Birch bark manuscript

Birch bark manuscripts are documents written on pieces of the inner layer of birch bark, which was commonly used for writing before the advent of mass production of paper

Birch-bark letter no. 419
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Russian texts discovered in Veliky Novgorod have been dated to approximately the 9th to 15th century CE. Most of those documents are letters written by various people in the Old Novgorod dialect.

Birch-bark letter no. 497, c. 1340-90, Veliky Novgorod; photograph
pinterest button Birch-bark letter no. 497, c. 1340-90, Veliky Novgorod; photograph B222, CC BY-SA 3.0

East Slavic texts

On July 26, 1951, during excavations in Novgorod, a Soviet expedition led by Artemiy Artsikhovsky found the first Russian birch bark writing in a layer dated to c. 1400. Since then, more than 1,000 similar documents were discovered in Staraya Russa, Smolensk, Torzhok, Pskov, Tver, Moscow, Ryazan, and Vologda, although Novgorod remains by far the most prolific source of them.

Birch-bark letter no. 202[17] contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim; based on draftsmanship, experts estimate his age as between 6 and 7 at the time.
pinterest button Birch-bark letter no. 202 contains spelling lessons and drawings made by a boy named Onfim; based on draftsmanship, experts estimate his age as between 6 and 7 at the time. Nikola Smolenski, Public Domain

The late discovery of birch documents, as well as their amazing state of preservation, is explained by a deep culture layer in Novgorod (up to eight meters, or 25 feet) and heavy waterlogged clay soil which prevents the access of oxygen. Serious excavations in Novgorod started only in 1932, although some attempts had been made in the 19th century.

Birch-bark letter no. 292, Oldest known Karelian language text. (First half of the 13th century)
pinterest button Birch-bark letter no. 292, Oldest known Karelian language text. (First half of the 13th century) Abarmot, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although their existence was mentioned in some old East Slavic manuscripts, the discovery of birch bark documents significantly changed the understanding of the cultural level and language spoken by the East Slavs between the 11th and 15th centuries. About a hundred styluses have also been found, mostly made of iron, some of bone or bronze.

The cyrillic alphabet on the birch bark N 591 from ancient Novgorod (1025–1050 AD)
pinterest button The cyrillic alphabet on the birch bark N 591 from ancient Novgorod (1025–1050 AD) Vissarion, CC BY 1.0

According to Valentin Yanin and Andrey Zaliznyak, most documents are ordinary letters by various people written in what is considered to be a vernacular dialect. The letters are of a personal or business character. A few documents include elaborate obscenities. Very few documents are written in Old Church Slavonic and only one in Old Norse. The school exercises and drawings by a young boy named Onfim have drawn much attention.

Birch-bark letter no. 155
pinterest button Birch-bark letter no. 155 DaeX, CC BY-SA 3.0

The document numbered 292 from the Novgorod excavations (unearthed in 1957) is the oldest known document in any Finnic language. It is dated to the beginning of the 13th century.

The letter on the birch bark N 109 from ancient Novgorod
pinterest button The letter on the birch bark N 109 from ancient Novgorod Vissarion, CC BY 1.0

The language used in the document is thought to be an archaic form of the language spoken in Olonets Karelia, a dialect of the Karelian language. For details and full text, see Birch bark letter no. 292.

Useful Information

Birch bark manuscript
Russian: берестяна́я гра́мота
translit: berestyanáya grámota

Example

Novgorod birch-bark letter №366, about 1360-1380 A.D. Case of trampled wheat, release.

Original text (with added word division)

сь урѧдѣсѧ ѧковь съ гюргьмо и съ харѣтономъ по бьсудьнои грамотѣ цто былъ возѧлъ гюргѣ грамоту в ызьѣжьнои пьшьнѣцѣ а харѣтоно во проторѣхо своѣхъ и возѧ гюрьгѣ за вьсь то рубьль и трѣ грѣвоны и коробью пьшьнѣцѣ а харѣтонъ возѧ дьсѧть локотъ сукона и грѣвону а боль не надобѣ гюрьгю нѣ харѣтону до ѧкова нѣ ѧкову до гюргѧ нѣ до харитона а на то рѧдьцѣ и послусѣ давыдъ лукѣнъ сынъ и сьтьпанъ таишѣнъ

Translation (with explanations in square brackets)

Here, Yakov has settled with Gyurgiy and with Hariton by courtless deed Gyurgiy has gotten  [at court] concerning trampled [by horses] wheat and Hariton concerning his loss. Gyurgiy got one rouble [money], three grivnas [money], and basket [measure] of wheat for all that, and Hariton got ten cubits of cloth and one grivna. And Gyurgiy and Hariton have no more concern to Yakov, nor Yakov to Gyurgiy and Hariton. And arrangers and perceivers to that are Davyd, son of Luka, and Stepan Taishin.