The Russian Dig

A’ndrea Elyse Messer
March 01, 1996

I was sitting on a pile of 28,000-year-old mammoth bones watching MIG 27s fly overhead on multiple bombing runs — using live bombs — when it struck me how strange it all was.

I grew up thinking of the Soviet Union as the enemy. I was taught from an early age that the Russians had the Bomb and that they might use it on us. In school air-raid drills, I went into the hall, knelt facing the wall, and ducked my head under the cover of my hands. Even in sixth grade, when I knew that duck-and-cover would not protect me from a nuclear blast, I still carefully followed the rules. Participating in a paleolithic excavation in the Central Russian Plain while military maneuvers took place overhead was not something I had ever envisioned as possible.

In the summer of 1994, I went to the Russian village of Kostenki with a group sponsored by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center of Colorado. We arrived at four in the morning. The ground was soaked and our bus could not navigate the road to the camp, so we unpacked and walked down to a series of small wooden buildings and tents surrounded by vegetable gardens. It was cold, damp, and we were excruciatingly exhausted. We found our tents and tried to sleep.

We were, as far as we know, the first group of Americans to participate in a Russian excavation. We were certainly the first Americans in Kostenki. And it was clear that no one, on either side, knew what to expect.

A group of Russian high school students was at the site, members of the science club from a town outside of Volgograd: nice kids who were anxious to try out their English. They were astonished to find out that we had read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov and listened to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. They had read both French and British novels in translation, but could not come up with a single American title.

Some of our hosts from the St. Petersburg Institute of the History of Material Culture expected us to be demanding and effete. This image was undoubtedly a leftover of the Communist propaganda machine, but may also have been the result of the requests we had made before we arrived for hot, or at least warm, showers and toilet seats. Toilet seats are not routine in Russian field camps. Bathing — even at a permanent camp where people live for upwards of four months — is done in a basin, a river, or under a very cold hose. But once the toilets and showers were installed, the Russians were just as happy to avail themselves of these amenities as the Americans.

Kostenki was known to have very large bones as early as the 18th century, but the explanations were dubious: elephants of Alexander the Great or of the Tartar army. In 1879, the first excavations began. Occasional digging continued until 1923, when the current expedition began as the Kostenki Paleolithic Expedition of the Leningrad Institute of the History of Material Culture (now the St. Petersburg Institute). The regime guaranteed money and personnel to dig every year.

Such is no longer the case: Without American participation, there would have been no 1994 field season. With our dollars, four archaeologists from St. Petersburg, plus their graduate students were able to dig. Nikolai Proslav was the senior member, totally in charge, and a communist. I say this in the nicest sense. His gleaming eyes and broad, genuine smile were warm and friendly, but he was very used to doing things his own way.

Only the situation in the last three years had changed. Dimitri Volkov was now in charge of the historic and prehistoric museum preserve of Kostenki. Proslav had to ask Volkov for permission to excavate, and during the first few days of our stay these discussions, although incomprehensible to us, were obviously tendentious. Volkov, fortunately, wanted very much to please the American visitors and to adopt the "scientific tourism" approach used at Crow Canyon. An organization to preserve Kostenki was formed on the spot, and we 17 Americans donated more money to become the first members.

The weather initially remained cold and the site was not quite ready for excavation. While the high school kids spent the day removing the last of the fill that had been used to protect the site, our Russian hosts took us on a short trip to see the surrounding countryside.

The landscape was amazing. Miles of gently rolling fields filled with wild flowers and herbs. As we walked, the smell of dill, mint, and marjoram was strong. At the terminal moraine, the furthest reach of the glaciers, the ground stretched out a series of very thin fingers above a drop of hundreds of feet. The archaeologists keep a small section of the edge of one finger clear of vegetation so that, standing across on another finger, we could see the sediment layers clearly: The 28,000-year-old layer, from which we would be excavating human artifacts and evidence of habitations (Americans can claim human occupation only back to 12,000 or perhaps 14,000 years ago). And two other layers beneath, the earliest dating to about 35,000 before present.

Digging at a paleolithic site in a lush green area is somewhat unusual for me. I normally dig in the desert, and have almost always dug either in Iron Age Israelite sites or Anasazi sites in the U.S. Southwest. We dig with hand trowels, hand picks, and buckets, and generally, except when doing delicate work, move a lot of dirt. At Kostenki we dug with small knives, carved and heat-hardened oak sticks, and small basins.

The village we were unearthing was composed of a series of mammoth-bone pit structures — houses — on either side of a line of open hearths. We were excavating one pit structure, a building that at one time was made of carefully placed mammoth bones covered perhaps with dirt and skins. Intellectually I knew how big mammoths were, but until I saw the massive teeth, tusks, and femurs, I didn't really understand what "big" meant. (I will be more cautious now when using the adjective mammoth.)

The bones have all collapsed and most of the site is a carpet of bones intermixed with flint debris, small animal bones, red ochre, and bone coal — burned mammoth bone, some charcoaled and some heated so hot it has calcined to near porcelain. In some areas, scaffolding was placed above the site so that the diggers could sit or lie on boards to excavate. In others, one had to be careful where feet, hands, and bottoms were placed to avoid touching and disturbing the fragile bone remains.

Once I found a place to position my body, there was little room for movement. The overflight of MIGs, a daily event, was cause for people to stand up in their places — ostensibly to look at the planes — and uncramp and stretch muscles, all without moving their feet. We found out that the MIGs were flying to a target area across the plains. The Russians used live bombs (we could sometimes see flames amid the smoke) because it seemed wasteful to build dummy ones when they had so many of the real thing stockpiled.

One scene I will carry with me forever was Proslav, sitting on the modern ground surface about eight feet above us with a portable desk on his lap, watching the excavation as if he were a commissar. Periodically, he would walk down to the work level, stopping at work areas, inspecting and issuing orders. Misha or Zhenya, two of the junior scientists, would follow him to translate.

The only instructions I ever got were a smile and a nod of the head. Looks good, keep digging. Or one day, Clean it up so we can see it, an archaeological order understandable in any language and usually, as in this case, followed by the order to keep digging. I could not help but like Proslav, even if he had me excavating outside the pit structure in nearly sterile ground for two weeks.

On the last day of our stay, when the temperature had been 105 degrees F for two days, we had a banquet, complete with toasts and speeches. We followed this formal celebration with one that was more congenial, around a campfire with an enormous amount of liquor.

Slightly drunk and somewhat sad, Sasha, a graduate student working for Volkov, told me that he had been prepared not to like us, but had failed miserably at it. It was not his adherence to communism — he readily admitted to not being a communist — but his awareness that American culture was rapidly infiltrating Russian society. The America of Big Macs, Snickers, Coca Cola, and pornographic magazines. American music and blue jeans. But, he had decided, these must be the worst of America, and we were perhaps not the worst.

Ándrea Messer is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and a science writer in Penn State's office of public information, 201 Rider House, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9481. Crow Canyon Archeological Center was established in 1985 as a non-profit research and educational institution to explore Southwestern U.S. pueblo cultures and to educate the public about archeology and cultural resources. Their Kostenki expedition was led by Bruce A. Bradley.

Last Updated March 01, 1996