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.


The Faddan More Psalter

One of the reasons I became interested in buried books is the fact that in Britain and places with similar climates, a book covered in damp earth is likely to rot away to nothing in no time at all.  Flesh and soft body tissues don’t survive burial, so why should books?  Of course there are a few odd areas of the world – parts of Scandinavia, Ireland and Germany – where well-preserved corpses have been recovered from peat bogs after hundred or even thousands of years.  Bog bodies, sure, but who ever heard of a bog book?

In 2006 a book was dug out of a peat bog in County Tipperary, Ireland, by a bulldozer driver.  In the years following its discovery conservators worked to uncover the extraordinary story of the Faddan More Psalter, named after the area where it was found.


The cover as found

The psalter, or book of psalms, consists of a text, written on vellum, dating to around the year 800 and likely to have been produced locally.  The manuscript was found inside a leather wallet or folder, with a lining of papyrus – evidence of a link between the Irish and Egyptian Coptic churches during this period.


The cover conserved

It isn’t clear how the book came to be buried, but monks were known to have used bogs as hiding places for valuables in the face of Viking raids, so it is possible that the Faddan More Psalter – like so many buried books – was placed in the ground for protection by somebody who didn’t live to recover it.  Today the Faddan More Psalter is on display in the National Museum of Ireland.


Gillis, J. and A. Read. nd. The Faddan More Psalter: a Progress Update. National Museum of Ireland.


No Man’s Land excavations at Loos

In 2005 an odd collection of artefacts arrived in the conservation laboratory at UCL Institute of Archaeology.  The objects had been found in a mass grave on the site of a First World War battlefield, and the No Man’s Land group of battlefield archaeologists hoped that the information from the artefacts, together with the examination of the bones, would allow them to identify the bodies.  Amongst the collection were several waterlogged paper objects that had been found on the bodies.  While the water had preserved the papers from decay, it had also made separating, recording and conserving the pages a particular challenge (Peters, n.d.).


Paper object prior to conservation

Two of the paper objects were found with a single body – number 13 in the mass grave – and ultimately led to its identification.  The first was a Soldbuch, a German soldier’s paybook and general identification and record document.  This revealed the soldier’s date of birth, the twentieth of October 1892, and a few other scraps of information.  The other object was a German military song book.  While the songbook did not contain any identifying information, it did contain a postcard the soldier had received, and together with archival information they enabled the remains to be identified as Gefreiter (Lance Corporal) Leopold Rothärmel. Rothärmel was a concert master who had been awarded the Iron Cross a few months before his death.  Traces of the medal ribbon were found with his body (Peters and Sully 2006).


Some of the paper objects after conservation

Historical records from Rothärmel’s unit showed that he was reported killed on 3 October 1915, shot in the abdomen, and his place of burial was listed as unknown.  Thanks to the efforts of the archaeologists and the painstaking investigative work by the conservators, Leopold Rothärmel has a marked grave in a German military cemetery (Peters and Sully 2006).  To date, no surviving relatives have been traced.


Peters, R. n.d. Finding the Fallen: Conservation and the First World War.

Peters, R. and Sully, D. 2006. Finding the Fallen: Conservation and the First World War. In D. Saunders, J. Townsend and S. Woodcock (eds) IIC 2006 Munich Conference: The Object in Context – Crossing Conservation Boundaries, 12-16.

In 1944 Soviet troops advanced into Estonia, and tens of thousands of people fled their homes, many travelling into exile in Sweden and German. Before they fled, many buried their family treasures and valuables for safekeeping, possibly anticipating only a short exile before returning home.  Mats Burström’s short book Treasured Memories describes the attempts by the children and descendants of these exiles to recover their family’s possessions, often more than half a century later. The burial of valuables in times of danger or uncertainty has a long pedigree in Estonian society and elsewhere, and Burström describes the families searching for buried heirlooms such as silverware, glassware and even telephones in landscapes transformed beyond recognition.

