The Excavations of Aleksei P. Okladnikov on the Faddey Islands in Simsa Bay (August 1945)

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Elena A. Okladnikova Professor, A. I. Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University, Russia okladnikova-ea@yandex.ru.

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translated by Richard Bland Archaeologist, University of Oregon, USA rbland@uoregon.edu.

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Abstract

The purpose of this article is to present information on the exploits of early Russian mariners, probably coming from settlements in the Russian North, in the development of the Arctic, in particular, the northeastern sea route. Historical artifacts of the seventeenth century found on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay indicate that the entrepreneurial Russian polar sailors mastered the harsh Arctic regions long before European sailors. Archaeologist Aleksei P. Okladnikov has shown that these polar sailors of the seventeenth century were skilled shipbuilders, knew navigation, used nautical equipment, knew the languages of the indigenous population, had writing skills, and played chess.

Since the age of geographical discovery the world community has shown interest in the Arctic region. In this piece, we engage with the part of the Russian Arctic inhabited by the Pomory, an ethnographic group that occupies the land that is drained northward into the White Sea, a division of the Arctic Ocean. The very name “Pomory” points to their location, with “po” (by) “more” (sea). The Pomory met Dutch and German navigators in Arctic waters during the Time of Troubles and the reign of Mikhail Romanov.1 Russia had experience in exploration of the polar regions: in 1616–1620 tsarist decrees secured exclusive rights for Russia in the Arctic regions.2 Today, the Arctic is included in the sphere not only of the geopolitical interests of circumpolar countries (Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway) but also states located far from the polar region (China, Japan, South Korea), as well as international organizations that were not previously included in the Arctic programs (NATO, the EU). In this regard, historical data on the development of the northeastern sea route along the coast of the Taimyr Peninsula by Russian sailors, hunters, and entrepreneurs in the early seventeenth century are of particular geopolitical importance.

The Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg has a collection of historical artifacts that show the presence of a group of Russian seafarers—hunters and entrepreneurs—at the beginning of the seventeenth century on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay,3 collected by participants of two Taimyr expeditions: the expeditions of the interdisciplinary winter hydrographic project of Glavsevmorput (Main Directorate of the Northern Sea Route) (under the leadership of the polar explorer A. Kosoi) and the archaeological expedition (led by the archaeologist A. P. Okladnikov) (Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Map of location of the Faddey Islands.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

On 12 September 1940, the topographical group of the interdisciplinary winter hydrographic project of Glavsevmorput, led by topographer N. I. Linnik, disembarked from the hydrographic ship Nord on the north end of the Faddey Islands. During the installation of a triangulation tower on 14 September party members discovered copper kettles protruding from the gravel of the coastline. Intrigued by the find, the surveyors on closer inspection found an old axe, scissors, beads, a copper comb, pans, a bell, rotting bundles of rolled animal skins, blue glass beads, and silver coins. Two days later they found logs on the shore of Simsa Bay from which the lower crown of the log house (winter cabin) had been built. They delivered the artifacts they had found to the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, which by that time had been evacuated to Krasnoyarsk. A preliminary analysis of the collection and a description of the conditions for its discovery were made by Krasnoyarsk local historian B. O. Dolgikh.

