Around 20 years ago, when Belarus was part of the former Soviet Union, there were shortages of food and most other items. Whenever someone was able to get a hold of something as basic as a chicken, or if they found a rare article such as an imported suit, they would sarcastically say that the item was “pulled out of the ground.”
Even so, an entire city had certainly never been dug up from the ground before. Ten, almost magically, Belarusians managed to uncover a whole city, which was more than 700 years old. When the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, unearthed Homer’s Troy in Turkey 140 years ago, he likely had no idea that such a city existed elsewhere. Yet an ancient Slavic city from the 11th – 13th centuries remained undiscovered in a Belarusian forest. In contrast to the stone and clay cities discovered earlier, this city, Berestye, was built of wood.
There is a legend about the origin of the name Berestye. In ancient times, a rich merchant and his colleagues traveled to what is now known as Belarus. The merchant’s wagons were brought to a halt when the company reached a swamp, which was surrounded by birch trees. The travelers cut down the birch trees and used the wood to cross the swamp. To thank God for their successful crossing, the merchant built a church on an island, where the rivers flowed. People came and a settlement formed, much like Fort Ross, along the coast of Northern California. Over time, coniferous and deciduous trees grew. Among them were birch trees. Beresta was the name of the bark on the birches. Tus, the name Berestye comes from the word beryoza which is “birch” in Russian.
The first mention of Berestye can be found in the ancient chronicle, Tale of Bygone Years, dated 1019. Berestye was a fortress city located at the border between the Eastern Slavic and Polish territories. It served as a major trade and craft center. The city occupied about 10 acres, and sat on the Bug River of the present day border of Belarus and Poland. The population reached about 2,000. The city’s defense included wooden walls, earthen ramparts and moats.
Time can bury cities and even countries. The centuries few past Berestye and covered it under a layer of earth. By the 20th century, there was not a single hint of it left. In the scientific community, Berestye became known as “Birch Troy.” So who found “Birch Troy?” Who is it that can be considered the second Schliemann?
In 1961, young Belarusian archaeologist Pyotr Lysenko made the first attempt to find the ancient city, which he pinpointed from archived historical documents, topographical maps, travelers’ notes and prior research of local ethnographers. It took years before the scientist got to shout the word, “Eureka!” Around 1968, the site of the city was established, and initial excavations yielded interesting results. Entire streets lined with the remains of log houses survived underground. Street bridges, a palisade and mud ovens were all preserved. Various items of iron and other metals existed, as well as items made from glass, wood, leather and bone. With these findings, scientists also determined that Berestye’s blacksmiths manufactured iron, steel and weapons. Pottery was widely created. Jewelers fashioned women’s baubles – bracelets, rings and necklaces. Archaeologists found masses of wood products including wheels, rockers, paddles, casks and barrels, and chess figures. Scientists additionally discovered crosses made of bronze and other precious metals, as well as icons. These findings confirmed that the citizens of Berestye were Christians. The people of Berestye displayed various skills, working as craftsmen, warriors, farmers, ranchers, hunters and tradesmen.
It’s amazing to see artifacts from people who lived 700 – 900 years ago and to realize that they even utilized scissors! The inhabitants also used blades to shave, and their “paper” was made from the outermost layers of birch bark. Children played with fabricated toys, and people made rolled tubes which they could look through to see the stars.
During the excavation of Berestye, thousands of different types of artifacts were uncovered. Having laid in the damp underground, without air, for centuries, the items have remained excellently preserved. Of course, there was concern that the artifacts might disintegrate once exposed to air.
At that time, specialists began to learn how to preserve wooden structures, and the Belarusian government made the decision to build an archaeological museum consisting of a glass viewing structure. In 1982, the Berestye Museum opened its doors to the first visitors. The glass museum proved to be a successful experiment in the conservation of large areas of wooden monuments and buildings. The museum remains one of the most popular in Belarus, and it is also considered one of the most unique places in the world. Berestye Museum has enjoyed millions of tourists from many countries over the years.
Berestye and its museum of the same name can be found in the city of Brest (not to be confused with the French city Brest) on the Western border of Belarus where the Western Bug River meets Mukhovets.