Publication of Novgorod in Focus (1996)


“Novgorod Marketplace”, a painting by Appolinary Vasnetsov (1856-1933).


Slovensk (Novgovord) in the 1st century AD (reconstruction). The settlement was composed of wooden houses.

For nearly 70 years the medieval site of Novgorod in the former Soviet Union has been excavated, the largest excavation ever undertaken in Russia. The scale of work undertaken at the site, and the quantity and quality of the finds, make Novgorod not only the most important archaeological site in Russia, but also the most important European medieval archaeological site. In 1996 papers about it were translated into English and published by Henrik Birnbaum as Novgorod in Focus. For the first time the details of this remarkable site, which elucidates the origins and development of the early Russian state, became widely available in the West.

The site of one of Russia’s oldest towns, Novgorod is located 160 kilometers south of the modern city of St. Petersburg on the Volkov River. It can be reached from the Baltic Sea, or from the Gulf of Finland along the Neva River via Lake Ladoga, and then into the Volkov River.

Until the excavation of Novgorod, the archaeology of Russian history between the ninth and fourteenth centuries AD was virtually unknown, primarily because medieval Russians lived in wooden buildings that rarely survived the common hazard of fire. Few artifacts from the period survived as well. There were few documentary sources from the period, and any that remained were official, and therefore limited in the information they provided. Myths, legends, and stories about this early formative period of Russian history were concocted during the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries for nationalist reasons to help explain the evolution of the modern Russian state. Because of its importance, and the lack of evidence about it, Novgorod was always the subject of political interpretation. During the mid-nineteenth century Czar Nicholas I, and his historian Uvarov, regarded Novgorod as an example of the benefits of a strong but benign monarchy. During the midtwentieth century the communists described Novgorod as the cradle of Russian democracy.

The systematic excavation of the remains of the medieval city began in 1932. Both historians and archaeologists believed the excavation would be an objective window onto the medieval past, but results were beyond their original expectations. The wet conditions prevailing at the site meant that there was good preservation of organic artifacts made from wood, bone, leather, textiles, and bark.

During the next sixty years, 21,000 square meters of the city were excavated, and a great deal of data were accumulated. Blocks of the medieval town, with its wooden roads and buildings, have been unearthed and dated using dendrochronology. There have been 150,000 individual finds, including tools, weapons, pottery, clothes, furniture, horse equipment, shoes, musical instruments, toys, food remains, icons, books, craftsmen’s raw materials, and imported items.

Perhaps the most remarkable and valuable of all of the finds, however, has been the discovery of more than 800 written birch bark documents containing unique information about the community of Novgorod between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. These valuable historical sources are letters, contracts, notes, complaints, bills, school exercises, and administrative details. Furthermore, data from the site have begun to answer many questions about the history of Russian statehood during this period by providing details about the economics, social structure, and politics of Novgorod. Some of the larger issues to be elucidated include the better understanding of Novgorod’s republican system of government, which was a complete anomaly in Russia. Was it the result of western European influence? And why did this powerful and wealthy city-state fall to the Muscovites in the fifteenth century, instead of conquering them?

We now know that the area around Novgorod was first settled by Varangian Vikings from the area of Pomerania in the western Baltic, who were forced to migrate east during the eighth and ninth centuries by the growing population and power of the Saxons. The Varangians traveled up Russia’s network of rivers and were followed by German and Swedish merchants from the Hanseatic League ports at Lubeck, Visby, Riga, Dorpat (Tartu), Reval (Tallinn), and Gotland; by Danes and people from the area that became modern Poland; and then by eastern Baltic people, such as Estonians, Lithuanians, and Finns.

The Varangians founded a hill fort and trading post near what became Novgorod, as a base for their business of escorting and protecting merchants and their goods traveling to and from Scandinavia and Byzantium. The earliest rulers of Novgorod were Varangians, who were sometimes resented by local Slavic people for their special privileges in the town-as rulers, enforcers, and protectors.

The town was established AD 859 beside the original Varangian hillfort, its name literally meaning “new town.” The fort continued to be used as the official residence of the princes of Novgorod, which was useful after they were eventually exiled from living inside the city walls, and the town itself was the combination of three other trading posts around it. A new fortified center, or kremlin, was constructed and this was where Santa Sophia Cathedral was first erected in AD 989, and then reerected between AD 1045-1050 after a fire destroyed the original building.