Burstrom book cover

Alongside treasures buried for their monetary value there were other items – including guns and paramilitary uniforms – which could have implicated their owners in anti-Soviet activity. Buried alongside these more violent objects were artefacts of cultural resistance: Estonian books. While some books were buried to protect them from destruction, according to Burström:

The books that according to the stories were buried were largely the sort that were forbidden by the Soviet authorities … The forbidden books that feature most often in the stories are history books – both world history in general and Estonian history in particular – and reference books, usually in Estonian. The Soviet ban was part of a campaign to eradicate Estonian identity and nationhood. (Burström 2012: 107)

Burström discusses a four-volume history of the world in Estonian – published in the 1930s and entitled Üldine Ajalugu – bought second hand in Tallinn in 1996 by Toomas Petmanson from a middle-aged man whose relative had buried them in 1944. The burial of the books as the Soviet army advanced into Estonia was used to explain the water damage and generally decrepit state of the books, which Petmanson – who treats the books as precious artefacts of Estonia’s past – regards as “the scars that witness to the books’ own history” (Burström 2012: 89). As Burström points out,

The hiding of books can be read as a way of protecting the works on the shelf that would probably have been the most expensive to buy, but also as an act of defiance: even if you did not dare to leave to the books on the shelf, you refused to accept the eradication of written Estonian history, the sum of Estonian knowledge, and the Estonian language. (Burström 2012: 107)

The burial of books for their protection, to conceal them from discovery and potential destruction, links the Estonian texts to the paperback belonging to the anonymous prisoner in Stalag Luft III, and arguably to John Dee’s manuscript books. Like these other buried books, the Estonians consigning their literary and historical treasures to the ground risked punishment if found in possession of the texts. Given the widespread practice of burying possessions in wartime Estonia it is not unlikely that more books will be unearthed in the future.


Burström, M. 2012. Treasured Memories: Tales of Buried Belongings in Wartime Estonia. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.


Excavating escape tunnel ‘Dick’ at Stalag Luft III

I have only excavated one buried book, in Poland, on the site of one of the most famous events of the Second World War. On the night of the March 24 1944 a group of more than 200 Allied prisoners of war attempted to break out of Stalag Luft III prison camp in Sagan, Silesia (Brickhill 1979). This was the largest escape ever attempted, involving the digging of three massive tunnels, and became known as The Great Escape. The escape was masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as ‘Big X’, and involved a complex organization of tunnel diggers, document forgers, teams to dispose of the excavated earth, technicians to build tunnel props and air pumps, and tailors to turn military uniforms into civilian clothes for disguises.


The route of escape tunnel ‘Harry’, marked on the surface

On the night of the escape 77 men managed to escape from the camp before the alarm was raised. Many of those waiting in the tunnel or in the hut which disguised its entrance heard the alarms and proceeded to destroy or hide their forged documents and disguises (Brickhill 1979: 191). Of the escapers, three made successful ‘home runs’ to neutral countries, while the other 74 were recaptured. Of these, 50 were murdered in cold blood, singly or in pairs, on Hitler’s personal orders.

The wooden huts on the site are now long gone, leaving only the concrete bathroom floors and the brick piers on which the huts once stood. The site of the camp has now returned to its natural, heavily wooded state. In 2003 during the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the escape I was part of a team of investigators led by a television crew who visited the site of the Great Escape to locate and excavate one of the three escape tunnels (Pringle et al. 2007). In the entrance to the tunnel we found a number of artefacts including a makeshift lamp and a home-made rubber passport stamp.


Ceramic bowl with Luftwaffe stamp

In the sandy soil beside one of the brick piers I excavated the damp and friable remains of a small cardboard suitcase. Too badly eroded to be lifted from the soil, I carefully scraped through the black powdery remains of the suitcase lid, revealing the remains of a shirt and jacket both equally degraded by time and moisture into fine fragments. The buttons of both garments had survived, and the jacket buttons proved to be metal military uniform buttons with small squares of beige cloth glued over them – most probably a rough but effective disguise. Also in the suitcase were a rusty set of watercolour paints and a German paperback book.


The watercolour paintbox from the excavated suitcase


The book, a truly astonishing thing to have survived at all, was in fragments no bigger than a fingernail. No more than three or four words could be made out on any one piece, and it was impossible to tell – beyond the language – what book it was. The identity of the owner of the suitcase has never been discovered, so the true story of the paperback book buried in the sandy earth of Stalag Luft III is likely to remain unknown.


