Maritime Archaeology in northwest Russia

by Petr Sorokin

The first underwater archaeological works in Russia started in the beginning of our century. In this time an ancient harbour was investigated at Feodosia, at the Black Sea, as well as a post-medieval boat in the northern part of Chudskoe Lake. But those were only the first experiences from land archaeologists in a water environment.

The beginning of maritime archaeology as a special part of archaeological science, is connected with works by Orbelly and Blavatsky in the 1930s - 50s. The first underwater archaeological activities were concentrated on investigations of ancient monuments in the Black Sea. During the following time, several maritime archaeological groups existed in different parts of Russia, including St Petersburg.

Presently, underwater search in St Petersburg is realised by different organisations, associations and clubs. This is coordinated by the Institute of the History of Material Culture and the Institute of Archaeology. Both institutes belong to the Russian Academy of Science, and give special permission for underwater investigations and keep scientific supervision of these works.

The main problems for maritime archaeology in Russia are:

  • The imperfect protection laws for underwater archaeological objects.
  • Insufficient financing for permanent maritime archaeological work, including full complex investigation and conservation, which is necessary to realise big projects.
  • Absence of permanent special maritime archaeological education at the universities.

There is enough wide field for underwater archaeological research in northwest Russia, including intensive economical and cultural processes in the Baltic region since viking age. Here important waterways were passed, connecting East and West. In the medieval period there was Novgorodian-Hanseatic trade. In modern time, after the founding of St Petersburg, this region became a main centre of Russian maritime trade and navy. As a result, we have a lot of shipwrecks in these waters.

During the last years, underwater investigations were made in different parts of the region: In the Ladoga Lake (harbour of Valam Islands), historical places along Neva River (Ust-Isora), Volchov (Staraya Ladoga), and in the Finnish Gulf (Kronstadt and the Narva harbour).

Presently, great works are made in the Viborg gulf, at the site of the 1790 battle between the Russian and Swedish navy. Several of the sunken ships have been found. In the History museum of Viborg, the first exhibition from this project was made in cooperation with our institute. Conservation of objects is now being organised at the Viborg Museum. For the near future, we have plans to arrange an international conference in Viborg about the maritime archaeological research in this area.

Swedish ship-of-line Enigheten, sunk in 1790, found in 1996

Two fundamental research projects are materialising in our institute:

  1. Collecting a catalogue of information on underwater archaeological objects in northwestern Russia. The project includes: archive studies, geophysical and diving search, and underwater archaeological investigations. We now have information of about 200 maritime archaeological objects.
  2. Prehistoric-medieval boatbuilding tradition and navigation in Russia. The project includes: archaeological investigation, written, iconographical and ethnographical sources, experimental archaeology investigation of the communications on the old waterways.

So far, our institute has published two volumes of "Studies in maritime archaeology", which include articles by Russian and foreign scientists. This almanac is open for publications in Russian and English. We are ready to cooperate in different fields of scientific work. It may be cooperation in publications, organising expeditions and realising projects.

Petr Sorokin, Ph.D., 1996
Institute of the History of Material Culture,
Dvortsovaja nab 18, 191065 St Petersburg, Russia.
tel: +7-812-462 6069,  fax: +7-812-311 6271

Related texts

updated 1998

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