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Author(s) of the publication: Y. ALEXANDROVSKAYA, T. PANOVA

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by Yelena ALEXANDROVSKAYA, Cand. Sc. (Geography), and Tatyana PANOVA, Cand. Sc. (History), Moscow Kremlin Museum

The close of the 20th century ushered in a new and intriguing stage in the study of the Russian Middle Ages. Natural scientists are becoming ever more active in taking up problems in the domain of the humanities: these are physicists and geologists, chemists and biologists, geochemists and biophysicists, even forensic medicine experts (anthropologists, histologists and the like). Their joint endeavor is quite productive - for one, it expands our knowledge of history. More than that, it helps us reconstruct the landscapes, the plant and animal kingdom of ages past, the habitation medium of our forefathers, and its impact on them...

page 101


The life of our ancestors of the dim and distant past commanded but little attention on the part of Russian historiographers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The fair sex happened to be neglected worst of all - good if we can find a score of relevant publications in the literature. Recorded testimonies have little to tell us about our high-born ladies. For instance, we cannot tell when the first Russian czarina, Anastasia, married to Ivan IV, who was better known as Ivan the Terrible, was born. All we know that she passed away on the 7th of August 1560. By the way, Anastasia was the first wife of the lustful czar. And there are scant data on women hailing from lower social groups. Confined to the household, Russian women were barred from public activities, be it church or secular life.

To some extent, archeological findings may help to fill the gap, they tell us something about the daily routine of Russian grand princesses and czarinas of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The microelement analysis of habitation deposits

Table 1

Microelements in the soil next to the walls of the Archangel Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin

Dig, sample, century

Microelements, mg/kg of soil

Ni

Сu

Zn

Ga

Hg

As

Br

Pb

Rb

Sr

Y

Zr

Mean concentration in the earth crust

99

30

76

15

0.5

2

0.7

13

78

384

30

162

1st trench, north, 15 cent. deposits

8

34

49

6

1.6

5

3

14

32

106

15

105

1st trench, south, 15 cent. deposits, 120 cm deep

31

57

493

8

1.2

6

3

24

46

112

23

153

15th cent deposits, 150 cm pit

24

59

99

8

0.9

5

3

28

38

106

16

92

14th cent. deposits, 200 cm pit

13

26

57

6

0.7

5

1

10

37

87

15

129

within the Moscow Kremlin, the residence of the Moscow rulers, may give a glimpse of that. After all, their wives-the grand princesses and czarinas-spent many years of their life there. The very medium-social milieu and living conditions-could not but impact their life. However, it was only in 2000 that our scientists got down to the job of analyzing the geochemical composition of

Table 2

Microelements in the Ilyinka street deposits

Dig, century

Microelements, mg/kg of soil

Ni

С u

Zn

As

Pb

Rb

Sr

Zr

Mean concentration in the earth crust

99

30

76

2

13

78

384

162

15-16th cent. deposits

44

205

486

16

94

89

295

277

medieval deposits in the Moscow Kremlin. First, a habitation (cultural) level was studied on a patch of land next to the western side of the Archangel Cathedral. An analysis of ground samples from the 14th and 15th centuries produced remarkable results (Table 1).

What attracts our notice first is the enhanced content of microelements in the soil, such as mercury, arsenic, zinc, lead, among others. The habitation deposits recovered from archeological digs included a large number of materials left from the destruction in 1505 of the first stone structure of the Archangel Cathedral which was put up in 1333; the debris also contained fragments of frescoes and glazed floor slabs. A chemical analysis of the dye and glaze showed a high concentration of toxic elements (lead, mercury) that got into soil with these materials. Still and all, the cultural deposits within the citadel (kremlin) proved much cleaner than in other

page 102


page 103


parts of Moscow. For comparison, we give the results of the study of 15th-16th century habitation levels in the digs beyond the Kremlin - beneath the street Ilyinka to the east (Table 2). We see that the content of such pollutants as copper, zinc, arsenic and lead is much higher there.

