The results of archaeological research conducted around St. Sophia Cathedral in 2021

The results of archaeological research conducted around St. Sophia Cathedral in 2021

During August-December 2021, the team of the National Conservation Area “St. Sophia of Kyiv” (Tymur Bobrovskyi, Volodymyr Savytskyi, Oleksandr Hanshyn and Viacheslav Haiduk) together with colleagues from the Institute of Archeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Vitalii Koziuba and Vsevolod Ivakin) conducted archeological excavations which accompanied works related to the replacement of the pavement around St. Sophia Cathedral. And although these repairs did not involve deep excavation, during the removal of debris only half a meter from the modern surface, archaeologists discovered, researched and recorded many archaeological sites of the 11th – 18th centuries.

Photo 1. General view of the site of archaeological research on the south side of St. Sophia Cathedral


In particular, archaeological research has established that in the 18th century around the cathedral was a monastery cemetery. It turned out that around the middle of the 18th century due to redevelopment the level of the daylight surface near the walls of the cathedral was reduced by about 1 m. Therefore, burials of the first half of this century were at a depth of only 0.5–0.6 m from the modern surface, burials of the second half of the century were discovered at a depth of at least 1.5 m from the modern surface.

Photo 2. One of the burials of the first half of the 18th century, discovered at a depth of 0.5 m from the modern surface.

Photo 3. Burial of the second half of the 18th century, discovered at a depth of more than 1.5 m from the modern surface.

The vast majority of burials surveyed in 2021 did not have accompanying inventory, which is quite typical of Christian funeral customs. However, this rule had some exceptions. Thus, one of the women’s burials, made until the middle of the 18th century, contained the remains of jewelry – a large necklace of small silver rings and two silver rings with semi-precious stones.

Photo 4-5. Women’s burial of the first half of the 18th century and the remains of silver jewelry from it.

In another burial – the second half of the 18th century – there are remnants of clothing – perhaps robes, as well as embroidered with gold thread silk paraman and a monk’s leather belt embroidered with silver. During the research, Kyiv restorer Volodymyr Nazar managed to remove the remnants of the clothes from the burial in order to save them for the future museum exposition. The brick laid under the head of the deceased, as well as the remains of the paraman, which covered his face, testify to the burial here of a person belonging to the clergy – most likely a monk of St. Sophia Monastery.

Photo 6-7. Monk’s burial of the second half of the 18th century with the remains of preserved clothes and the working moment of cleaning the fabric by the restorer.

Photo 8-9. Remains of a silk paraman with a cross embroidered with gold threads and fragments of a leather belt with a bronze buckle and silver embroidery from a monk’s burial of the second half of the 18th century.

Of particular interest among the burial monuments explored near the cathedral in 2021 is an object that belongs to a much older time. These are the remains of a burial, which was carried out in this area before the construction of Sophia of Kyiv – in the late 10th or early 11th centuries. The burial, probably male, was located in a wooden tomb placed in a large pit at a depth of more than 2 m from the modern surface. Traces of the so-called burial mound around the burial indicate that a burial mound with a diameter of about 6 m was built over the burial. However, the orientation of the buried with his feet to the east indicates the use of Christian burial custom. So we are dealing with an object that appeared not earlier than the end of the 80s of the 10th century, when the baptism of Rus took place. At the same time, there is an interesting burial inventory – two silver temple rings, a silver wire ring, an iron boot knife and two bone buttons with an incised ornament, typical of Asian antiquities of the late ninth –  early 11th centuries. The discovery of this burial confirms the hypothesis of the existence of a large city burial mound on the site of Sophia of Kyiv in the 10th – early 11th centuries.

Photo 10. Remains of burial mounds of the late 10th – early 11th centuries.

Photo 11. Silver temple rings and rings, a boot knife and ornamented bone buttons from the burial of the late 10th – early 11th centuries.

