A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Love, death, and taxes in medieval Novgorod
The walled city of Novgorod, its wealth and power preserved in medieval
chronicles of church and court, has reigned in the collective consciousness
of Russia for a thousand years. For almost a century--despite revolution, a
devastating world war, and the dissolution of an empire--archaeologists
working in Novgorod have unearthed the equally remarkable tale of daily life
in the city, far removed from the chronicles' accounts of illustrious heroes
and noteworthy political and military events.
To date, 915 birch-bark documents from the mid-eleventh to fifteenth
centuries have been recovered. Among them one finds tax documents, school lessons, wills, spells, I.O.U.'s, marriage proposals, prayers, political
commentary, records of legal conflicts, and orders for icons, as well as the
names of people and nearby villages. These documents owe their extraordinary survival to a layer of clay beneath the city that prevents normal drainage, saturating the soil above it like a sponge and protecting organic matter from decay. Other everyday items that rarely survive in archaeological contexts have also been preserved, including leather footwear, comb cases, knife sheaths, and more than 1,000 leather and wooden toys.
Russia is presently in the grips of a severe financial crisis whose
repercussions are being felt by the Novgorod excavations. The future of that
work, which has continued uninterrupted since 1951, is now in jeopardy. It
has been estimated that the soil of Novgorod probably contains some 20,000
more birch-bark documents, and it will take 200 years to exhume them all.
Jean Blankoff, professor emeritus at the University of Brussels, has participated intermittently in the Norvgorod excavations since 1977.