When I was browsing through the literature, I came across the remains of a bag that seemed so unusual that I decided to describe it in a separate article. My hope is that it will gain more popularity among the reenactors and will help to better understand the topic of Eastern European organic material culture.
Circumstances of the find and its content
In the years 1997-1999, The Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Інститут археології НАНУ) led an excavation of the premises of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kiev, which discovered the burial site from 10th-11th century. At this point, we will only be interested in the tomb designated as 49 or A14 (Ivakin 2011: 34-35). It was a grave of a young woman aged 16-18, whose skeleton was partially preserved. The grave chamber had dimensions of 4 × 3.45 × 0.9 m, was reinforced with wooden planks inside and was oriented to the west. During the construction of the monastery in the 12th century, the grave was partially damaged.
The grave’s inventory consisted of more than 70 metal artifacts (gold, silver, bronze and iron), glass, wood and fabric remnants. On the skull, there were preserved remains of the headband with silver embroidery (width 1.5 cm). Right of it, there was a silver plate in the shape of a diamond. A necklace with 26 pieces of jewelry was stretched around the neck of the deceased, containing 19 glass beads, a gold wire ring and three silver pendants (diameter 2.4 cm) decorated with granulation in the middle. Closer to the edges of the necklace, there were two more silver and gilded pendants – former belt fittings with soldered eyelets, that were decorated with floral ornaments from the rear side. On the deceased’s chest, there were four pieces of silver jewelry linked by a chain, dominated by a round granular brooch of the Terslev type (3.9 cm diameter). A remains of decayed object, most likely a bag with two silver crosses, which will be examined separately, laid by the left elbow at waist heigh. Next to it, there was a knife with a handle wrapped in silver wire. Right of the deceased (at a distance of 0.7 m), a wooden box with fragments of iron fittings and 27 glass decorative plates was placed. The box contained scissors, tweezers, a copper alloy buckle, a copper alloy bowl, and glass beads. In the foundations of the monastery fence, two other beads were found, which probably also came from the grave (Ivakin – Kozubovskij 1999: 5-6; Ivakin – Kozjuva 2003a: 40; Ivakin – Kozjuva 2003b: 96–99; Ivakin 2005: 288-289; Ivakin 2011: 34-35).
The Old Russian crosses from graves are found almost exclusively in the elite women’s graves from the mid-10th century. Androshchuk interprets this fact as the buried women belonged to the retinue of Princess Olga, alongside whom they attended important negotiations with the Byzantine elites (Androshchuk 2013: 169-186). These negotiations, including their participants, are documented, as is the fact that crosses were given during masses, and it is not impossible that the crosses found in the graves come from Byzantium.
The object that laid at the left elbow in the waist area is generally described as a bag (Androshchuk 2011: 81; Androschchuk – Zocenko 2012: 92; Androshchuk 2013: 182), less often as a wooden bowl (Ivakin 2011: 34-35) or reliquary (personal interview with Vera Viktorovna Pavlova). Upon closer examination of the organic parts, and especially when comparing with wooden vessels with a similar type of decoration (see Vlasatý 2020a), we agree with Vsevolod Ivakin, the son of the archaeologist leading the expedition Hlib Ivakin, who interprets the remains as a bag (personal interview with Vsevolod Ivakin). In our opinion, the theory which considers fragments as remains of a book cannot be supported by any analogous example. In addition, the position in the wait area may indicate hanging on the belt. Therefore, we will treat the object as a bag in the following part of the work.
The silver fittings found in connection with the bag indicate the likely shape and construction. Let us now describe them in sequence:
- cross-shaped fitting
The bag included a silver fitting in the shape of a cross, corresponding to Staecker type 1.2.2 (Androshchuk – Zocenko 2012: 92; Staecker 1999: 91-96). The cross is decorated with punched decoration. The size of the fittings is 3 × 3 × 0.05 cm, while the arms are 0.7-1.2 cm wide. This fitting is with legs on the underside which have been fixed to the leather, the fragments of which are still preserved (as can be seen in Androshchuk – Zocenko 2012: 92). It can be assumed that the position of this fitting on the bag was central and that the fitting was not part of the fastening mechanism. A suitable place for such a fitting could be the center of the lid. One more cross was found in the bag, which is provided with an eye, and apparently was inside the bag.
