Moldova, former home to a Swedish King and motherland of mammoths: how culture helps the regions to develop

12-05-2018

In the European Union, 2018 has been designated the year of cultural heritage. Exhibits, conferences and seminars devoted to a new understanding of heritage as a process of discovering history and culture will take place around Europe. The Republic of Moldova also has a newfound appreciation for its heritage, with residents discovering that mammoths and Neanderthals were neighbours of their ancestors and that a Swedish king once lived in a Moldovan village.

The past meets the future

In the last decade, the notion of cultural heritage has extended far beyond museum exhibitions. Cultural heritage includes archaeological artefacts, national traditions and cuisine, works of art, unique natural landscapes and much more.

There is a reason why the EU is celebrating cultural heritage this year. Realising the value of our culture, preserving it and interpreting it in modern ways helps us to understand who we are, why we make certain choices, and where we are going next. The slogan of this year is "Our heritage is where the past meets the future." Specialists from various fields, art managers, exhibition organisers, scientists, philosophers and teachers will ensure that the past does indeed meet the future in the course of the year.

"Culture is not just about entertainment"

Until now, cultural heritage was hardly a priority in Moldova. However, Moldova has become a harbinger of the year of cultural heritage among the EU’s Eastern Partner countries, thanks to EU support. In 2015-2017, a major project called "CHOICE - Cultural Heritage: Opportunity for Improving Civic Engagement" was implemented in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia.

"Culture used to be viewed as an ideological tool, and only authorities were responsible for safekeeping the heritage. This project, on the contrary, was aimed at civil society's support," said Valeriya Surucanu, manager of the programme in Moldova and head of the International Council of Museums. People in Moldova are now realising that heritage belongs to every citizen, she said, and that culture is not just about having a nice time at a concert.

"It can bring revenue and be a source of economic development through tourism and the foundation of creative hubs. It can be used to improve quality of life," Surucanu said.

NGOs from all over Moldova presented their ideas of preserving and revitalising cultural heritage. Based on the competition results, seven initiatives were financed. In the past two years, the NGOs who put forward these initiatives have exchanged experiences with colleagues from other Eastern Partnership countries, participated in seminars and conferences and brought their projects to life. The budget of each project was on average between 10,000 and €18,000.

These initiatives have created opportunities for local people. For instance, history students at the State University of Moldova and students of Fine Arts and Design at the Pedagogical University participated in archaeological excavations together and studied ceramics from the Cucuteni-Trypillya culture (VI-IV centuries BC). Historians learned how to recreate an entire object from a fragment and artists studied the origins of the ancient craft. After several exhibitions, objects created within the project were given to the museum of the Pedagogical University. This project expanded the horizons of both students and universities, while other projects may mark the beginning of the development of entire regions.

Varnita, the "new Stockholm"

Few people in Moldova know that several centuries ago, Varnita village in Anenii Noi District was known as the "new Stockholm" for several years. From 1711-1713, the Swedish King Karl XII retreated here after losing the battle of Poltava, ruling Sweden from Moldovan territory for three years. About 2,000-3,000 soldiers settled here with him, and though the Swedes did not plan to stay long, the camp was constructed with attention to detail. The camp, called "Karlopolis", contained a palace with 2 halls and 12 rooms. After Karl and his soldiers left, Turkish troops destroyed all evidence of the camp.

When Romanian authorities first noticed the inconspicuous patch of land on the banks of the Dniester in 1925, a memorial was erected on the site where the camp was believed to have been. However, the object did not become a new mecca for tourists and local residents – it went forgotten until after perestroika.

 In 1992, the National Museum of History of Moldova found out that a monument to King Karl was hidden in the yard of a regular residential building. The house was bought from the owners; a small photo exhibition was held there and modest excavations were organised, but developments stopped there. Fifteen years later, the building was demolished and the monument was overgrown with weeds, with no money for its restoration.

According to Veronica Shtefanyuk, head of the NGO ‘Femeia, speranta, viata’, the CHOICE project became "the foundation stone for change". "We suggested the idea together with the Museum of History of Moldova. This problem was long overdue; this was a chance to start the development of the entire community from this point on. Because not every Moldovan village can boast such ties with the Swedes," said Shtefanyuk.

With the funds received from the EU, the memorial was restored, a development plan was created and historical research resumed. When preparing for the restoration of the memorial, researchers found new documents about the camp in the Romanian National Archives. This prompted the history museum to start excavations again, with great success. Archaeologists found the foundation of a building dating back to XVIII century, believed to have served as a chancery for the Swedish King. Now, the preserved foundation is a full-fledged part of the monument.

Currently, all that can be found in Varnita is an open-air monument and archives, which are kept at the home of a local museographer, Boris Karagachan. "For now, all objects found during the excavations were taken to the museum in Chisinau, because there is no place to store them here," Karagachan explained. However, he is convinced that the launch of this project is just the beginning.

The project enabled local authorities and NGOs to make ambitious plans to fund the reconstruction of Karl's palace, open a proper museum and enable access to the Dniester River. It is hoped that the Swedish King's camp will become a site of interest for tourists. Currently, Boris Karagachan conducts tours himself. According to him, when the monument was restored the local residents learned a lot about the camp and are willing to participate in the touristic development of their village.

Costesti, the motherland of Neanderthals and mammoths

Residents of Duruitoarea Veche village, located near Costesti in Riscani District have also discovered more about their local history. The village is situated in a favourable location, with the country’s largest reservoir to one side and a picturesque range of hills with grottoes on the other. Scientists think that these grottoes are about 18 million years old and are contemporaries of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

There is little information about the initial excavations of these grottoes. When they started to excavate again during Soviet times in the 1960s, archaeologists found a Neanderthal's jaw in one of the grottoes, one of the rarest finds of this age in Europe. In 2008, a mammoth's tusk was found in Duruitoarea’s most famous grotto. These findings were handed over to the Academy of Sciences, leaving the site with nothing.

With the support of the CHOICE project, the Mostenitorii association started to restore the Duruitoarea grotto together with local residents. In 2016, excavations started again in the grotto, carried out by summer school participants. They found fragments of the bones of horses and cave bears, estimated to be around 200,000-300,000 years old.

Many of the project’s goals were achieved with the help of the village. Local residents helped restore a semi-destroyed building and clean up the site of an old school to create a space for a museum.

"One woman who whitewashed the walls said: 'When I am old I will come here with my grandchildren and say that I did this.' This is a very beautiful thought," said Nikolay Moscalu, head of Mostenitorii.

Many village residents participated in organising the ethnographic collection of the museum. They brought ancient tools for working in the field from their homes, jugs, photos of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The Academy of Sciences of Moldova and the local lyceum handed over their collection of archaeological remains from the grottoes to the museum.

From June to September last year, about 3,000 people visited the museum. Most of them were children and school groups from the country's northern regions, but also among the visitors were tourists from Romania, France and the USA. Real estate is also developing in Costesti; in the last year alone, more than a dozen homes were bought, with new owners coming from Chisinau, Balti and even from the USA.

Local residents insist that the project has made them look differently at things they see daily. "They used to [look at] the grotto before and say 'ah, there is some hole there'," said Nikolay Moscalu. He is convinced that thanks to the support of local authorities and projects such as CHOICE, Duruitoarea Veche and Costesti can be reborn.

Author: Olga Gnatcova

Article published by "Newsmaker" in Russian and Romanian