The medieval city of Novgorod in north-west Russia is an astonishing archaeological site, where waterlogging in anaerobic conditions has preserved huge amounts of material from the earliest periods of occupation around the ninth or tenth century. Archaeologists have worked at Novgorod since before the Second World War, and the site is now a World Heritage Site. Much of the construction at Novgorod was of wood – not only the buildings but also the road surfaces and most of the surviving artefacts. Amongst the objects found preserved on the site are hundreds of text and text-fragments, most of them written on pieces of birch bark which has been used as paper around the world for centuries. The texts found at Novgorod include personal letters, legal notices, business records and schoolwork.
One part of the Novgorod Codex
Alongside the birch bark letters and numerous metal styli, pieces of wooden writing tablets have also been found, and in July 2000 three limewood tablets complete with their wax writing surfaces were uncovered – what has become known as the Novgorod Codex. The primary text of the Codex, recorded on the wax, is Psalms 75 and 76. However detailed analysis of the wax and wood revealed a palimpsest of overlaid texts, consisting of religious writings and fragments of texts, many of them previously unknown. The tablet has been dated to the period around the end of the tenth century.
The decipherment and translation of the Novgorod Codex is ongoing, but already it has revealed hitherto-unknown details of the religious culture and connections of medieval Novgorod. Deciphering the texts has been fiendishly difficult as the letters indented in the wood and the wax are directly superimposed and written in the same handwriting. The decipherment effort has been led by linguist Andrey Zalizniak, who has suggested that the owner of the codex was a monk named Isaakiy, based on first-person references in the texts.
The continuing work on the Codex and the considerable amount of material that it has already revealed highlight the value of buried books as uniquely rich and productive archaeological finds.
Zalizniak, A. 2002. The 11th-Century Novgorod “Codex” on Waxed Wooden Tablets. Oxford University Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents Newsletter No. 10, Autumn 2002.