- arrow-shaped fitting
Another piece of decoration is silver metal fitting in the shape of an arrow or a strap-end. The dimensions are approximately 2 × 0.9-1.2 cm, which is very similar to the cross arm. The fitting was fixed to the surface with five nails. In the middle of this fitting, there is a rectangular hole approximately 1 × 0.2 cm. It can be assumed that the position of the fittings was in the central line of the face side, at the same level as the cross-shaped fitting and the central arrow-shaped clamp, with which it formed an aesthetic and functional set. The arrow-shaped fitting and the central arrow-shaped clamp almost certainly formed the fastening system; in our opinion, this fitting was placed on the bottom of the bag just below the lid, which partially overlapped it. The main purpose of this fitting is to reinforce the stressed part of the bag.
The arrow-shaped fitting.
Source: Androshchuk 2011: Fig. 7.
- central arrow-shaped clamp
The third silver fitting is the largest arrow-shaped clamp, measuring approximately 1 × 0.9-1.2 cm, a width similar to the previous two fittings. Inside the fitting, there were organic fragments, especially leather, which was secured by five nails. The fragment of the preserved leather is straight, without curvature. It can be assumed that this fitting was a central ornament on the edge of the bag lid, and was in the same line as the cross-shaped fitting and arrow-shaped fitting. It is very likely that this fitting was involved in the fastening system. After closing the bag lid, the central clamp apparently partially covered the arrow-shaped fitting.
Central arrow-shaped clamp.
Source: Androshchuk 2011: Fig. 7.
- small arrow-shaped clamps
In the bag area, 19 silver fragments of small clamps were discovered, which could represent roughly 14 complete clamps. These clamps with irregular dimensions of about 0.7-1 × 0.7-1 cm enclose organic material, leather and textile, apparently coming from the bag lid. They probably accompanied the central arrow-shaped clamp. A fragment of the preserved leather found in clamps is straight, without curvature. One of the leather fragments kept two clamps close to each other, indicating that the clamps were not very spaced.
Essential information from chemical analysis of organic residues is that the leather was dyed and that the bag contained silk. The leather described as blue or dark, while silk is Byzantine samite (Ivakin – Kozjuva 2003a: 42; Ivakin 2007: 189; Androshchuk 2011: 81). Dyed leather from the early Middle Ages is a rare phenomenon. It is caused not only by small number of analyzed leather, as dyed leather is absent in carefully studied collections (eg Cameron 2000: 6; Mould et al. 2003: 3220). The only discovery of dyed leather from Early Medieval Europe except the Caucasus are the red-dyed covers of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels – St Cuthbert Gospel and Codex Bonifatianus I (Cameron 2000: 6). Manuals for dyeing leather appear either in the fading ancient tradition, which was well-known and continued to be copied in the Early Middle Ages, or in manuscripts since the 12th century. In connection with our bag, the most important source is Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, which mentions the coloring red and black. The black was achieved with atramentum (atramentum sutorium). For the sake of completeness, we can add that Mappae clavicula provides various manuals for dyeing the leather purple, red and shades of green, while Stockholm papyrus provides a method of staining the leather to stabilize the color. The Norman manuscript British Library MS Cotton Titus D.XXIV from the late 12th century mentions dyeing red (Hunt 1995). Veterans in the field of historical reconstruction mention the coloring the leather dark using walnut hulls, vinegar and iron, which is simple and safe, compared to the period procedures.
Silk has been found in connection with the clamps and is therefore likely to be a decoration of the lid and not the content of the bag. The silk used in bag construction can be regarded as an exceptional feature. The closest analogy is the silk bag from Moshchevaya Balka that has the the front decorated with sewn leather applications (Orfinskaya 2001: Рис. 2.21). Another possible analogy is the wallet from Gokstad (Vlasatý 2020b). The assumption that Old Hungarian and Old Russian tarsoly bags applied silk was not possible to prove, but a combination of silk and leather could be found in period shoes, belts, saddles and caftans (personal discussion with János Mesteller). A shoe also found in Moshchevaya Balka has red-dyed leather and a silk hem (Jerusalimskaya 2012: Il. 137). If we expanded the search outside Europe, we can mention the bag stored in the Chinese National Silk Museum, which is dated to 10th-12th century. The rear side of the lid is lined with silk, that is attached with a silk hem (China National Silk Museum 2017). Bags made completely of silk were used in a wide area from China to the Caucasus and rare find are also known from Europe (personal discussions with János Mesteller). In general, two possible options are acceptable, namely that the lid has been covered with silk from the top, or silk has been sewn on the underside of the lid. It is possible that the silk preserved inside the clamps comes from a narrow strip forming the hem.
