Suzdal Opolye is a historical center of North East Rus with an extremely high concentration of archaeological sites. More than 300 medieval settlements were identified and examined in this area over the past 15 years. However, search of kurgan cemeteries associated with settlements turned out to be a challenge. The Shekshovo Cemetery located 17 km from Suzdal is one of few preserved cemeteries.
The kurgan cemetery in the vicinity of the village of Shekshovo (presently, the Ivanovo Region) is known as one of the largest in the center of the Suzdal Region. In 1852 A.S. Uvarov excavated 244 mounds with cremated and inhumated burials at this site. Traces of the kurgans are not visible; nevertheless, in 2011, relying on contemporary methods of archaeological fieldwalking and field documentation of the mid-19th century, the Suzdal expedition of the Institute identified the approximate original location of the cemetery. During four field seasons excavations carried out in the area of around 1,350 m2 revealed remains of not less than nine leveled out kurgans. Electrotomographic prospection that identified ring structures, within which kurgans and small ditches that had surrounded them, worked well in exploring the spatial organization of the cemetery.
Two kurgans yielded inhumated burials that can be dated to the end of the 10th – first half of the 11th centuries. Remains of cremations outside the grave with subsequent burial of cremated bones in burial pits were recovered from two other kurgans; melted glass beads, metal jewelry and parts of a 10th century garment were found together with cremated bones. The excavations revealed other types of the burial rite previously unknown in the center of the Rostov-Suzdal land in the 10th–11th centuries such as inhumation without kurgans and cremation with burial of cremation remains in shallow pits or on the ground surface. Eleven inhumated burials, oriented to the west, with burial offerings of the 10th – early 12th centuries were cleaned up in the excavation pit in the central part of the cemetery. Some buried individuals were lying in large (more than 3 m long) burial pits; the construction of such pits, which indicated a high status of the dead person, spread across various areas of Rus and the Baltics in the 11th century. These pits destroyed earlier cremations attributed to the 10th – early 11th centuries by recovered metal goods and glass beads.
It can now be said with confidence that Shekshovo is a large cemetery with a substantial diversity of burial rites, which was in operation between the second half of the 10th century and the second half of the 12th century. The finds include numerous coins such as Arab dirhams, West Europeans denarii and a Byzantine miliarense as well as mounts and end-pieces of ceremonial male belts, weights, weapons, female jewelry pieces of the Volga Region-Finnish, Slav and Baltic types. The artifacts characterize the cemetery as a necropolis of one of large settlements that formed the core of North East Rus in the 10th–11th centuries.
New evidence confirms earlier observations that these were wealthy settlements acting as main commercial centers with a high concentration of emerging social elite. Diversity of burial rites, decoration of garments with ornamental items from various cultures, abundance of high prestige things reflect the process of Rus culture development in North East Rus and the part played by Shekshovo as one of the centers where this culture crystallized.
The find of a ceremonial battle axe with a silver inlay found in the footing of one of the kurgan mounds together with a silver gilt fibula is of paramount importance for studies of Rus early history. In addition to the ornamentation, one side of the axe features a cross with a long lower leg while the other side of the axe displays a bident with a triangular ‘overshoot’ at the base and everted prongs (the Rurik family crest); the butt part depicts a trident with a triangle at the base, a tamga-shaped sign similar to the signs of Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavovich and Prince Yaroslav Vladimirovich. Axes with silver inlays used as ceremonial weapons in the 10th–12th centuries are represented by rare finds in North Rus, Volga Bulgaria, Scandinavia, the Baltics and Poland. Tamga-shaped princely signs on the axe is a unique phenomenon.
Apparently, the axe and the clasp fibula were placed into the grave of an individual from a high ranking princely family. The ceremonial axe is an evidence of the prince administration in evolving centers of Rus population in North East Rus in the early 11th century (as opposed to the opinion quite common until recently).