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Ladoga, ryurik’s stronghold, and novgorod: fortifications and power in early medieval russia

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There is very little information in medieval Russian chroniclesi on Ryurik, the Scandinavian prince who came to northwestern Russia in 862 responding to the call of local tribes, and on his successor, Oleg. On the other hand, the archaeological record associated with this period and region cannot throw any light on these rulers, because it is typically anonymous. Archaeological excavations in the last ten years, however, added a significant amount of evidence directly pertaining to princely power in early Kievan Rus’. This is particularly true for excavations of forts and fortifications.

According to the entries in the Radzivil and Hypatian Chronicles (Ipat’ievskaia letopis’ 1962:14; Radzivilovskaia letopis’ 1989:16) under the years 862-864, Ryurik’s first residence was in Ladoga. It is only later that his moved his seat of power to Novgorod, a fort built not far from the source of the Volkhov river (Fig. 1). It is worth mentioning at this point that the meaning of this place name in medieval Russian is “new fortifications” (Slovar’ 1977:90-91), while the current meaning (“new town”) appeared only later. As Evgenii Nosov persuasively demonstrated, Ryurik’s Stronghold (so called only since the nineteenth century), a site located not far from modern-day Novgorod was in fact the Novgorod known from chronicles as having been the scene of the ninth- and tenth-century history of northwestern Rus’.

This general interpretation of the sequence of events is substantiated by the results of recent excavations. In the light of these investigations, the forts on the Volkhov river appear as mirroring the development of princely power. In addition, the early medieval strongholds on the banks of the river Volkhov were part of a larger network of settlements controlling the most important river segment of the trade route linking Scandinavia to the Caliphate and to Byzantium. Along this waterway, strongholds were erected at key points, such as rapids or points of confluence (Lebedev 19080:90-101; Nosov 1980:49-62). Excavated fortifications also reflect different building techniques. Under the assumption that the most effective defenses in the region were associated with the power of the prince, this may assist us in identifying his residence.

Staraia Ladoga and Novgorod are mentioned in the chronicles as the princely residences. But what archaeological data can we consider to indicate the presence of social elites there? Scandinavian artifacts themselves may in any case signalize long-distance relations and even the presence of foreigners. However, “Viking” weapons or other artifacts of Scandinavian origin were not only incorporated into the so-called “warrior retinue culture” of Kievan Rus’, but also viewed by the Rus’ themselves as markers of high social status. A further indicator of the presence of elites is hoards of dirhems, such as those unearthed near Staraia Ladoga and Ryurik's Stronghold. Hoards of Arab silver were a means not only of storing wealth, but also of showing off. A hoard of dirhems is known to have been found near the stronghold at Kholopy Gorodok (Nosov and Plokhov 1997:132), a site without significant artifacts of Scandinavian origin (see below). Ultimately, the most important indicator of the presence of elites are the strongholds themselves, as symbols of the political authority that mobilized the local population into building such fortifications and controlled these nodal points at the crossroads of major trade routes. According to the most recent interpretation of the stratigraphy at Staraia Ladoga (Kuz’min 1997:343-358; Kuz’min 2000:123-142), the building phase VI dated to 860-890 by means of dendrochronological analysis coincides in time with Ryurik’s alleged presence on the site. This phase produced a number of Scandinavian artifacts, but Ryurik is to be associated only with the remains of one manor, for the site had no fortifications at that point in time (Fig. 2). The ordinary character of this residence nicely dovetails with the idea of Ryurik’s brief staying at Ladoga, before moving to Novgorod in 864.

Ryurik’s Stronghold (Nosov 1992:5-66; Nosov 2000:143-172) is a much more sophisticated residence (Fig. 3). The central area enclosed by ramparts abounds in Scandinavian artifacts (Fig. 4; see also Nosov 1996:90-146, 155-163). Remains of fortifications surrounding this area came to light only during Evgenii Nosov’s recent excavations.ii In all probability, they can be dated to the second half of the ninth century (Nosov 1990:151-153; Nosov, Dorofeieva, Mikhailov, and Iansson 2000:38) and may thus be associated with either Ryurik or Oleg. The remains consist of timber structures (Fig. 5), evidently the rectangular timber frames forming the basis of the earthen rampart. Some of these timber remains may also represent traces of a palisade once surmounting the rampart or parts of a reinforcing structure built on the outside face of the rampart. The rampart itself seems to have been destroyed some time later, perhaps by dumping the soil into the adjacent ditch that was found next to the timber remains.

The existing evidence is difficult to interpret, but the timber framework may be viewed as supporting the earthen rampart at its basis, a building technique most typical for early medieval fortifications in the Baltic region, especially in northern Germany and Poland (Fig. 6; see Herrmann and Coblenz 1985:186-232). The other, cape-like part of the site is located outside the rampart and, like the fort itself, produced Scandinavian artifacts, though not in quantities as significant as those for agricultural and craft tools (Fig. 7; Nosov 1990:37-89). It is thus possible that this operated as a production center and service settlement, perhaps inhabited by native Slavs.