These data are very important, for they supplement the earlier findings on the chemical and spectral analysis of the mold of the grand Russian princesses and czarinas of the 15th and 16th centuries in the cemetery of the Ascension Convent of the Kremlin (the cloister was pulled down in 1929). The next stage was a study of the microelement composition of bone tissue* recovered from these burial grounds, which may furnish a remarkable insight into the life of the mistresses of palatial chambers. For instance, we can learn about the age- related accumulation of harmful substances in the organism, about its diseases, causes of death and other things-because the bone tissue is implicated in metabolism, mineral metabolism in particular. Therefore the microelement composition is in many ways indicative of a geochemical environment in which this or that person lived and died. The composition of bone tissue differs depending on the concentration of mineral substances in the habitat.

Comparing the concentration of microelements in the bone tissue of our contemporaries living in an ecologically unfriendly environment with similar data on the people of the Middle Ages, we conclude: both the habitation medium and the way of life affect a person's health-for instance, drugs, medicines, cosmetics, dyes and other agents that once had an excess of toxic substances (Table 3).

To begin with, our experts studied the remains of Czarina Anastasia, the first wife of Ivan the Terrible. According to anthropological data on her skeleton, she died at the age of 25 or 26 years.


* Analysis of the microelement composition of habitation deposits and bone tissue was carried out at the V.V. Dokuchayev Institute of the Soil Science by the X-ray fluorescence method whereby the object under study is kept intact. - Auth.

page 104


Table 3

Microelements in bone tissue (females)

Object

Microelements, mg/100 g of bone tissue

Ag

Ni

С u

Zn

Mn

Pb

As

Hg

Mean concentration in bone tissue today

0.04

0.7

1.8

14

10

1.9

0.1

0.04

Czarina Anastasia Romanovna (1560)

6.6

0.3

9.1

24.9

0.3

160

0.8

0.13

Grand Princess Yelena Glinskaya(1538)

0.04

1.0

3.8

40.6

0.4

56.4

0.8

0.05

Grand Princes Maria Borisovna (1467)

0.04

3.4

10.4

3385

0.3

90.3

0.3

1.05

Czarina Maria Nagaya (1608)

0.04

0.8

1.9

24.3

12

19.3

0.1

0.6

Anastasia and Ivan the Terrible were in wedlock for thirteen years. In a period from 1549 to 1557 she gave birth to six babies. Small wonder that her organism might have been exhausted by too frequent births, and she withered away. It was only late in the 20th century that the true cause other premature decease was found out-she was poisoned.* This conclusion, first made from chemical analysis data (what remained of her hair was studied), was then confirmed by an X-ray fluorescence analysis of Anastasia's bones. The high concentration of mercury salts (0.13 mg/kg against the normal 0.04 mg/kg) carried her off to the grave.

Ivan's mother, Yelena Glinskaya, was likewise poisoned (2 April 1538). The second wife of Grand Duke Vassily III, she died at the age of 30**. Written testimonies hinted at the real cause other death, that is poisoning. This was proved to be true by a spectral analysis of Yelena's hair and headgear that contained an extremely high amount of mercury salts. Besides, an X-ray fluorescence study revealed a high concentration of other toxic substances - lead, zinc, copper and arsenic-as well.

Microelement studies of the hair of the dead show this dependence: the higher concentration of mercury there than in the bones. Why? Because in the case of acute poisoning the hair under a headdress absorb the mercury-rich sweat, while it takes a longer time for the bones to accumulate the poisonous mercury.

The same lot befell yet another grand princess, Maria Borisovna, born in Tver ("Tveryanka") and married to Grand Prince (Duke) Ivan Ill - she was his first wife (25 April 1467). An X-ray fluorescence study of the bone tissue of this young woman-her life was cut short at 25-showed an excess of nickel, lead, zinc, mercury, zirconium and gallium.

The overly high concentration of these harmful elements was first attributed to large metal smelters next to her Tver residence and the pollution they caused. But the Moscow Kremlin, where the grand princess moved after her marriage, had none. What happened to Maria Borisovna's bones?