An article by Dolgikh was published in the collection Problems of the Arctic, No. 2, in 1943, and in addition to a description of the conditions of the discovery of the locations of Russian polar explorers on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay, it contains information about the artifacts found and, in particular, a description and analysis of 350 silver coins recovered in Simsa Bay and on the Faddey Islands (Figure 2). They had been used during the times of Ivan Groznyi (Ivan the Terrible) (1,105 coins), Fyodor Ioannovich (641 coins), Boris Godunov (877 coins), Lzhedmitrii (False Dmitry) I (134 coins), Vasilii Shuiskii (328 coins), the Polish-Lithuanian interventionists (86 coins), and Aleksei Mikhailovich (161 coins). Numismatic analysis conducted by Professor I. Spasskii determined the date of the voyage of the Russian polar navigators. Spasskii established that the cache of coins was made no later than 1617. The book by Okladnikov and the article by Dolgikh contain materials that convincingly refute the idea that the Swedish sailor N. A. Nordensjeld in his ship Vega was the first to pass by sea along the coast of Taimyr in 1878. Two and a half centuries before Nordensjeld sailed, a Russian koch (a small one- or two-sail boat) passed along the harsh northern and eastern shores of the Taimyr Peninsula (Figure 3). This fact justified the bold assumption of M. V. Lomonosov, who in 1764 claimed that “on the shores of the Siberian ocean, from Vaigach to the Lena estuary, which, although for the most part have been sailed along by entrepreneurs since olden times . . . From the mouth of the Pyasiga to the mouth of the Tamura River, although for a lot of ice, ship traffic is considered impossible” (Lomonosov n.d.; Vizgalov 2019).4 In his arguments, Lomonosov relied on the oral tradition of his fellow Pomory, who preserved a vague memory of their ancestors’ early travels to the east. After the discoveries of hydrographers and the excavations by Okladnikov on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay, scholars received convincing documentary evidence that the Russians were the first to circumvent the Taimyr from the northeast.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Boris Osipovich Dolgikh. Yakutsk, 1930s Photo from the archive of the Krasnoyarsk Museum of Local Lore.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

A drawing of a koch.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

There are several versions of the tragic circumstances of the death of the Russian polar sailors in Simsa Bay:

  1. (1)the version of the historian M. I. Belov, who suggested that the expedition of a resident of Mangazeya, Ivan Tolstoukhov, who sailed with his companions from the east (from Mangazeya) to the west, was shipwrecked on the Faddey Islands;
  2. (2)the version of the polar explorer and hydrographer V. Troitskii, who assumed that the hut (winter house) in Simsa Bay had been constructed by Russian sailors who were going west from the mouth of the Lena but were shipwrecked on the Faddey Islands;
  3. (3)the version of the historian Yu. Chaikovskii, who believed that traces of sailors wintering in 1641 had been found in Simsa Bay.

The most reliable version, it seems, was proposed by Okladnikov and Dolgikh. Dolgikh, after studying the discoveries of the hydrographers (1940–1941), expressed the opinion that the finds on the Faddey Islands are related to the initial stage of the tragedy. A ship of Russian sailors sailed east but was crushed by ice. The crew landed at the island, where they moved things to land, waiting for the sea to freeze. Then, leaving some of the things on the island, covering them with gravel and stone slabs, they went west to the mainland and built a driftwood hut on the beach there. Then they went farther west, leaving three people in the hut: a woman (a Nganasan) and two men.

The finds at the temporary site of the Russian sailors on the Faddey Islands and at the site of the winter hut in Simsa Bay have received great scholarly response due to (1) the unclear conditions of origin of the winter hut (the names of the sailors have not yet been established); (2) the quite large number of artifacts (1,882 items on the Faddey Islands and 2,350 items in Simsa Bay); and (3) the uniqueness and historical significance of these finds. In April 1945, on instructions from the Institute of Material Culture of the USSR Academy of Sciences, an archaeological team was sent to the Faddey Islands under the direction of Okladnikov. In Okladnikov's personal archive there is documentation of the basis for his initiation of excavations on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay at that time. It is a map made by Okladnikov when preparing for a trip to the Faddey Islands (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Sketch map by A. P. Okladnikov showing Simsa Bay (left arrow) and the Faddey Islands (right arrow), where the finds were made.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

General view of the site area.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

In April 1945, Okladnikov and his wife Vera Dmitrievna Zaporozhskaya flew by seaplane from a village on the Khatanga River to the site of the future excavations (Figure 6). After transferring from the seaplane to the schooner Yakutia, they went to the Faddey Islands.5 On the Faddey Islands Okladnikov, his wife, and an expedition employee conducted excavations at the site of the wreck of the Russian sailors’ ship. The excavations were carried out carefully and were described in detail by Okladnikov (1948); Vera Zaporozhskaya recorded the finds, made sketches of artifacts, and conducted photo-recording of the site. Then the archaeological team went on the schooner Yakutia to the place in Simsa Bay where in 1941 hydrographers found the winter camp (hut) of the seventeenth-century polar sailors. As a result of the excavation of the hut (winter house) (Figure 7), it turned out that its builders had a boat, weapons, gunpowder, coins, pectoral crosses, and other things at their disposal. At the entrance to the hut archaeologists found fragments of two human skeletons, and on the floor of the hut were scattered bones of Arctic foxes that had been used for food by its inhabitants.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Vera Zaporozhskaya and Aleksei P. Okladnikov. Irkutsk, 1932.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Interior of the structure.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

