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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Volunteers Uncover Moscow's Buried History

While construction sites heralding buildings of the future dominate the Moscow city skyline, one excavation site at Arbatskaya Ploshchad is digging in the opposite direction: into Moscow's past.

About two meters below ground level, just steps from the gridlock on the Boulevard Ring and the modernity of Novy Arbat, a team of English-speaking volunteers is uncovering a log house dating from medieval times. This project, part of a program called "Excavating Medieval Moscow," is the brainchild of Nicole Logan, whose interests in archaeology and Russian culture are helping to give a city on the eve of its 850th birthday the precious gift of its own history.

Logan describes herself as the product of a "double background." A native of France, she was brought up and educated in Paris, where she earned both a law degree and a political science degree from Paris University. She continued her education in the United States, receiving a masters in political science from Stanford and another one in Russian Literature from the American University in Washington. At Stanford, she met her future husband, Alan, a U.S. foreign service officer who has recently retired.

The couple lived in 12 countries during his diplomatic career, beginning with China, where they lived for five years and where Logan learned Chinese, though she says she has forgotten most of it while concentrating on Russian.

"In the course of our travels I started to become interested in archaeology," she said, adding that she has worked on digs in Lebanon, Tunisia and Israel.

In the late 1980s she decided to combine her knowledge and love of Russian culture and her growing interest in archaeology.

"There was an explosion of activities at that time in Russia" in archaeology that accompanied perestroika, she said.

Logan was no stranger to Russia, however. Her husband was posted at the U.S. Embassy in the 1960s; since then she has made 15 trips to Russia in all.

In 1993 she submitted a 60-page proposal for excavating in Moscow in conjunction with Russian archaeologists to a non-profit organization called Earthwatch. Based in Boston, the group's mission is, as Logan said, "to improve the quality of life" worldwide, and their portfolio of about 200 projects -- drawing about 4,000 to 5,000 volunteers all over the world -- touches on areas ranging from the environment to education. Earthwatch accepted Logan's proposal. Indeed, she said, "it is now one of their star projects." And since 1993, beginning with a historic dig in Manezh Square, she has invited international groups to take part in excavations, working side by side with Russian archaeological teams.

In all, Logan has brought over about 90 volunteers who, she said, are "a cross-section of the best" in a variety of fields. Like her, they are not professional archaeologists. The Stary Arbat group, for example, includes doctors and a church minister, among others. "The volunteers learn the methodology of excavation," said Logan, adding that they benefit from regular lectures from experts from the Academy of Sciences.

Logan said the oldest item found at the Stary Arbat site dates from the 13th century. As she spoke, one volunteer approached her with a long metal object with a thimble-sized bowl at one end, freshly removed from the rich, dark soil -- a 17th century candle-holder. But besides hand-held treasures, the volunteers are mainly occupied with uncovering the medieval cabin, whose logs criss-cross at the base of the site.

"Digging in Moscow is very special," said Logan, who described her work as "a very big and difficult, but exciting, project," and gave much credit to the man she described as the project's "host," whom she has known since 1990. He is Alexander Veksler, director general of the Center for Archaeological Research in the Department for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. It is through him that expatriates have been able to dig in the Russian capital.

"This is the real Moscow," said Veksler, surveying the Arbat area from the base of the dig site. He hopes residents will work to preserve the Russian character, culture and art through appreciation of Moscow's rich history.

Logan's Moscow sojourn will not last much longer, however. She is leaving Russia in the middle of August for France, then on to Slovakia for a few months, then to Boston for the Earthwatch annual conference, where, as one of about 190 "principle investigators" she will give a presentation on the work she has supervised in Moscow.

And next summer, Logan's contributions to archaeological discoveries in Moscow will be included in the American magazine Archaeology, to which she is a contributor. The magazine plans to devote an entire issue to Moscow in celebration of its 850th birthday.