Novgorod was one of the great centers of Old Russian/ Byzantine culture, the northern-most outpost of Byzantium, east of the Balkans. It controlled land from the Arctic and White seas in the north to the Ural Mountains in the east. It was located at a major crossroads of eastern European waterways that connected the Baltic to the Black and Mediterranean seas, and eastern Europe and Scandinavia to Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Near East. Novgorod also had strong ties to western Europe-in much the same way St. Petersburg did during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Originally administered by the archbishop of Kiev, Novgorod was part of the eastern Byzantine church. Its first bishop was Greek, but his successor in AD 1036 was a native Russian. Its official conversion date was AD 988 but archaeological evidence shows that local pagan and combinations of pagan- Christian rituals were still being used there in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the late sixteenth century there were sermons recorded that criticized heathen and pagan customs-some 500 years after the conversion. In AD 1071 most of the population of Novogorod supported a pagan leader against the Christian bishop and the prince, and took to the streets and rioted.

By the fourteenth century the population of Novgorod was around 30,000 people. At this same time it has been estimated that Paris had a population of 80,000; London 35,000-40,000; while Milan, Venice, Florence, and Naples had 50,000 each. Lubeck, Valencia, and Lisbon were the same size as Novgorod. Kiev, the first capital city of Russia, had a population of 40,000 in the early thirteenth century. Moscow eventually outgrew both Novgorod and Kiev in size, but during this period it comprised only 20,000 people.

Novgorod survived the Mongol invasions of AD 1040-1238, unlike Kiev, by collaborating with them and becoming their tributary dependent. During its heyday, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, Novgorod was known as the “Republic (or Realm) of St. Sophia”-a city-state led by its archbishop who presided over a council of lords and other governing groups. Before this Novgorod was governed by princes (who were related to the rulers of Kiev) through a town council, but after the destruction of Kiev and the retreat of the Mongols, Novgorod ruled itself via a town council or veche, open to all free men, although this was always dominated by the boyars (noble land owners) and merchants.

The prince of Novgorod was elected by the free men of the city, and his former military, judicial, and economic power was taken over by members of the veche, a unique arrangement in Russia. The veche chose the legislators, executives, and administrators, including the lord mayor of the city. Eventually, during the fifteenth century, the numerous subdivisions of power and factions created by the veche, and their support of and patronage by the emerging duchies of Poland, Lithuania, and the Muscovite state, led to the city’s downfall and its incorporation into Muscovy.

The birch bark documents suggest widespread semiliteracy among the ordinary people. Despite the personal nature of these documents (love letters and complaints are among them) many would have been written by scribes or clerics on behalf of the sender. They also confirm that the language used by the inhabitants was a local form of the last phase of the ancestral language of the ancient Slavs, a blend of both eastern and western Slavic with some characteristics of southern Vlavic or Slovenian, and very different from common Russian or the Ukrainian language spoken in Kiev.

We also know a lot more about the social hierarchy in the town and its impact on politics from the residences that have been excavated. The feudal lords or boyars were at the top socially because they owned the land, even though they lived mostly in the city in mansion compounds, which also housed servants and artisans. Many of these lined the main streets of the city. Merchants controlled and made money from long-distance trade and bought land as well. Then there were the clergy-a whole other hierarchy politically allied to the boyars. Ordinary people, laborers, craftspeople, manual workers, shopkeepers, peddlers, peasant farmers, and slaves (who were mostly criminals) were at the bottom socially and were known as “black” folk.

The veche was an oligarchy of boyars and merchants, a predemocratic forms of government, and one that was completely different from any other forms of government in Russia at the time, which were usually autocratic and absolutist. Conquest by the Muscovite state in AD 1478 ended Novgorod’s independence and dramatically weakened its ties with western Europe. These were restored two centuries later during the reigns of Peter the Great and the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine, and the foundation and development of the city of St. Petersburg.

The archaeological remains of craft industries in Novgorod were substantial, reflecting its strong trading and manufacturing economy and its sophisticated and skillful tradespeople. Many different wooden musical instruments have been excavated with strings, pipes, and rattles-and have greatly expanded knowledge about medieval music. Artifacts from churches include carved ivory staffs, ornamental metal book bindings, plates, cups, and censers. Embroidered shrouds and everyday textiles, as well as enameled items and jewelry of Byzantine origin, have also been found.

Evidence of the Novgorod scriptoria has been located. This church library produced manuscripts decorated with illuminations and miniatures that were traded throughout the monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Examples from Novgorod’s own schools of icon and fresco painting and many architectural details have been recovered.

Novgorod was a wealthy and sophisticated city of learning, commerce, and craftsmanship, similar to the Renaissance city-states of western Europe, as well as being in touch with and a product of the eastern Byzantine world.

Further Reading Birnbaum, H. 1996. Novgorod in focus: Selected essays. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers. Rybina, E. 2000. Novgorod. In Medieval archaeology: an encyclopedia, ed. P. J. Crabtree, 239-241. New York: Garland Publishing. Yanin, V. L. 1990. The archaeology of Novgorod. Scientific American 262 (2): 84-91. Yanin, V. L., et al. 1992. The archaeology of Novgorod, Russia. Lincoln, UK: Society for Medieval Archaeology, Monograph Series 13.

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