Get the latest updates as we post them right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ancient Tablets Unearthed in Novgorod

NOVGOROD, Western Russia "Archeologists work is 99 percent patience and 1 percent luck," said academician Valentin Yanin, recalling the words of a favored teacher. "But sometimes what happens is real archeological good fortune!"

For Yanin, the patriarch of Russian archeology, such happiness comes in the form of a "book" of three 11th-century wax tablets that may prove the oldest written artifacts ever found in Russia.

The book, which also offers compelling evidence that Christianitys spread through Russia was much more rapid than previously believed, is the unparalleled sensation of the archeological season.

Unearthed July 13 by a Novgorod University student working at the Troitskoye excavation site south of the citys kremlin, the three hand-sized wax tablets containing Psalms 75, 76 and 67 two one-sided "cover" pages backed with wood and a double-sided middle page were found lying beneath logs dating back to the 1030s.

The tsery, as the tablets are called, are thus considered to be from the first quarter of the 11th century, only a few decades after Kievan Rus was converted to Christianity, and a few decades before Novgorod military leader Ostromir ordered a copy of Bulgarian gospels. Commissioned between 1056 and 1057, the gospels had until now been considered the oldest surviving Russian book.

The Novgorod tsery held a second surprise: When in the course of restoration the shattered wax layer was removed from the tablet, the imprints of another text were found on the wooden base beneath. Mixing biblical proclamations of Christian truth with a rejection of pagan idolatry, the text appears to be a sermon addressed to the pagans. According to its missionary-creator, Yanin said, the Novgorod Psalter was not for liturgical use, but for the enlightenment of the average man or woman.

"I am the true Law and the Prophets, I am the Door and the Truth and the Path, I am the Unspoken Mystery. This is the true word, and not for the idol-worshipping," Yanin said, reading from the text of the sermon that was deciphered by historical linguist Andrei Zaliznyak. "Without banishing from ourselves all people, without alienating those thirsting for knowledge this scripture is for the consolation of orphans and widows. All for the understanding of the essence."

"What wonderful words without alienating those thirsting for knowledge!" said Yanin, speaking Aug. 25 to a crowd of archeology enthusiasts gathered at the kremlin to hear about the results of the seasons excavation work.

He described the book as the second "archeological good fortune" of his life the first being the 1951 discovery of Novgorods first of nearly 900 birch bark records.

Internationally recognized as an archeological treasure trove, Novgorod is a unique site because of its clay foundation, which holds water close to the earths surface and has kept the centuries of wood, leather and bone buried beneath exposure to air and decomposition.

In August, several dozen Moscow State University scholars and students, with the aid of high school students, were sifting through a layer of earth roughly 6 meters below the surface at the Troitskoye site what was determined to be ground level 1,000 years ago. The work on the site, which began in 1995, is scheduled to conclude in mid-September.

"It was a difficult summer warm but very wet," said the sites supervisor, Alexander Sorokin. He showed several findings from a single day in August: the wooden handle from an 11th-century toy sword, a swastika-inscribed wooden float from a fishermans net and an elegant comb made from bone. But among the numerous discoveries, the book is far and away the summers prize discovery.

Yelena Tyapina, who has spent 12 summers digging in Novgorod, first as a student and now as a Moscow University researcher, recalled that when the student hit the book with his shovel partially destroying it everyone at the site was happy but subdued. "It wasnt about showing joy; the main thing was to collect all the fragments before they were lost," she said.

The historians working at the site have refused to reveal the name of the student who made the discovery. "On the one hand, he did a great thing," said Professor Alexander Khoroshev. "On the other hand, one should tear his hands off for cutting it into pieces."

About 20 percent of the book has been lost, Khoroshev said. "But when I am told how come we lost one fifth of it, I say it is a miracle that we have four fifths of it," he added.

A large restoration project now lies ahead. Vladimir Povetkin, the head of the Novgorod Center of Musical Antiquities, has already separated the wax layer from the wooden base in the first step toward reconstructing the pieces of shattered wax.

In the meantime, Yanin said, more work will be done to decipher the text on the base.

What is known so far, Yanin said, noting the 13 mistakes found in the text, is that the book was written in "Slavonic with a Russian accent." It is not clear, he added, whether the missionary who wrote it and perhaps lost it while mounting his horse in a cattle yard, accounting for the layer of dung in which the precious book was found was from Kiev or Novgorod.

The importance of the discovery is manifold. First and foremost, it denies the theory that medieval Russians did not write on wax tablets, as their counterparts in Western Europe had done since Roman antiquity. Although the styluses used to write on the wax had been found before, no 11th-century tsery had ever been found intact in Russia.

The document which after restoration will be added to the impressive collection at the Novgorod Historical Museum also indicates the speed with which Christianity spread through Russia following the conversion of Kiev in 988.

"It doesnt show the uniqueness of Novgorod," Khoroshev said. "To the contrary, it shows Novgorods unity with all European culture."

Past Novgorod discoveries have included lead Belgian seals from textile rolls, Liege enamels and merchants books written on birch bark.

"Unfortunately, even then we were a raw-materials supplier for Europe, shipping Russian honey, salt and furs there and serving as a transit for silver from the Eastern countries," Khoroshev said.

Novgorod excavations began in 1932 and have only stopped during wartime summers and during the years 1949 to 1951. According to Khoroshev, the citys total archeological workforce this July exceeded 400 people.

"Our financial situation is better than any other archeological expedition in Russia," he added. Even so, the projects budget, funded by a federal grant, reaches only 600,000 rubles (about $22,000) per June to September season. Yanin, the most prominent archeologist in Russia, himself receives only 1,400 rubles, or $50, a month.

Some of the students on the site earn just 15 rubles per each four-hour shift.

But 16-year-old Olga Smirnova, her rubber gloves black with centuries-old soil, said money wasnt what drew her back to the site for a second summer of painstaking excavation work. "I want to find something," she said with a smile.

"Its our past, after all."