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Archeology as a Passion


As far as archeology is concerned, the nineteenth century was mostly the time of amateurs. Things began to change radically only in the twentieth century, and the most important discoveries were made by professional archeologists. But some amateurs did make worthy contributions as well. One of them was Vikentiy Khvoyka.


Vikentiy Khvoyka was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1850. At that time it was a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The family tradition traces Khvoykas to aristocrats of older times but there is no documentary evidence to support this claim. In the seventeenth century, during the clashes of the Czech Protestants with Austrian Catholics, the Khvoykas’ estate was burned down and all the archives perished in the fire. Those who survived could not claim their property back and had to earn their living as humble burghers of the town of Semini.

Being rather hard pressed for money, the Khvoyka family could not provide good education for all the nine children. Vikentiy, whose name then was Czeslav, could attend school only up to the age of fourteen. Later, he continued his education all by himself, and came to be one of the most well-informed autodidacts of his time.

As a young man, Khvoyka visited many places in the Austrian-Hungarian empire (incidentally, most of his touring he did on foot). His hunger for knowledge took him to museums, where he saw a lot of artifacts which originated within the lands of Slavic cultures. His interest was stirred.

Khvoyka’s early life is poorly documented and thus is not known well — he must have been reluctant to make his affairs known to the public. There is some evidence that suggests that when he was about 26 years of age, his parents wanted him to marry a rich girl, but Khvoyka, who was probably of a somewhat rebellious nature, or not wishing to marry someone who he did not care for, categorically refused to comply with the parents’ wish. For this, or for some other reason, he left his native land never to come back.

He moved to Kyiv and changed his Christian name to Vikentiy, and Ukrainianized his last name too. He began to earn his living by teaching German, drawing and — somewhat unexpectedly — fencing. Later, he got interested in agriculture and achieved a considerable measure of success in growing hop and millet (at some agricultural exhibitions, he was even awarded prizes). In 1899, at an agricultural exhibition in Paris, he was awarded a silver medal and promoted to membership of a French academy.


Fire brings about a change in life

Not much later, an almost tragic event changed the course of his life. The barn which housed his laboratory, burned down in an accidental fire. All his papers and lab equipment perished, including, incidentally, his medals awarded for his agricultural achievements. It was a heavy blow to his agricultural career, but he did not despair and decided to set up a new lab. As he was rummaging through the scorched ruins of his barn, trying to salvage whatever he could find, he dug deeper than he intended and unearthed several glass bracelets, evidently quite ancient. He cleaned them up and sold to an antiquarian for quite a decent sum of money. It was the second push in his life toward archeology (ancient artifacts seen in the museums were the first), and this time it produced more than just a passing interest.

Khvoyka decided to try his hand at archeological digging. In several years, he progressed from amateur to professional. Considerable changes in archeology were taking place at that time — archeology was becoming a separate branch of scientific endeavor, and its methods and techniques began to acquire principles on which scientific archeology is based now when every little thing matters — circumstances and conditions of discovery, the exact position of the discovered artifact, depth, soil, etc., and a shard, archeologically speaking, may be as valuable as a gold coin or a silver vessel.

Khvoyka also began collecting antiquities and artifacts, which he thought were of a historical value, visiting antique shops and bazaars. Much later, his collections would be passed on to the National Museum of History of Ukraine.

Khvoyka became one of the few early archeology enthusiasts among whom one finds D. Yavornytsky, V. Antonovych, M. Bilyashevsky and patrons of art (the Khomenkos, for example). Khvoyka began his archeological career by joining other archeologistss, more experienced, and watching them do the digging. Once he had gained enough experience, he moved on on his own, and began digging at barrows — ancient burial mounds — which were legion in the Ukrainian steppe. He must have had an uncanny intuition which took him invariably to the places pregnant with archeological riches.


First discoveries

Once, Khvoyka went to see whether he could spot something “archeologically” interesting in the holes in the ground which were dug near one of the churches during reconstruction work in Podil, “the Lower Town” of Kyiv. It did not take him long to discover pieces of very old ivory which turned out to be remnants of mammoths’ tusks. He turned for advice to V. Antonovych, a professor of St Volodymyr University who confirmed Khvoyka’s quite educated guess as to the origin of the ivory.

