Russian death pit reveals bloody massacre by Mongols found in folklore

A pit of bodies found in the Russian town of Yaroslavl dating back to the 13th century confirms a bloody massacre committed by the Mongols in 1238 that is recounted in folklore. And it turns out the pit contains three generations of a family.

First built in the early 1200s, the Assumption Cathedral in Yaroslavl bore witness to a grievous massacre that has haunted and shaped Russia for centuries stemming from Mongol leader Batu Khan’s invasion and conquest of the city in 1238.


800px View to the Assumption Cathedral of Yaroslavl
The Assumption Cathedral in Yaroslavl. Image via Wikimedia.

During the conquest, Khan’s thirst for blood rivaled his infamous grandfather, Genghis Khan, resulting in a significant portion of the population being murdered and most of the city structures being burned, seeing as how most of them were constructed with wood at the time. Only the cathedral, built using stone, would survive.


800px Yaroslavl on the Volga
The city of Yaroslavl as seen from the Volga river. Image via Wikimedia.

Through the centuries, this bloody massacre in the city just 160 miles northeast of Moscow, passed into mere folklore. That is until a team of scientists performing an emergency excavation of the Assumption Cathedral grounds in 2005 made a grisly discovery that would re-write the history books and end the belief that Mongol conquest of Russian territory by Batu Khan had been largely peaceful.

Undertaken by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology, the team unearthed a mass grave containing three individuals that represented three generations of the same wealthy Russian family.

“In addition to recreating the overall picture of the fall of the city in 1238, we now see the tragedy of one family,” Institute of Archaeology deputy director Asya Engovatova said in a statement explaining the find.

“DNA analysis has shown that there were remains of genetically related individuals representing three generations. Anthropological data suggest these were a grandmother aged 55 or older, her daughter aged 30 to 40 and grandson, a young man of about 20. A fourth member of the family-related through the female line was buried in the neighboring mass grave.”

So, the Mongol horde that invaded the city clearly did not care if it wiped out whole families as long as they could conquer the territory.

DNA testing not only confirmed familial connections, but it also gives the team more knowledge about 13th-century life in Russia.

“Importantly, these family relations were initially postulated by archaeologists and anthropologists, and then confirmed by genetic data,” Engovatova said. “This makes our research more evidential and allows us to discuss the 13th-century events and way of life with more certainty.”

But it also confirms Russian folklore that referred to the city as “drowned in blood.”

“Batu Khan’s conquest was the greatest national tragedy, surpassing any other event in cruelty and destruction. It is not by chance that it is among the few such events that made its way into the Russian folklore,” Engovatova said. “What we now know about those raids suggests that chronicle descriptions of ‘a city drowned in blood’ were not merely a figure of speech.”

Despite the folklore, many recent publications suggest that the conquest by Batu Khan’s Golden Horde had been “peaceful and voluntary”. The discovery of the pit makes it clear, however, that this is not the case. The Mongols conquered this territory by spilling a lot of blood.

“The first third of the 13th century saw the conquest of China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Volga Bulgaria, and the part of the East European Plain where Yaroslavl lies,” Engovatova continued.

“Some publications of the past 10-15 years took the viewpoint that the inclusion of Rus [the present-day Russia] into the Golden Horde was almost peaceful and voluntary, with practically no major atrocities committed. But it is now obvious this was not really the case.”

According to MIPT:

Over just five years, nine mass graves and over 300 buried individuals who had died a violent death were found, more than in the other ravaged cities. The findings of prior research then enabled a detailed reconstruction of the events: It was proved that the unearthed victims died during the capture of Yaroslavl by Batu Khan’s forces in February 1238.

Batuhan cropped
Batu Khan and his Golden Horde slaughtered many to conquer Yaroslavl, even generations of families. Image via Wikimedia.

The team knows the grave is from the conquest of 1238 because of how the bodies were found.

“The data on the time they were buried is very precise and support the anthropologists’ hypothesis that the corpses had partly decomposed. These people were killed, and their bodies remained lying in the snow for a fairly long time. In April or May, flies started to multiply on the remains, and in late May or early June they were buried in a pit on the homestead, which is where they probably had lived,” Engovatova said.

And they were high-ranking members of society who may have been close to the royals.

“Genetic studies have confirmed the relationship between three of them. They were probably members of the same wealthy, high-ranking family,” Engovatova said. “The location of the estate at the center of the citadel confirms this, and so do the archaeological finds made on the estate. Even a hanging seal was found. This might well be the very family that owned the rich homestead excavated 3 meters from the grave.”

Folklore can teach us much and we should not discount it from the historical record. Yaroslavl is an example of that. Perhaps there are more stories in folklore that can shed light on the histories we know and those we only think we know.

More about Batu Khan below:


Featured Image: MIPT

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