One of the most important areas of work for the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is archaeological expeditions. They have been carried out for over 80 years: Museum workers Vladimir Blavatsky, Nina Loseva, Maria Kobylina, and Lev Kharko took part in exploratory works in 1927, with the expedition organized by the State Academy of the History of Material Culture (which is now the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences). The Museum team researched ancient villages of the Taman Peninsula, including Phanagoria (the biggest city of the Asian Bosporus) for three years (1927–1929). They documented the state of artifacts in the area and drew a map of the central part of the Taman Peninsula, which included the settlement of Phanagoria and the adjoining mound necropolis.
In 1933 and 1934, after industrial development had begun in Kerch, Vladimir Blavatsky and Maria Kobylina researched the necropolis of the Bosporan Tyritake (the southern area of modern-day Kerch). 25 earthen vaults, dating back to the first centuries A.D., contained plaster overlay decorations of wooden sarcophagi — acroters of open-work palmettes, theater and lion masks with traces of polychrome paintings, and vessels made of glass and clay. In one of the tombs a unique press of rhinestone with a cut-out image of a bundle of arrows was discovered. At the same time (1934–1935), Vladimir Blavatsky carried out excavations in Charax — a Roman military settlement near the Ai-Todor Cape not far from Yalta. His team found defensive walls, thermae, a sanctuary, and an adjoining necropolis.
In 1936 the Pushkin Museum started systematic exploration of Phanagoria and its necropolises in partnership with the Institute for History of Material Culture of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Before the war (until 1940), many Museum workers took part in the excavations headed by Vladimir Blavatsky. This expedition was a great experience of field archaeological research for them. Excavations were resumed after the Great Patriotic War. The joint expedition was headed by Maria Kobylina, and the Museum team worked under the guidance of Ivan Marchenko (until 1963) and Anna Korovina (1964–1965).
In the 1930s exploratory excavations were carried out in Patrey (an ancient settlement on the northern coast of the Taman Bay), the Tiramba necropolis, and Gorgippia (modern-day Anapa). They were initiated after the accidental discovery of the upper part of a male monumental statue during construction work in 1939. Subsequent exploration uncovered the lower part of the figure, as well as a plate with an inscription stating that the statue of the Gorgippian ruler Neokl was erected in 187 A.D. This magnificent monument is a real jewel of the Museum exposition today.
In 1944 a special Department of Archaeological Excavations and Expeditions was established in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, headed by Vladimir Blavatsky until 1947. The main task of the new department was to study the most important antique cities of the northern shores of the Black Sea: Panticapaeum (modern-day Kerch) and Phanagoria, as well as Scythian Neapolis (near Simferopol). In the summer of 1945 a joint expedition of the Museum and the Institute for History of Material Culture set out for Kerch. Since 1958 and to this day, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts has continued this work independently: at first, under the guidance of Ivan Marchenko (1959–1976), and later (since 1977) headed by Vladimir Tolstikov. In 1946 another expedition of the Museum, led by Pavel Shults and lasting for five years, researched the rich mausoleum of Scythian Neapolis. The expedition found hundreds of golden badges used for clothing decoration, weapons and parts of horse harnesses, imported and local ceramics, glass vessels, and bead necklaces made of semi-precious stones.
In 1947 excavations in Phanagoria resumed, and the Museum took part in them until 1965. Vast areas of the town were discovered: residential and artisanal quarters (including the so-called Ceramic, where potters lived and worked), a gymnasium, wineries, and fortifications. A significant part of the necropolis was also explored. A wealth of valuable material (inscriptions, coins, terracotta pieces, jewelry, painted and non-painted ceramics, tombstones) helped researchers to track the history of Phanagoria from its foundation in the middle of the 6th century B.C. to its destruction by the Huns in the 4th century A.D. One of the most important discoveries of those years was a beautiful marble acroter — the crowning part of a funeral stele, which is one of the most important exhibits of the Museum and serves as its unique symbol.
Phanagoria was the most significant but not the only site explored by the Museum's archaeologists on the Taman Peninsula. In 1949 they carried out archaeological surveillance in Gorgippia. In 1959 exploration of two other important centers of the Asian Bosporus began: the settlement and the necropolis of Tiramba, excavated until 1970 under the guidance of Anna Korovina, and the sanctuary on May Hill (1959–1961, 1963, expedition headed by Ivan Marchenko), which is located 1 km south of Phanagoria. At the sanctuary more than 1,000 terracotta pieces were found depicting Demeter, Kore, and Aphrodite. A building foundation was also discovered, which probably used to belong to a temple with antae. It is presumably the former Apaturion — the sanctuary of a female goddess mentioned by ancient writers.
