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What did the Russians write about in birch bark letters?
What did the Russians write about in birch bark letters?
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For a long time, historians believed that in the days of Ancient Russia, the ability to write and read was the prerogative of exclusively the highest strata of society - the boyars and the clergy. However, after the discovery of the first birch bark letters (which, as it turned out, were written by ordinary people), scientists had to reconsider their considerations.

And the very content of these messages amazed the researchers. So when did the prototypes of modern "messengers" appear in Russia, and what people wrote to each other in their messages on birch bark - about all this further in the material.

Where and when were the first birch bark letters discovered

Exactly 70 years ago, on July 26, 1951, during the work of the Novgorod archaeological expedition at the Nerevsky excavation site, scientists found the first birch bark letter. By the end of the same year, archaeologists unearthed 8 more such artifacts. In total, more than a thousand of such birch bark letters have been discovered in the region so far. And the content of these messages simply turned scientific ideas about the way of life and way of life of the Slavs in the X-XV centuries.

Archaeological work at the Nerevsky excavation site in Novgorod, summer 1951

The texts written in birch bark letters amazed researchers with their thematic diversity. These were both messages from father to son, husband to wife or sister to brother, and “business correspondence” between merchants and clerks or boyars with their managers. There were also promissory notes, complaints and slander, invitations to visit or notifications of imminent visits.

As a rule, all birch bark letters were short messages of 25-50 words. They were scrawled on the inside of pieces of birch bark. As scientists have been able to establish, the addressees of such messages after receiving and reading them, these "notes" were simply thrown away. But sometimes, in order to preserve the secrecy of the correspondence, the birch bark letters were torn into small pieces.

Not a float, and not a hairpin

After the discovery of the first birch bark letter in the cultural layer of the 14th century in Novgorod, many scientists realized that they had come across similar artifacts during excavations before. However, for some reason, archaeologists did not bother to examine them and understand what they really are. Indeed, when folded (in which most of the birch bark letters were found), they resembled fishing floats.

Folded birch bark certificate

Having unrolled the Novgorod letter, which was perfectly preserved, scientists were able to read its text right on the spot, even through a layer of mud. This message contained a list of villages and villages that performed an obligation to a certain "Roma". In the same 1951, during the subsequent finds of birch bark letters in Novgorod, researchers made another important discovery.

Most of these messages were found rolled up "in a tube" form. Small wooden sticks were found with many of them. At first, scientists considered them to be some kind of hairpins so that the letter would remain rolled up during the "transfer". However, further research showed that these sticks were nothing more than wooden "writing". It was with these stylos that the messages were actually scratched on the birch bark.

Discovery of the way of life of ordinary people in Russia until the 15th century

In fact, it is almost impossible to overestimate the historical importance of the finds of birch bark letters. Indeed, before that, scientists could represent the speech and vocabulary of our distant ancestors only from Church Slavonic books and chronicle materials. The latter, however, more popularly narrated not about the life and life of the common people, but about more "topical" topics - wars, diseases and epidemics, the construction of cities and Christian churches, the lives of holy people and princes.

Birch bark letter and "wrote" (stylos)

Having studied the birch bark letters, historians were able to restore as accurately as possible the then way of life in the state, social and personal relations between people, as well as the peculiarities of the vocabulary of that time. A significant discovery was the fact that both senders and recipients of birch bark letters were people of different social groups and estates. Indeed, before that, it was generally accepted that only boyars and priests could write and read in medieval Russia.

Not only men, but also women wrote messages on birch bark. Moreover, quite often the “messages” addressed by wives to their husbands were imperative or commanding in nature. This debunked the myth that in the ancient Slavic world a woman had no rights, and was completely subordinate to her husband.

Onfim's birch bark letters

With each new discovery of birch bark letters, more and more unique details of the way of life in Russia in the X-XV centuries were revealed to historians. After the discovery of the letters of the boy Onfim, who lived in the middle of the 13th century, researchers came to the conclusion that commoners not only knew how to write and read, but also tried to teach their children to read and write from an early age. Graphologists, having studied the drawings and letters of Onfim, came to the conclusion that the boy at that time was from 4 to 6 years old.

What did the Russians write in birch bark letters

From the texts of birch bark letters, scientists learned a lot of information valuable from a historical and ethnographic point of view. So, the individual names that were given to ordinary people in Russia were unknown before the finds in Novgorod. For example, such as Voislav, Radoneg, Tverdyata, Guests, Nezhka, Nozdrka, Plenko, Ofonos.

Birch bark letter

The contents of the texts of the birch bark messages were also different. So, in the letter, which the archaeologists received inventory number 138, and is dated approximately 1300-1320, a certain Selivestr wrote his will. Archaeologists also found birch bark notes from a woman to her lover, messages to a merchant from detained merchants, orders from a boyar to carry out work as a clerk, and many other short messages describing simple everyday life situations.

The historians also learned the prices of that time for certain goods. So, a cow in Novgorod at the beginning of the 13th century cost 3 hryvnias, and for 750 cubits of "vodmol" - a rough unbleached linen, the merchant was ready to pay 31 hryvnia 3 kunas.

Rolled up birch bark letter

After finding individual letters, scientists also debunked the myth that swearing in Russia appeared after the Tatar-Mongol invasion. In some notes, dated back to the 12th century, there are quite a few swear words.

Scientists still cannot prove only one fact connected with birch bark letters. Researchers do not know who and how delivered such messages from sender to addressee. There is only an assumption that at that time a certain birch bark delivery service was operating in Novgorod.

Why almost all birch bark letters were found in Novgorod

Currently, scientists have discovered 1 thousand 196 letters written on birch bark. Of these, only 107 were found outside of Novgorod. At the same time, in the capital of Russia - Kiev, archaeologists found only one birch bark letter. And even then it was empty. It could not have been that the people of Kiev at that time were less literate than the people of Novgorod. For historians, this puzzle did not work out in any way. The reason for this was literally under their feet all the time.

Excavations in Novgorod, 1953

It's all about the soil. Kiev is located on loess porous soils with a relatively deep groundwater table - on average from 4.5 to 5 meters. Any items of organic origin in such soil decompose within several hundred years. The Novgorod soil is moist and dense. It perfectly closes the access of air to wood, bark, skin and bones trapped in it, reliably preserving them for centuries.

Tools and materials for creating birch bark letters

The latest birch bark letters found by archaeologists date back to the middle of the 15th century. Why did they stop using this "messenger" in Russia after this time? Everything is very simple. Around that time, paper fell sharply.And it was she who began to be used to transmit all kinds of messages.

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