Unknown gunmen attacked Chersonesos dig team, rejected Ukrainian excavation licence

Unrelenting bad news: ‘in Sevastopol, near Fiolenta [Bay], unknown persons shot at archaeologists, [who were] leading official excavations [В Севастополе в районе Фиолента неизвестные обстреляли археологов, ведущих официальные раскопки]’. No-one was injured in the incident, which lasted half an hour(?), but the police investigation will not be able to reach a reassuring conclusion.

As always, I’m working via machine translation, but again, I’m depressingly confident of the article’s content.

Anti-looting rescue excavation

The Head of Department for Medieval History at Chersonesos Reserve, Tatyana Yashaeva, has been excavating near Vine Cape (Mysa Vinogradny/Vinohradnyi) for twenty-five years. It is her life’s work.

Despite it being wintertime, back in January, we were forced to urgently issue, through the Department for the Protection of Monuments of the SCSA [Sevastopol City State Administration], all of the necessary permits [in order] to urgently protect the monument from looting.

[Несмотря на зимнее время, мы были вынуждены ещё в январе срочно оформить через отдел охраны памятников СГГА [Севастопольская городская государственная администрация] все необходимые разрешения с целью экстренно защитить памятник от разграбления.]

Fortunately, yesterday, despite the disruption of the occupation, her colleagues from the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos were running a museum day at a rural school, so none of this month’s ‘several organised school groups [несколько организованных групп школьников]’ were on site. At around 2pm (Eastern European Summer Time (EEST)), the ‘archaeologists were shot at [была обстреляна… археологов]’.

Shots rang out from the top of the hill

Tatyana Yusufovna explained that,

Two [50-60-year-old] men aimed at us defiantly, and then took shots from a distance of about 30-50 metres. All this was accompanied by an orgy of loud abuse with the demand [for us] to stop digging. None of the members of the expedition was injured.

[Двое мужчин [по 50-60 лет] демонстративно целились в нас, а затем производили выстрелы с расстояния порядка 30-50 метров. Вся эта вакханалия сопровождалась громкой бранью с требованиями остановить раскопки. Никто из членов экспедиции не пострадал.]

She couldn’t tell from what the shots came, only that the gunmen ‘fired and “reloaded [their] weapons” several times [стрелявшие несколько раз «перезаряжали оружие»]’.

Initially, shots rang out from the top [of the hill]. Archaeologists made ​​unsuccessful attempts to explain and asked [them] to stop shooting. [After] about half an hour[?], men – already without weapons – ran down to the site of the excavation. Although one of them was more silent, the other, on the contrary, did not rest in [his] attempts to stop the work, doing everything “in a scream, in a type of mental attack”.

[Вначале выстрелы раздавались сверху. Археологи предпринимали безуспешные попытки объясниться и просили прекратить стрельбу. Примерно через полчаса мужчины – уже без оружия – спустились к месту раскопа. Если один из них больше молчал, то другой, напротив – не оставил попыток остановить работы, делая всё «на крике по типу психической атаки».]

The gunmen questioned the validity of the Ukrainian excavation permits

The director of the dig, Head of Department for Medieval History at Chersonesos Reserve, Tatyana Yashaeva, recalled that the gunman declared: ‘You have no right. I forbid it! [Вы не имеете права. Запрещаю!]’ The archaeologists showed that they had ‘permission to work, drawn up according to the rules [разрешение на работы, оформленное по всем правилам]’; but it had no effect.

The attackers did not calm down, although they “realised” that archaeologists were working legally. Their rhetoric just changed into pseudo-patriotism. Thus, the “verifier” questioned the legality of the reserve permits [that had been] issued to the workers on the sole ground that the seals were tridents.

[атакующие не успокоились, хотя до них «дошло», что археологи работают на законных основаниях. Их риторика лишь поменялась в сторону псевдопатриотизма. Так, «проверяющий» поставил под сомнение законность выданных работникам Заповедника разрешений лишь на том основании, что на печатях стоят трезубцы.]

The archaeologists explained that, by definition, ‘in January, there could be no other permits and, in the transition period, all [existing] permits [should] remain in force [в январе не могло быть никаких иных печатей, а на время переходного периода все разрешительные документы остаются в силе]’. But, still, ‘it had no effect [не возымело действия]’.

‘I’m gonna scatter grenades into the excavation’

The gunmen’s verbal parting shot was a grim warning: ‘If I see you here again, you won’t get away with it [literally, you won’t escape trouble (Wiktionary)?]! I’m gonna scatter grenades straight into the excavation! [Если я вас здесь ещё раз увижу, то вам несдобровать! Закидаю гранатами прямо в раскопе!]’

‘In order not to endanger the lives of members of the expedition [Чтобы не подвергать опасности жизнь участников экспедиции]’, the Directorate of Chersonesos Reserve suspended work and summoned the police, but they have not caught anyone yet.


We can only hope that the least disturbing explanation is true.


Yashaeva considered the possibility that locals had believed that the excavation had damaged their buildings; but that would have been impossible, because of the distance between the buildings and the site, because of the geology under the buildings and between the buildings and the site, and because of the nature of the excavation (of soft soil deposits).


Yashaeva also observed that ‘black diggers [antiquities looters] act with impunity and do not fear anyone [чёрные копатели действуют безнаказанно и никого не боятся]’. Gunmen have attacked archaeologists before; but only once(?), briefly, during the night. Even that was an act of ‘unprecedented audacity [беспрецедентной наглости]’. And those looters did not besiege the archaeologists for half-an-hour(?); they did not approach the archaeologists or allow their faces to be seen; and they did not offer any excuses for the attack.

Drunken idiots?

It has been suggested that the attackers could have been drunken idiots. That is a possibility – and, sadly, it may be the least terrifying possibility. But, personally, I doubt it. Apart from anything else, none of the archaeologists noted that the gunmen had seemed drunk (though, obviously, they may have had other things on their mind).

Also, it seems unlikely that a couple of men – even drunk men – decided to take pot shots at random people for half an hour (or to put the excavation team under sustained assault). If they did, it would have been more by good luck than good management that they didn’t kill anyone. As I say, that is a possibility – but when that is the least terrifying possibility…

Land grab

It has also been suggested that the attackers could have been land-grabbers from the buildings in the area of the site. I find that unlikely, too. First, if they wanted to annex some land from the site of Chersonesos, they would need to take and keep land from the national monument of Chersonesos, which would be a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention, for which Russia would be legally responsible.

Second, the Hermitage is already planning to excavate Chersonesos, so any land grab would infringe upon the nationalist interests of the Russian state. (I did not list those in order of importance to Russia.)

Third(ish), if the gunmen were powerful enough to take and keep the land, they would have to be part of the administration (or its deniable agencies), in which case it would practically constitute a state crime.

Fourth(ish), if they wanted to annex some land near the site of Chersonesos but not on it, there would be no reason to attack the archaeologists.

“Illicit” excavation in annexed territory?

These gunmen did not simply object to any excavation. The gunmen’s rhetoric was precisely legalistic. They said that the archaeologists’ Ukrainian excavation licence was not acceptable (implicitly, that a Russian licence was necessary).

There is some hope that the licence was just an excuse; and someone who knows what they’re talking about has said that it would not make sense to attack the team over the licence; but the alternatives don’t make sense either.

Were they separatists/annexationists, who attacked the dig team because their dig permit was judged to be a rejection of the annexation?

Any other theories? Any other evidence? Contact me privately.


Thekla Lizorkina did not report whether the incident had changed the two volunteers’ perspective on the profession…

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