As such, zinc and some of its compounds are not much toxic. But others are, e.g. zinc phosphides; these are known as zinc poisons. Lead compounds are certainly poisonous, and they were found in Maria Borisovna's bones too.

Yet historians, conversant with written records and the topography of the medieval Moscow Kremlin, suggest a different explanation of her death. Thus one chronicle (Sophia II) furnishes a detailed description of those sad events:

"... The grand princess Maria Tveryanka, married to Grand Prince Ivan Vasilyevich, passed away on the 25th day of April at 3 in the morning from a deadly drug; this came out because the broad cerements put above her became too short for the swollen body..." The chronicler calls attention to the state of the body of the late-lamented princess - it bloated all too soon. Now, the dead were usually committed to the grave the next day after their demise; and then April is not a hot month in Moscow either. It looks like Princess Maria Borisovna fell victim to a plot of boyars, the nobility, who sought to cause a quarrel between the Grand Duke, Ivan III, and his next of kin, the Grand Duke of Tver.

The records of the Russian Middle Ages cite many other examples of similar attempts on one's life, which means that people of that time were on good terms with poisonous agents.

A revealing glimpse of the situation in Muscovy at the end of the 16th century and the Time of


See: N. Voronova, T. Panova, "... By Calumny and Bane Foredone...", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1998 . - Ed.

* See: T. Makarenko and T. Panova, "The Poison All High Life Pervades", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2000. - Ed.

page 105


page 106


page 107


page 108


Table 4

Microelements in bone tissues from Kremlin burial grounds (women)

Object

Microelements, mg/100 g of bone tissue

Ag

Ni

Сu

Zn

Mn

Pb

As

Hg

Ba

Mean concentration in bone tissue

0.04

0.7

1.8

14

10

1.9

0.1

0.04

30

Old woman (Staritsa)Iuliyania(1579)

0.04

0.7

1.6

28.4

0.2

52.5

0.5

0.09

32

Czarina Yevdokia Lukyanovna Streshneva(1645)

0.04

0.6

1.8

29.0

0.3

115

1.1

0.14

7

Grand Princess Sophia Paleologos(1503)

0.04

0.1

7.1

27

0.4

58.6

0.3

0.05

12

Appanage princess Yevdokia of Staritsa( 1569)

0.04

1.7

3.1

51.7

16

20.1

0.3

0.14

142

Appanage princess Euphrosyne ofStaritsa (1569)

0.04

0.5

6.1

124

7.8

236

12.9

0.10

2.3

Nameless female grave. Dormition Cathedral Moscow, Kremlin (first quarter of the 14th cent.)

0.04

0.4

6.0

25.5

9.6

31.9

0.2

0.07

57

Troubles (1605-1613) is left in the testimony of Jerome Horsey, an Englishman who stood well with Ivan the Terrible but then fell from grace, was banished from Moscow and had to experience other misfortunes too. In his Notes this Englishman makes mention of attempts to poison Czarevich Dmitry (Demetrius), Ivan's youngest son, and the czar himself. Horsey recounts the events of 1591, as the czarevich lost his life in a tragic accident at Uglich, a small town north of Moscow. [Czar Ivan was no longer in the land of the living, he departed in 1584.] That year, in 1591, Afanasy Nagoi, the brother of Maria Na-gaya (Ivan's sixth wife), hurried to Horsey staying in Yaroslavl at the time and broke the news of Dmitry's death. Here's what Horsey wrote down right thereafter: "Czarina is poisoned and dying, her hair and nails coming off, her skin peeling off... Help me, give me some remedy!" Here the Englishman relates what Afanasy shouted to him. And Horsey continues, "Rushing in, I seized ajar with clear olive oil... and a small box of Venetian teriaca [antidote]. That was all I had. God grant it might help! I handed all that over the fence, and he galloped away." Reading these sketchy lines, it's hard to judge about the widow's true condition-such evidence is absent from the history of her illness. What Afanasy Nagoi said resembles mercury poisoning-hair coming off, skin lesions. However, after Dmitry's tragic death in 1591 the dowager czarina lived for yet another 17 years. But an analysis of her bone remains in 2000 shows excessive concentrations of lead (tenfold), zinc (1.7 fold) and mercury (15 fold). The composition of harmful substances is similar to that detected in the bone tissue of Grand Princess Maria, the first wife of Grand Prince (Duke) Ivan III [who ruled in the 15th century]. However, Maria Nagaya was no young woman when she died, she was above fifty, and her organism could accumulate harmful substances contained in sundry drugs and potions. There might have been an abortive attempt on her life, though...