But it would be a gross mistake to treat the fort’s population (the princely retinue of warriors or his officials) a priori as Scandinavian and that of the cape-like part of the settlement as Slavic and exclusively dedicated to agriculture. The circumstances surrounding the arrival of Ryurik to northwestern Russia at the invitation of local chieftains suggests that more or less local Slavs may have well been members of the princely retinue of warriors.

This situation is best illustrated by Evgenii Nosov’s excavations at Kholopy Gorodok (the “slave stronghold”; see Nosov and Plokhov 1997:129-152). The site was dated to the ninth century and is situated on a promontory separating Lake Kholop’ie from the river Volkhov. There are no fortifications at Kholopy Gorodok, and no artifacts of Scandinavian origin. The presence of the local population, perhaps Slavs, is signalized by a hoard of agricultural implements (Fig. 8). The pit in which the hoard was found may have served as cellar to a timber house. If so, then it may be interesting to note that the tools are represented in the hoard only by their metal parts, which seem to have been packed in a compact pile (Petrov 1997:62-64).

Despite the absence of fortifications, Kholopy Gorodok co-existed with Ryurik’s Stronghold, as part of the same settlement network controlling the valley of the Volkhov river. Whereas Ryurik’s Stronghold was designed to control the access to the point where the river splits into two branches (Volkhov proper and Volkhovec), Kholopy Gorodok was strategically located next to their point of confluence.

Another aspect of the ninth-century building techniques in use in northwestern Russia results from recent excavations of the Liubsha stronghold near Ladoga. Here a dry stone wall was found under the rampart (Fig. 9; Riabinin 1998). The wall must have been used for defense at some point during the ninth century. Judging from the absence of wheel-made pottery remains from the rampart (Riabinin 1985:37), in sharp contrast to the presence of hand-made pottery, the stone wall was not in use any more during the tenth century.

The evidence seems to suggest that the erection of the stone wall coincides in time with the presence of Scandinavians, an indication that the inspiration for this building technique may have originated in Central or Western Europe. However, the important detail at this point is that the wall was already in disuse by the end of ninth or the beginning of the tenth century, when it was completely covered with earth. The intention seems to have been to disable an effective fortification rampart and replace it with an earthen one. The precise reasons for this conversion remain obscure. It may be that returning to an earthen rampart had something to do with the presumed presence of native Slavs within the prince’s retinue of warriors. The change may also signalize a difference of opinion between those who initially built the fort and those who ended up using it. The latter rebuilt the fort according to their idea of a most effective and, more important, habitual defense.

The end of the ninth century was an important period for the process of elaboration of local building techniques. In 882, after seizing Kiev, prince Oleg began building strongholds (goroda) throughout Rus’ (Lavrent’ievskaia letopis’ 1997:23-24). There is, however, very little archaeological evidence to confirm what we know from chronicles. To be sure, Anatolii Kirpichnikov hastily interpreted the dry stone wall found in Staraia Ladoga (Fig. 10) with the remains of one of Oleg’s fortresses (Kirpichnikov 1980:441-455). However, Nadezhda Stecenko has demonstrated that layers found near the rubble and containing fragments of hand-made pottery of the ninth and tenth century were in secondary position, after being moved from much deeper deposition (Stecenko 1997:168-176). This means that the dry stone wall is that of the fortress erected in 1114, not that built in the 800s.

In any case, fortifications erected presumably at the prince’s initiative in northwestern Russia after 882 illustrate the development of building techniques in the region. If we are to believe the chroniclers, between 882 and 947, the Kievan princes paid very little attention to the northwestern region. In 947, Princess Olga launched a punitive expedition against the tribal elites between the Luga and the Msta rivers (Lavrent’ievskaia letopis’ 1997:60). Following this successful campaign, a number of forts were erected at Olga’s orders. One of them is Gorodec in the Luga region (Lebedev 1982:225-238; Zalevskaia 1982:49-54), a fortification dated to the middle of the tenth century. Because of its isolated location, Gorodec does not seem to have been in any way associated with the pre-existing settlement pattern.

Moreover, the fort produced another example of square timber frames designed to consolidate the rampart that we have seen at Ryurik’s Stronghold. The same building technique was in use a century later in the Novgorod fortifications.

