The headline pretty much tells the story. I debated with myself, whether to craft more sensationalistic headline such as “Ivan the Awesome’s Secret Coin Collection!”
Anyhow, this valuable archaeologist artifact was discovered during street renovations which started up this spring, in Moscow, as part of an urban renovation program called “My Street”, which began in March and is planned to continue through September. City workers were digging up and replacing old gas pipes when they came upon several interesting finds, including a secret underground chamber at the basis of the China-Town Wall, and more than 150 artifacts of daily life around the Lubyanka area.
These kinds of digs always produce interesting stuff in a city as old as Moscow. Hence, the City Fathers do this the right way and always assign at least one supervising archaeologist to each dig. As soon as something interesting is found, the street is cordoned off, and the artifacts are covered in protective wraps while the people in charge decide which museum to call. This must be an exciting season for all the museum curators.
Among the treasures of this particular dig was the chess piece in question, dating from the middle of the 16th century. It was discovered on a street called Prechistenka (in Soviet times “Kropotkinskaya”), which stretches from the “Prechistenskie” Gates to Zubovskaya Square in the center of Moscow, not far from the Arbat.
In the 16th century, this road stretched between the Kremlin and the Novodevichy Monastery. It was called “Chertolskaya” Street in the time of Ivan the Terrible. The later name “Prechistenka” (which means, in English, roughly, “very pure”) was acquired in 1658 and comes from the name of a famous ikon of the Virgin Mary (“The Most Pure God’s Mother of Smolensk”) which was kept inside the monastery.
City workers discovered a chess piece called an “elephant”, I guess nowadays it would be the horse piece. It was carved from bone, doesn’t say which kind of bone, hopefully ivory! But here is the really neat part — inside the chess piece were hidden 10 pieces of silver coin! The hand-minted coins add up to a grand total of 5 kopecks. But that was a lot of money — historians say that in those days a single kopeck could purchase an entire goose! Hence, the owner of the money was wise to hide such a small fortune in a place where no thief would guess.
The coins appear to have been minted in the 1530’s or 1540’s, which puts them in the time of Ivan the Terrible. Did Tsar Ivan himself own these coins? Who knows!
This find was announced to the world by a man named Alexei Emelyanov, who is the Director of the Department of Cultural Heritage of the City of Moscow, here is their website. Emelyanov noted that one of the coins was minted at the Tver Minting House, the other nine at the Moscow Mint.
Apparently the Tver Mint was operating from the time when Tver was still an independent Princedom. In 1485 Tver was united/absorbed into the Moscow Grand-Dukedom, but it continued to mint its own coins up until the 1550’s.
As for the chess piece, the “elephant”, it was made of 3 parts, glued together. The archaeologists were not able to find the other pieces from the same chess board, but they speculate that the other pieces might have also contained well-hidden coins! It could have all added up to a sizable sum, which this chess-playing miser concealed in this ingenious manner, not trusting to the local banks. If they even had banks in those days.
It would have been cool to find the chess board as well. Russian chess is first mentioned in the chronicles as a thing, in 1262. Everybody knows that Ivan the Terrible himself was an expert chess player. According to historian Nikolai Kostomarov, Tsar Ivan was playing chess with (future Tsar) Boris Godunov on 18 March 1584, when Ivan suddenly felt ill, and shortly died. Now, that’s what we call a check-mate!