Ivan the Terrible-era weapons cache found

Archaeologists excavating the site of future highway construction near Zvenigorod, a medieval town in the Moscow Oblast about 40 miles west of the capital, have unearthed a cache of weapons from the era of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584). The arsenal was discovered alongside the remains of the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe. The team unearthed about 60 buildings from the village. One of them had burned down in the mid-16th century but its basement survived remarkably unscathed. It’s in the underground timber-lined storage room that archaeologists discovered what they believe was the private arsenal of one of Ivan the Terrible’s elite cadre of knights.

They found helmets stored in leather boxes, kolchugs (a kind of cuirass), sections of military sabres, belts, and arrows and more. It seems possible that this was a cache of weapons for a military expedition, stored in special boxes, including even sections of camp tents and billy cans. This warlike inventory, along with the status of its owner, probably indicated the existence of a standing army of troops in readiness, who were armed, billeted and fed at the cost of members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

The spherical helmets with the pointed spikes decorated with gold and silver fittings are particularly splendid examples. There are similar ones in major Russian museums today, but these are the only ones ever found still inside their leather storage boxes with their fabric linings and ear-pieces intact.

The identity of the cache’s owner is unknown, but Ignatievskoe which was the home of the Dobrynins, an important boyar family who had at least one son among the oprichniki, a personal guard hand-picked by Ivan to police an area that was under his exclusive control. Ivan had demanded the creation of this new region as a condition of his return to Moscow after his sudden December 1564 departure. Distrustful of many nobles and clergy who he was certain were a pack of treasonous thieves, Ivan had left Moscow and sent a letter announcing his abdication. The boyar court was terrified that Moscow would fall into violence and chaos without Ivan’s leadership, so they agreed to all of his terms. Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina, a territory that he thought was rife with rebellious nobles (and, coincidentally of course, valuable industry), over which he had absolute power, including the power to execute anyone he wanted no matter how aristocratic without having to justify himself to the boyar council. Even family wasn’t exempt. Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa, the grandson and nephew of Tsars, was one of the nobles who was executed and had his property confiscated under the oprichnina.

His army of a thousand men swore loyalty to him alone. Famed for their black horses and ruthless application of Ivan’s notion of justice, the oprichniki killed thousands, noble and peasant. Their unchecked violence culminated in the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod when more than 1500 nobles and uncounted numbers of commoners were tortured, killed or kicked out of the city to die from exposure and starvation. The massacre turned the tide against the oprichniki so decisively that Ivan was compelled to disband it in 1572.

Ignatievskoe was in the middle of several towns in the Moscow Oblast added to the oprichnina. It’s possible the arsenal was intended to arm Ivan’s terrible black-horsed guard in the performance of their brutal duties. It’s also possible that it was meant for other campaigns as the late 16th century was plagued by incursions from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as internal conflict.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness. This excavation enables us to ‘see’ for the first time the preparations made by the noblemen who made up the officer corps elite of the Russian army at the time of the flowering of Muscovy as a Russian state,” Mr. Alexeyev remarked.