Archaeological Heritage in Danger from War:  The Lower Palaeolithic of Ukraine

Our responsibilities

Humans are the only creatures on the planet who can understand their past and consciously determine their global future. Although humans are primates, this does not mean we should return to our roots and behave like our closest relatives. Rather, we should apply our self-knowledge and not destroy the opportunity for us to study ourselves.

We learn our evolutionary history by studying modern Homo sapiens, the fossil remains of ancient hominins, and our closest primate relatives. This is partly accomplished by studying the structure and variability of the hominin bodies, genomes, and behaviour. But crucial sources of insight are the objects obtained during painstaking archaeological fieldwork. These are artefacts of stone, wood, and bone, and the site contexts where they are found.  Palaeolithic objects and sites are rare and extremely important because most have been lost through natural processes, and few are discovered and excavated by qualified researchers who can give them a new life through scientific reconstruction. 

Stone artefacts, and the sites where they are found, are crucially important to us. These objects and their contexts define our early archaeological heritage. Stone artefacts from our hominin ancestors have a global character: they belong to humanity, unrelated to modern nations and states. The rescue, research, and preservation of this heritage is the right, and duty, of all people.

Prisoner of war

War is one of the biggest threats to cultural heritage, and archaeological heritage is particularly vulnerable. A lot of cities and human lives were destroyed during the Second World War bombing and culture in its multiple forms suffered irreparable damage. 

But direct hostilities are not the only existential threat to heritage during war. Theft by occupiers is no less dangerous to cultural objects. Events from the Second World War demonstrate the scale of this phenomenon. The process of post-war cultural restitution can take years (more realistically decades) and cannot occur without losses. 

The Kherson Local History Museum was looted by Russians as they retreated from the city. They emptied many display cases, often by breaking the glass (e.g., 1, 3), and removed the artefacts that were easy to carry. Photographs: Serhii Niemtsev.

The emergency evacuation of cultural material is sometimes proposed as a way of mitigating the effects of warfare on heritage, but this is a double-edged sword.  Evacuating archaeological collections out of war zones does not guarantee their preservation because this difficult process is carried out under extreme circumstances.  Artefacts can lose their context, can be seriously damaged, or can be lost altogether. Some artefacts are never again returned to their pre-war institutions. Cultural heritage is a prisoner of war and nothing can guarantee its safety. No one can assure that the next missile will not hit a museum. Culture itself is often a target of military conflicts and archaeological heritage is no exception.

Artefacts displayed in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine were evacuated to a safe place, February and early March, 2022. Exhibits were dismantled and thousands of artefacts were carefully packed and removed. Photographs: Bohdan Patryliak.

 War and heritage in Ukraine

Ukrainian archaeology has suffered extreme events in the last 150 years, including two World Wars with battles on Ukrainian soil, the revolution of 1917–1921, and radical ideological and institutional changes. In the Second World War, the German Reich occupied all of Ukraine. Kyiv (the capital of Ukraine), like many other cities here, was severely bombed. Nazi and Soviet soldiers destroyed a large number of architectural and historical monuments during battles for the cities. The Soviets sent some museum collections to Russia and many of these collections were never returned. The Nazis incorporated Ukrainian artefacts into their ideological narratives. During the retreat from Ukraine, they transported collections first to Poland, and then to Germany. 

The Palace of Labour in Kharkiv was seriously damaged by Russion shelling on 2 March 2022.  Photograph: Kateryna Mariushkina.

After the fall of the Nazi regime, the process of restitution began. It stretched over decades. Some collections have been identified very recently and some are without context due to the loss of documentation. You can read about these events in this short essay about the stone artefact collection of the Iskorost Palaeolithic site. The collection disappeared from scientific circulation for decades after the Second World War and was correctly attributed very recently due to the persistent work of several generations of researchers. Many collections suffered a similar fate but without a happy ending.  These misfortunes do not seem to end . . .

New challenges for the archaeological heritage of Ukraine 

In 2014 the army of the Russian Federation occupied the Crimean Peninsula and invaded the eastern part of Ukraine in an attempt to oppose Ukraine’s democratisation and Europeanisation. On February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation launched a second offensive. Their goal is the destruction of Ukrainian statehood, occupation of our territory, and creation of a pro-Russian regime. The Russian so-called “special operation” was supposed to last several days but Ukraine continues to resist.