Archaeological research in 2021 also revealed that before the construction of St. Sophia Cathedral in the area there were not only mounds. In particular, the remains of several wooden fences and economic pits cut by the foundations of the cathedral were traced on the southern and western sides of the cathedral. Probably, these objects appeared at the time when in place of Sophia of Kyiv, instead of a burial mound, manor buildings began to form, the development of which stopped with the construction of the cathedral in the first half of the 11th century. It is noteworthy that the planning axes of these objects do not agree with the cathedral itself and are located at an acute angle to it. It is interesting that the oldest monastery wall of St. Sophia of Kyiv was oriented in the same direction, which, unlike the cathedral, which was directed to the point of sunrise at the time of laying the foundation, was probably erected on the basis of planning elements already existing by that time – city streets or suburban routes.


Photo 12-13. Remains of an economic pit and ditches from the fences of the beginning of the 11th century, cut by the foundations of the southern and western walls of the cathedral.

In addition, research in 2021 traced the remains of so-called substructures under the foundations of St. Sophia Cathedral – in particular, wooden pegs, which were driven every 15-20 cm into the bottom of the foundation ditch to strengthen it. This technique, typical of Byzantine architects, is known in Rus only for monumental structures of the late 10th and 11th centuries and was not used in later times. Incidentally, these pegs held the wooden beams placed between them – the so-called logs – on which the stone foundations of the buildings actually rested.

Of course, the wooden elements of the substructures have not survived so far, but they have left imprints of wood powder in the soil and cavities in the thickness of the masonry. It should also be noted that during the study of the foundations of Sophia of Kyiv, traces of pegs were recorded earlier, but the remains of the logs were traced for the first time in 2021.

Photo 14-17. The foundations of the south wall of the cathedral and traces of wooden pegs – a rectangular imprint in the lower surface of the foundation, triangular impressures at the bottom of the foundation ditch and a vertical impressure in the section of soil under the foundation.

Photo 18-19. Holes from the transverse logs and the internal appearance of the cavity in place of one of them in the sole of the foundation of the eastern wall of the cathedral.

However, the most important discovery of 2021 was the discovery of the remains of a previously unknown cathedral altar near the north-eastern corner of Sophia of Kyiv, namely the well-preserved foundation of the so-called apse – a semicircular ledge on the eastern wall of the northern outer gallery. The thickness of this foundation, made of stone on lime-cement mortar, reaches more than 1.2 m. On top of it, a wall about 1 m thick was erected from a plinth (ancient brick), separate stone blocks and mortar. It has been established that this apse was built simultaneously with the main volume of the cathedral in the first half of the 11th century, but the time and circumstances of its destruction remain unknown to this day.

Photo 20. Remains of the newly discovered apse on the north-eastern side of the cathedral.

It should be noted that during the study of the remains of this apse for the first time it was possible to investigate the intersection of the internal structure of the oldest walls of St. Sophia Cathedral, which in other parts of the building are preserved intact. It turned out that the wall of the apse, preserved here to a height of 25-30 cm, had a two-shell structure – that is, its inner and outer surfaces formed rows of bricks and stones, the space between which was filled with construction debris mixed with mortar.

Adjacent to the plastered surface of the inner side of the wall of this apse was an extension made in the same way as the wall. It consisted of a brick shell, the gap between which and the wall of the apse was filled with rubble. By analogy, this structure can be safely defined as the remains of a two-step syntron – a special bench in the church altar, designed to sit on it during the service of the Metropolitan and bishops. The importance of the newly opened apse is also indicated by its size – in width and length it exceeds all the altars of the cathedral, except the main one. At the same time, the walls of the apse, as can be seen from archaeological finds, were decorated with frescoes, and its floor was paved with large ceramic tiles covered with colored glaze.

Photo 21-22. The general view of the apse and the axonometric scheme of its components: the foundations are marked in blue, the remains of the wall in green, the masonry of the syntron in red, and the paving of the altar floor in yellow.

