The emergence of big commercial-handicraft and cultural centres in certain places had always preceded state formation. Cities were becoming the focus of state power, its economic and ideological support. Icelandic sagas described «Gardarika» Rus as the «land of cities». The level of urban life was an indicator of general national development.
The room is devoted to Old Russian towns of 11th – first half of 13th centuries – their heyday. Copies of frescoes from the Church of Saviour on Nereditsa built in this town in 1199 A.D. were used in the design of the room originally called «Novgorodsky». The value of those copies rose greatly after the church itself was destroyed in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. A map of Novgorod copied from an icon of the 17th century was placed over the entrance while «The Battle of Suzdal Dwellers against Novgorod People», painted after «Mother of God of the Sign» icon of the 17th century, was painted over the exit.
The room exposition demonstrates a wide geography of the Old Russian town along with different town types.
Cases 1-2 are dedicated to the capital city of Kiev. The map between cases illustrates a rapid proliferation of cities in Old Russia. Colour signs show a different status of cities – a capital of the state, capitals of principalities, princely castles, and frontier forts. The screen under the map demonstrates three-dimensional reconstructions of famous architectural monuments in old Kiev.
The jewellery hoard of Kiev goldsmiths and their tools as well as a fragment of a bronze church-chandelier found at the fence of the St. Sophia’s Cathedral are of special interest.
A large section of the exposition (cases 3-7) is dedicated to «Lord Novgorod the Great». Unique archaeological sites enabled a deep investigation into many important aspects of life in this Old Russian city. Case 3 shows a motley ethnic makeup of the local population in antiquity. This fact is corroborated by numerous finds of Slavonic, Finnish and Baltic women’s decorative objects. The cultural stratum of Novgorod is also unique – moisturised soil made for preservation of organic materials: leather, cloth, vegetable fiber, wood, birch bark. The Novgorod collection is huge and diverse. One may see the very first birch-bark deed in case 3 found in the land of Novgorod in 1951. It goes back to the 14th century and contains a report written by the manager of a large boyar patrimony on quitrent collection. By now about 1,000 birch-bark scrolls highlighting the history of the city from the 11th century have been found. The most popular urban crafts mainly studied on Novgorod materials were woodworking, leather dressing and weaving (cases 4-5). Particularly astounding is the amazing diversity and perfection of tools. For example, carpenter tools did not undergo any significant changes in the following centuries either in number or construction.
Between the cases is a model of the gates of the Novgorod St. Sophia’s Cathedral, specially manufactured for the Historical Museum in the 19th century. The gates created in the German city of Magdeburg in the 12th century were decorated with cast bronze plates with raised Old and New Testament scenes. Later the gates landed in Novgorod where it was reinstalled in the 14th century. In the lower tier of the left leaf one can see the figures of craftsmen with smith tools in their hands. Two figures on both sides portray German craftsmen of the 12th century who cast the gates. The central figure with the hair cut in a round fashion is the self-portrait of a Novgorod craftsman Abraham, who managed to mend the gates having restored some of the lost panels.
In case 6 there are dendrochronology objects. This is a method of exact dating of archaeological sites by yearly rings of the trees used in urban construction. The log sections of structures and diagrams explaining the application of this method are demonstrated. Quite interesting is a photograph of the section of the Nerevsky dugout pavement. 29 tiers of perfectly preserved wooden floorings – this is how the archaeological «record» of the old city looks.
The objects exhibited in case 7 help imagine the everyday life of the Old Russian town. Numerous items reveal a certain level of comfort, which Novgorod residents were able to provide. They built comfortable wooden houses with big «jamb» windows (openings in the wall reinforced with two side jamb-bars), used mica for «glazing» windows. The city was equipped with a drainage system and precipitation tanks while broad streets were paved with wooden blocks.
Placed in the same case is miscellaneous crockery found in Novgorod. Quite remarkable is the fact that even the smallest household item is decorated with carving and made skillfully, with great taste.
Displayed in cases 8-9 are the antiquities of Smolensk, the biggest regional centre in 11th – 13th centuries. Fragments of the slip floor and a bracing element of the fresco in Peter and Paul Church are assigned a special place in the exposition.
The estate development was the core of the old-Russian cities’ layout, which is well illustrated by Smolensk. The estate complex included housing, utility and production facilities. It was an isolated and confined world where its inhabitants spent their whole lifetime from birth to death. Exhibited in the case is a set of household objects and knick-knackery originating from the territory of one estate.
