Stolen Heritage: How Russia is Destroying Crimean Archaeological Sites
4 January, 2018

Since the start of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, not one permit issued for archaeological work on the peninsula has had any legal standing. From the point of view of international law, any archaeological work in Crimea is illegal.

Still, Russia is actively engaged in excavations throughout the region. This work is carried out by employees of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archeology and the Hermitage museum. The latter even reported that it dispatched seven expeditions to Crimea immediately after the illegal referendum on joining Russia in April 2014. Russia’s Archeology foundation is also openly seeking volunteers to excavate several sites in Crimea.

Several of Crimea’s historical heritage site will never again be seen in their recognized form. Some will disappear altogether — specifically, the ancient Greek burial mound in Kerch known as "hospital mound" because of the nearby hospital. Burials here began in the 4th century BCE and continued through different historical periods up until the Common Era. Grave robbers have also left their mark at the “hospital mound.”

Photo credit: Khan Palace in Bakhchysarai

However, at the end in 2017, Russia decided the burial mound blocked an access road to the Kerch Bridge that it is building to connect the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia. The Russian Institute of Archeology investigated the mound and then destroyed it.

The same fate befell part of the Tiritak (or Cimmerian) protective wall, erected more than 2000 years ago. Now, the wall has been partially disassembled. The Tavrida highway will pass through this newly freed space.

And the Russian archaeologists’ work in occupied Crimea is not confined to the land. In March, Russian media reported that 60 thousand artifacts were discovered on the construction site of the Kerch Bridge. Some of them were even unique to the Northern Black Sea region.

In fact, excavations are taking place across the entire peninsula. In Crimea’s west, there are illegal excavations of the ancient settlement of Tamirak. In Sudak, they’re digging on the territory of the world-famous Genoese fortress, as well as on the site of a previously unknown ancient Armenian temple. The latter case suggests that archaeologists aren’t the only danger to Crimea’s ancient heritage: grave robbers, whose excavations go unpunished, also pose a threat.

Photo credit: Bridge crossing on the Cimmerian Wall. October 11, 2016, Kerch INFO

Countless historical and cultural artifacts in Crimea appear to be at risk. Archaeologists excavated an ancient settlement in the Artesian region of the Kerch peninsula before the Russian occupation. Later, this area was partially flooded. In May 2017, Russia brought special equipment to the site during the night and archaeologists began mining sand for the Tavrida highway.

Fragments of the ancient structures fell into the future quarry. Archaeologists and the leadership of the Kerch Historical and Archaeological Reserve tried to stop it, but the Crimean “government” eventually came to some kind of “agreement” with them. The archaeologists no longer comment on the issue. The quarry's capacity is two million tons of sand per year.

Russia sometimes also decides to restore objects. This is why a brick was torn off the Khan's Palace in Bakhchysarai and the painting on the facade was damaged — restorers washed them using unsuitable equipment.

Archaeologist Evelina Krachenko dedicated 15 years to excavations in Crimea. After the occupation, she continued to work on Ukraine’s mainland. Her work focuses on the Khotovske settlement — an ancient, Scythian-era settlement from the 5-4 centuries BCE. Krachenko says the biggest problem in Crimea is the lack of any control over the actions of Russian officials and grave robbers.

Officially, Russian archaeologists almost always report that their discoveries remain in Crimea. But this cannot be verified. And there is nothing to stop local “amateurs” from digging up valuable items and transporting them to neighboring Russia — Ukraine has lost control over the border in the Kerch Strait.

“If they’re exporting artifacts to the mainland, then this is a violation of ethics rules. But ethics, you understand, don’t always work. They’re violating Ukrainian laws on protecting cultural heritage and they’re violating the first protocol of the Hague Convention, which prohibits conducting archaeological research in occupied territories, with some exceptions,” Krachenko explains.

Photo credit: Destroyed mound in the Artesian, "New Day"

“For some reason, we didn’t ratify the second protocol, which generally prohibits such work. There are also questions for Russian archaeologists who come to our preserved excavation sites, which we dug, and which absolutely did not have to be touched. Generally, the best way to protect archaeological heritage is to leave it in the ground.”

The prosecutor's office in Crimea, which moved to mainland Ukraine following the occupation of the peninsula, has begun to look into the illegal archaeological work. Deputy Prosecutor Oleksandr Udovichenko told Hromadske that, in many cases, the formal investigation process is already underway.

“First of all, it is an established fact that many of the permissions to carry out illegal archaeological work on the territory of Crimea, which destroys the cultural heritage of our state and the world community, have been provided by the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Culture. Its leadership is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the people involved in this,” he said.

But the process of collecting evidence on the occupied peninsula significantly slows down and complicates the investigation. In the case of the Khan Palace in Bakhchysarai alone, investigators must determine the state of 31 objects to establish that they were seized by Crimea’s new “authorities.” The prosecutor's office is placing it hope in the people of Crimea.

“I would ask that any concerned residents of Crimea — and they are the majority there — approach our office with facts [about cultural heritage]...,” Udovichenko said. “We’ll find a procedural way to include this information in the case.”

/Translated and adapted Natalie Vikhrov