klobuks", or fur-trimmed caps in the Perepetovo Field, "Pereyaslavl torks" along the Supoy river banks (in both cases that was the way the then chronicles described the conglomerate of ethnically related communities ousted by the Polovtsians from the area north of the Black Sea).

It was precisely at that time, i. e., the late 11th - early 12th centuries, that the Posula Defense Line (along the Sula banks), often referred to in old chronicles as the stable border of Southern Rus, was rapidly formed on the left bank of the Dnieper. It consisted of towns and nameless fortresses, flexibly imbedded in the local terrain that served for controlling the passes across the boggy fluvial plain and for sentinels to watch out for the enemy and his approach.

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Part of the original defense wall.

Archeological studies of those territories may offer a detailed story of the formation, original administrative division, multiethnic population of the border areas, their interrelationships and of the role played by each defense fortification. Of special interest is a close study of 12th - 13th century town clusters surrounded by small villages with fortresses that served as advance posts. (Incidentally, it was precisely such small objects that account for about half of the total number of the sites of ancient settlements in Old Rus). We have chosen but one for our excavations located on the Sula's bank, in the Sampsoniyev Island isolated area.

In the early 12th century, after the nomads had been pushed far away to the steppes, a village was formed at one of the local fords. The houses lined the street that led to winding paths across the swamp, and a road from Black Sea area steppes also led to it. However, soon after the Polovtsians, having "licked their wounds" after the defeats they suffered from Prince Vladimir II Monomach (1113 - 1125), started mustering forces for a new attack. In the 1140s they approached Russian princes to make peace (by bringing generous gifts). Next, they actively joined in the internecine strife among the princes, and later started making raids on the Sula's banks. The revival of the nomads' military potential called for tighter control over a local track leading from the restive East to Kiev.

Initially our ancestors built the so-called "cape fortresses", but bank cusps suitable for the purpose were not to be found anywhere. At the close of the 11th century Vladimir Monomach applied the experience of building circular forts he had acquired in campaigns waged in Western Slav

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Entranceway to the fortress.

countries. The layout of such forts did not depend on the local relief, and that is why from a tactical viewpoint they were suitable for any border spot. By the mid-12th century such forts had become part of the picture throughout Medieval Rus. And they were especially popular as feudal rural estates and road customs clearance posts (tollgates for exacting trade duties).

As soon as nomad horsemen approached, the population rose to the solid walls of such a fortification and chased them away with a shower of arrows, for the Polovtsian cavalry was a terrible foe in the battlefield, though with no experience of siege. The small number of the attackers made the defenders' task easier, for as a rule they were about 200 - 400 strong. Old chronicles tell us that more significant battles were fought on rare occasions. However, in those cases as well, having crossed the Russian borders, the enemy was reluctant to advance leaving Russian advance posts behind.

The fortifications of the above-mentioned type (a square with strongly rounded corners) were built on a mass scale solely in Volhynia*. Consequently, it is not ruled out that the fortress in question came into existence under the Vladimir-and-Volhynia Prince Izyaslav Mstislavich who ailed from 1143 in the Pereyaslavl Land (not far from Kiev) that included Sampsoniyev Island. The construction site for the fortress (the useful space of 0.2 ha or 0.5 acres) was chosen at the southern end of the settlement (at the ford across the Sula). What remains of it is a low rampart surrounded by a ditch filled with water. Moreover, it was clear even before we started excavations that the walls were even more solid and the ditch considerably deeper precisely where the defenders fought flush against the crossing.

In the advance post's southern part, that bore the traces of large sites of fire, we managed to examine thoroughly the intricate design of the bulwark. It consisted of two rows of log cabins covered with plaster outside to protect them from fire and rotting. The external row consisted of double log walls, with the space in-between filled with packed ground dug from the ditch. On the top of this barrier "a battle road" was laid with a roof and a parapet fence. The internal row served as a compartment for household needs. It reinforced the fortification structure, and in the event of an enemy attack it served as a defense belt road, for its low flat roof was used for bringing ammunition to the defenders who fought on the top and for the movement of reinforcements.

