May 01, 2021

What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath
Moscow Excavation Andrey Zhuravlev

Moscow’s sixteenth and seventeenth century architectural heritage is represented on the pages of specialized books and textbooks, to some significant degree, by master works of the art that are long since lost. This includes both national treasures that were consciously destroyed during the Soviet era and those torn down during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an interlude when Moscow was not the nation’s capital and its ancient architecture did not receive the attention it deserved. These treasures still exist, however, not simply in drawings and photographs, but also as sites recovered by architectural archaeology, the significance of which is now receiving greater recognition in cities with rich histories around the world.

The attitude toward sites of interest to architectural archaeology, which often seem to show up in inconvenient places and at inconvenient times, is reflected in the degree of flexibility a government exercises in order to safeguard this inheritance. Many European capitals, suffering through a succession of distressing losses, not only learned how to manage relations between developers and archaeologists, but succeeded in making them mutually profitable (the most widely known example of this in recent years is probably Bloomberg’s European Headquarters, which incorporated the Roman Temple of Mithras – originally discovered on the site – into the complex’s design). When archaeology precedes the drafting of plans, finds have a chance to become a gift, and not an obstacle, for the developer.

For Moscow, planned, thoughtful, methodologically-sound excavations are to this day a rarity – instead, researchers are constantly dodging the buckets of backhoes that barge onto construction sites before archeology can be completed. The unsettling chronicle of efforts to protect the capital’s archeology is an eloquent commentary on our time.

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