In 1983–2005 the Eastern Bosporan expedition headed by Elena Savostina explored many ancient settlements of the Taman Peninsula. The most important of them were two farms in Yubileynoe. Archaeologists found unique monuments — a marble stele depicting two warriors (the so-called Taman relief, 3rd quarter of the 4th century B.C.) and a fragmented limestone frieze depicting a battle between warriors on foot and horsemen (2nd half of the 4th century B.C.) — in one of the foundations (Yubileynoe I).
Currently, the Museum is performing two archaeological expeditions: the Bosporan and the Hermonassan. The first expedition is resuming the systematic exploration of ancient Panticapaeum in Crimea, started by Vladimir Blavatsky, while the other one is studying the ancient settlement of Hermonassa (Tmutarakan) on the Taman Peninsula.
The work in Panticapaeum has been going on for 65 years now. A huge number of discoveries have been made. These have helped in understanding the planning of a significant part of the city at different times: the gradual development of construction starting with the first round buildings resembling dug-outs (the 2nd half of the 6th century B.C.); the building of the architectural complex with the central tholos on top of the plateau in the end of the 6th – beginning of the 5th century B.C.; and the construction of a huge ensemble with a palace, which could have been the residence of the Spartocids, the rulers of the Kingdom of Bosporus, as well as the final decoration of the sacred area with a temple (the 3rd quarter of the 4th century – the middle of the 2nd century B.C.). The system of complex fortifications of the acropolis was also researched and reconstructed. The excavations of Panticapaeum added many brilliant works of art to the Museum collection, including the marble head of a goddess dating back to the middle of the 4th century B.C. Many discoveries helped to expand specific sections of the collection and fill in the existing gaps (such as Eastern Greek ceramics).
Exploration of Hermonassa was launched in 1952 by the Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR under the leadership of Iraida Zeest. The Museum has taken part in it since 1968, at first as part of the Institute's expedition. In 1972 the team started to work independently and was headed by Anna Korovina, and since 1988 — by Svetlana Finogenova.
A significant part of the settlement is situated along the steep coast of the Taman Bay, which is gradually wearing away. This is why the excavations, which help to research the artifacts and secure them on the ground being slowly destroyed, are so important for recovery of the history of this Ionian colony founded around the middle of the 6th century B.C. Over the years, remains of residential and utility buildings, a few town mansions, and a big public building from the 4th-3rd centuries B.C. were found on the Northern and the Uphill excavation sites. Numerous cargo amphorae from Chios, Thasos, Heraclea, Sinope, Rhodes, Knidos, and other ancient cities; fragments of painted vessels from Ionia, Chios, Corinth, and Athens; and red-lacquer ceramics from Asia Minor are evidence of the active and diverse contacts of Hermonassa with other Mediterranean cities throughout its history.
In addition to archaeological work in Crimea and the Taman Peninsula, for twenty years (1951-1970) researchers of the Department of the Ancient East took an active part in the excavation of the Urartian fortress Erebuni on Arin Berd hill in Yerevan. The expedition was held jointly with the Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Armenian SSR and the Department for Artifact Conservation of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR for Construction. Konstantin Oganesyan took the role of the project leader, while Boris Piotrovsky was the scientific advisor. Until 1959, Nina Loseva was the expedition manager, and later Svetlana Khodzhash took her place.
The excavations revealed perfectly preserved defensive walls with buttresses, fortress rooms, and the central temple of the Urartian supreme god Khaldi. A 3-step ziggurat and a palace decorated with polychrome paintings adjoined the temple. The paintings depicted Khaldi standing on a lion, as well as lions and bulls on the sides of the sacred square. Scenes of war and hunting alternated with ornamental compositions. A cuneiform inscription by the main entrance to the fortress helped to locate the Urartian city of Erebuni, which was mentioned earlier in the Chorchor chronicle made by Argishti I, a king of Urartu, on a cliff by Lake Van. According to the chronicle, Erebuni, which gave rise to modern-day Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, was founded in the 5th year of the reign of Argishti I (782 B.C.). Another 23 cuneiform inscriptions made on basalt were discovered in the fortress.
During the excavation, unique pieces of ceramics were found: jugs, cups, and glasses, many of which had signs of the craftsmen (towers, birds, fishes, griffins, and gods). Presses with hunting scenes were found as well. Remains of the city where the soldiers and the craftsmen lived were found below the fortress.