Next day, Khvoyka returned to the place of his discovery much better equipped for conducting excavations and his efforts were richly rewarded — he discovered a Paleolithic site with lots of various artifacts made of stone and bone. Among the finds was a mammoth’s tusk with an image of an unknown animal carved on it.

The excavation and the finds engendered a lot of rumors. Crowds of the locals came to have a look — and to pick a piece or two when nobody was looking. It was not only a desire to have a souvenir that made people steal things from the dig — one of the rumors had it that “those bones” were good for making “a potent cure-all”, and it caused a sort of “a bone rush” among the locals. The dig had to be protected by fences and guards, and all the discoveries had to be immediately removed from the site.

Khvoyka must be given credit for making drawings of the discoveries as they were found. Modern-day archeologists take photographs but Khvoyka apparently could not afford either a camera or hiring a photographer. In some of his drawings, he tried to recreate the way the site could have looked like thousands of years ago, and the appearance of the humans who lived there. Some of these imaginative drawings were later exhibited at a museum.

The site eventually came to be called Kyrylivkska stoyanka (at 59/61 Kyrylivska St). The site, which was excavated to a depth of about 20–22 meters (about 70 feet) contained a lot of mammoths’ bones and tusks, signs of campfires and many other artifacts, scraping knives and other flint tools among them. Two of the recovered tusks were adorned with linear drawings carved into them — enigmatic lines and evidently representations of animals. Radiocarbon dating, performed in more recent times, suggests that the site can be dated as being 19,000 years old. Among the bones of animals discovered at the site were those that belonged to mammoths, a lion, a wolf, a hyena and a wolverine and a bear.


Momentous finds

But it was not the Kyrylivska stoyanka site that propelled Khvoyka to archeological fame. Among the artifacts dug up in the vicinity of Kyrylivkska stoyanka, were shards made of light-colored clay with painted ornament on them. Further excavations revealed that there used to be at least 48 dugouts in that area that were several thousand years old. Inside, these dugouts used to contain stoves. Pieces of statuettes and shards of large vessels and other finds pointed to a rather developed but unknown civilization that must have once existed in the area that was not far from Kyiv.

In 1896, Khvoyka acquired a vessel which reminded him of the mysterious finds made earlier. The vessel was purchased at a bazaar, or rather at a sort of a flee market. The man who sold it to Khvoyka said he had dug it up in his vegetable garden in the village of Veremye, and added that his neighbors had also found “a lot of things like that.”

Khvoyka went to that village to investigate. He traveled across the area, enquiring and digging. His greatest discoveries were made at Trypillya, a big village located in what was then called Kyivska Hubernia (province).

Among Khvoyka’s archeological discoveries in the environs of Trypillya the most intriguing were “plots” of varying sizes which were made of one or several layers of clay, the upper layer being carefully smoothed and leveled off. Some of these “plots” were evidently once painted over in white or black; some contained imprints of branches and twigs. The plots were arranged in circles. There is still no consensus among historians and archeologists as to the purpose and possible use of these “plots”.

Among the many artifacts discovered were various vessels adorned with painted geometric ornaments — some were obviously vessels for keeping grain; others were much smaller and could have been used as cups. Little statuettes were stylized representations of women with holes in the upper part — evidently designed for cords or threads to be put through them and suspended. Among the tools discovered were things that must have been grain grinders and implements for weaving. The purpose of some of the artifacts remains unclear — the “binocular” shaped objects, for example, hollow inside and covered with signs the meaning of which have not been deciphered. Some of the theories put forward by later historians and Trypillya culture enthusiasts were rather bizarre.

Bones discovered by Khvoyka in vessels located at the mysterious “plots” led him to believe that the “plots” had been used for some sort of rituals and that the Trypillya people had lived in dugouts. However, later research suggests that the “plots’ were part of the Trypillya’s living space. In fact, Trypillya settlements and living quarters in them reached great sizes. Some historians even call them “proto-towns”.