If we put together the information we have mentioned so far, the following two schematic variants arise. They take into account the way of attaching the individual components, the shape of the lid given by the leather fragments, the number of components and the used materials.
Suggested drawn reconstruction of the bag from the grave no. 49 / A14 of Kiev.
Made by Tomáš Cajthaml.
In the mentioned variants, we do not propose a fastening system that is questionable. Due to the absence of a buckle in the bag area (the buckle was found in the box on the opposite side of the grave), it is evident that the bag was not fastened in this way. In addition, the type of bag that uses the buckle is characterized only by riveted fittings without clamps, as can be for example seen in the tarsola found in the grave of A12 from the same burial ground (Ivakin 2011: Рис. 29; Makarov 2012: 323, Рис. 18). Significantly higher similarity can be found in two bag remains from the chamber grave 2 of Pskov. This grave, which is an excellent analogy to the grave no. 49 / A14 from Kyiv, contains fragments of two bags, one consisting of seven clamps, the other consisting of two clamps and one central fitting (Yakovleva 2015: 70, Cat. 23, 26). The center fitting of the latter one is remarkably similar to our arrow-shaped fitting, but since it has no pair fitting, its position on the bag is harder to determine. However, it is highly likely that it participated in the fastening system and that it strengthened the stressed part of the bag. Another example of the bag that had central fittings and apparently had no buckle is the bag from Islandbridge, Ireland (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 178-180). The finds from Kiev, Pskov and Islandbridge are characterized by fittings with central holes, but the Kiev piece is unique in its vertical position, making it impossible to find parallels.
We will propose four theoretical ways to solve the fastening, and we would like to ask the reenactors if they could try and share their experiences. We will gladly share any attempt.
- variant: from the rear side of the lid, from the space of the central arrow-shaped clamp, a narrow strip of leather ran out, passing through a slider made of very thin leather that came out through the arrow-shaped fitting.
- variant: two ends of the strap protrude from the inside of the bag through the arrow-shaped fitting, one being pushed through an opening in the central arrow-shaped clamp and tied to the other end, which until then remains free.
- variant: a strap protrudes from the inside of the bag through the arrow-shaped fitting, which is pushed through an opening in the arrow-shaped central clamp and a knot is formed thereon.
- variant: in the unfilled space in the central arrow-shaped clamp, there is a strap that extends out on both sides, passes through the leather slider in the arrow-shaped fitting and is then knotted.
Tarsoly bag from the grave no. A12, Kyiv.
Ivakin 2011: Рис. 29; Makarov 2012: 323, Рис. 18
Two clamps and central fitting from Pskov and their interpretation.
Yakovleva 2015: 70, Cat. 26; interpretation created by Tomáš Cajthaml.
Acknowledgments and conclusion
The Kiev bag is an extremely valuable artifact that not only expands the mosaic of purses, bags, satchels and wallets known from the Viking Age, but suggests previously unknown methods of leather decoration and combining leather with silk, a practice that has only been speculated in European context. In terms of costly decorating, it ranks among the top finds. Another positive aspect of the find is that t comes from a well-documented grave. This find has a great potential to influence the reenactor community, but also to understand the Christianization processes taking place in Kievan Rus.
Finally, I would like to thank Roman Král from the workshop King’s Craft, who, despite my endless questions, intensively consulted the find. My thanks also deserve Vsevolod Ivakin and Oleksii Malev that provided me with the important literature. In the last, most honest place, I would like to pay tribute to Tomáš Cajthaml, who quickly and unselfishly created great graphics, thanks to which this artifact can be appreciated by people from all over the world.
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