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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salvaging Moscow's Rich Past

With the aid of American volunteers and the Russian army, Alexander Veksler is rushing to save Moscow's historical heritage from the construction boom.


In the corner of a construction site in central Moscow, 17 American amateur archaeologists and 50 army recruits were digging and scraping away Thursday at a layer of soil three meters below the surface.


Over the past two months, they have found bits and pieces of pots, ornamental crosses, coins, even parts of a stove, and have managed to pinpoint the locations of mansions and streets from the 18th century.


Meanwhile, the construction workers are edging closer, laying the ground for a new business center. By mid-September, the archaeologists will have to close shop and move on.


Veksler and his staff call their work "salvage archaeology," a frantic excavation of construction sites all over the city in an effort to save historical sites and find out what Moscow looked like centuries ago, before bulldozers destroy the evidence for good.


"It's typical Moscow archaeology," said Nicole Logan, an American working with Veksler. "You quickly save something from the onslaught of construction."


The interests of archaeologists clash with construction plans in any country, Logan said, but "the difference is that it's ten times richer here. There's more to damage."


Yet digging in Moscow has advantages too, Veksler said. Unlike archaeologists elsewhere in Russia or indeed in much of the world, he has enough staff and funds to keep up with Moscow's construction boom.


"My concept is to dig only when you have to," Veksler said. "The less we dig, the more will be left untouched for the archaeologists of the 21st century, who will have better technology."


Veksler, his 250 full-time staff and many more volunteers and seasonal workers are digging at six sites and carrying out research on another 140 spots in the city that are scheduled for construction. Manezh Square is their largest site, but a major excavation has started in the Mytino suburb too.


Veksler said that so far his work has caused no delays to any building projects, adding that the construction boom only gave him more opportunities to unearth Moscow's history.


His secret, he said, is in long-term planning. As Moscow regulations require that Veksler's center is informed of construction plans from the start, and give it some say in how they are carried out, Veksler knows years in advance which locations are at risk.


Following a model used in the United States, the city charges the real estate developer for the costs of the research.


This, and support from the city government, have enabled him to dig up a 16th century wooden road, save a 17th century bridge and find clues about the city's ancient ceramics industry, which used to be located near the Goncharnaya Naberezhnaya.


To save the bridge, Veksler said, architects agreed to change the design of the underground mall under construction at Manezh Square. Veksler was even given 50 recruits to do the dirty work of digging away the top layer at his sites.


"It did not use to be this way," Veksler said, adding that his center only opened five years ago. "It used to be totally arbitrary. Constructors dug as if they were in the tundra."