May 09, 2021

The Past in the Past: Reading a Book about Soviet Archaeology

The Past in the Past: Reading a Book about Soviet Archaeology
Surprisingly delightful reading material. Photo and coffee table by the author.

Bibliophiles know that old tomes found in the backs of musty used book stores often make great gifts (books in online stores make great gifts, too!). With this in mind, it's hardly a surprise that my wife, knowing well my passions for old books, Russia, and archaeology, got me a 1961 book, Archaeology in the U.S.S.R., as a gift last Christmas.

The text is an English translation from a Russian scholar named A.L. Mongait. Dr. Mongait, it seems, was passionate about showing the West that Soviet archaeology was just as good as that elsewhere, and so he teamed up with Pelican Books and an English-speaking scholar to prove it. The book is a testament to the scientific prowess of the Soviet Union, reveling in the extensive work done on Russian lands. While the book does have pictures and diagrams (the cover touts "nearly 91 illustrations," meaning there are exactly 90), I've opted instead to use photos from the Hermitage Museum and my own adventures, since they're easier to see and much less grainy.

Overlooking the fact that I got literal Soviet propaganda for Christmas, it's right up my alley and offers a fascinating diversion before bed. While the Hermitage may be one of Russia's most-visited cultural treasures, every time I go, I'm drawn to the western side of the first floor of the Winter Palace. It's only accessible by a little-used staircase (it's near the one that was stormed in 1917, as marked by a marble plaque), and you get the sense that you aren't supposed to be there, but it's where all of the goodies from Russian lands are housed. You can see Greek statues anywhere; a 2500-year-old Siberian chariot, only here.

A basement hallway in the Hermitage
Who knows what's in those boxes? The quiet first floor of the Hermitage, home to some of its most enthralling treasures. | Griffin Edwards

What the book covers is extensive. As it was written in 1961, the territory addressed includes swathes of Central Eurasia, Ukraine, Crimea, and the Caucasus, places that are their own countries now (at least when international law is respected).

It is remarkable how breathlessly Mongait walks through the history of Soviet lands. From what must have been miserable semi-subterranean chalcolithic hovels to steppe kurgan burials to the glorious medieval palaces and libraries of Bactria, the implication is that Russia's wealth of past material culture and extensive work in archaeology demonstrates the greatness of Soviet society. At times, he even gets a little too carried away: the translator, an M.W. Thompson, sometimes replaces a tangent with a little snide, signed, bracketed commentary along the lines of: "[The author then gives a list of excavated sites. T.]". My favorite reads: "[This argument is ingenious but not wholly convincing. T.]".

Pazyryk chariot
Nice wheels: a complete chariot from a burial of the Pazyryk culture, 500 BC, Siberia. | State Hermitage Museum

Mongait is bragging, plain and simple. But there's a lot of cool stuff on offer, from excavated wine presses in Crimea to frescoes in Novgorod to Volga hill forts to coin hoards. A lot of the goods he mentions you can still see today, down in that quiet corner of the old Romanov place.

Central Eurasian plate
Since my name is "Griffin," is this a self-portrait?
A late-antiquity plate from the Soviet lands in Central Eurasia | Griffin Edwards

But what is most fascinating, I think, is the way Mongait approaches history. Scientists typically strive to be bias-free; they make educated guesses, but it's imperative to let the evidence point you towards your conclusion. Sure, people approach things with preconceived notions, but basic academic training should teach you to suppress that when doing serious scholarly work.

However, here, Mongait's communist sympathies are on full display, and, I would argue, demonstrates a major problem with Marxist scholarship. Mongait knows already that the world works exactly how Marx, Engels, and Lenin have said it does (in fact, he cites this trio more frequently than any real scientist). Thus, everything he relates is through this lens.

Tools are the most valuable things to find when excavating, says, Mongait. Why? Because they're the means of production, which is the most important part of society. Neolithic man may have been living in squalor and dying at age 30 from sepsis caused by a horsefly bite, but hey, at least there was no pesky private property to worry about. Social stratification is a key part of understanding a culture; whether the society is "tribal," "slave-holding," or "feudal" tells you the stage of development on the deterministic, one-way road towards the inevitable Marxist utopia that would, of course, end with the USSR.

Scythian axe
Not sure about you, but I think the chariot is way cooler than this piece of 2700-year-old Scythian battleaxe.
Which is saying something, because battleaxes are pretty badass anyway. | State Hermitage Museum

I'm a sucker for historiography; I think it's fascinating to see how people perceive their place in time, how they're situated between the past and future, and what they think the past is telling them (hence this blog post, and this one). Russia isn't alone – everyone sees their history in one way or another – but Mongait's book is a fascinating look at how Soviet scholars thought of history, and it's been a wild ride to read in 2021.

And, the next time you're in Petersburg, do check out the first floor of the Hermitage! It's a quiet refuge from hordes of tourists, and it's well worth it to check out cool stuff like this ancient ink:

Mummified arm
A piece of a mummified, tattooed arm from the Siberian burial site of a tribal chieftain, 500 BC. | State Hermitage Museum

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