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Discovery in a Cathedral Attic Suggests Birds Are the Best Archivists

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Old documents found in the attic of a Zvenigorod cathedral (all photos courtesy Alexey Alexeev and used with permission)

Archaeologists restoring a cathedral in Zvenigorod, an old town 40 miles west of Moscow, recently stumbled upon stacks of centuries-old documents hoarded by an unexpected breed of collectors: birds. Over time, the creatures had scavenged scraps of letters, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, banknotes, and other bits of printed matter to form insulated nests in the building’s attic, and while most of these papers are crumpled or torn by beaks, the contents of many are still decipherable, revealing source dates that extend as far back as the early 19th-century.

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A calendar page from December 1917 (click to enlarge)

The discovery occurred last month, as Zvenigorod Historical and Architectural Museum‘s Deputy Research Director Dmitriy Sedov recently explained online, when a team of archaeologists was preparing to restore the roof of the local Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which they have been excavating and preserving since 2009. Built in the 15th century, the cathedral may also house frescos by history’s greatest medieval Russian painter Andrei Rublev, fragments of which, until recently, also remained unknown.

According to Sedov, flocks of swifts and jackdaws had built nests in the attic out of various bits of papers, dirt, branches, and trash that over the centuries came to form a considerably thick layer of preserved history that occupied much of the space. Archaeologist Alexey Alekseev, a senior fellow at the museum, photographed many of these scraps, including among the images one of a group of birds’ skulls and a cat’s cranium found with the nests.

According to local daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Sedov estimates that the piles’ oldest fragments likely date to the 1830s, when the roof was last replaced. Many of the fragile artifacts are easily datable simply because they were published with that specific information — that by chance also survived not just sharp pecks but also weathering over time. Pages from calendars, for example, arrive from 1916 and 1917; a bulk of the find also consists of handwritten letters that often reveal their age along with elegant calligraphy probably executed by members of the aristocracy. Some of these are even marked with personal ink stamps or are still affixed with fragments of wax seals.

Other documents record the town’s civic, religious, and educational affairs; among the lot: bus tickets, delivery contracts, a county court slip, students’ notebooks and diplomas, parish registers, and even church confessional statements. Less official are the examples of vintage candy wrappers that date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, from those by the still-active caramel candy-producer “Duchess” (Карамель Дюшес) that feature pears to some that depict the Sun image from a tarot deck, which package candy known as “caramel oracles” (Карамель Гадательная). A hint of another indulgence of a different nature arrives in the form of an incredibly well-preserved cigarette pack, produced by the Russian brand “Tary-Bary” (Тары-Бары). The illustrated scene, which shows three men in deep conversation, is actually a copy of Russian realist Vasily Grigorevich Perov’s 1871 painting, “The Hunters at Rest,” as some have noted. Contrasting with these tokens that suggest individual pleasures, however, are ration cards from the 1930s and early 1940s — artifacts of an era marked by Stalin’s harsh collectivization policies.

Although there are no official plans yet to place them on public display, many of the papers have already been sent to a laboratory for further examination. According to archaeologists, more information will eventually be released; the preliminary findings, however, already offer an intriguing glimpse of the day-to-day life in an old Russian town, captured through personal thoughts, feelings, experiences, and even waste — a trove perhaps made more miraculous by the fact that it was gathered by generations of unwitting avian archivists.

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An assortment of old candy wrappers
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Cigarette packaging from the Russian brand Тары-Бары (Tary-Bary)
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A wax seal on a document from the late 19th century
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An assortment of notes and letters
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An unidentified scrap of paper
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Pages from calendars from 1916 and 1917
Bird and cat skulls
Archaeologists also found a number of birds’ skulls as well as one that belonged to a curious cat
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A scrap of paper from Zvenigorod’s county court
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Scraps of paper
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Part of a parish register recording births, marriages and deaths in the community
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A form signed by a local police officer in 1897
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An old seal of the Zvenigorod Historical Museum
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A stamped ration card dating to August 1941
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A document signed by a priest
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A one-thousand ruble banknote
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A french label from a confectionery
A scrap of a document of confessional statements
A scrap of a document of confessional statements
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Label from A.I. Abrikosov & Sons candy business
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Ration cards from 1933
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Possibly a label for a mustard container
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Scraps of letters
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A fragment of a letter
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A fragment of a letter

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The attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
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Restoration work on the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin,
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The attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
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The Attic of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

h/t Metkere

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