The Great Bridge in Novgorod, a structure connecting the Sofia and Marketplace sides of medieval Novgorod, was a key object in the city life. According to the "Charter on Bridges," an integral part of Russian law, its upkeep and maintenance were shared among all city dwellers. But the bridge was not simply a transportation artery linking the two areas that stretched along both banks of the Volkhov. It was an important public space in Novgorod. Here, residents of the Sofia and Marketplace sides would meet, though such meetings did not always proceed peacefully. The bridge was also a site of execution: criminals in Novgorod were thrown into the Volkhov. Here, tragedy occurred—during the Oprichina Terror several thousand Novgorodians were simultaneously killed.
The Great Bridge was, until 19th century construction of stone bridges, the only one that had been built in Russia. It was able to survive winter and floods, though it did not survive to present day. The Res Publica Center set about the task of finding the remains, and beginning in 2005 funded an underwater archaeological expedition led by Ayvar Stepanov. In various years the expedition has been also supported by the "Dynasty" Foundation, Gazprombank, the Novgorod archaeological expedition "Iskatel'" and by Ayvar Stepanov personally.
Work began with the construction of several exploratory pits that made it possible not only to establish the approximate location of the bridge, but also to refute several myths. Contrary to the notion that the entire bottom of the Volkhov is filled with archaeological artifacts, it became clear that the cultural stratum is present only at the area of the bridge, identifiable by numerous wooden pilings of different periods. Underwater archaeology has its own specifics. Effective work in the Volkhov is possible only at certain times of year: at the beginning of spring, when the water temperature has not reached extremes and flooding has not yet lifted silt from the bottom, the presence of which until the freeze brings visibility in the water to zero. Neither is the river's flow conducive to preserving the cultural stratum, making a stratigraphic analysis of findings difficult. In the instance of the Great Bridge we were lucky. Because of the stone talus remaining after the construction of the 19th century stone bridge, the cultural layer remained covered, as if by a pillow. Thanks to this, its integrity is greater than it could be otherwise.
The 2013 excavations brought about a number of new discoveries: prints of the Novgorod ruler's deputies, medieval coins and tools. Shackles and a millstone were found, apparently used as instruments of execution—tied around the neck of the convicted. The last two findings, according to Sergei Troyanovskii, could be a worthy addition to a museum collection on the penitentiary system of Ancient Novgorod. Such a museum does not yet exist, but could certainly already be created.
The most numerous findings (as goes for excavations on land) were ceramics. A whole layer of fragments (14th-15th centuries) was discovered, in which was found large quantities of food waste and minor currency. The apparent reason for this was the result of shops operating on the bridge. Shops and trade located on the bridge during the Muscovite period is known from written sources. Thanks to the discoveries of 2013 the period of the emergence of shops on the bridge can, with certainty, be attributed to the period of independence and spending. There exists a visible parallel between the Great Bridge and bridges of other medieval republics such as Venice (Rialto) and Florence (Ponte Vecchio).
Research on the Great Bridge continues the tradition of Novgorod archaeological expeditions started by Artemii Artsikhovskii. In this tradition the aim of archaeological research is not the artifacts of the past, but an attempt to solve broader socio-political historical problems through archeological material.