In Ukraine’s history-rich east, the war with Russia is hastening both historical discoveries and the destruction of treasures

Charlotte Higgins

26 Dec 2023

The Guardian


One day in August, Oleksandr Koslov, of the 79th Air Assault Brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces, was digging a trench in the forest near the Siverskyi Donets river in eastern Ukraine.

It was hot and humid. There were mosquitoes everywhere. From the opposite bank of the river “the Russians were shelling constantly”.

He and his four-strong group were taking a break from this backbreaking, dangerous work when one of them mentioned that he had seen fragments of ceramics in the soil. Koslov took a look; maybe they were modern potsherds washed up by river flooding, he thought.

But then more objects began turning up. Flint tools. Animal bones. Ceramics. A neatly made arrowhead.

The 32-year-old history graduate, who worked as a retail manager before volunteering for the Ukrainian military, realised they’d struck something really old – bronze age, maybe even Neolithic. Pausing to study what they had stumbled over wasn’t really an option, though.

“Under the conditions,” he said with some understatement, “you need to dig the trenches as fast as possible.”

Nevertheless, the group gathered up what artefacts they could. Later, Koslov made an improvised “museum” from an ammunition box, labelling the objects to show his senior officers. He also called Dr Serhii Telizhenko at Ukraine’s Institute of Archaeology.

According to Telizhenko’s assessment, Koslov and his fellow soldiers had stumbled on an ancient burial site dating back perhaps 5,000 years to the stone age, but also encompassing material from the Eneolithic or copper age, and the “catacomb culture” of the middle bronze age that flourished in the steppe in the third to second century BCE.

Ukraine is a country spectacularly rich in ancient archaeology, whether of the Scythians, with their horses and finely worked gold, who ranged across the steppes, or of the intriguing stone age Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, which produced remarkable, elaborately decorated ceramics and huge, city-scale “megasites”, or of the Greeks, who established trading emporiums on the Black Sea coast.

But in a country with already limited resources for cultural protection, Russia’s full-scale invasion has meant an onslaught of destruction to this rich record of the past.

The full extent of the damage is impossible accurately to assess. Research published this month in the journal Antiquity points to the difficulty of on-the-ground assessment even in liberated areas such as Chernihiv oblast in the north and Kharkiv in the east because of the danger of landmines and unexploded munitions.

Meanwhile, museum collections from occupied cities such as Melitopol, Kherson and Mariupol have been lifted and taken wholesale to Russia and Crimea. Cultural heritage of all kinds, including churches and other monuments, has been targeted, with destruction “at a rate not seen since 1945”, according to the authors. Trench-digging is “destroying buried cultural heritage at an alarming rate”, they add. The authors regard archaeological sites with particular concern, as “more problematic and less understood” than other forms of cultural heritage.

Telizhenko is an expert on the extraordinary archaeological landscape of eastern Ukraine, especially the Luhansk region, whose grasslands are dotted with distinctive “kurgans” or ancient burial mounds that stand proud above the flat steppe landscape.

Archaeologists and linguistics experts have associated this prehistory with the speakers of the posited lost language of Proto-Indo-European, from which languages spoken in countries from India to Scandinavia and Britain derive.

Telizhenko’s own fieldwork in Luhansk oblast was disrupted by the Russian-backed separatist takeover of parts of the region in 2014 and has been completely halted by Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Instead of excavating, he is now using open-source satellite imagery to chart the destruction and damage of burial mounds through shelling and other military activity. Since 2014, he said, speaking from his office in Kyiv, 1,863 kurgans have been affected. Especially before the widespread use of drones, the mounds were useful command points for the military of both sides, he said. The damage, he said, “is a huge loss, not just to archaeology locally; this has global significance”.

Set against the destruction, though, there are many discoveries like Koslov’s. Telizhenko, keen to impart best practice to Ukrainian troops, is the author of a military handbook titled Archaeology and Monuments in War, offering instructions on what to do if soldiers discover an archaeological site. Published in 2019, the handbook has been distributed to officers in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The guide begins with a reminder of the Hague convention, the 1954 multinational treaty dedicated to the protection of cultural property during conflict. Ideally, the handbook counsels, the military should completely avoid disturbing archaeological sites.

However, “If the process of destruction is already irreversible, and in the absence of a threat to the life and health” of military personnel, there are procedures to be followed.

The handbook advises soldiers on how to photograph the site from multiple angles, using a smartphone compass app to establish orientation and placing a stick to indicate north. Precise coordinates should be taken using GPS. Objects should also be photographed, then packaged

“rubbish bags or supermarket bags are best” – and conveyed to the nearest safe museum or to the National Institute of Archaeology.

Last year, a group of Chechen volunteers fighting in the Sheik Mansur battalion on the Ukrainian side sent Telizhenko “a group of medieval Khazar dishes and bronze age fragments of vessels”. They found them by chance, he said, in the village of Lopaskine in the Luhansk region. The Turkic Khazar people were the founders of an early medieval empire north and east of the Black Sea.

The Chechens carefully photographed the objects against the background of an ammunition box. Lacking a ruler, usually included for scale in archaeological pictures, they used the other standard-size items they had to hand: a bullet and a toothbrush.

“I haven’t heard from those fighters since February,” said Telizhenko. “It’s possible they haven’t made it.”

Despite such examples of best practice, though, theft of cultural heritage is rife.

When the Khakova dam in the Kherson region was blown up in June, for example, causing catastrophic flooding, the vast, 832 sq mile reservoir above it drained out, revealing a treasure trove of archaeological objects in the silt.

“There is an open discussion with the national police forces trying to do something about it, but YouTube is full of videos of people looting, despite the dangers,” said Telizhenko. Items illegally taken from the area, despite the dangers of shelling and mines, he said, included stone and bronze age objects, Roman potsherds, and medieval and Cossack artefacts.

Such opportunists on both sides in the conflict, military and civilian, are often known as “black archaeologists”. It is a phrase that Telizhenko rejects: “What would you then call me?” he said “A white archaeologist? A gold archaeologist? These people are simply looters.”