Here is what we established with the help of calculations. The fortification in question had been at least fourmeters-high, consequently, it was rather strong for the period. However, it was helpless against fire. After the fort's destruction the ridge of the rampart-form tell that had remained there was leveled, and in the second half of the 12th century a new one of similar design was built on the top. In this way it had been repeatedly restored after destruction until the 13th century.

The entranceway to the fortress, the weakest link of the defense system located on its safest side adjoining the village, suffered most from the fire. The entranceway had to ensure easy passage for the residents in peacetime and reliable security in siege. The fence had been further fortified there for the 2.5-meter-wide and up to 12-meter-long entry corridor to run diagonally, not perpendicularly, to the walls, and clay had been added to the roadbed (although

* Volhynia - a historical area in the 9th - 18th centuries in the basins of southern tributaries of the Pripyat and of the Western Bug's upper reaches. Today it is Ukrainian territory. - Ed.

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more often in such cases logs were used for pavement). Combat passage with slit windows must have been built on the top that made it possible to attack with daggers the "uninvited guests" moving along that narrow long tunnel. It should be noted that such sophisticated structures were typical solely of the most important strategic strongholds.

The entranceway to the fortress (the traces of the removable bridge have been preserved on the ditch bottom) was placed at a still wider angle to the walls than the passage in between them. So, you could get inside by turning numerous corners, which fact made the attackers' task even more difficult. Such entranceways belonged to an improved, diagonal type whose advantage was stressed in his time by Roman architect and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (second half of the 1st century B. C.), and its analogues are known to architects.

A reliable fortification like that spurred a new flurry of activity in the adjoining village outside the fortress. The above-mentioned street was, just as before, its dominant feature, and it was precisely there that a big two-tier log house with an anteroom and adjoining production premises rose at the close of the 12th century. In the course of excavations we discovered in its ground floor the remains of two mud stoves and fragments of another one that had tumbled from the top, and also many other artifacts, including armor-piercing arrowheads.

Ten dwelling houses had been built around the first one. As a result, the habitation level deposits, so important for archeologists, now contain numerous artifacts testifying to the appearance of various ethnic groups. For instance, migrants from Volhynia and southern Poland had brought in unusual ceramic types, and woodlanders - their housebuilding skills and manufacturing techniques for certain iron articles. Former nomads had also settled down here, judging by the shards of original clay crockery, arrowheads and certain elements of saddle horse gear that are as a rule found solely in the steppes and the border areas of Medieval Rus, with their great ethnic variety professing confessions other than Christianity.

In the second half of the 12th - early 13th centuries, apart form the five wall log cabins, a 180 - 200 square-meter residential zone with auxiliary premises and a pit for household needs - the so-called siege yard - was located on the site with a well inside the fortress. Its residents repaired and protected the wood-and-ground fence from fires and from inquisitive outsiders. Although in the first half of the 13th century all buildings within the citadel were pulled down, the adjoining large village was already sprawling on an area of 4 ha (10 acres). New houses were built there and the old ones were periodically renovated.

The materials we have gained allow us to estimate the local population of the period. The estates we have examined occupied on the average 445 sq m each (the figure approximately corresponds to those in many medieval Russian towns). Consequently, the entire village must have contained up to 90 of them with a population of at least 540, if we assume that families then included six members.

Curiously, in the early 13th century two log houses were built across the original street of the village laid almost a hundred years prior to that. As a result, the steppe road circumvented the village center (by the way, this fact is shown in 19th century maps) and the road leading to the crossing,

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that was under the control of the advance post defenders, became 300 meters longer.

The Sampsoniyev islanders' material and spiritual culture had many original features. We examined over 20 dwelling houses and discovered pile pits dug, at first glance, for roof supports in the corners of their ground floor, occupying about 5 - 8 sq m. However, further examination revealed their different designation. Judging by the preserved fragments, the space of the log houses located above the ground surface was 25 percent larger than that of the basement. That is why a ground step remained along the perimeter in between the carrying walls and such pits containing the ground floor. This step was often used as a foundation for hemispherical mud stoves. And the mysterious pile pits are most probably the traces of the support facing of the basement. Their depth, the local agricultural technicians believe, is close to the winter soil freezing level, and, consequently, the house dwellers must have taken measures to keep their home warm.

