Birch-bark drawings

Date: ca. 1240 to 1260
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Russia
Medium: Wood
Dimensions: W 10 cm
Description: In the mid-thirteenth century, a young boy named Onfim did his homework by using a sharp instrument to incise strips of soft birch bark. He wrote in a local dialect of Slavic and often drew pictures of himself and others. Seventeen pieces of bark are associated with Onfim, of which twelve have schematic drawings. The fragment shown here (no. 202) says "To take debts from Dmitr," so the two figures may be Onfim and his friend Dmitri.

Onfim's work included the alphabet and sequences of syllables along with several excerpts from the book of Psalms. Birch bark was widely used in medieval Novgorod for everyday communications, such as letters and homework; valuable texts, and those meant to be last, were written on parchment. Nevertheless, the corpus of over 1,200 fragments of incised birch bark attest to a high degree of literacy in medieval Rus', where writing was introduced along with Christianity in the late tenth century. The bark fragments, all datable between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, have survived especially well in Novgorod because its clay soil inhibits the penetration of oxygen, which would have made the bark decompose.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 8, 9
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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