It should be noted that the syntron is not only a sign of the altar, which was located in the newly discovered apse, but also evidence that this altar was intended for worship with the participation of the highest hierarchs of the church. Knowing that St. Sophia Cathedral from the very beginning of its existence was the cathedral of the Kyiv metropolitanate, there is no doubt that the altar with the syntron in the northeast corner of the cathedral was once conducted by the Metropolitan himself.

Instead, it remains a mystery why there were two metropolitan altars in the 11th-century Sophia of Kyiv, since the main (central) altar of the cathedral also had a syntron, and two syntrons in one church is a unique phenomenon not only in Ancient Rus but in the Byzantine world. However, one analogy still exists – St. Sophia Cathedral in Novhorod – the main episcopal church of Northern Rus, built by the son of Yaroslav the Wise in the 40s of the 11th century on the model of Sophia of Kyiv on a smaller scale. Here both external galleries had large altars from the east, one of which was also decorated with syntron. It is this monument that allows us to imagine what the lost apse looked like in the exterior decoration of the 11th century Sophia of Kyiv.

Photo 23. St. Sophia Cathedrals of the 11th century in Kyiv (plan and reconstruction of appearance) and in Novhorod (plan and photo of modern appearance).

Finally, summarizing the results of research in 2021 near St. Sophia Cathedral, it is impossible not to mention the findings of archaeological objects that help historians reconstruct the life of the ancient population and often allow a new look at Sophia of Kyiv or even see what was allegedly lost forever.

The first thing that impressed archaeologists was the extraordinary number of purely household items that were unexpected for church centers: copper and silver coins of the 16th-19th centuries, flint for rifles of the 17th century, fragments of 12th-13th century glass bracelets, bronze rings and buttons, iron buckles and keys, dice chips of the 11th–18th centuries, etc. Now it is difficult to say whether these items were simply lost by pilgrims visiting the cathedral, or whether they served as a kind of contribution to the temple treasury.

Photo 24. Various household items of the 11th – early 20th centuries, found near St. Sophia Cathedral.

Against this background, some objects of personal piety look rare, such as the bronze cross-encolpion of the first half of the thirteenth century, lost by someone at the southern entrance to the temple. Such crosses, worn by both priests and wealthy pilgrims, consisted of two wings, between which was placed a relic – a piece of holy relics, consecrated incense and more. And although such finds are not uncommon in the monuments of Ancient Rus, the find in 2021 was the only whole encolpion so far found on the territory of the Sophia estate during all decades of its archaeological study. On one chair of this cross you can see a relief image of the crucified Jesus Christ surrounded by saints, and on the other – the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Cyrillic inscription “Help, oh Virgin Mary”.

Photo 25. Bronze cross-encolpion of the first half of the 18th century.

Directly connected with the interior of the cathedral are numerous finds of fragments of frescoes of the 11th – 12th centuries, which due to repairs or some cataclysms fell from the walls of Sophia and were discarded as construction debris. Many fragments of frescoes have preserved not only details of images of saints, but also ancient graffiti – inscriptions and drawings, which were eagerly scratched simply on fresco compositions by visitors of the cathedral. Such inscriptions include both prayer texts and commemorative notes – in particular, one of the inscriptions contains the date of 1114. In the drawings drawn in the plaster, there are quite picturesque images of saints, horses and even cheetahs, who may have lived in the prince’s menagerie.

Photo 26. Fragments of frescoes of the 11th-12th centuries and the remains of inscriptions and graffiti on them.

The ancient utensils of St. Sophia Cathedral are also associated with the discovery of fragments of bronze corona lucis – large chandeliers, which, thanks to the candles attached to them, illuminated the interior of the church.

Photo 27. Fragments of bronze choirs of the 11th-13th centuries.

As you know, Sophia of Kyiv from the beginning of its existence had its own unique library, founded by Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Unfortunately, all the rarities of that book collection were lost in later times – looted or burned. However, small details of the decoration of the covers of ancient books, which are regularly found by archaeologists during research in the estate of St. Sophia Cathedral, are still preserved. The most common finds are various book clasps made of silver and bronze.

