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A Child’s Drawings Preserved over the Centuries by “Magical Mud”

One of Onfim's drawings (1240-1260) (via Wikimedia)
One of a boy named Onfim’s drawings (1240–60), scratched on birch bark and discovered in Novgorod, Russia (via Wikimedia)

In one region of Russia, the consistency of the earth is just right that manuscripts dating back centuries emerge almost perfectly preserved. Over the past year, more than 1,000 of these birch bark artifacts from the 11th to 14th centuries have been exhumed from the soil of Novgorod, adding to a growing archive of written history.

A birch bark document involving the case of a buying a stolen slave (12th century) (via gramoty.ru)
A birch bark document discussing the purchase of a stolen slave (12th century) (via gramoty.ru) (click to enlarge)

David M. Herszenhorn recently explained this phenomenon in the New York Times, writing, “Experts say the wet, clay soil that lies under Novgorod, and contains little or no oxygen, has the unusual chemical quality that preserves both hard artifacts made of metal and items made of softer material like leather.” This “magical mud,” as the author puts it, has made Novgorod a sort of archaeological center for the country. In the Times piece, Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology Pyotr G. Gaidukov proclaims: “Novgorod for Russia is like Pompeii for Italy […] Only Novgorod is still alive.”

Well, sort of — except Novgorod is not quite so ancient. But there are similarities, in that both places have a natural reason for their incredible preservation: in Pompeii it was the layers of ash and rock from the volcano that destroyed it, and in Novgorod it’s the preservative ground (a sort of Pet Sematary of archaeology). Historians started finding the birch bark documents etched with writing in Old Novgorod back in the 1950s. Birch bark texts haven’t just been found in Russia, however; there are Buddhist manuscripts on the wood from in Afghanistan that date to the 1st century. The soft wood, when scratched with metal, wood, or bone, was widely used as writing material before the availability of paper.

One of the Onfim birch bark drawings (1240-1260) (via gramoty.ru)
One of the Onfim birch bark drawings (1240–60) (via gramoty.ru)

Besides the scrolls being impressively intact, almost as if they were buried yesterday, there’s another reason they hold our interest. Since the bark was accessible to almost everyone, the remnants of text and drawings aren’t just by the elite, but anyone from paupers to merchants to imaginative kids. The most famous of the birch bark texts are the scribblings of a boy named Onfim. Estimated to have been between six and seven years old when he made them, Onfim idly drew himself as a grown warrior and disguised as a beast; the aspirational art isn’t much different from the drawings of children adorning refrigerators today. Often these seemingly inconsequential relics don’t survive the passage of time.

There are also the remains of less savory history, like slave trading, crime reports, as well as business records and personal letters. As book historian Erik Kwakkel explained earlier this year, there are even marriage proposals, including one that states directly: “Marry me — I want you and you want me, and the witness to that is Ignat Moiseev.”

An online database (in Russian only) allows viewers to search by year, location, excavation, and type of document through the hundreds of birch bark examples; the results include transcriptions of their contents.

One of the Onfim birch bark drawings, showing the boy disguised as a beast (1240-1260) (via gramoty.ru)
One of the Onfim birch bark drawings, showing the boy disguised as a beast (1240–60) (via gramoty.ru)

You can view the archive of Novgorod birch bark manuscripts online (the site is only in Russian).

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