During the excavations in Simsa Bay remnants of silk fabric were found, from which an expensive jacket of one of the hut's inhabitants had been sewn (Figure 8), along with pieces of decayed fur, Orthodox copper and silver filigree crosses (Figure 9), silver rings with stones (Figure 10), silver coins (dated to the period of reign from Ivan III to that of Mikhail Romanov), and chess pieces (Figure 11). There was also the find of a unique bronze mirror with an image of a centaur (Figure 12). Small pieces of wooden vessels were preserved in the soil inside the hut. Okladnikov described in detail the finds removed from the cultural layer, their location, features, and importance for historical science. The significance of the artifacts found on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay by the two expeditions (the hydrographic group of Glavsevmorput and the archaeological team led by Okladnikov) is as follows:

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

Tunic.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 9.
Figure 9.

Pectoral crosses.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 10.
Figure 10.

Rings.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

Figure 11.
Figure 11.

Chess pieces.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

(1) Okladnikov determined the date of the expedition transporting the people whose skeletal fragments were found in the hut in Simsa Bay (about 1617). Okladnikov's excavations on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay showed that the Arctic route to Mangazeya had not been opened before 1617, either for Europeans or for the indigenous population of Taimyr. Russian people were the first to pass along this sea route on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. They went from east to west with bundles of expensive sable skins obtained on the Lena, probably from the “zlatokipiashchaia Mangazeya” (Gold-Boiling Mangazeya).6 The fact that it was Russian polar mariners who first rounded the northern tip of the Taimyr Peninsula in the early seventeenth century was confirmed by the finds of silver coins minted before 1617. In this regard, it is worth pointing out that the history of human exploration of the Eurasian Arctic and, in particular, the Taimyr Peninsula began in the epoch of the Karginsak interglacial period (4,000–5,000 years ago), which is confirmed by the discovery of a mammoth zygomatic bone damaged by a spear (4,000–2,000 years ago). Okladnikov (1955) made the first outline of periodization of Neolithic and Paleometal cultures of Yakutia, constructed by the method of typological comparison of artifacts from Yakutian sites and burials with cultural complexes of Pribaikal'e. On the Taimyr Peninsula lived tribes of hunters of the Ymyyakhtakh culture, which were historically associated with the Yukaghir. In the tenth century, in the west of Taimyr, the Vozhpay archaeological culture (Dyuny III) appeared. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a subgroup of Nganasan people (consisting of hunters and reindeer herders) was formed in the Taimyr lands. Then in the eighteenth century the Taimyr Peninsula was included in the sphere of geopolitical interests of the Russian Empire and was enveloped by the geographical, cartographic, and hydrographic research of the Great Northern expeditions (the expeditions of V. Pronchishchev in 1736, Khariton Laptev in 1739–1741, and Semen Chelyuskin in 1741). In the second half of the nineteenth century the works of the Russian traveler, geographer, zoologist, botanist, and naturalist A. F. Middendorff significantly increased information on the geography and zoology of Taimyr.

Figure 12.
Figure 12.

A bronze mirror with a centaur and a page with an illustration and captions by A. P. Okladnikov.

Citation: Sibirica 22, 2; 10.3167/sib.2023.220204

(2) The fact of trade contacts between Russian merchants and the indigenous peoples of the Far North, who supplied the residents of Taimyr with tin, was confirmed. Evidence of this was the discovery of an inlaid knife during excavations in Simsa Bay. Contacts between Russian explorers, sailors, and hunters and the local population were reciprocal. This is evidenced by the artifacts found at the Simsa Bay site. Russian entrepreneurs borrowed from the local population sinew cord, protective devices for archery, reindeer harnesses, and parts of sled dog harnesses. This indicates that Russian entrepreneurs learned the skills of dog sledding and reindeer sledding from the indigenous population.