Here also one of the main kinds of urban production is shown – metalworking. You may see a clay nozzle of the furnace for annealing a billet, blooms and metallurgical slag, miscellaneous products of city smiths – from metal tools to costume parts.
Smolensk antiquities also represent such urban trade as glassmaking. Russian craftsmen put in order the mass production of glass bracelets. Metal o11thdes were added to the glass mass in order to stain the glass, making it blue, azure, brown, yellow, green or red. Bracelets were in great demand with townswomen. Multicoloured bangles went very well with cornelian and glass beads and enamel adornments.
Displayed in cases 9-11 are finds from Vshchizh. The story of this place is typical of that time. Having been built as a princely castle, one of the residences owned by Chernigov princes gradually turns into a capital of the independent principality, an administrative division of the Chernigov land. Case 11 demonstrates a cauldron and a dipper, presumably from the prince’s cookhouse while case 10 exhibits refined earthenware crockery. In the same place you may see a potter’s furnace reconstructed on the basis of archaeological excavations.
Case 11 presents Serensk – a frontier fort that defended the borders of the Chernigov principality. Quartered in Serensk were numerous prince’s bodyguards and armourers who attended to warriors. Serensk antiquities exemplify and give an idea of the arms-making business in Old Russia.
Among the authentic armour you may see a helmet, an iron mask protecting the warrior’s face during the battle, an ice-cutting calk – this kind of calks were fixed on horseshoes in wintertime. Close by are fragments of arms: a sword top, a bludgeon. The prince’s retinue formed the core of the Russian army. Unlike the dismounted forces, it had always been mounted cavalry, abiding by the prince and forming a city garrison. It was this retinue that would deal a decisive blow on the enemy.
Lyubech was also a princely residence-castle of great Kievan princes (case 12). In 1097 a congress of all Russian princes was held in this particular castle that started political partition of Rus. Richest objects and hoards revealing the everyday life of the princely milieu were found in Lyubech: a jewellery hoard, richest slip crockery, wild boar’s fangs reminding of princely hunting. Generous feasts, victorious battles, successful chasing after the wild boar or aurochs – all of those was an integral part of princely everyday life.
Case 14 highlights the subject of urban culture in Old Russia. The birch-bark sheets of a boy named Onfim who lived in the early 13th century are given a special place. Judging by the nature of drawings, he was between 5 and 7 and learned reading and writing. He learned how to write letters on one scrap while he depicted a horned monster on another and wrote: «This is a beast». One more letter of the 13th century contained a proposal to a woman; hence literacy was not spread among the male urban population alone. The study of birch-bark scrolls reveals a high literacy level among all strata of urban population.
Case 15 where ancient import and export items are presented is dedicated to economic and commercial ties of Rus. Glassware and box-tree combs, very popular in Rus, remind of constant trade contacts with Byzantium; walnut shell is found almost in every Russian town. A bronze plate with a Latin inscription, a bronze candlestick and amber articles were brought from Western Europe.
Boisterous traffic was going on inside Rus as well. Slate «pryaslitsa» (spindle devices) made in the town of Ovruch were spreading all over the country; in the south they would readily buy carved walrus bone brought from Novgorod while Kiev glass was transported to Novgorod. Frequent finds of monetaries exhibited in case 16 are an evidence of traffic intensity. Western silver denarii and eastern dirhams are more often found in the loards of the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 12th and 13th centuries, a non-monetary period began, when silver grivna bullions functioned as money. You may see a hoard comprising 53 grivnas from Kiev.
There is no mention of grivnas, rezanas, belas, mordkas or other monetary units prevalent in those times (see case 16) in the text of birch-bark deeds of the 11th -13th centuries. Close by is a set of money substitutes, most common items used for settling accounts in minor deals. Among them are slate «pryaslitsa» and glass bangles. It is known that Novgorod residents used glass beads to settle accounts with the dwellers of the Perm land that would bring them fir-skins in return.
You may see a reconstruction of stringed musical instruments whose fragments were discovered in Novgorod. These are «gusli» (psaltery) and a horn widespread in the then Europe. The importance of «gusli» in the culture of ancient Novgorod is evidenced from the fact that «gusli» was endowed with magical power capable of taming natural elements -it is enough to remember Sadko, hero of a’ Novgorod epic. Chess pieces and draughts are found almost in every home. Therefore the studies revealed a high level of typical European culture in the Old Russian town.