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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unearthing Moscow's Middle Ages

While architects finalize plans for an underground shopping arcade and above ground pedestrian mall at Manezh Square, a team of archaeologists is busy sifting through the square's buried past.

They have already uncovered several kopeks from the 16th century, part of a sword handle, pottery from the 14th century and a pair of black slippers. Most of the pottery and ceramics they found was in pieces; specialists have to put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The archaeologists are searching specifically for beresta, the silver birch bark that was used as paper until the 15th century. More than 500 beryosta bearing inscriptions in archaic Russian have been discovered in Novgorod, but only one has been unearthed in Moscow. Historians believe that there is a wealth of beryosta beneath the capital.

"If a birch bark is found, it will cause a sensation", said Sergei Khoroshev, one of the archaeologists.

The excavation, which is taking place only because of the shopping mall plans, began in February. It will continue until November, when construction on the shopping center is scheduled to begin.

There are now five three-meter deep ditches in which archaeologists are probing for artifacts. Eventually there will be ten ditches. As the archaeologists go deeper, they expect to unearth more items, perhaps from as far back as the 12th century.

"There is a lot more to be discovered", Khoroshev said. "Manezh Square is a paradise for archaeologists because it is very damp. This means that organic objects like bones and wood are usually well preserved".

Over the years, Manezh Square has been built up, destroyed and transformed many times. Until the end of the 15th century, the area was residential, but Czar Ivan III, who reigned from 1462 to 1505, had the houses destroyed for defense purposes. New buildings appeared toward the end of the 17th century, but they were demolished in the 1930s, when the square took on its present form.

These days on the square, backhoes and bulldozers rip up rectangular patches of concrete, and then the archaeologists begin digging with shovels. When a ditch reaches a depth of three meters, its walls are lined with wood slats for support, and the explorers begin to dig with their hands.

One of the ditches gives a view of the foundations of the 18th century Bolshaya Laskutnaya Hotel. Another shows the damp, level earth that was once Obzhenny Pereulok, which used to be lined with food stores and restaurants, said Aleksandr Veksler, head of the State Center for Archaeological Research and the leader of the excavation.

"If it were the 17th century, we could have a delicious lunch here", he said.

Veksler does not regret that he only has until November to explore beneath Manezh Square, nor does he think that the subterranean shopping mall is a bad idea.

"Moscow is a living city", he said. "We have to take into account that there will always be changes. and anyway, this is not Pompeii".

-- with Alexander Tkachenko and Lucy Jones