Russian Archaeological Find: Money Hidden In Chess Piece From Ivan The Terrible Era

Dear Readers:

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!”

Examples of Old Russian silver coins, 16th century

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.

Novodevichy Convent

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.

Is this the right ikon?

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.

Russians have always taken their chess very seriously.

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.

Boris Godunov: Liked to cheat at chess

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!

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8 Responses to Russian Archaeological Find: Money Hidden In Chess Piece From Ivan The Terrible Era

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    “City workers discovered a chess piece called an “elephant”, I guess nowadays it would be the horse piece.”

    Nah, a “bishop”.

    ^This dude.

    “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.”

    Moreso. The heir apparent would be appinted as the “prince of Tver” the same way you got a Prince of Wales in England, or the Dauphine in France – to get the first taste of power and get the firsthand experience.

    Want a real historical sensation? Oh, I know – the Media does not like us as they like the “precise sciences” and their sensations. Anyway. As You Known ™ Crimea was a host for a load of Greek colonies:

    BUT! The question remained as to their official status – were they just colonies, asnwering to their “parent” city or a true “polisi” in their own right? We know about Chersonesus (present day Sevastopol) that it was not only a polis, but a democratic one as well, who only centuries later became an oligarchy-run and that it had very, well, ah, “robust” foreign policy concerning the locals (i.e. wars and alliances galore).

    Now, the true sensation did happend! Recent excavation unerthed public WCs (yes, they were a thing for the ancients as well) which had lots and lots of wall inscriptions. Whic was a godsend for the archeologists – because of one inscription. In this one particular insrpition, a sailor (author of this inscription) very frankly communicates his desire to “fuck in the arse the good citizens of the polis” this inscription is placed therein. This is a tremendouns find because it states that : a) The town was a polis, i.e. an independent polity in its ow right b) The people populating it were citizens.

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    • yalensis says:

      and c) this sailor was a horny bastard!

      Anyhow, returning to the “elephant” chess piece, well I guess I imagined in my head that medieval Russian chess was like Hannibal crossing the alps, in that they needed elephants rather than horses.
      So, riddle me this: why is a bishop (and a loony one, from the looks of him!) be called an elephant??

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      • Lyttenburgh says:

        “So, riddle me this: why is a bishop (and a loony one, from the looks of him!) be called an elephant??”

        It’s actually the other way round – in the original chess which came from India this figure was called an “elephant”. Anglophonics call it a “bishop”, Germanphonics call it a “runner”, and Francophones call it a “jester” (tells you enough about the people, right? ;). We also have other differences – they have a “rook”, we have a “ship” (rus. “лядья”), they have a “queen” , we have “ferz'” (from “ferzin”, kinda like vizier). Btw in the byelorussia it is still called “візыр”. The Poles call it (suddenly!) a “Hetman”

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      • Jen says:

        Chess pieces in different languages:
        http://www.shakki.net/kerhot/KemTS/nap-pieces.htm

        Like

  2. Ryan Ward says:

    Kind of an interesting history how chess came to Russia independently of Western Europe, and you can see the effect in some of the words, most notably “ferz” for the queen, which is obviously closer to the Iranian origin than queen is. Another good example is the name for chess itself, “shakhmati” which comes from the Persian phrase “shah mat” meaning “the king is helpless” (which, with a few sound shifts, is also the origin of the expression “checkmate”. On the other hand, English has stuck pretty close to the Persian word in the case of the rook, whose name comes from “rukh”, meaning chariot.

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