Professor of the SUSU Department of Russian and International History on the Mysteries of Archaeological Excavations

Learning history is interesting, extremely useful and necessary, because with the development of modern means of communication, one can stumble upon many different historical hypotheses, conjectures, and fabrications on the Internet. And only science can establish the truth. For example, history and archaeology provide certain knowledge on where a people came from to this or that territory, what their way of life (settled or nomadic) was, and what type of activity (hunting, gathering, cattle breeding or farming) prevailed.

The mysteries of the past were revealed thanks to meticulous work of scientists, including prominent researchers working at South Ural State University. Among them is Deputy Director for Research of the SUSU Institute of Media, Social Sciences and Humanities, Professor of the SUSU Department of Russian and International History, leading Research Fellow of the Institute of History and Archaeology of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Sciences (History) Andrey Epimakhov. He published more than 300 works, his international scientific activity is connected with the fulfilment of big projects jointly with the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford; University of Pittsburgh; Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main; Free University of Berlin; the Universities of Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Zurich, Toronto; University of Denmark, and others.

– Who or what influenced your choice of profession?

– Since childhood I dreamt of becoming an archaeologist, though none of my relatives were professional historians. I read a lot of books and popular science magazines; I especially liked "Around the World" and "Science and Life", which were about archaeological discoveries. And already in the 5th or 6th form I realized that I wanted to be an archaeologist. But in childhood it seemed to me that all discoveries were made somewhere far away: in other regions or in other countries. I did not know that the land of the Ural region is filled with mysteries of the past. Like many other students, I participated in History Olympiads, and in the 9th form I was very lucky to go on my first expedition to Northern Kazakhstan. The head of the expedition was the famous scientist Gennadiy Zdanovich, the discoverer of Arkaim, who launched activities to save it from flooding and organized his research team.

I enrolled at the Faculty of History of the Chelyabinsk State University, since many archaeologists studied there, and Gennadiy Zdanovich worked and continues to work there.

– Please, tell us about student internships and the romance of excavations. Has the self-isolation regime affected your work?

– Of course, this academic year was not easy, it was very challenging. However, both academics and students have managed to cope with it. Unfortunately, the unfavourable epidemiological situation forced us to change the form of summer internships for students. Usually, in summer, all students go to excavations, on archaeological expeditions (except for those whose health condition prevents them from going there). But now, while field practice is impossible, we have found an alternative option. Students are now practicing at the SUSU Laboratory of Experimental Archaeology, which is headed by Junior Research Fellow of the SUSU Eurasian Studies Research and Education Centre Ivan Semyan. In this laboratory, objects used by ancient people are being reproduced, and technological processes are being reconstructed. The purpose of this work is to understand not only how the artefacts were made, but also how they were used in ancient times. Often the answer to this question is not at all obvious. Students will be able to observe with their own eyes, and most importantly, try their hand in obtaining new archaeological knowledge. Working in small groups makes it possible to maintain all the necessary sanitary conditions.

Photo: Ivan Semyan
Another form of the student practical training is the processing and description of the archaeological finds discovered in expeditions of the past years. Some of these things can be found in the SUSU Educational Museum "Science and Technology of the Southern Ural", some things can be found in the State Museum of the South Ural History and other museums with which we have long and fruitfully collaborated. It should be understood that all archaeological finds become the property of the state. That is why, the right to conduct excavations is granted only to people with the appropriate qualification and possessing a special document, the so-called Open Sheet (permit for archaeological excavations), which is issued to a specific researcher for a specific monument and approved by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. Upon completing the work, the researcher must submit a report to the Ministry, which is thoroughly checked by the staff members of the Head Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. After that, the scientist can work with the materials (archaeological finds) for three years, and then he/she is obliged to hand them over for state storage to the museum collection of the Russian Federation. Museums draw up acts confirming that the collection has been handed over to them, and all finds are included into the State Catalogue of the Russian Federation. Anyone can find the information of interest in the public domain.

Archaeologists have to work a lot with drawings and finds during their scientific research. Thus, a find needs to be described, photographed and sketched, cleaned of dirt, dust, and sand. If it is damaged, which is often the case, it needs to be restored using appropriate technologies. By the way, sketching is very important. A human sees more than a camera, for example, a cross-section of an object, and can try to complete the missing fragment and estimate the size of things. And this is very important because it can play a decisive role in further scientific work.

Of course, future archaeologists have to be able to describe collections of objects. And they learn this as well in practice under the leadership of experienced mentors.

Surely, such work requires attention. It will probably not be an exaggeration to say that the processing and description of sources take up the lion's share of the time in research activities. The analysis and making conclusions are not easy to do. One needs to understand that discoveries, as well as scientific articles (and monographs even more so), are the result of many days’ and often of many years’ efforts.

- Please, tell us about interesting discoveries and scientific research in our region's archaeology.

