One summer night as the sun set behind the Dnipro River, the great waterway that divides Ukraine, Anatolii Volkov walked along the riverbank, downhill.
A Ukrainian archaeologist, Mr. Volkov looks like he’s just taking a walk. But he was actually examining the nearly dry soil of a former reservoir that revealed a treasure trove of artifacts after a catastrophic explosion at the Kakhovka dam sent 4.8 trillion gallons of water gushing downstream, emptying it. in the reservoir and avoided sand and silt. which covered things for centuries.
“Look at this,” he said.
He bent down and picked up something about two inches long. He rubbed his fingers into the grooves.
“Pottery shard,” he said. “Bronze Age. Three thousand years old. Even.”
Even before the war, Ukrainian archaeologists had their hands full in a large country rich in archaeological sites and not many expert diggers to study them. But when the conflict erupted in February 2022, it made their careful slow and methodical approach even more difficult.
Russian troops broke into history museums and looted priceless antiquities. Soldiers and their war machines move into archaeological sites, including ancient tombs. Some sites were submerged in frontline fighting. Also many archaeologists in Ukraine themselves, who, like other professionals, enlisted in the army to fight for their country. Some have been killed.
In that sad tableau, the plethora of artifacts littering the reservoir area is a small but welcome compensation. The dam was blown up in June, probably by Russian forces trying to overwhelm Ukrainian troops and cut off one of the only crossings left on the Dnipro. The destruction caused severe flooding and drained the reservoir, which became one of the largest lakes in Europe.
In the weeks since, Ukrainian archaeologists and scavenger hunters have discovered all sorts of things: pieces of stone axes at least 1,000 years old; Nazi era helmets; an old bridge; Cossack cannon balls from the 17th century; and flint rock from the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th century (actually, a lot of war stuff).
“This has never happened before,” said Yevhen Synytsia, chairman of the Ukrainian Association of Archaeologists. “It’s crazy.”
It also has a deep meaning.
The war in Ukraine is, at its heart, a battle for Ukrainian identity. Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s leader, continues to belittle Ukrainian independence and takes the same dim view of Ukraine as Soviet strongmen like Stalin and the czars before him. In their eyes, the country is nothing more than a Russian appendage, lacking a unique culture, language and history.
This is precisely where Ukrainian archaeologists come in.
“We found pieces of ancient culture, our ancient culture,” said Viacheslav Sarychev, the scientific secretary of the Khortytsia National Reserve in the northern part of the reservoir area. “Piece by piece, we are distancing ourselves from Russia.”
“This is very important to us,” he added.
Items are washed, sorted, analyzed and cataloged. Mr. Volkov has hundreds of them scattered on his desk and on the windowsill behind him in the Khortytsia reserve, where he works. He is just one member of a growing group of archaeologists arriving.
For a profession that has been measuring things for centuries, archaeologists feel unusual pressure to work quickly. First, there are the “underground archaeologists,” as the real archaeologists call them, opportunists who have shown up in recent weeks to sneak into the lake bed in search of pieces for the antiques trade in underground.
Police have already caught some men walking around restricted areas with metal detectors and big headphones.
But then there’s the greater pressure of all this potential history disappearing again. Ukrainian officials say that when the war is over, they will rebuild the dam, refill the lake, rebury everything they can find.
This area was submerged under water in 1956, when the dam was completed as part of a major hydroelectric plant. However, Soviet archaeologists analyzed it, as Mr. Synytsia said, “nobody paid attention to the Ukrainian identity then.”
“So much has been lost,” he added.
Khortytsia is a cradle of Ukrainian history. An island sitting in the middle of the Dnipro River, it has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. It was full of deer and rabbits and thick with bushes, the perfect pit stop for early travelers heading up the Dnipro to the Black Sea.
More recently, say, 500 years ago, it became a fortress for Zaporizhia Cossacksa military community from the eastern European steppes that played a prominent role in the formation of a Ukrainian state.
Many of the most interesting discoveries from the dam disaster were found just off the island’s rocky shore. Ukrainian archaeologists were very excited a few weeks ago at the dig a 20-foot-long oak boat half-buried in the sand and carved with mysterious symbols. It is at least five centuries old.
What Mr. Volkov unearthed in his nocturnal forays was generally more modest; chips of ancient pots, say, or crooked Cossack nails. Still, fragmented or rusty, they are all interesting. Archaeologists like him think deeply about the passage of time and what happens to things as the centuries pass them by.
“We call it archaeological intelligence,” Mr. Volkov said.
He spoke as he walked, down, looking for more treasure.
It’s almost night, and the sky is turning a dark blue, the color the reservoir used to be before it dried up and turned into miles of cracked clay.
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.