Six ancient birch-bark letters unearthed in Russia
Archaeologists have unearthed six ancient Russian birch-bark texts in the historical city of Vekliky Novgorod in north-western Russia, according to a report in Voice of Russia . The discovery adds to the collection of more than 1,000 birch-bark texts, which have been immensely significant in changing traditional ideas about literacy rates in ancient Russia, opening a new page in the study of the Russian language, and shedding light on early northern Russian culture.
The first birch bark letter was found on July 26, 1951 by Nina Fedorovna Akulova, and at least 1025 have been unearthed thereafter – 923 in Novgorod alone – typically dating from the period between late 11 th and early 15 th century. Almost all of them were written with styluses of bronze and iron, and never ink. The letters were preserved due to the swampy soil which isolated them from oxygen. Many of them are found in streets, because streets were paved with logs, which eventually sank into the soil, with additional layers burying older ones, including the letters.
The ancient city of Novgorod was a key link between Russia and Western Europe, making it one of the most important historic cities in Russia. At its peak during the 14th century, it was one of Europe's largest cities, with a reported population of 400,000.
Among their authors and addressees of the birch-bark documents are priests, high officials, house owners, merchants, stewards, craftsmen, warriors, women, and even children. For example, the document (see picture below) contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim, who is estimated to have been between 6 and 7 years old at the time.
Birch-bark letter no. 202, mid-13th century, produced by a child. Photo source: Wikimedia
The discovery of birch-bark documents penned by people of both sexes, of different ages and of varying social status changed understanding about the literacy rates in northern Russia, suggesting it was far more developed than previously thought. They also shed light on the written language of the time – the texts are written in a peculiar Slavic vernacular, reflecting living speech, and almost entirely free of the heavy Church Slavonic influence seen in the literary language of the period.
Most of the letters deal with everyday usage, business and personal correspondence, such as instructions, complaints, contracts, news, reminders, and study exercises. They touch on family life and household management, trade and finance, crimes and legal proceedings, travel, military expeditions, and various other types of material, all of which reveal an enormous amount of details of medieval northern Russian life.
The newly discovered texts are believed to be of a business nature but are currently undergoing analysis by linguists.
Featured image: Birch-bark letter no. 497, (c. 1340 – 1390 AD). Photo source: Wikipedia