- In 2019, the long-awaited article "The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia" was published in the Science journal; me being one of the authors of that article. Its publication has an extensive backstory. We started with posting the first version of the manuscript and the source materials for the article in the public domain for review of all those interested. The materials include the description of the discoveries in the Bronze Age burial ground (beginning of the 2nd millennium BC) Kamenny Ambar-5 (in the Kartaly District of the Chelyabinsk Region). Those materials received 600 responses from scientists who clarified and quoted them. With all the amendments taken into account, the article was written. It also received a lot of responses, and was also actively quoted. All in all, the article brought together more than one hundred authors (including myself) from 20 countries, including the Russian Federation. You need to understand that the article itself may not be very long, for example, five pages, but the accompanying material is colossal.

Examination of the remains of ancient people to find out their gender, composition, whether they had been relatives, and the causes of death

Our work is devoted to paleogenetic research, including the material from the excavations at the site of the above-mentioned Kamenny Ambar burial ground. The remains of fifty ancient people were examined in order to find out their gender, whether they had been relatives to each other, whether the population had been homogeneous in composition or had consisted of people from different places, and what had been the causes of death (hunger, diseases). Those people were compared both with modern samples and with the remains of ancient people from other territories (from Altai to Central Europe, from the Urals region to Northern India).

Paleogenetic methods help to capture the movements (migration processes) of ancient people, but do not answer the question about the ancestors of modern peoples. Indeed, over the centuries-long history, ethnic groups have contacted and inevitably mixed with each other one way or another. The scenarios can be very different: alien groups (“migrants”) can almost completely “dissolve” in local population, but it also happens vice versa. However, there are certain genetic markers peculiar to large ethnic groups and races, which scientists work with.

In addition, in early 2020, I have been awarded a certificate as the most cited author of the article of 2017 in the English-language scientific journal Ecology and Evolution, which is included in Scopus and Web of Science scientific databases.

By the nature of my occupation, I have to cooperate a lot not only with the Russian, but also with foreign scientists in various fields of science: ecology, genetics, and others. They help to determine what food (plant or animal) the ancient people ate predominantly, what ailments they suffered from, and much more. To do this, it is necessary to use expensive equipment, which is often not available in Russia, so we interact with our foreign colleagues. But for the most part they are tuned in to partnerships in science, so we work fruitfully, and write joint scientific articles. We find the material, others study it with the help of special equipment, then we analyse the obtained data from different angles: history, anthropology, genetics, and so on.

Analysing the isotopic "signature" will help determine where ancient people originate from

Another good news is that we have received a confirmation that our grant application to the Russian Science Foundation has been approved recently. We will be studying the migration and mobility of ancient human communities with the help of isotopic analysis. Fortunately, Russia has the appropriate equipment; in our case it is a good example of the integration of academic and university science. SUSU cooperates with the Zavaritsky Institute of Geology and Geochemistry of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the South Urals Federal Research Centre of Mineralogy and Geoecology of the Urals Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Our task is to create a tool for such an analysis of the mobility of people and animals for the Urals territory. It will help determine where these or those ancient people originate from: local, that is, born and raised in this territory, or newcomers. The scope of research can be different, from an individual to a large group. The work is based on the Ural material, since there is a complex geological structure, almost every site has its own composition of minerals of different geological ages. First, we will work out the technique in small areas, then we will scale this practice. Let me explain: each geological site has its own isotopic "signature". Therefore, a person born and living in a certain place in ancient times, as a rule, ate those plants or animals that could be found in the immediate vicinity. This deposited in bone tissues, and our task is to "read" the isotopic signature of these bones and compare it against the geological background. Of course, there was no such import of products as we have now: the inhabitants of the steppes did not consume bananas from South America, like modern residents of the Russian Federation.

So, soil with minerals leaves a certain mark on everything that grows here. And, of course, if a person drinks local water and eats this or that food, it leaves a certain mark in his/her bones. It is precisely with the help of isotopic analysis that we find out this: if a person since birth ate local food that grew there, it means that he/she is local, if not - it means that he/she is a newcomer.

The Ural region is very convenient for research since there are many different minerals, in contrast, for example, to the adjacent Western Siberia, where the geology is quite homogeneous. Consequently, the isotopic signatures of different parts of this large region will differ slightly. For the next three years we plan to deal with this topic. For our conclusions to be more ambitious and accurate, a serious expansion of the working area will be required. I hope we will succeed in it.

– Do you have time for your hobbies with such a workload?
- Science (archaeology) has been and still remains my main hobby. And it gives everything: food for thought, solving puzzling secrets of the past, the excitement of searching, physical work on excavations, and a certain amount of romance with songs by the campfire in archaeological expeditions.

Ivan Zagrebin, photo by Oleg Igoshin and from the archives of A.V. Epimakhov
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