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Mails from Gnězdovo, Russia

In the following overview article, we present two Old Rus mails from Gnězdovo, which are generally unknown. Both armours come from extraordinarily large mounds Дн-86/Серг-1901 and Оль-24/Абр-1905, which are among the ten largest mounds in the entire agglomeration. Both mounds date back to the 3rd quarter of the 10th century and show a Scandinavian material culture. In the past, both mails were included in Kirpičnikov’s work (Kirpičnikov 1971), but Kainov’s articles of recent years have somewhat refined our understanding and brought colour photographs (Kainov 2019: 198; Kainov – Ščedrina 2021). Despite the current better state of knowledge, both armours are still waiting for expert analyzes that would allow conclusions to be drawn about the original materials and cuts.

Position of Gnězdovo on the map of Europe.

The mail from the mound Дн-86/Серг-1901

The mound marked as Дн-86/Серг-1901, in the past also as no. 18, belongs to the so-called Dnieper mound group and was opened by S. Sergejev in 1901. It had a diameter of 26 m and a height of 6 m. The mound was a double cremation and hid a mail, on which a helmet with an aventail was placed. A Petersen V type sword and a long knife with a decorated sheath were driven into the ground of the mound. Other finds include a spear and an arrowhead, a shield, scales, a belt buckle with other belt components, a ceramic bowl, a crampon and at least 17 rivets of a boat (Duczko 2004: 172; Kainov 2019; Puškina 1996: 52-3; Sizov 1902: 97-9).

The mail is represented by a charred, layered lump, which suggests that the armour was not large. The Goskatalog catalog states the longest dimension of the lump is 19 cm. The current weight has not been published. The lump does not allow the cut to be reconstructed. It is obvious that the linking style is a classic “four in one” and that the mail is a combination of riveted and solid circular rings. The outer diameter of the rings reaches 1.1-1.3 cm with a wire diameter close to 0.15 × 0.11 cm. The wire has an irregular, rather oval cross-section. This mail differs spontaneously from the aventail mail which is also a combination of riveted and solid rings, but the outer diameter is 0.6-0.8 cm with a wire diameter of about 0.1 cm. Contrary to earlier claims (Kirpičnikov 1971: 81, No 12), it has not been confirmed that any mail fragment from this mound is decorated with copper alloy rings (Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: 157).

All parts of the mound are now stored in the State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей) in Moscow. Inv. no. of the mail: ГИМ 42536, Оп. 1537/61.

Layout of armour in the grave.
Source: Kainov 2019: Рис. 80.2.

Appearance of armour from the grave Дн-86/Серг-1901.
Source: Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: Рис. 1.1.

Appearance of armour from the grave Дн-86/Серг-1901.

Detail of mail from the grave Дн-86/Серг-1901.
Source: Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: Рис. 1.2.

Drawn reconstruction of the warrior from the grave Дн-86/Серг-1901.
Author: Oleg Fedorov.

The mail from the mound Оль-24/Абр-1905

The mound known as Оль-24/Абр-1905 is the largest mound of the so-called Olšanskaja mound group of Gnězdovo. It was opened by I. S. Abramov in 1905. The diameter of the mound was 34-37 m, the height was 6-7 m. The fireplace of the mound was 16 × 8 m. After cremation, some bones were collected and placed in a large copper alloy cauldron along with the fish and part of a mail. The cauldron was then covered with fur. To the south of the cauldron, there were placed three ceramic vessels filled with other burnt bones. To the east of the cauldron, folded mail armour was discovered, covered with other bones. A sheep’s head and the bodies of an auroch and a bird were placed west to northwest of the cauldron. Other finds were found in the ash layer, especially the scabbard chape of Androščuk’s type 3, bridle fittings, a brooch, a knife, a whetstone, a comb, a key, 9 game pieces, beads, buttons and gold threads coming from a garment (Duczko 2004: 170; Spicyn 1906: 191-2).

The mail is made up of an immeasurable and poorly reconstructable torso, which is folded. The current weight has not been published. The linking style is the classic “four in one”. It is probably a combined mail with an outer diameter of 0.9 cm with a wire thickness of 0.1 cm (Kirpičnikov 1971: 81, No. 13). The state of preservation makes it possible to state only that the cross-section of the rings is close to a circle or an oval. The armour does not show the edges of the copper alloy, but we find a remnant of gold threads from the garment. The smaller mail fragment, which was located inside the cauldron, is now considered lost. It could be a helmet aventail, which for some reason did not survive.

Today, the armour is in the exhibition of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, under catalog number 694/118.

Appearance of armour from the grave Оль-24/Абр-1905.
Source: Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: Рис. 3.1.

Detail of mail from the grave Оль-24/Абр-1905.
Source: Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: Рис. 3.2.

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Duczko, Wladyslaw (2004). Viking Rus: Studies on the Presence of Scandinavians in Eastern Europe, Leiden-Boston.

Kainov 2019 = Каинов, Сергей Юрьевич (2019). Сложение комплекса вооружения Древней Руси X – начала XI в. (по материалам Гнёздовского некрополя и поселения). Диссертация на соискание ученой степени кандидата исторических наук Том I, Москва.

Kainov – Ščedrina 2021 = Каинов С.Ю. – Щедрина А.Ю. (2021). Кольчужный доспех и кольчужные кольца из раскопок Гнёздова // Труды Государственного исторического музея 215, Москва, 157-187.

Kirpičnikov 1971 = Кирпичников А. Н. (1971). Древнерусское оружие: Вып. 3. Доспех, комплекс боевых средств IX—XIII вв., АН СССР, Москва.

Puškina 1996 = Пушкина, Т. А. (1996). Путь из варяг в греки и из грек… Каталог выставки, Москва.

Sizov 1902 = Сизов В. И. (1902). Курганы Смоленской губернии I. Гнездовский могильник близ Смоленска. Материалы по археологии России 28, Санкт-Петербург.

Spicyn 1906 = Спицын, А. А. (1906). Отчет о раскопках, произведенных в 1905 г. И. С. Абрамовым в Смоленской губернии // ЗОРСА РАО. Т. VIII, СПб, 185-211.

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