Birchbark letters from Veliky Novgorod excavations of the year 2020

2021. №5, 66-92

Alexey A. Gippius
HSE University, Moscow, Russia;
Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia;


The article is a preliminary publication of fourteen birchbark letters found in Veliky Novgorod during the archaeological season of 2020. With the exception of Nо. 1135 (mid-12th century), the published documents date back to the 14th — first half of the 15th century. Despite the fragmented state of most of the texts, their overall content can be plausibly reconstructed. The most important historically are No. 1122/1123 — a draft of a testament, where a number of characters known from the chronicle and charters can be identifi ed, and No. 1132 — a fragment of a petition mentioning the troops sent to Zavolochye. Also noteworthy are two letters written by the same hand, No. 1128 — an offi cial declaration of damages caused by the construction of a dam, and No. 1130 — a note accompanying a batch of sturgeon. In No. 1131, the address formula of a private letter is continued by a glossolalic text of obscure pragmatics. From a phonetic point of view, the following phenomena are signifi cant: вьѥстка <вѣстка> (No. 1132) is a rare case of refl ecting the diphthongic pronunciation of /ě/ in writing; ево (No. 1124) is an early example of the transition from /g/ to /v/ in the Gen. sg. masc.-neut. ending of pronouns and adjectives; the allegro form хошь (No. 1126). A new syntactic pattern is discerned where a group of relatives is described by a simple juxtaposition (на Ѻсташки на єго дѣтехъ ‘Ostashka’s [and] his children’s [debt]’). In the fi eld of vocabulary, the following features are remarkable: the previously unknown name for the measure of volume лубъ-пятерикъ (No. 1122/23), an early example of the expressive diminutive pattern as in шатришко (No. 1126), a bookish adverb поистинѣ used in a business document (No. 1128), the word хребетъ denoting sturgeon balyk (No. 1130), a reconstructed collocation сѣрая куна ‘grey marten’ (No. 1133) — a parallel to the черная куна ‘black marten’ known from Povest’ Vremennykh Let, and the earliest occurrence of the word розметъ ‘breakdown of payments’(No. 1135).

For citation:

Gippius A. A. Birchbark letters from Veliky Novgorod excavations of the year 2020. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2021, 5: 66–92.


The study was supported by a grant from the Russian Science Foundation (project No. 19-18-00352) provided to the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The author thanks the leaders of the excavations for providing the texts for publication and stratigraphic data. The author is also grateful to M. A. Bobrik, S. M. Mikheev, A. V. Ptentsova, D. V. Sitchinava and M. N. Tolstaya for their collaboration in the study and comments on the text of the article.