Novgorod ceased to be just the seat of princely power and began growing to the stature of a fully-fledged town at the end of the tenth and in the early eleventh century (Fig. 12). Following the conversion to Christianity in 989, a timber church dedicated to St. Sophia was built not at Ryurik’s Stronghold, but on the nearby territory, close to the manors of the local nobility erected in the early 900s. This foundation marks the beginning of a process of gradual transfer of political function from the prince’s stronghold to the manors of the local elites. In the early eleventh century, during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, the prince’s residence too was moved into this area. At that same time, the rampart of Ryurik’s Stronghold was dismantled and moved into the adjacent ditch. By 1044, a new fortification appeared at Detinec, on the opposite bank of the Volkhov river, on territory controlled by the local elites. In connection with this event, the name Novgorod (“new stronghold”) was transferred to the new location (Nosov 1995:5-17; Petrov 1996:74-81).

Judging from the results of Sergei Troianovskii’s recent excavations, the Detinec fort employed the same building techniques in use at Ryurik’s Stronghold (Fig. 12). Just as there, timber frameworks formed the basis of the rampart (Aleshkovskii 1962:3-26), but it is also possible that they served as an independent fortification, much like the later timber defense walls (Troianovskii 1998:58-70; Troianovskii 1995:89-111).

The way in which earthen and timber fortification techniques developed from the ninth to the eleventh century may indicate a “cultural compromise” between all parties involved in the construction of these forts, namely customers, builders, and users. Initially, such buildings signalized the adaptation of the Scandinavian newcomers to the local conditions of the 800s. During the eleventh century, such forts were already symbols of the power of the Rus’ state over the northwestern region.

It is perhaps revealing in this respect that the Detinec was built not on the site of the new seat of princely power, but on the opposite bank of the river Volkhov. The process of “moving” the stronghold of Novgorod is in itself indicative of the process that led to the rise of a specific Novgorodian medieval state, one in which the prince had only executive authority, his power being checked by the assembly of patrimonial aristocrats, the veche. When Detinec was founded in 1044, another page had already turned in the history of medieval Novgorod.


Primary sources

Ipat’evskaia letopis‘. 1962. Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei. Ed. M. N. Tikhomirov. Vol. 2. Moscow.

Lavrent’evskaia letopis‘. 1997. Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei. Ed. A. D. Koshelev. Vol. 1. Moscow.

Radzvilovskaia letopis‘. 1989. Polnoe sobranie russkikh letopisei. Ed. Vol. 38. Moscow.

Secondary literature

Aleshkovskii, M. Kh. 1962. "Novgorodskii detinec 1044-1430 gg. (po materialam novykh issledovanii)." Arkhitekturnoe nasledstvo 14: 3-26.

Herrmann, J., and W. Coblenz. 1985. “Burgen und Befestigungen.” In Die Slawen in Deutschland. Geschichte und Kultur der slawischen Stämme westlich von Oder und Neiße vom 6. bis 12. Jahrhundert. Ed. H. H. Bielfeldt and J. Herrmann, pp. 186-232. Berlin.

Kirpichnikov, A.N. 1980. "Novootkrytaia Ladozhskaia kamennaia krepost' IX-X vv." Pamiatniki kul'tury. Novye otkrytiia: 441-55

Ku'zmin, S.L. 1997. "Iarusnaia stratigrafiia nizhnykh sloiov Staroladozhskogo gorodishcha." Pamiatniki starini. Koncepcii, otkrytiia, versii 1: 343-58.

---. 2000. "Ladoga, le premier centre proto-urbain russe." In Les centres proto-urbains russes entre Scandinavie, Byzance et Orient. Ed. M. Kazanski, A. Nercessian, and C. Zuckerman, pp. 123-42. Paris.

Lebedev, G. S. 1980. "On the early date of the way ‘from the Varangians to the Greeks‘." In Fenno-Ugri et Slavi, pp. 90-101. Helsinki.

---. 1982. "Der slawische Burgwall Gorodec bei Luga. Zum Problem der west- und ostslawischen Beziehungen." In Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte. Ed. H. Kaufmann and K. Simon. Vol. 2, pp. 225-38. Berlin.

Nosov, E.N. 1980. "International trade routes and early urban centres in the North of Ancient Russia." In Fenno-Ugri et Slavi, pp. 49-62. Helsinki.

---. 1990. Novgorodskoe (Riurikovo) gorodishche. Leningrad

---. 1992. "Ryurik gorodishche and the settlements to the north of Lake Ilmen." In The Archaeology of Novgorod, Russia. Recent Results from the Town and Its Hinterland. Ed. Mark A. Brisbane, pp. 5-66. Lincoln.

---. 1995. "Novgorodskii detinec i gorodishche (k voprosu o rannykh ukrepleniakh i stanovlenii goroda)." Novgorodskii istoricheskii sbornik 5: 5-17.

---. 2000. "Rjurikovo gorodišče et Novgorod." In Les centres proto-urbains russes entre Scandinavie, Byzance et Orient. Ed. M. Kazanski, A. Nercessian, and C. Zuckerman, pp. 143-72. Paris.