Brickhill, P. 1979. The Great Escape. London: Arrow Books.

Pringle, J., Doyle, P. and Babits, L.E. 2007. Multidisciplinary investigations at Stalag Luft III allied prisoner-of-war camp: The site of the 1944 ‘Great Escape’, Zagan, Western Poland. Geoarchaeology 22, 729-46.

How many authors are buried with copies of their books? For most this would be a tribute, placed lovingly or affectionately in their coffin. But for one author at least, the book was hurled into the grave with the full force of religious hatred.

The short but eventful life of the Protestant theologian William Chillingworth (1602-44) included a brief and unhappy conversion to Catholicism, service in the King’s army in the English Civil War, and a series of confrontational discourses with Catholic and Puritan religious scholars. In 1637, as part of an on-going debate with a Jesuit, he published The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation, the work for which he is most widely known. In January 1644, an invalid and prisoner of war, he died in Chichester at the age of forty-one (Chernaik 2004).

NPG D1442,William Chillingworth,by; after Francis Kyte; Unknown artist

William Chillingworth

Shortly before his death Chillingworth had made the acquaintance of the Puritan zealot and fellow Oxonian Francis Cheynell, then serving (like Chillingworth) as a military chaplain, albeit in the opposing army. The debate between the fanatical Cheynell and the more troubled Chillingworth was inconclusive, and while Cheynell attended Chillingworth during his final illness it is unclear whether this was motivated by genuine concern or out of a desire to affect or claim to have affected a deathbed conversion (Pooley 2004).

After Chillingworth’s death, Cheynell published a short book with the impressively lengthy title: Chillingworthi Novissima, or, the sicknesse, heresy, death and buriall of William Chillingworth (in his own phrase) clerk of Oxford and in the conceit of his fellow souldiers the Queens arch-engineer and grand-intelligencer: set forth in a letter to his eminent and learned friends, a relation of his apprehension at Arundell, a discovery of his errours in a briefe catechism, and a shorr oration at the buriall of his hereticall book [sic] (Cheynell 1644).

Cheynell book title page

Title page of Cheynell’s book

As the title suggests, Cheynell buried a copy of The Religion of Protestants in Chillingworth’s grave (Pooley 2004). Chillingworth, despite his wavering faith, had been permitted an Anglican funeral (Chernaik 2004). Cheynell attended the event, and in front of the friends of the deceased delivered a lengthy address in which he condemned Chillingworth and his book in fiery terms:

I refuse to bury him myself: yet let his friends and followers, who have attended his herse to this Golgotha, know, that they are permitted, out of mere humanity, to bury their dead out of our sight. If they please to undertake the burial of his corps, I shall undertake to bury his errors, which are publish’d in this so much admir’d yet unworthy book: and happy would it be for this kingdom, if this book and all its fellows could be so bury’d, that they might never rise more, unless it were for a confutation; and happy would it have been for the author, if he had repented of those errors, that they might never rise for his condemnation; happy, thrice happy will he be, if his words do not follow him, if they do never rise with him or against him.

‘Get thee gone then, thou cursed book, which hast seduc’d so many precious souls; get thee gone, thou corrupt rotten book, earth to earth, and dust to dust; get thee gone into the place of rottenness, that thou mayst rot with thy author, and see corruption.’  So much for the burial of his errors. (Cheynell 1644: 59-60)

So saying, he flung a copy of Chillingworth’s book into the grave.


Chernaik, W. 2004. Chillingworth, William (1602–1644). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition) (accessed 12.1.13)

Cheynell, F. 1644. Chillingworthi Novissima, or, the sicknesse, heresy, death and buriall of William Chillingworth (in his own phrase) clerk of Oxford and in the conceit of his fellow souldiers the Queens arch-engineer and grand-intelligencer: set forth in a letter to his eminent and learned friends, a relation of his apprehension at Arundell, a discovery of his errours in a briefe catechism, and a shorr oration at the buriall of his hereticall book. London.

Pooley, R. 2004. Cheynell, Francis (bap. 1608, d. 1665). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition) (accessed 12.1.13)