The Trypillya culture is now usually referred to as Cucuteni-Trypillya (Cucuteni is a village in Romania, where the first objects associated with this culture were discovered in 1884). It is a Neolithic European archaeological culture that flourished between ca. 5500 BC and 2750 BC in the Dniester-Dnieper region of modern-day Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. The culture’s characteristic pottery was red or orange and was decorated with curvilinear designs painted or grooved on the surface. Its makers occupied villages of long, rectangular houses that were sometimes arranged in concentric circles. In the centre, cattle were fenced in an enclosure. The Trypillya people practiced shifting agriculture, frequently moving their settlements.

The Cucuteni-Trypillya culture has been called the first urban culture in Europe. The Trypillya settlements were usually located on a plateau, fortified with earthworks and ditches. The earliest villages consisted of ten to fifteen households. In their heyday, settlements expanded to include several hundred large adobe huts, sometimes with two stories. These houses were typically warmed by an oven and had round windows.

Several thousand Trypillya-culture settlements have been discovered so far, the largest occupying an area of up to 450 hectares (about 1200 acres) with populations of probably up to ten or more thousand people.

Among the most striking features of the Cucuteni-Trippillya culture are artifacts made of clay and richly decorated — the purpose and significance of many of them remain mysterious.

Khvoyka’s enthusiasm was fed by his discoveries at Trypillya to such an extent that he considerably widened his search for “evidence of early Slavic settlements” — and he did discover enough evidence of at least two more early Slavic cultures — they became known as Zarubynetska and Chernyakhivska cultures. He believed that the Zarubynetska and Chernyakhivska culture people were the earliest known Slavs in the territory of Ukraine who came into contact with the ancient Romans and experienced their influence. The present-day historians and archeologists accept Khvoyka’s perception of them as having been Slavic people but reject any Roman influences. A generally accepted view now regards the Chernyakhivska culture people who came to settle down in Ukraine some time in the first half of the first millennium CE, mixed with the indigenous population, and later were impacted by other ethnics such as Thracians, Sarmatians and Goths.

The Chernyakhivska culture is believed to have flourished during the third through the fifth centuries CE in a wide area which includes some of the present-day regions of Ukraine, Moldova, Russia and Romania.


Theories and museum work

His field work prompted Khvoyka to develop his own theory of the historical development of large areas of Ukraine and stages of this development which began as Trypillya culture, then progressed to the Scythian (8th-3rd centuries BCE) Zarubynetska (2nd century BCE – 2nd centuries CE), Chernyakhivska (3rd-5th centuries CE), and then the ancient Rus culture, starting from about 6th century CE. Basically, this general scheme of development is accepted today as theoretically viable, though paradoxically the more is discovered the less certain historians become about many things.

V. Khvoyka was one of the founders of the City Museum of Antiquities and Art, for which a building was designed and built by the architects V. Horodetsky and H. Boytsov at the end of the nineteenth century (at present it is the National Art Museum of Ukraine). Khvoyka donated his collections to the museum with other patrons of art following suit. Khvoyka was made curator of the museum, with the post of the director going to D. Shcherbakivsky, a scholar and ethnographer.

V. Khvoyka continued to work at the museum until his death in 1914. He seems to have devoted himself entirely to archeology, to the museum and to writing scholarly works — he never married, and the people who knew him well said they were not sure if he ever had what these days would be called “ladyfriends.”

It was archeology that was his greatest passion, and his contribution to it has secured him a firm place in the history of major archeological discoveries.


Archeological excavations at the Paleolithic site
in Kyrylivska Street in Kyiv.


Excavations at the Kyrylivska site. A drawing by V. Khvoyka.


A piece of a mammoth’s tusk decorated with carvings
which was unearthed at the Kyrylivska site.


Excavations at the Trypillya culture site. A drawing by V. Khvoyka.


Ceramics from the Trypillya culture site. A drawing by V. Khvoyka.


Archeologists, workers and the curious at an archeological dig
(the site of an ancient Slav settlement).


“Trypillya plots”. Drawings by V. Khvoyka.


Artifacts discovered in a Chernyakhivska culture burial.



The author expresses her gratitude

to the Institute of Archeology

of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

for the materials it has provided.


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