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Mails from Chernihiv, Ukraine

In the 1870s, two important mounds of the 10th century were opened in Chernihiv, which, in terms of size and richness of equipment, belong to the very top and are difficult to find any analogies in the area of Old Rus. We are talking about the famous mounds Black Mound and Gulbišče. In addition to the three helmets, three damaged mails were found in these mounds, which we would like to report on below. At present, they are not well published, so the information provided represents the most complete info published so far.

Comparison of the Black Mound and Gulbišče mounds. Source: Rybakov 1949: 18.

Chernihiv’s position on the map of Europe.

Mails from the Black Mound

The Black Mound, one of the richest mounds of Early Middle Ages, was archaeologically examined by D. Samokvasov in 1872-3. The mound had a diameter of about 40 m and a height of 11 m. The cremation grave hid the bodies of two men who had to come from the ruling dynasty. The bones preserved so far belong to at least one adult male aged 18-35. Two helmets, two mails, T type and Wallingford type swords, two sabers, two ornate drinking horns, ornate scepters, two spearheads, stirrups, ornate arrows, remnants of clothing, two gold coins dated 869–879 and 945-959 and a number of other, smaller objects were discovered while digging this monumental mound (Kirpičnikov 1966a-bKirpičnikov 1971Puškina 1996: 77-79; Rybakov 1949: 34-5; Samokvasov 1916: 4-36). In recent years, the equipment of the mound has received a number of professional publications (Kainov 2019Kainov et al. 2021Kovalenko et al. 2020Loboda et al. 2018Murasheva et al. 2021Muraševa – Orfinskaja – Loboda 2019Orfinskaja – Zozulja 2020Šišlina et al. 2017Zozulja – Kleščenko 2019), which caught up with the neglected state of research. Despite the well-established view that the mound is dated to the 960s (Kirpičnikov 1971Puškina 1996Rybakov 1949), the latest work rightly dates the mound back to 980-1025 (Kainov 2019Lušin 2019Šišlina et al. 2017Vasjuta 2016).

Drawing of armour from the Black Mound at the time of discovery.
Source: Samokvasov 1916: 7.

The large volume of the mail fragments suggests that there were more than one armour. Kirpičnikov believed that there were three armours (Kirpičnikov 1971: No 17), but the original documentation speaks of two armours (Samokvasov 1916; Rybakov 1949: 34). Two armours are also likely due to the duplication of all major military objects from the mound. Samokvasov’s drawing (Samokvasov 1916: 7) shows that the armours were so large that they had to cover the entire torso. To date, only larger or smaller folded, corroded and baked fragments have been preserved, which in the original documentation bear the designations № 3257, 3261-2, 3264-7. The fragments do not show any element from which the cut of the original armour would be legible. It is obvious that the linking style is the classic “four in one”, however, the combination of riveted and solid rings cannot be proved from the available photographs.

The condition of the Black Mound mail at the time of the discovery.
Source: Samokvasov 1916: 9.

The outer diameter of the rings is approximately 0.8 cm (personal discussion with Sergei Kainov). The size of the aventail rings of the helmet, which was originally placed on one of the armours, is similar despite very poor preservation and reaches approximately 0.8-0.9 cm. This means that aventail fragments can be easily mixed between the fragments of armours without being able to distinguish them from each other. An interesting aspect of the mail is the presence of a copper alloy edge, which according to Samokvasov’s documentation is evident on the fragment № 3265 (Kirpičnikov 1971: No 17; Samokvasov 1916: 10).

From 1892, the almost complete military complex of the Black Mound has been located in the State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей) in Moscow. Inv. nos. of ring parts: ГИМ 76990, Оп. В 1539/48-52, 136-137.

Photograph of part of the armour from the Black Mound. Archive of Sergei Kainov.

Detail of the aventail from the Black Mound. Archive of Sergei Kainov.

The mail from Gulbišče

The Gulbišče mound was opened during excavations by D. Samokvasov in 1872. The mound, which was about 8.5 m high and 22-30 m in diameter, was a cremation grave of a man, a woman and a horse. The inventory consisted of a mail, a helmet, an extra long Petersen type T sword with Androščuk type 3 chape, a spear, a hammer-axe, a bow, a Kirpičnikov type Ib bit, stirrups, halter fittings, a bucket, a flintlock, a whetstone, belt fittings, buttons and clothing fastening, beaded necklace and a dirhem from the end of the 9th century (Kainov 2012a; Puškina 1996: 79-80). Androščuk says that the mound cannot be dated before 950 (Androshchuk 2014: 121). The sword and the chape clearly point to the second half of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2016: 169; Kainov 2012b: 39). Due to the ungilded form of the helmet (gilded helmets are dated to the 4th quarter of the 10th century at the earliest), the chape type and the general similarity with the large mounds of Gnězdovo, the most probable dating is 3rd quarter of the 10th century (Kainov 2022). Komar dated the belt fittings to 950s or 960s (Komar 2018: 210).

The folded mail, which is marked № 3124 and 3129 in Samokvasov’s original documentation, was found under a helmet and sword. It is severely damaged by cremation, which sintered it into a uniform and difficult-to-recognize mass, to the surface of which pieces of coal and iron objects were attached. Therefore, the weight of the armour cannot be defined. The armor seems to be folded in both directions. The preserved mass does not allow any reconstruction of the shape or cut. Speaking about the size, it is not one of the largest specimens 10th-11th century, so it can be very roughly estimated that the size was limited to the torso and arms. We can add that the size of the helmet (circumference 71 cm), huge stirrups and the sword (length 126 cm) are indications that the owner may have had an above-average physical constitution, which could also be reflected in the size of the armour.

The structure of the armour and the size of the rings are observable only in the folds. It is obvious that the linking style is the classic “four in one”, but it cannot be clearly confirmed from the photos that it is a combination of riveted and solid rings. As curator Sergei Kainov told us in a personal discussion, the outer diameter of the rings is 0.8-1 cm, which is unpublished information. One large mail fragment has an outer diameter of 1.2-1.3 cm and is apparently an identical piece, which Kirpičnikov declared to have an outer diameter of 1.4 cm and a wire thickness of 0.2 cm (Kirpičnikov 1971: No 16). Sergei Kainov believes that this fragment was originally a possible helmet aventail. None of the examined rings are made of copper alloy.

At present, mail mass is stored in the State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей) in Moscow. Inv. No. ГИМ 76990, Оп. В 1540/52-53.

The current form of the mass exhibited with a helmet in the State Historical Museum in Moscow.

A current view of the baked mail, including the presumed part of the aventail.
Source: Kainov 2022.

Charred mail pieces. Source:

The author would like to thank Sergei Kainov, curator of the State Historical Museum in Moscow, for providing unpublished information.

Here we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


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