Now, what was the composition of microelements in the bone tissue of other women buried at that time? Such data are given in Table 4.

These data concur in many respects with the assays of the bone tissue of high- born Russian

page 109


ladies of the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries. We see the enhanced concentration of lead, mercury, copper, occasionally barium and other elements that might have been present in the cosmetics used at the time (and it often contained toxic agents). Sure enough, our contemporaries will recoil at the mere mention of substances like white lead, antimony or cinnabar (the chief source of mercury), all of them highly poisonous. But fashionable ladies of the Middle Ages did use them.

Drugs and salves were another source of poison. Some medicines contained lead (Goulard water), and salves-mercury and arsenic. Lead-containing remedies, by the way, appeared in Europe in the 10th century, and were in common use from the 15th century on. In this connection it would be in place to mention yet another rare finding in the Kremlin: two vessels recovered in 1843 during the construction of icehouses on the slope of the Borovitsky Hill in the Kremlin (on what is known as Podol, near the Sts. Constantine and Helen Church). One, made of metal, contained writs dated from the time of Prince Dmitry Donskoi (ruled in 1359 to 1389). The other, made of fireclay in the shape of a spheroid cone, had mercury inside, which means that this liquid metal got into Muscovian Rus as early as the 14th century and, according to some bits of evidence, even before that.

All the objects we have studied show an enhanced concentration of mercury. An insignificant amount of this element in the organism stimulates the phagocytic activity* of white blood cells (leucocytes) and heat exchange, i.e. it has a positive effect. Yet big doses are very harmful. Mercury accumulates in the bones and bone marrow, in the liver, spleen and kidneys-most of all, however, in the brain. Its concentration may go up 20- and even 30 fold compared with the norm. Even little doses decrease one's capacity for work, they cause fatigue and nervous excitability. Then come memory lapses, anxiety and loss of confidence, irritability and headaches. In the worst cases the malady may develop into toxic encephalopathy, a grave disease of the brain.

The poisonous mercury could come from medical drugs, dyes (from cinnabar that was in much use at the day), from vapors released in the process of gilding; the presence of an open mercury barometer in the Kremlin likewise could have a role to play.

Another microelement, arsenic (which we have also detected in the bone remains), if taken in little doses, has a good effect on hematosis (blood building), soft and bone tissue growth. Yet if administered in excessive amounts, arsenic has a toxic action. It upsets metabolism, impairs the heart muscle, the nervous system, the skin and the mucous membrane of the respiratory tracts, the nose especially.

Nonetheless arsenic-based remedies were widely used in the Middle Ages for angina (tonsillitis) and relapsing typhoid fever. Arsenic dyes that one used to paint house walls with were likewise dangerous, especially indoors within damp rooms where the mold fungus Penicillum brevicaule turned such paints into a toxic garlic-smelling gas, trimethylarsine.

