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Kakhovka Dam Disaster Unearths Archaeological ‘Goldmine’

Kakhova Dam damaged in shelling from Russia war | Author: Newsroom | Published: November 7, 2022

On June 29, a local guy in the city of Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine was strolling along the beach on the island of Khortytsia when he observed what seemed to be a log partially submerged in water. Upon closer inspection, he discovered the log belonged to a watercraft, maybe dating back several centuries.

The speaker was referring to the guards at the island’s sizable national park, Khortytsia National Reserve. Engineers and archaeologists soon joined the police in securing the location and initiating a rescue effort for the priceless discovery.

Situated 125 miles downstream from Khortytsia, the Russian-controlled Kakhovka Dam was destroyed by an explosion less than a month prior. The Dnipro River grew as the floods surged downstream, eventually inundating a vast area of the region. Numerous villages were flooded, crops and cattle were devastated, and residents were cut off and left in isolation.

However, the unanticipated outcome of the ecological and economic debacle was the exposure of thousands of artifacts when the Kakhovka Reservoir drained. The possibility of unearthing important discoveries, such as ancient boats—possibly even one long sought after by experts of Cossack maritime history—arose unexpectedly in an area never thoroughly investigated by archaeologists prior to the dam’s construction. This is a classic early chaika, as iconic in Ukrainian history as the longship is in Scandinavian history. Both archaeologists and inquisitive bystanders were drawn to the recently exposed beach by the possibility of discovering such riches.

The largest island on the Dnipro, Khortytsia, was fortunate to escape flooding during the construction of the Kakhovka Dam in the middle of the 20th century. Numerous ancient communities, ranging from Stone Age ruins to a Mennonite colony founded over two centuries ago, may be found on the island.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks, often known as “Cossacks from beyond the rapids,” are widely associated with Khortytsia in Ukrainian history. The term comes from the Dnipro’s once-famous, perilous rivers, which vanished after Soviet-built dams altered the river and its surroundings. During the late Middle Ages, a society known as the Zaporozhian Cossacks was established. They shared characteristics with other Cossack tribes, such as a semi-democratic government, a high degree of autonomy, and a history of fighting on land and at sea, frequently using mercenaries. Some people think that Khortytsia, a prominent Cossack outpost from the 16th to the 18th century, served as their original headquarters. It looked like a great spot to find a sought-after early classic chaika—Khortytsia. The discovery would be considered a national treasure.

Archaeologists soon realized, though, that the boat found in June was not the missing piece of Cossack maritime history; rather, it has historical value of its own and could have been part of a pre-Cossack village that flourished on Khortytsia between the tenth and the early fifteenth centuries.

The boat is a dugout canoe, constructed from a split, hollowed-out tree trunk, most likely an oak. Its length is 6.7 meters, or around 22 feet, and its width is less than one meter, or roughly three feet. It broke up into many pieces after being rescued from the sandy riverbank, and those pieces were carefully transported to a neighboring hangar. In this case, the dugout will be preserved by immersing the fragments in a solution that solidifies the wood and keeps it from drying out and shrinking. It will eventually be included to the southern Khortytsia Museum of Navigation’s collection.

Working on the discovery, Oleh Tuboltsev, an archaeologist with the Khortytsia National Reserve, said the team sent wood samples to Poland for radiocarbon testing, which will assist establish the age of the boat. Notably, the boat provides researchers with hope for further, even more significant findings while also assisting in their understanding of the development of area boatbuilding.

This is due to the fact that the mysterious early chaika had a direct ancestor in the dugout canoe. The dugout was a straightforward yet sturdy vessel used to cross the hazardous rapids. It was first improved by the Cossacks in the fifteenth century, when they covered it with bull skin to improve hydrodynamics. Both the chaika and its reputation for mobility in naval combat continued to develop. They finally rose to prominence as one of the most identifiable cultural icons of Ukraine. Archaeologists are still searching for a surviving example of a traditional chaika from this early era, even though more contemporary Cossack boats from the 18th century have been discovered in the past. Despite this sadness, they feel that the dam damage has created new chances.

Tuboltsev said, “We are looking forward to new discoveries because what was hidden may become visible.”

Because excavations are prohibited due to the conflict, archaeologists are only able to survey and keep an eye on recently exposed sites. Numerous discoveries have already been made, including German helmets from World War II and a Roman silver coin from the first century. Although the Ukrainian government immediately started planning to rebuild the dam after it was destroyed, others are pushing for the restoration of the Dnipro River’s historical, pre-Soviet landscape.

According to environmentalist and Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group campaigner Oleksii Vasyliuk, the region is “one of the most important natural and historical objects for Ukraine.” Coauthoring a paper with the group that advocated for the restoration of the river’s natural floodplains rather than the dam’s reconstruction was Vasyliuk. In terms of the environment, this would enhance water quality, boost biodiversity, and expand the area covered by forests. The group also emphasized the importance of the local culture.

Vasyliuk claims that this region of the Dnipro Valley is both the birthplace of Ukrainian statehood and a concentrated area of enormous historical and archeological legacy. It has likewise not received much research.

“The heart of [the Cossack lands]” is this region in the southeast of the nation, according to Oleksandr Alfyorov of the Institute of the History of Ukraine. He also notes that “it is a difficult decision to flood again with historical artifacts that are part of national identity.”

That choice will probably be made, though. Tuboltsev makes an effort to be pragmatic, pointing out that there might not be any other choices and that thousands of residences, companies, and farms relied on the reservoir for their water supply.

He states pragmatistically, “In the interim, we should maximize the situation by keeping an eye out for artifacts at the banks.” “Previous archaeologists never encountered a goldmine like this.”

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