Russia uses aggressive methods against Ukrainian cultural heritage in pursuing its aims, including the destruction of cultural monuments, the destruction of historical areas of cities and unique landscapes, the destruction of Ukrainian educational and scientific institutions, and the looting of museums. 

The number of crimes against cultural heritage numbers in the hundreds. In May 2022, Russian missiles hit the National Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda. The building was destroyed. In October 2022, a missle fell in the centre of Kyiv, damaging several museums, the library, and the Red Building of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv—an  architectural masterpiece. On December 31, more buildings of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv were damaged by a Russian missile attack. In June 2023, the Russians destroyed the Kakhovka Dam. Thousands of houses, cultural monuments, and archaeological sites were flooded, and it is difficult to calculate the extent of the damage caused by this crime to ecology, landscapes, and cultural objects.

In July 2023, the Russian Federation launched a massive attack on Odesa. The historical centre of the city and the Transfiguration Cathedral (part of a UNESCO World Heritage site) were heavily damaged. The shock wave from the explosion damaged the Odesa Archaeological Museum. In August 2023, a Russian missile hit the building of the Taras Shevchenko Regional Music and Drama Theatre of Chernihiv. The building will need significant resources to restore

According to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, as of 25 August 2023, around 823 cultural heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed in Ukraine due to aggression from Russia. It is a devastating loss not only for Ukraine and its people but for all humanity.

Missile attacks are not the only crime of the Russian Federation against Ukranian cultural heritage. We do not know the extent of crimes against cultural heritage occurring in the still-occupied territories, but we do know that Russia is looting the museums of Mariupol. During the occupation of Kherson, thousands of objects of history, archaeology, and art were taken to Russian-controlled territories

This museum display in Sevastopol (Russian occupied Crimea) was assembled from artefacts looted from a local Ukrainian museum during the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia region. The artefacts are ‘churinga’ engraved stones from the Kamyana Mohyla site in Ukraine, and are thought to date to the Mesolithic. The artefacts were on display in September 2023. Photograph: The Ukranian Association of Archaeologists.

Active hostilities continue to take place across a large part of Ukraine, and we do not know the complete extent of the damage caused to archaeological sites and cultural landscapes. However, we have begun projects aimed at determining and calculating the damage caused to sites, starting with the de-occupied Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.

Unquestionably, we only know a small part of what has already happened, and what continues to happen.  We are determined to document this now and into the future. Russia is regularly targeting the destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage as well as our educational and scientific institutions that research, manage, and conserve this heritage. This is one element of Russia’s tactics in their war of aggression against Ukraine. We live in it. 

And these misfortunes strike us almost every day. While I was writing this blog post, the shock wave from a missile damaged the Medieval and Early Modern period fortress in Medzhybizh. It is located just a few kilometres from sites dating to the Lower Palaeolithic, which I will turn to now . . . . . .

The Lower Palaeolithic sites at Medzhybizh

Ukrainian archaeological heritage includes thousands of sites from the Lower Palaeolithic to Modern history. These include Homo neanderthalensis sites, Upper Palaeolithic sites with mammoth bone dwellings, the Late Neolithic proto-cities of the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture, burials of warlike herdsmen of the Bronze Age, Scythian mounds with accompanying items decorated in an animal style, Northern Black Sea ancient cities, and Ancient Rus settlements and burials. Lower Palaeolithic sites are another element of this highly significant cultural region. Currently, we know of very few of them, and each site of this period is incredibly important for studying the first Homo of the territory of Ukraine.

Within the central part of the Podillia Upland, in the upper reaches of the Southern Buh River, near the villages of Medzhybizh and Holovchyntsi (Khmelnytskyi region), there is a zone of concentration of sites with early stone tool industries. This zone includes four stratified archaeological sites: Medzhybizh 1, Medzhybizh A, Holovchyntsi-1, and Holovchyntsi‑2. Dating has determined that the sites were occupied within Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 35–11, ca. 1.2 million to 400,000 years ago, during the Early and Middle Pleistocene. The sites contain traces of the oldest hearths in Eastern Europe (Medzhybizh 1 layer III; Medzhybizh A layers I, II, III), as well as a unique complex of faunal remains, including bones with signs of breaking and processing, and several thousand stone artefacts. 