---. 2001. “Otchet o polevykh arkheologicheskikh rabotakh Novgorodskoi oblastnoi ekspedicii v 2000 godu: KP-5304.” Unpublished archaeological report in the archives of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences. St. Petersburg.

Nosov, E.N. and A.V. Plokhov. 1997. "Kholopy Gorodok na Volkhove." In Drevnosti Povolkhov'ia. Ed. A.N. Kirpichnikov and E.N. Nosov, pp. 129-52. St. Petersburg.

Nosov, E.N., T.S. Dorofeieva, K.A. Mikhailov, and I. Iansson. 2000. "Itogi izucheniia Riurikova gorodishcha v 1999 g." Novgorod i novgorodskaia zemlia. Istoriia i arkheologiia 14: 37-41.

Petrov, N.I. 1996. Povolkhovye i il'menskoe poozer'e v IX-X vv. Uchebnoe posobie. St. Petersburg.

Petrov, N.I. 1997. "O kharaktere kontaktov etnosocial'nykh grupp naseleniia Povolkhoviia i Priil'men'ia v konce I tys. n.e.: klad khoziaistvennykh orudii na gorodishche Kholopy Gorodok." In Kul'turnye vzaimodeistviia v usloviiakh kontaktnykh zon. Tezisy konferencii molodykh uchenykh Sankt-Peterburga i SNG. Ed. V.N. Masson and D.G. Savvinov, pp. 62-64. St. Petersburg.

Riabinin, E.A. 1985. "Novye otkrytiia v Staroi Ladoge (itogi raskopok na Zemlianom gorodishche 1973-1975 gg.)." In Srednevekovaia Ladoga. Novye otkrytiia i issledovaniia. Ed. V.V. Sedov, pp. 27-75. Leningrad.

---. 1998. “Otchet ob arkheologicheskikh issledovaniiakh v 1997 godu.” Unpublished archaeological report in the archives of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences. St. Petersburg.

Slovar’. 1977. Slovar’ russkogo iazyka XI-XVII vv. Vol. 4. Moscow.

Stecenko, N. K. 1997. “Istoriia Ladozhskoi kreposti i problemi ee izucheniia.” In Divinec Staroladozhskii. Mezhdisciplinarnye issledovaniia. , pp. 168-176. St. Petersburg.

Troianovskii, S.V. 1995. "Istoriia izucheniia Novgorodskogo kremlia." Novgorodskii istoricheskii sbornik 5: 89-111.

---. 1998. "O nekotorykh rezul'tatakh raskopok v Novgorodskom kremle v 1992-96 gg." Novgorod i novgorodskaia zemlia. Istoriia i arkheologiia 12: 58-70.

Zalevskaia, N.I. 1982. "K voprosu o vozniknovenii pogostov na Verkhnei Luge." In Severnaia Rus' i ee sosedi v epokhu rannego srednevekov'ia. Mezhvuzovskii sbornik. Ed. by A.D. Stoliar, pp. 49-54. Leningrad.



  1. The Volkhov region in the ninth and tenth century: strongholds and other important settlements.

  2. Staraia Ladoga, ca. 860-890. Buildings of phase VI (after Kuz’min 1997:351).

  3. Ryurik’s Stronghold (after Nosov 1990:152).

  4. Ryurik’s Stronghold, artifacts of Scandinavian origin (after Nosov 1990:122-124).

  5. Ryurik’s Stronghold, timber fortification structures (source: Nosov 2001:fig. 44).

  6. Examples of timber and earth early medieval fortifications in the south Baltic region (after Herrmann and Coblenz 1985:200, 202, and 225).

  7. Ryurik’s Stronghold, artifacts from the cape-like part of the settlement (after Nosov 1990:56, 64-65, 67-68, and 79).

  8. Kholopy Gorodok, settlement plan and hoard of iron implements (after Nosov 1990:179-181).

  9. Liubsha, dry stone wall under the earth rampart.

  10. Staraia Ladoga, plan and section profile of the dry stone wall (after Kirpichnikov 1980:444).

  11. Gorodec, general plan: a – plan detail; b – timber framework under the rampart; c – rampart, section profile.

  12. Map: Distribution of sites in the Novgorod region. Drawings: Detinec, eleventh-century rampart with timber framework, plan and section profile.

i Most references in this paper are to the critical editions of the Russian chronicles. To this day, only one of them was translated into English (The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, translated by S. H. Cross and O. P. Shebowitz-Wetzor, Cambridge, Mass., 1953).

ii My thanks to Professor Evgenii Nosov for a very useful discussion regarding the results of his 2000-2001 excavations at Ryurik’s Stronghold. I would also like to thank him for the permission to include in this paper a photograph from his still unpublished report on these excavations.

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