Objects associated with land cultivation account for a considerable share of the archeologists' finds and this testifies to the important role it played in the village life. In particular, we have discovered heavy plowshares, tools for harvesting and processing crops: southern Russian-type sickles and scythes and scores of whole and broken stone millstones. Primitive metallurgy is represented by bits of ore, slag, a fragment of a cut round metal bar (made of spongy iron with slag inclusions), forging accessories - massive tongs and a chisel. However, most of the articles testify to the predominance of southern handicraft traditions, although there are also examples of the use of northern Russian production techniques.

Our collection includes numerous carpenter tools - various knives, a massive axe, a spiral-form drill, a solid metal chisel. This is only natural, for fortress walls were built from moisture-resistant oak and dwelling houses - from logs of deciduous trees. We have also found a lot of cuts of elk and deer antlers. Our finds of carved bone articles are, on the contrary, represented solely by a double-sided comb, fragments of a flat overlapping to an intricate archer's bow, components of horse gear. Millstones, whetstones and bits of slate (pyrophillite slate) and a spinning component made from it (loads for spindles) are all what remains of stone articles. Pottery was represented by pots of all kinds of proportions and sizes, bowls and lids. A great number of objects has been restored from their fragments used to strengthen stove hearthstone. We came across various marks and stamped Western Slav ornamentation on some vessels.

Sampsoniyev islanders made use of simple household tools, in particular, cylindrical ("Russian") locks and keys to them, various types of steel for striking fire from a flint. A lot of pail and barrel hoops, a folding razor, and so on, have also survived. And the pagan amulet made of a bear tusk is in marked contrast to the single small cross worn next to the skin. The double-sided copper amulet ornamented with enamel must have been brought by merchants to the south Russian advance post. The same most probably holds true for slate that was supplied throughout Rus and served for the output of the above-mentioned spinning components and millstones, iron knives probably of the Kievan type, and so on. Glass bracelets, a bead with a wavy ornament and shards of 26 Black Sea area amphoras that are but seldom discovered in the area along the Sula date back to more remote periods.

Arms and horse gear objects account for a large share of our finds. The numerous forged iron and raw steel combat arrowheads (about half of them were armor-piercing) must have been produced by master craftsmen. High-carbon steel plates were welded to their edges to add to their piercing capacity. And the bone bludgeon blank serves as proof of readiness for close contact with the enemy.

Sampsoniyev Island, a self-sufficient village that met its requirements owing to its agricultural and handicraft production, knew how to defend itself. The peasants, also engaged in hunting, must have been excellent archers, and this quality was crucial for fortress defense (hence the great number of armor-piercing arrows). But what about the fragments of sophisticated combat horse gear? Guarding the narrow road leading to the ford that wound in-between small hills across the thick river bank bushes required special skills, for here even a small horse detachment could stop the advance of the long chain of nomads by applying the local guerrilla methods. The natives must have had a stratum of captains amongst them who knew how to raise a combat-capable home guard.

It is quite probable that the implementation of such measures interfering with agricultural works called for a military administration of the border village. The two-story building standing out for its great size, where we found most of the armor-piercing arrowheads and imported goods, including a ring with imitation jewels, would be quite suitable for warlord's headquarters.

Consequently, Sampsoniyev Island, where even the street layout met the defense requirements, was a highly defense-capable combat unit backed by a fortress. If we assume that at least two adult men resided in each estate (say, father and older son), then the islanders must have had at least 180 men at their disposal. That would be quite enough for a hundred of armed and well-trained home guards to go on a march. At the same time a sufficient number of defenders would remain in the advance post to be actively assisted by other villagers who could supply additional arms, put out fires and give first aid to the wounded. That was exactly what happened in 1185 when the Novgorod-Seversky Prince Igor Svyatoslavich withdrew his warriors from the border area and thus must have "opened the Russian land's gates" to Polovtsians. However, after their Khan Gzak had attacked the "abandoned" advance posts, he was rebuffed with might and main.


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Yuri MORGUNOV, STRONGHOLDS OF THE RUSSIAN LAND // Hanoi: Vietnam (BIBLIO.VN). Updated: 20.10.2018. URL: (date of access: 14.06.2024).

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