Photo 28. Silver and bronze book clasps of the 11th – 13th centuries.

As the residence of the metropolitan was located at St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, the archive of correspondence received by the Kyiv bishop was kept here. From the medieval correspondence, only lead hanging seals have survived – bullae, which certified the postal items of that time. So far, only 9 such seals have been found in the estate of Sophia of Kyiv. In 2021, this collection was replenished with three bullae of the 11th – 13th centuries. Two of them belonged to as yet unidentified statesmen or church figures, such as Leontii and Solomon, and the third was hypothetically related to Father Danyil, mentioned in the chronicle at the beginning of the 12th century, Bishop of Yuriiv (modern Bila Tserkva).

Photo 29. Lead bullae of Leontii, Solomon and Bishop Danyil

Finally, it is worth mentioning two finds related to ancient icons preserved in St. Sophia Cathedral in the 11th – 12th centuries. One of them is represented by a small fragment of treated steatite – a rare stone in the Middle Ages, from which small icons were made in Byzantium. The steatite fragment, found in 2021, has a greenish color and comes from an icon depicting an unknown saint in full height. The fragment preserves only the image of his right hand and the folds on the elements of clothing – chasuble, epitrachelion and omophorion. The closest analogy of the Sophia find is a fragmented Byzantine steatite icon of the 11th century with the image of St. Nicholas of Myra from the collection of the National Library of France in Paris. In contrast to the rather miniature Parisian image, the Kyiv icon was almost twice as large – length about 19 cm and width about 13 cm.

Photo 30. Fragment of a steatite icon from Sophia of Kyiv and a Byzantine icon of St. Nicholas of the 11th century from the National Library of France with the place of a similar fragment marked on it.

Lastly, the most spectacular find of 2021 near St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was a detail from a large gold-enamel icon of the 11th – 12th centuries. The detail is an arched gold strip 6 cm long, less than 1 cm wide and about 2 mm thick. On the surface of this strip, in a specially forged recess, the master jeweler soldered thin gold partitions, the space between which was later filled with multicolored enamel. The result is a colorful ornament in the form of crosses, as if connected in a chain, made in the technique of cloisonné enamel.

Photo 31. Detail of a gold enamel icon of the 11th-12th centuries.

The closest analogy to the Kyiv find is a beautifully preserved Byzantine gold-enamel icon of the 11th century with the image of St. Archangel Michael, which is now kept in the treasury of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. It is believed that this icon, which measures 44 x 39 cm, was made by court jewelers of the Byzantine emperor in the first half of the 11th century. The icon, which has a solid gold background, is decorated with numerous overlays made of precious stones or in the technique of cloisonné enamel. The gold enamel strip, found near St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, is almost identical in size and decoration to the details from which the halo of St. Archangel was made on this icon.

Photo 32. Byzantine gold enamel icon of St. Archangel Michael from the treasury of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

Of course, it remains unknown which saint’s icon was decorated with a Kyiv find. However, it is safe to say that in the 11th – 12th centuries Sophia of Kyiv was decorated with one of the masterpieces of Byzantine jewelry – a large gold enamel icon, which may have been a personal gift of the Byzantine emperor to the Kyiv prince or metropolitan and was stolen from the cathedral during the princely feuds of the 12th – 13th centuries or the Mongol invasion of 1240.

Finally, the study of the remains of the ancient apse of the cathedral, found in 2021, is planned to continue in order to study and musemify the excavated ruins. Archaeological objects found during the research are expected to be made available for displaying in the specialized archeological exposition of the National Conservation Area “St. Sophia of Kyiv”.

Text and illustrations prepared by

Tymur Bobrovskyi, Senior Researcher of the National Conservation Area “St. Sophia of Kyiv”, Candidate of Historical Sciences