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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEIRD MOSCOW




They won't be letting me back into the archaeological-finds room at the construction site behind Red Square. It looked like a hardened lump of plasticine to me, but apparently it was a rare toy dating back to the 17th century and cunningly molded to resemble a humming bird.


"You could blow into its tail feathers and produce three different notes," said the chief annotator, who labels each find as it is brought in before passing it to her assistant, who draws a pencil sketch from three different angles. It was still working before I knocked it off the table, she said.


The incident reminded me of a friend of mine who used to work at Sotheby's in London. She got through the training session, but after three months she had cost them a small fortune in broken china. They eventually fired her after an auction when she brought the gavel down on a Meissen six-piece tea set from the 18th century.


Still, I got a good look at the other exhibits before I was pushed out into the street. The archaeological dig at the old Gostiny Dvor building has been operating for three years, ever since Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced he wanted yet another shopping mall in the city center.


As construction workers fit giant metal slats over the open yard where foreign merchants used to sleep, eat and trade, a team of 200 from the Center of Archaeological Research works 12 hours a day, unearthing pots, toys, bones and weapons from a bygone era.


The archaeologists were hard at work Wednesday morning when I ventured onto the site. "We're just having a tea break, but we'll be starting again in half an hour," said Sergei Zots, who graduated in history five years ago and has been working on digs in and around Moscow ever since.


Above the noise of a jackhammer, Zots told me about some of the items he and his team have found over the last three years. The dig goes down about six meters, which takes the archaeologists back as far as the 12th century, he said.


Last weekend they discovered a batch of women's jewelry, including copper bracelets and necklaces made of glass beads, dating back to the Golden Horde.


They have also found bones and graves of plague victims from during the reign of Catherine the Great and an entire church, the Great Cross of St. Nicholas, which was destroyed by Stalin during the religious purges of the 1930s.


Zots showed me old Russian coins, found by the thousands in earthenware pots, as well as Dutch guilders and a mysterious coin from the Ottoman Empire. "We don't know how it ended up in the middle of Moscow," Zots said. "That is the joy of archaeology."