This region has been the subject of geological and paleontological research for over a century. The first early stone artefacts were discovered here in the 1990s at a site called Medzhybizh 1, attracting the attention of V. Stepanchuk of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (IA NASU). He carried out the first intensive archaeological fieldwork there in 2008. 

In 2011 a joint expedition of IA NASU and the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv discovered the site of Medzhybizh A, 500 m downstream from Medzhybizh 1 on the Southern Buh River.  The Lower Palaeolithic sites Holovchyntsi-1 and -2, located about 10 km from the Medzhybizh sites, were discovered in the Southern Buh basin during 2015–2017.  The Holovchyntsi sites are located about 1.2 kilometres apart and were found during the inspection of limestone, sand, and granite quarries.

Specialist scientists have been involved in the study of various aspects of the Lower Palaeolithic sites of Medzhybizh and the district over the past 15 years. In addition to archaeologists of the IA NASU, joint projects have been undertaken with researchers from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University, The Institute of Environmental Geochemistry of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Institute of Geography of NASU, Institute of Geology of NASU, the Institute of Geophysics of NASU, Ukrainian State Geological Research Institute, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, National Museum of Natural History at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and the European Centre for Prehistoric Research.

A simple stone tool technology

We have made 3D models of three stone tools from Medzhybizh for the Museum of Stone Tools. You can view them here, here, and here.

A broadly similar stone flaking technology was applied at all of the Early and Middle Pleistocene sites near Medzhybizh. Hominins used the same raw materials and processed them with identical methods. The tools were made by flaking pebbles of flint, quartz, granite, quartzite, limestone, slate, and sandstone. Water-rolled pebbles were preferred, although angular blocks were sometimes used.

Flint dominates the artefact assemblages with a preference for larger pebbles. However, the percentage of raw materials differs in each layer. For example, in layer III of Medzhybizh 1 (MIS 11, ca. 400,000 BP), granite is the second-most popular material, but in layer IV (MIS 15–13, ca. 474,000–621,000 BP), quartz was preferred over granite. At Medzhybizh A, there is a high proportion of quartz and limestone items in layers V and VI (MIS 35–21, ca. 793,000–1.24 million BP).  Some of the artefacts show signs of mechanical and chemical damage from weathering.

We comprehensively analysed a concentration of reduced limestone pebbles in layer V at Medzhybizh A.  We documented how these early hominins processed this raw material by freehand percussion flaking.  We were able to refit 11 groups of artefacts, from 2 to 9 refits in each. 

At Holovchyntsi-1, ancient hominins flaked massive blocks of flint and quartz. Quartz played a significant role in the technological strategy at this site, similar to the contemporaneous layers V and VI of Medzhybizh A. There are many artefacts made of chert at Holovchyntsi-2, which is atypical compared to other early hominin sites in the region. All assemblages also include products of processing small pebbles (15–30 mm) of mostly quartz and slate.

Stone-flaking at these sites was technologically simple. The assemblages consist of flaked pebbles and angular pieces, flakes, and small shatter fragments. Cores and retouched pieces are rare. The bipolar technique—using an anvil to brace the core—was a common approach to split stones. The freehand percussion technique was sometimes used to flake pebbles and to retouch flakes.  Anvil-supported percussion of pebbles and flakes is also present at all of the sites and was used for assaying and retouching to create robust tool edges.

Ancient hominins reduced pebbles opportunistically to form objects with sharp edges, and few objects were intensively flaked. Because of this, the stone artefacts are quite similar morphometrically and technologically, with some small variations between sites. Most knapped pebbles and retouched flakes were flaked in one direction, resulting in a unidirectional scar organization. Striking platforms were unprepared and bifacial reduction—flaking on opposite faces from one platform edge—was rare.  This opportunistic stone-flaking approach resulted in relatively unstandardised tool assemblages.

The toolkit consists of simple forms focused on obtaining sharp, durable tool edges. Achieving these edges did not require complicated knapping systems and the use of raw materials was not highly economical. Typologically, pebble choppers flaked unidirectionally and unmodified flakes are the main tool categories. Flakes were sometimes retouched, and, in some cases, both retouched flakes and choppers are point-shaped or have notched edges. The pointed shape on some of these items may have been an accidental byproduct of using a bipolar technique. Nevertheless, convergent edges and notches on some edges may have been created deliberately. 

