Saturday, May 1, 2010

Medieval Novgorod

Veliky Novgorod
is one of the most ancient cities of Russia, first mentioned in historic documents in 859 A.D. It is distinguished - among other things - by the Novgorod Kremlin, which contains the oldest palace in the country and is surrounded by a wall (pictured). The Kremlin is known as the detinets, from the Russian word for "child." This derivation is particularly appropriate because some of what we know about the city in the Middle Ages is through the eyes of a child!

Russian archaeologists have been excavating at Novgorod since 1932 when wonderfully well-preserved deposits - in places over 7m deep - were discovered (and since 1992, the dig has been an international collaboration). Due to the anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged site, both organic and inorganic finds are incredibly well preserved, although they must be quickly and carefully conserved because they begin to deteriorate as soon as they are removed from the soil. The finds at Norovgod include leather, timber, and textiles, well as iron, bronze, and other metals.

But perhaps the most fascinating discoveries are birch-bark manuscripts, in particular those written in the 13th c. by a 6- or 7-year-old boy named "Onfim." On 10 pages, he practiced his alphabet and the formation of syllables, and in the remaining space he drew self-portraits, battle scenes, and pictures of his teacher. On one example (2nd image), he wrote out the first 11 letters of the alphabet, but got bored and drew a picture of himself as a grown-up warrior impaling an enemy with his spear. In another example (3rd image), he turned over the piece of bark that he was practicing on and drew a picture of himself in disguise, writing "I am a wild beast" over it. The beast is either sticking out its tongue or breathing fire, but is apparently friendly, as it carries a sign that reads "Greetings from Onfim to Danilo" (Danilo probably being a friend or schoolmate). The last example (4th image) shows Onfim and his Dad. Of the 100s of birch-bark documents unearthed - including personal messages, I.O.U.s, love letters, and shopping lists - Onfim's drawings are no doubt the most precious survivors from another age.

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