Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Letters from Old Russia Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Jean Blankoff

Love, death, and taxes in medieval Novgorod

[image] The same marshy soil that made log-paved streets necessary in medieval Novgorod has preserved many miles of them. (Courtesy J. Blankoff) [LARGER IMAGE]

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.

[image]Birch-bark documents (left) recovered in the Novgorod excavations [LARGER IMAGE] Intriguing leather masks (right), recovered from a cobbler's shop, may have been donned by children, but also could have been worn during folk and pagan holidays. [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy J. Blankoff) [image]

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.

[image] Birch bark found by archaeologists in a twelfth-century workshop contained orders for icons such as these. (Courtesy J. Blankoff) [LARGER IMAGE]

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.

In 1951, taking advantage of the destruction that took place during World War II, archaeologists resumed large-scale excavations of sites previously covered by buildings. (Courtesy J. Blankoff) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Jean Blankoff, professor emeritus at the University of Brussels, has participated intermittently in the Norvgorod excavations since 1977.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America