Staraya Ladoga, in northwestern Russia, was one of the most important trade and craft production centers of the eastern Baltic during the early Middle Ages. Located at the eastern end of the Baltic, the town was a gateway between the Baltic Sea and Russian river routes to the Black Sea. Staraya Ladoga also is cited by some versions of Russia's earliest historical document, the Russian Primary Chronicle, as the seat of Rurik, Russia's first ruler.
Early settlement at Staraya Ladoga has been thoroughly and systematically excavated, resulting in a detailed picture of life in an eastern Baltic trade town from a.d. 750 to 1200. A total of 3,600 square meters of medieval Staraya Ladoga have been excavated, of an estimated settlement area of 15 square kilometers. The waterlogged soil at the site has resulted in excellent preservation of finds, and dendrochronology has allowed the finds to be dated precisely.
As a result of the extensive excavation program, archaeologists can sketch a clear picture of the development and character of early Staraya Ladoga. The Earthworks Fortress quarter of the town was settled the earliest, beginning in about a.d. 760. This area probably was the most suitable place for a harbor. Settlement expanded into the Varangian Street quarter in about a.d. 842. Once established, these early settlement areas were occupied continuously throughout the Middle Ages. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the trade town began to appear more urban, with more clearly defined areas and functions. Staraya Ladoga was given wooden fortifications in the 860s and stone fortifications in 882. Dwellings and public buildings were concentrated within the town walls. Sacred places and cemeteries were located outside the walls. In the tenth century, a regular street grid was established. At this time the population of the town was slightly more than one thousand persons.
More than one hundred and fifty medieval houses have been excavated at Staraya Ladoga, dating from the eighth century through the eleventh century a.d. The medieval buildings are of two main kinds, a small and a large type. The small buildings are approximately 5 meters square and have a corner hearth. The large buildings measure approximately 13 by 10 meters and have a central hearth. Archaeologists have not found an explanation for the coexistence of the two building types. At one point scholars believed the larger buildings might have predated the smaller buildings, but this hypothesis has been rejected. Likewise, attempts to identify the building types with different ethnic groups living in Staraya Ladoga have been unsuccessful.
One well-preserved building in the Earthworks Fortress quarter is of exceptional size. Built in 894, it measured approximately 17 by 10 meters. A hearth was located in a walled-off interior room measuring approximately 10.5 by 7.5 meters. More than two hundred glass beads and thirty pieces of amber were found associated with the building, suggesting that its occupants were involved in trade. Ibn Fadlan, an Arabic scholar, wrote in 921 or 922 that the Rus traders who sailed down the Volga River built large timber structures that could house ten to twelve people.
Burial mounds were erected along the Volkhov River, in locations where they would be visible from a distance. More than thirty burial mounds are still extant at Staraya Ladoga. It is thought that one of the largest mounds at Staraya Ladoga was built for Oleg (879–912), the ruler who united northern and southern Russia. The cemetery of Plakun is notable for the ten or so Scandinavian boat burials. Other cemeteries at Staraya Ladoga include Baltic, Finno-Ugric, and Slavic burials.
From its earliest days, Staraya Ladoga's economy was based on trade and the production of trade goods. The town was an important node in the routes between the Baltic Sea and the river routes across Russia to the Far East. Staraya Ladoga controlled a substantial part of the route, from the Baltic to the lower reaches of the Volkhov River. From the lower Volkhov, traders would take either the Volga route to the Caspian Sea and the Islamic Caliphate or the Dnieper route to the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire.
Silver and trade scales indicate that merchants exchanged goods in Staraya Ladoga. In addition to local trade goods, including crafts, timber, honey, and slaves, goods from other areas also traveled through Staraya Ladoga: furs from Viking Scandinavia, combs from Frisia, beads from the Mediterranean, swords from the Frankish kingdom, and amber from the Baltic. Traders exchanged these goods in the Far East for silver coins, carnelian and rock crystal beads, silk, and warrior-style clothing, ornaments, and accessories.
Local craft production at Staraya Ladoga is indicated by finds of raw materials, tools, various products found at different stages of completion, rejected (flawed) products, and manufacturing debris. Almost every house excavated in the town turned up evidence of such craft production. Glass beads
may have been crafted in the glassworks found at Staraya Ladoga. A smithy dating to the 760s was equipped for bronze casting, with a smelting hearth, casting molds, and a collection of twenty-six metalworking tools (fig. 1). Amber was imported from the Baltic and worked at the site. Pottery was manufactured locally, first using hand-built construction and later the fast wheel. Bone and antler were fashioned into numerous objects, including knives and combs. Wooden objects were turned on lathes and carved manually. Textile tools (spindles, whorls, and flax-processing tools) were used to create the finished cloth found in the town. Leather footwear also was produced in early medieval Staraya Ladoga.
Agriculture, stock raising, gathering, and hunting also occupied the early occupants of the town and its countryside. Agricultural tools, including plowshares, are preserved in the archaeological record. Botanical remains comprise cultivated cereals, such as millet, and locally gathered plants and berries. Animals were raised in cattle pens and sheds. Domesticates included cows, pigs, sheep, goats, hens, horses, dogs, and cats. Hunting equipment and faunal remains of wild game indicate that beaver, fox, hare, moose, deer, wolf, lynx, seal, various birds, and numerous fish were hunted, some for food and some for their pelts.
society and culture
Many ethnic groups lived in early medieval Staraya Ladoga, among them, Balts, Finns, Slavs, and Scandinavians. These groups are distinguished more easily in the early centuries of settlement. Over time, the material culture of Staraya Ladoga became more homogenized. Archaeological research on burials throughout the Lake Ladoga region suggests that ethnic integration existed inside and outside the town. Although it is also known as Russia's first "capital," Staraya Ladoga is best characterized as a multi-ethnic trade town whose residents participated in the international Baltic Sea trade network.
Clarke, Helen, and Björn Ambrosiani. "Towns in the Slavonic-Baltic Area." In their Towns in the Viking Age, pp. 107–127. Rev. ed. Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1995.
Uino, Pirjo. "On the History of Staraja Ladoga." Acta Archaeologica 59 (1988): 205–222.