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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 ‚ÄĒ 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” (–ö–į—Ä–į–ľ–Ķ–Ľ—Ć –Ē—é—ą–Ķ—Ā) that feature pears¬†to some that depict¬†the Sun image from a tarot deck, which package candy known as “caramel oracles”¬†(–ö–į—Ä–į–ľ–Ķ–Ľ—Ć –ď–į–ī–į—ā–Ķ–Ľ—Ć–Ĺ–į—Ź). 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” (–Ę–į—Ä—č-–Ď–į—Ä—č). 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 –Ę–į—Ä—č-–Ď–į—Ä—č (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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