Birch-Brk-Wrt-art - 3/2/02
"Old Novgorod Birch-Bark Writings" by Posadnik.
NOTE: See also the files: Rus-Handbook-art, Russia-bib, Russia-msg, parchment-
msg, scrpt-develop-art, wax-tablets-msg, paper-msg, med-letters-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Old Novgorod Birch-Bark Writings
Based on articles & popular books about the history of literacy in Russia.
In 2001 Archaeology could celebrate a truly important jubilee: 50 years since
the first birch-bark letters were discovered. Now the number of documents found
has started its second thousand. Before that, the common belief among the
scholars was that Russia was completely illiterate, as most books were written
in monasteries or by order of church officials, which made some scientists think
that the whole notion of culture in Russia started with Christening in 988.
Especially known for such belief was acadamician Dmitri Likhachev, who (at the
millenium jubilee of the event in 1988) stated that Christening marked the end
of illiterate darkness and opened the history of great Russian culture.
So, the common knowledge in 1950s was that northern Russia was illiterate. The
only question was where all those bone & metal sticks, found in huge numbers,
came from. First they were considered religion-related artifacts: the idea
looks too promising when you don't know what this or that is for.
But then about 1950, a humble (at the time) worker of Artemi Artsikhovski's
archaeological expedition, Nina Akulova, found a birch-bark roll that looked
scratched or something like that. After a closer look, the roll appeared to
carry the text of letters, pressed into the bark. The sensation could be
compared with finding Troy, or the recovering of the Avesta. A whole city of
literate people, who just scratched notes to each other every now and then. Due
to these rolls the scientists were able to look into the everyday life of
ordinary people of which the chronicles had little to say. Most writings were
everyday ones, asking the wife to send clean underwear or the neighbor to lend
some money, some love letters, poems or election bulletins where only one name
was written. Most known are probably the writings of a Novgorod teenager Onthim.
He left us what look like some school exercises if it is such He wrote some
ABCs, also a very well-known text appeared to be his drill in composing a
letter. The text started with "From Onthim to Danilo:" There was a "code" letter
which was written by a teenager, maybe Onthim himself. It was written and not
signed, obviously to make the reader spend time to put that into the correct
form until he (she?) understands he was called something unpleasant. The text
was written in two lines, but you were to read in vertically, pair of letters by
pair of letters. The text went on like this: "an ignoramus wrote this, a fool
showed it, and the person who read thisŠ"
Besides just describing the life that bustled in the streets, the birch-bark
writings were of great use in identifying the owners of the houses. As Russian
cities were all of wooden construction, except for the churches in the big
cities such as Kiev or Novgorod, every 50 years or so they simply burned down to
the ground. As the country was rich with woods (the northern half, of course),
and the people were extremely good at woodcraft, the citizens didn't even move
away the ashes, and quickly built new houses over them. So everything lost in
the fire was buried in coals & ashes. That's why the "cultural layer" in Russian
cities gives us great evidence of the material culture at the time of the fire.
However, previously they could state only the profession and social position of
the owner, like "boyar's manor", "the manor of a rich musician", etc. Now they
are able to portray the person from the birch-bark letters that he had read and
then dropped to the mud covering the non-sheltered part of the yard (in rich
houses the roads to all the household facilities were paved with beams or
boards, with a roof above). As a result, they are able to at least to say if the
craftsman owning the house was a free man or if he belonged to a boyar.
Due to the analysis of the writings, it was established that the Novgorod manor
territories were formed according to a clan system, as the excavations in the
Nereva end of the city showed that a huge mass of neighboring manors (12-15 ares
each) belonged to heirs of the famous personality of 13th early 14th century
boyar Yuri Mishinich. Their borders were stable since at least the 10th century,
which means that the household and all the production in them were stable too.
This in turn, explained why Novgorod, being one of the richest and powerful
cities of Northern Europe (only one siege and it was never occupied in about 500
years, until Ivan III put an end to Novgorod's independence), had no guilds or
corporations, like in German cities for example. The craftsmen were simply owned
or hired by the boyars, so each boyar had the same universal team of craftsmen,
who produced everything he/she needed, with all the extras stored or sold at the
city market. The idea of guilds in old Novgorod was based mostly on streets' and
ends' names like Shield-makers' street, Potters' end, etc.
Due to the writings, for the first time, old Russian frescos ceased being
anonymous. As the manor of a rich 12th century artist Grechin Petrovich was
excavated and linked with his name (by birch-bark sources mainly), it was found
that he was the chief of the artists' team that painted the Church of the
Saviour at Nereditsa, previously well known to historians.
With the help of the birch-bark writings it was stated that the so-called Manor
E from the Troitzki excavation wasn't just someone's, but was a local community
building. There the united trial by the prince and the city posadnik was held.
In the 11th and early 12th century it served as a storehouse, collecting taxes &
fares. Since 1126 the manor got the sheltered platform for the trial, which
could be held there all year round. The birch bark documents recovered there,
let us say firmly that since then all major decisions could be held by the
prince only on condition the posadnik wouldn't say no (an important juridical
Due to the writings as well, it was at another time proved that the Novgorod and
Pskov Slovens spoke a dialect that was very much unlike the Kievan region's
mother tongue. So the population of the region was of another origin, and so the
whole teritory of Kievan Rus was inhabited by at least two branches of Slavonic
people. BTW, academician Rybakov even supposed, bringing some proof, that the
Slovens were actually the Western Slavs, and that the name is translated as
"messengers of the Veneds"- "Sly Vene" (the Veneds was the general name of the
Baltic Slavs even before they moved there from Central Europe).
So, lots of information still hides it the earth. Because of this, in 1969 the
city administration forbade any unauthorized excavations. In 1970 the same order
of things was set in 114 more historic cites. The decision was reasonable; who
knows if without it we would have recovered another historical sensation ‹ a
book of three wax-filled boards, the middle one double-sided (after first birch
bark letters were found, it turned out that the city population was highly
literate, and many important inscriptions were made on wax, leaving the cheaper
birch bark to routine notes) containing the first ever known Russian book for
studying reading and writing. There were psalms 75, 76 and (a part of) 67 of the
Holy Bible, and an appendix that indicated that all of this was for those
seeking knowledge, not for church services. It was excavated 13 June 2000, and
is dated as the end of 10th century. Moreover, it is written not in Old Slavonic
(Old Bulgarian) as were all the early religious texts, but in Old Russian, i.e.
the language of the eastern Slavs. It caused a sensation comparable with the
discovery of the original birch bark rolls in 1951.
In 2000 the 1001th birch bark note was excavated, and it's far from the end of
The recent information is from the interviews & articles of acadamician.
Valentin Yanin, chair of archaeology, faculty of history of Moscow State
Copyright 2002 by Alexey Kiyaikin. Moscow, Russia. <email@example.com>.
Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided
the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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Generated: Tue Apr 2 2002