Russian coins can be surprising versatile tools.
Russian coins can be surprising versatile tools. Public Domain

The modern pickpocket’s arsenal might include a signal jammer (you don’t want anyone calling the police) or surgeon’s tongs. His 18th-century Russian equivalent used a simple two-kopeck coin. Russian archaeologists found a specially modified coin while digging in a historic part of central Moscow, the BBC reported, the latest in a string of similarly illicit objects uncovered beneath the city’s streets.

It, of course, is no ordinary coin. The enterprising thief had hammered one edge flat, then filed it into a blade. This sharpened edge could then be used to slice open pockets, moneybags, or purses, and send their contents tumbling into the pickpockets’ waiting clutches. Known as “thieves’ coins,” they were a critical tool for the Russian cutpurse. (If the pickpocket was caught and the encounter turned nasty, as frequently happened, it could then be repurposed as a shiv.)

The coin was found during construction work in the city’s Soymonov Passage, a central road near the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, as part of a larger effort to restore and revitalize the city’s center. Since the “My Street” project began, in early 2017, other finds have included a stamp used to make counterfeit coins, dating from the 17th century, and a cache of copper coins—around one in ten of which were counterfeit, Alexei Yemelyanov, the head of the city’s Cultural Heritage Department, told the mayor’s official website. And beneath Manezh Square, workers uncovered a former thieves’ den, with walls made of stolen gravestones. Inside, archaeologists found a treasure trove of items designed for heists and hoodwinking, including double-bottomed perfume bottle, used to scam people buying expensive scents.

While criminality of this sort may not be an appealing part of Moscow’s history, Yemelyanov said, it’s certainly a source of secrets and mysteries for the city’s present-day inhabitants.