After Ukraine’s Kakhovka Dam Disaster, a Hunt for Ancient Treasures

One summer season night because the solar sank behind the Dnipro River, the mammoth waterway that bisects Ukraine, Anatolii Volkov walked alongside a river seaside, head down.

A Ukrainian archaeologist, Mr. Volkov seemed as if he was simply taking a stroll. However he was truly inspecting the largely dried-up floor of a former reservoir that has revealed a treasure trove of artifacts after a catastrophic explosion on the Kakhovka dam despatched 4.8 trillion gallons of water gushing downstream, emptying the reservoir and scraping away the sand and silt that had coated the objects for hundreds of years.

“Look at this,” he stated.

He bent down and picked up an object about two inches lengthy. He rubbed his fingers over the grooves.

“Pottery shard,” he stated. “Bronze Age. Three thousand years old. At least.”

Even earlier than the warfare, Ukrainian archaeologists had their arms full in a giant nation wealthy with archaeological websites and never many skilled diggers to check them. However when the battle erupted in February 2022, it made their painstakingly sluggish and methodical work that a lot more durable.

Russian troops smashed into historical past museums and looted priceless antiquities. The troopers and their warfare machines moved into archaeological websites, together with historic burial grounds. Some websites grew to become engulfed in frontline combating. So have many Ukrainian archaeologists themselves, who, like different professionals, have enlisted within the military to battle for his or her nation. Some have been killed.

In that bleak tableau, the plethora of artifacts littering the reservoir space has been a small however welcome recompense. The dam was blown up in June, more than likely by Russian forces making an attempt to swamp Ukrainian troops and reduce off one of many solely crossings left on the Dnipro. The destruction triggered horrendous flooding and drained the reservoir, which had been one of many largest lakes in Europe.

Within the weeks since, Ukrainian archaeologists and scavenger hunters have found all kinds of issues: items of stone axes at the very least 1,000 years previous; Nazi-era helmets; an previous bridge; Cossack cannon balls from the seventeenth century; and flint rock from the Russia-Turkey wars of the 18th century (lots of warfare stuff, truly).

“There’s never been anything like this,” stated Yevhen Synytsia, chairman of the Ukrainian Affiliation of Archaeologists. “It’s crazy.”

It’s additionally deeply significant.

The warfare in Ukraine is, at its coronary heart, a battle for Ukrainian id. Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s chief, has continuously belittled Ukrainian independence and brought the identical dim view of Ukraine as Soviet strongmen like Stalin and the czars earlier than him. Of their eyes, the nation is nothing greater than a Russian appendage, missing a definite tradition, language and historical past.

That is exactly the place the Ukrainian archaeologists are available.

“We’re finding pieces of ancient culture, our ancient culture,” stated Viacheslav Sarychev, the scientific secretary of the Khortytsia Nationwide Reserve on the northern reaches of the reservoir space. “Piece by piece, we’re distancing ourselves from Russia.”

“This is extremely important to us,” he added.

The objects are washed, sorted, examined and cataloged. Mr. Volkov has lots of of them scattered throughout his desk and on the windowsill behind him on the Khortytsia reserve, the place he works. He’s only one member of a rising crew of archaeologists pouring in.

For a occupation that measures issues in centuries, the archaeologists really feel an uncommon strain to work quick. First, there are the “underground archaeologists,” as the true archaeologists name them, opportunists who’ve proven up in latest weeks to sneak onto the lake mattress seeking items for the underground antiquities commerce.

Cops have already apprehended a number of males strolling across the restricted areas with metallic detectors and large headphones.

However then there’s the larger strain of all this potential historical past disappearing once more. Ukrainian officers have stated that when the warfare is over, they’ll rebuild the dam, which can refill the lake, which can bury all of the potential finds once more.

This space was plunged underwater in 1956, when the dam was accomplished as a part of a significant hydroelectric plant. Soviet archaeologists had surveyed it, although, as Mr. Synytsia stated, “no one paid any attention to Ukrainian identity back then.”

“So much was lost,” he added.

Khortytsia is a cradle of Ukrainian historical past. An island sitting in the midst of the Dnipro River, it has been inhabited by people for 1000’s of years. It was stuffed with deer and rabbits and thick with bushes, the right pit cease for early vacationers heading down the Dnipro on their strategy to the Black Sea.

Extra lately, say, 500 years in the past, it grew to become a fortress for the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, a navy neighborhood from the jap European steppes that performed a distinguished function in constructing a Ukrainian state.

Lots of the most fascinating discoveries from the dam catastrophe have been discovered simply off the island’s rocky shores. Ukrainian archaeologists had been ecstatic a number of weeks in the past to excavate a 20-foot-long oak boat half-buried within the sand and carved with mysterious symbols. It was at the very least 5 centuries previous.

What Mr. Volkov finds on his night forays is often extra modest; chips of historic pots, say, or crooked Cossack nails. Nonetheless fragmented or rusty, they’re all fascinating. Archaeologists like him suppose deeply concerning the passage of time and what occurs to issues because the centuries wash over them.

“We call it archaeological intelligence,” Mr. Volkov stated.

He spoke as he walked, head down, searching for extra treasures.

It was practically evening, and the sky was turning a wealthy darkish blue, the colour the reservoir was once earlier than it dried up into miles of cracked clay.

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.

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