Lead dyes were likewise harmful, as testified by the Russian savant Karl Friedrich Borne at the end of the 18th century: "Painting wooden parts with lead dyes should occur long before one moves in, for they contaminate the air." However,

Table 5

Microelements in the bone tissue of males buried in Moscow in the 15th-16th centuries

Object

Place of burial

Microelements, mg/100 g of bone tissue

Ni

Сu

Zn

Mn

Hg

As

Pb

Mean concentration in bone tissue today

0.7

1.8

14

10

0.04

0.1

1.9

Monki

St.Andronicus Monastery

0.9

0.2

26.1

21

0.04

0.3

0.2

Monk 2

St.Andronicus Monastery

0.2

0.9

9.5

17

0.10

0.4

0.0

Monk3

St.Andronicus Monastery

1.4

1.4

19.0

6

0.10

0.4

0.2

Monk 4

St.Andronicus Monastery

0.1

0.5

45.1

9

0.06

0.2

0.5

Monk

Kremlin (905)

1.2

3.6

23.9

18

0.03

3.0

8.7

Monk

Kremlin (906)

1.0

3.9

39.8

14

0.09

5.6

32


* Related to phagocytosis, a protective reaction of the organism as phagocytes (specialized cells) digest foreign particles, including microbes and cell debris, and thus eliminate them from the organism. - Ed .

page 110


page 111


Table 6

Microelements in the bone tissue of children buried in the Moscow Kremlin

Object

Microelements, mg/100 got bone tissue

Ni

С u

Zn

Mn

Hg

As

Pb

Mean concentration in bone tissue today

0.7

1.8

14

10

1.9

0.1

0.04

Maria, daughter of Ivan IV (infant)

4.3

4.3

477

80

58.8

3.8

0.2

16 cent. burial of a nameless child (age, ca. 2 years)

0.5

75

55

10

13.1

1.8

0.05

Maria of Staritsa (5-7 years old), buried in 1569

2.0

3.9

44.7

15

51.4

8.1

0.11

Anastasia of Staritsa (infant), buried in 1568

1.5

6.8

30.5

3.9

15.9

1.6

0.16

Fyodor Belsky (infant), buried in 1568

0.7

1.7

23.9

8.4

34.7

1.0

0.02

lead continued in active use for quite some time due to its softness, good corrosion resistance and very high fusibility. One used lead in the making of window sashes and household utensils. This element, if accumulated in the organism, caused dysfunctions of the peripheral and central nervous system and, as a consequence, impaired behavioral responses.

Looking into Table 4, we cannot help but notice a very high concentration of barium in the bone tissue of Princess Yevdokia of Staritsa (appanage, or independent principality). Taken in microdoses, this element stimulates the activity of bone marrow, but it is poisonous if taken in large amounts and tends to accumulate in all the organs, especially in the bones.

We cannot tell where this microelement, barium, came from. But we know that barite (BaO 4 S) went into the making of white paint added to white lead. This might be the cause why barium came to be accumulated in the bones of Yevdokia of Staritsa and in the bones of a woman buried at the time (her name has not been established).

Such are the results of our studies of the microelement composition of bone tissue belonging to women buried in the Middle Ages within the Moscow Kremlin and of habitation deposits in some parts of its territory. These data enable us to get an idea of the environment of palatial chambers where noble Russian ladies spent their life; in some cases we can learn the true causes of their death. But here's what we need for the understanding of all the factors impacting people's life: first, a more representative sample of data, and second, research findings on the remains of the urban population of different social and age groups. Relevant studies are underway now.

The data given in Table 5 may serve by way of illustration. They show a more complex microelement composition of the bone tissue of men buried within the Kremlin and the St. Andronicus monastery compared with corresponding data on women buried in the vaults of the Ascension Cathedral. Since some of the monks must have been involved with icon painting, their organism accumulated toxic substances contained in the paints they were using.

X-ray fluorescence studies of the remains of children belonging to the families of grand princes and czars are of considerable interest too (Table 6).

They must have been living in an extremely unfavorable geochemical environment, or else have been administered toxic medication. We cannot rule out cases of premeditated poisoning in the course of power struggle at the court of Moscow sovereigns.

In the present article we have considered only preliminary results of our studies. But we are keeping up our work of studying the microelement composition of the bone remains of people who lived in Muscovy during the Middle Ages. Such studies have many sidelines to them-we can learn a remarkable lot about all the various aspects of people's life in those distant times.


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