Monday, 1 December 2014




Something was found buried in the woods in Siberia, Russia.

A panorama of a small portion of the vast Siberian forest. Source.

Quite a bit older than the 2013 museum mystery that I posted about roughly a month ago, this unsolved mystery dates back to 1975, but new evidence has come to light in the last week. However, like the previous case, this story also involves an object: a magnificent sword that may or may not have belonged to Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first tsar. Experts at the Hermitage Museum are currently examining it, which is why this mystery has earned the right to be featured in this column.

That is one intimidating stare: a portrait of Ivan IV Vasilyevich, known better by his epithet "The Terrible." Source.

As it is the time of final papers, I’ve been spending a lot of my time writing complex arguments and several pages in single sittings (I know, I make graduate school sound very glamorous). Therefore, I decided to change things up by explaining what is known to the public so far about the mystery of the Siberian sword by answering 5 basic questions - “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, and “why.”


Of course, I’ve already mentioned Ivan IV “The Terrible,” who is the famous historical figure at the centre of this mystery. He reigned as Tsar of All the Russias from 1547 until his death in 1584. He began to exhibit the unpleasant behaviour that earned him his epithet after the death of his first wife in the early 1560s. Ivan was known for murder, ruthlessness, manipulation, his brutal “police force” the Oprichnina, and his bloody conquests. He is definitely a very memorable figure in Russian history.

As for the archaeologist who made the discovery, Vyacheslav Molodin was only a young man when he uncovered the sword. Today, he has a long list of achievements: he is the deputy director of an Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, authored / co-authored more than 1,100 papers (it’s okay to gasp), led expeditions in the Altai Mountains where his team discovered the tattooed “Ukok princess,” earned the State Prize for his archaeological work, and was awarded the cross of the first level of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Esteemed Russian archaeologist Vyacheslav Molodin. Source.


The sword in question is just over a metre in length, has an iron hilt typical of the kind of sword carried by Medieval knights, a crossbar guard, and a three-part pommel. It has been broadly dated to the 12th or early 13th century CE. Apparently, it is so well preserved that you can see the silver of the metal underneath the corrosion when you move the blade under a light. The sword was found at a shallow depth of approximately 3-5 centimetres in the soil.

The Siberian sword is in magnificent condition despite its age. Source.


The sword was found during the summer excavation season of 1975. The details regarding the writing on the blade were only released to the public in the past week on November 21, 2014.


The find spot of the sword was near the River Om in the Novosibirsk region of Siberia, Russia. I’ll let Google Maps do most of the talking for this one.
The red icon marks the location where the sword was discovered. Source.

Understanding the origin of the sword is critical for unravelling this mystery because it will help to explain how it came to be in Russia and possibly in the hands of Ivan the Terrible. Experts are now saying that it was probably made in the Rhine basin region of Germany before being taken to Sweden to be given its ornate handle and Norse ruse pattern.


Why all the fuss over a mystery that is nearly four decades old now? Hermitage experts have just recently been able to decode the Latin writing that appears on each side of the sword’s blade.

The main inscription reads, ‘N[omine] M[atris] N[ostri] S[alva]t[ORis] Et[eRni] D[omini] S[alvatoRis] E[teRni].’ There is another on same side of the blade: ‘C[hRis]t[us] Ih[esus] C[hRis]t[us]’. In English, the first means, “'In the name of the mother of our saviour eternal, eternal Lord and Saviour" while the second inscription simply says "Christ Jesus Christ.”

The inscription on the reverse side is less clear than the others. However, the first word ‘NOMENE,’ which is the easiest to read, helps reconstruct the remainder of the writing: 'N[omine] O[mnipotentis]. M[ateR]. E[teRni] N[omin]e.’ This means, “In the name of the Almighty. The Mother of God. In the name of Eternal.”

The writing is overtly religious in nature, but why these exact phrases were chosen is unknown. Experts have postulated that this sword belonged to the armoury of Ivan the Terrible and brought to Siberia during the conquest the Tsar led in the region late in his reign. Who may have been using the sword and why they lost it are details still up for debate, but some interesting theories have emerged.

If you look closely, you can see the faint writing along the blade, which has been transcribed in the top right hand corner of the photograph. Source.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that with the help of modern technology, we won’t have to wait another 39 years before more information about the sword is uncovered. Who knows, we may know sooner than later whether the Siberian sword was in fact once wielded by one of Russia’s greatest historical figures. Decoding the text inscribed on the blade was certainly a step in the right direction.

The Siberian Times provided the best coverage of this story that I could find. Feel free to read up on the sword in more detail by visiting their website.


  1. Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Can you imagine being the museum worker who got to handle the sword for the photo op? I'd be half-terrified of dropping it (but would also be completely history-nerding out).

  3. Thank you, Jenny. I took a class on Imperial Russian history two years ago and have loved it ever since, so I felt really strongly about sharing this story!

    I agree Anya, I would have felt the exact same way. It must have been such a wonderful yet terrifying privilege.

  4. Madeline, this article is worth of a Museum Mystery episode! Also, I like the formatting of your ideas - it makes everything very clear and allows the reader to focus on the section which if most interest to her! For me, I like mapping things, so I was attracted to the map and was reminded yet again of the importance of geography in understanding an object (and its story or mystery)!

    1. Thank you for saying so, Professor Mihalache - it's certainly intriguing how the Exhibitions, Interpretation, and Communication class today has converged with a couple Musings posts now! I'm glad that you found the formatting useful and could easily locate what appealed to you the most. It certainly was helpful for the writing process as well!