(3) Much older ethnographic artifacts have been discovered, surpassing those known for more than two hundred years. Based on the fragments of clothing found in the hut, the historian L. I. Yakunin managed to restore a Russian kaftan of seventeenth-century cut. It was also discovered that the sailors in the hut on the shore of Simsa Bay wore brodni (a kind of boot) and knitted mittens. They girded their clothing with belts like those worn by peasants in Russia at that time.

(4) The discovery of a bronze mirror on the Faddey Islands with the image of Kitovras (the Centaur from the biblical parallel of King Solomon) was a testament to the high level of development of Russian socioeconomic relations with the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Having received such a mirror from the Russians as a result of trading operations, the Yukagir began to call this type of mirror a “breast sun.” The distribution throughout Siberia of mirrors of this type was evidence of the development of the Arctic by Russian sailors, hunters, and entrepreneurs in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

(5) The existence of log winter huts in the far north, noted by both polar explorers of the nineteenth century and by Soviet polar explorers, deserves special attention since it is data that indicates the spread of the culture of Pomor peasants along the shores of the freezing sea. The presence of such objects of seaworthy hunting and fishing architecture in the far north, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, helped Okladnikov identify traces of deep and, at the same time, early Russian influence in the culture of the peoples of the Far North.

(6) Okladnikov's excavations at the site of the winter camp on the shore of Simsa Bay allowed: (i) a new look at the history of Arctic development in general, and (ii) restoration of historical accuracy. These excavations voiced the forgotten merits of the early Russian Arctic sailors and revealed a layer of a special early Russian maritime culture with the following technical skills: (i) the ability to use a compass; (ii) a basic knowledge of navigation; (iii) the ability to use special navigation tools; (iv) skills to deal with dangerous regional animals—the walruses and polar bears, which so frightened foreign sailors; and (v) knowledge of the indigenous languages of the Arctic. In addition, Okladnikov's excavations revealed important aspects of the Russian intellectual culture of that time, namely that Russian seamen were skilled in calligraphic carvings and the art of creating inscriptions on household items, as well as in intellectual games (chess).

Conclusion

The excavations of A. P. Okladnikov on the Faddey Islands and in Simsa Bay showed how far Russian polar sailors had advanced north of Taimyr in the first half of the seventeenth century. Russian polar explorers were the first, after isolated groups of Neolithic hunters and gatherers, to develop these cold territories.

The remnants of the shipwrecked koch left by Russian sailors on the Faddey Islands and their hut (winter quarters) on the shore of Simsa Bay, found by hydrographers in 1940, expanded the understanding of historians of the real practical capabilities of Russian polar explorers-sailors of the seventeenth century.

The remains of the koch found on the Faddey Islands fully corresponded to the description of the Pomor vessels by M. V. Lomonosov (the willow boards of the koch hull were sewn with linen rope and fastened with wooden nails; the koches had leather sails). The peculiar design of these vessels did not allow them to be crushed by ice, which testified to the high shipbuilding skill of the Pomory.

The findings of hydrographers and archaeologists showed that the Russian sailors of the beginning of the seventeenth century not only had a high level of navigation knowledge and the ability to use maritime equipment but were educated people of their era. Their equipment included a sundial, a compass, and chess pieces. These people were literate and trained in the art of artistic processing of wood and metal, as evidenced by the ornamental inscription on the knife with the name Akakii Muromets, which had been made by one of the ten members of the artel of seafarers-entrepreneurs in the winter camp in the bay.

Notes

1

The Smutnoe vremia or Time of Troubles was the period from 1598 to 1613 when Russia was in political turmoil, when the last Rurik tsar was replaced by the first Romanov.—Trans.

3

The name of this small island group is variously transliterated into English as “Thaddeus,” “Faddeyevsky,” “Faddey,” and others.—Trans.

4

Dokumenty, sochineniia M. V. Lomonosova. Gl. 2: O poiskakh morskogo prokhodu v Ost-Indiyu v severo-vostochnoi storone Sibirskim okeanom [Documents, works of M. V. Lomonosov. Chapter 2: On the search for a sea passage to the East Indies in the northeastern side through the Siberian ocean], http://drevlit.ru/docs/russia/XVIII/1740-1760/Lomonosov/IP/Tom_I/Opisanie_putes/text2.php (accessed 16 May 2023).