Bone tools were excavated from the sites that imitate stone products. In the Medzhybizh A, layers I–II (MIS 11, 400,000 BP), a bipolar core and point were recovered made from processed mammoth tusk. These artefacts are the oldest known examples of the modification of a mammoth tusk (Mammuthus trogontherii) by the bipolar technique and anvil-supported trimming. 

We are currently extending our experiments into the physical properties of stone raw materials, post-depositional surface modifications of artefacts, attributes of different reduction techniques, and stone tool function. Our experimental approach has proved fruitful in identifying various aspects of the flint and limestone reduction strategies.

3D modelling for preserving cultural heritage in wartime

The risk of the loss of artefact assemblages is exceptionally high during war. One of the promising methods of mitigating this risk is 3D modelling of artefacts. 3D models can be stored in multiple locations and can be viewed and processed using a variety of software applications. The ability to disseminate 3D models across platforms and networks is the biggest advantage of 3D modelling in our situation. 3D models allow the virtual artefacts to be studied in all dimensions, to be examined in detail, and to be printed as a physical object. If the original artefact is lost, we can bring its virtual projection to life. 

A high-quality 3D model can be used for metric and morphological analysis, and assemblages of 3D models can be used as virtual comparative collections. However, the physical loss of an artefact would prevent many aspects of object-based research, because a 3D model is only a projection of an artefact. Nevertheless, these drawbacks are secondary when there is an existential threat to collections in wartime.

We can use 3D models in exhibitions, both in an interactive digital format and by printing them on a 3D printer. The utility of 3D models is particularly important for Ukraine as a significant number of our museums have already been terribly damaged, especially in the eastern part of the country. Our recovery process will be long and painful, but 3D models could help solve problems around destroyed museum spaces.

The Museum of Stone Tools is an example of both an online museum and a virtual comparative collection of stone tools. Such websites can be powerful platforms for collaboration, exchange of experiences, and dialogue about the past. Although 3D modelling is relatively new in archaeology, it has the promise of becoming an essential and cost-effective approach to managing and preserving collections.   

Final remarks: let’s do it together

The problem of preserving archaeological artefacts is more relevant than ever in the context of the aggressive war launched by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. 

Methods are desperately needed that preserve the scientific and cultural values of artefacts.  3D modelling has emerged as one such method. Although virtual models can never replace actual artefacts, they can effectively serve as a backup plan in case of the physical destruction of archaeological objects. 

The Lower Palaeolithic sites around Medzhybizh contain unique evidence of the activities of ancient hominins in Ukraine. We have conducted preliminary analyses of these artefacts but we need to undertake a comprehensive study placing these sites in the European context. 3D modelling of these assemblages is an important step to preserving a record of these threatened artefacts, making them available to all researchers. To illustrate this, we have made 3D models of several artefacts from the Medzhybizh 1 and have made them publicly available in the Museum of Stone Tools. Medzhybizh 1 alone includes more than 400 stone artefacts and several bone objects with traces of anthropogenic modifications. 

We hope to make many more 3D models of these artefacts, but we need your financial support for our 3D modelling initiative. The Ukrainian government cannot provide this support because all efforts go to restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Ukrainian archaeology has experienced many extreme events and saving our archaeological heritage depends on international efforts. If you have ideas that can assist us, please contact me at my email address: alexandr.naumenko.jr@gmail.com. The people of Ukraine will be grateful.

Acknowledgements

The author confirms that this blog was not written or edited by AI. Unpublished images are used with permission.

The author is grateful to Mark W. Moore for his responsiveness, cooperation, help provided in editing this blog, and the opportunity to publish it. I also acknowledge Vadym Stepanchuk for reading the text and supplying photos. Thank you to Marina Povitkina, Yevhen Synytsia, and Viktor Vietrov in finding illustrative material. I am grateful to the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine (in particular to Vadym Stepanchuk) for permission to use the information about the stone artefact assemblage, and to everyone who kindly allowed reproductions of their photographs.

Author

  • Oleksandr Naumenko

    Oleksandr Naumenko is a Senior Researcher of the Research Department of Archaeology at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.  He is a PhD student at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, with expertise in Stone Age technologies, experimental archaeology, and the history of museum collections.