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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Archaeological Site More Than Just Romanovs

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YEKATERINBURG, Ural Mountains — Sergei Pogorelov has spent the last two months elbow-to-elbow with 200 people digging in the muddy earth that was once the site of the Ipatyev House, the last abode of Tsar Nicholas II.

Most of his fellow diggers have been drawn to volunteer at the archaeological site by their religious devotion to the slain tsar and his family, who are set to be canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church later this month. But Pogorelov, the chief archeologist in the Sverdlovsk region, has more earthly motives and says he is just glad to have the chance to conduct a dig in one of Yekaterinburg’s oldest areas.

Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 in the basement of the 19th-century mansion, which had remained a historical thorn in Soviet Russia’s side until 1977, when former President Boris Yeltsin, then the regional Communist Party chief, had the house demolished. The plot of land has remained empty ever since, except for a small wooden chapel dedicated to the Romanovs built in 1992.

Over the next three years, a church dedicated to the martyred royal family is to be built on the site of the Ipatyev House. Such plans have been bounced around since 1991, but have not come to fruition due to funding and organizational problems.

One goal of the excavation work has been to find remnants of the house’s foundation and cellar — where the execution took place — in order to build the sanctuary of the future church directly above the spot. But no traces have been found.

The dig, however, is important not only because of its connection to the last days of the Romanovs. According to Pogarelov, the hill where the Ipatyev House was built was one of the first settlements to appear after the city was founded nearly 300 years ago.

By law, any type of construction work at a historical site requires a preliminary archaeological dig. Unfortunately, says Pogorelov, this law had been flouted regularly in Yekaterinburg. But the high-profile status of the Ipatyev site made it difficult to ignore.

Governor Eduard Rossel visited the site recently and was welcomed with a lecture by Pogorelov on the necessity for these type of digs. The lecture seems to have worked, and Rossel asked Pogorelov to work on a new regional decree to reinforce the federal law.

The site is dotted with a number of even, rectangular holes. Alexei Smolin, an archaeological student armed with a shovel, stands chest-deep in one of them and points to the layers of earth, explaining their correspondence to different time periods. About 40 to 50 centimeters down, you can see soil from the Romanovs’ time, he says.

A few meters away, a jumbled mass of tree roots pokes out from half a meter below the ground’s surface — the remains of a forest that once surrounded the house’s garden, says Smolin.

In what used to be the garden, Pogorelov and his crew discovered the broken pieces of three plates bearing the imperial herald, which are believed to be part of a seven-piece set. Three other plates have been found by other archaeologists, leaving just one to go.

The plates are the only items Pogorelov can say for certain belonged to the Romanovs. Other everyday things will have to undergo further tests.

Most of the unearthed items date from the 18th and 19th century — buttons and metal and bone ornaments, which the archaeologists consider exciting discoveries, in large part, due to the rarity of such digs.

"Because it’s the first dig, everything is interesting," said Pogorelov. "It’s all unusual, all a first. Our museums have very few such things."

The most shocking discovery was the remains of a woman and child, dating from the first half of the 18th century. The pair — whose ages were estimated by anthropologists to be about 30 and 7, respectively — are believed to have been buried in the crypt of the Church of the Ascension, which had occupied part of the site.

"The Ipatyev House … appeared on the site of the Church of the Ascension," said Pogorelov. "There’s an awful lot of such symbolic moments in these places."

The remains are now with the local police, who turned up for them after hearing that two bodies had been found.

"They were very worried, as with any skeleton," said Pogorelov, adding the police had seemed less concerned after learning the bodies were over 200 years old and had promised to return them. The remains will later be handed over to local representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If the archaeologists get permission to dig further, says Pogorelov excitedly, perhaps more bodies would be found.