5

On the Faddey Islands Vera Dmitrievna was attacked by a polar bear, which Belugin, the captain of the schooner, killed with a well-aimed shot.

6

In the archives there is a document signed by the Yakutsk governor-general, who had banned maritime travel from Mangazeya to the east. The document was dated 1619 (No. 254. Formal reply of the Tobolsk governors to Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich on the routes from Mangazeya to Russia. The Tsar's letters to the said governors about taking measures so that the German people do not know the way to Siberia, for which purpose they state to the commercial and industrial people that they do not trade with the German people (1616, February 6–1624, June). Russian Historical Library, published by the Archeographic Commission: in 39 vol., 40 bks. St. Petersburg: V. I. Golovin's printing House, 1875. Vol. II. Stb. 1049-1095-656 s. 656 p. Vizgalov, G. P. “Mangazeya,” https://bigenc.ru/domestic_history/text/2156295.

References

  • Lomonosov, M. V. n.d. Dokumenty, sochineniia M. V. Lomonosova. Gl. 2: “O poiskakh morskogo prokhodu v Ost-Indiiu v severo-vostochnoi storone Sibirskim okeanom” [Documents, works of M. V. Lomonosov. Chapter 2: On the search for a sea passage to the East Indies in the northeastern side along the Siberian ocean]. http://drevlit.ru/docs/russia/XVIII/1740-1760/Lomonosov/IP/Tom_I/Opisanie_putes/text2.php (accessed 30 June 2020).

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  • Okladnikov, A. P. 1948. Russkie poliarnye morekhody XVII veka u beregov Taimyra [Russian polar sailors of the seventeenth century off the coast of Taimyr]. Leningrad: Izdatelstvo Glavsevmorputi.

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  • Okladnikov, A. P. 1955. Istoriya Yakutskoi ASSR [The history of the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic]. Vol. 1. Moscow/Leningrad: Izdatelstvo/Publishing House of the USSR Academy of Sciences. AN SSSR.

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  • Vizgalov, G. P. 2019. “Mangazeya.https://vk.com/doc35528094_449384241

  • Voronkov, L. S. 2012. “Interesy Rossii v Arktike: Rossiiskii sovet po mezhdunarodnym delam” [Russia's Interests in the Arctic: The Russian Council for International Affairs]. Russian International Affairs Council, 30 August. http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=732#top (accessed 16 May 2023).

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Contributor Notes

Elena A. Okladnikova is a Doctor of Historical Sciences and Professor at the A. I. Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University. Email: okladnikova-ea@yandex.ru.

Richard Bland is an Archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon, USA. Email: rbland@uoregon.edu.

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Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies

  • Lomonosov, M. V. n.d. Dokumenty, sochineniia M. V. Lomonosova. Gl. 2: “O poiskakh morskogo prokhodu v Ost-Indiiu v severo-vostochnoi storone Sibirskim okeanom” [Documents, works of M. V. Lomonosov. Chapter 2: On the search for a sea passage to the East Indies in the northeastern side along the Siberian ocean]. http://drevlit.ru/docs/russia/XVIII/1740-1760/Lomonosov/IP/Tom_I/Opisanie_putes/text2.php (accessed 30 June 2020).

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  • Okladnikov, A. P. 1948. Russkie poliarnye morekhody XVII veka u beregov Taimyra [Russian polar sailors of the seventeenth century off the coast of Taimyr]. Leningrad: Izdatelstvo Glavsevmorputi.

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  • Okladnikov, A. P. 1955. Istoriya Yakutskoi ASSR [The history of the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic]. Vol. 1. Moscow/Leningrad: Izdatelstvo/Publishing House of the USSR Academy of Sciences. AN SSSR.

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  • Vizgalov, G. P. 2019. “Mangazeya.https://vk.com/doc35528094_449384241

  • Voronkov, L. S. 2012. “Interesy Rossii v Arktike: Rossiiskii sovet po mezhdunarodnym delam” [Russia's Interests in the Arctic: The Russian Council for International Affairs]. Russian International Affairs Council, 30 August. http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=732#top (accessed 16 May 2023).

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