Today, an old city coughs up a surprising secret.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Sergei Eisenstein's famous
movie tells how Alexander Nevsky defeated the
Swedes and Teutonic Knights in the year 1240 and
saved Russia's leading city, Novgorod. It was a
propaganda film warning the Nazis to stay out of
Russia -- brilliant spectacle, driven by
Prokofiev's haunting music, and peopled with
What the movie made less clear than the defeat of
the Germanic forces was that Alexander's victory
led to his son becoming the Prince of Moscow, and
Moscow's eventual ascendancy in Russia.
Our knowledge of those medieval Russian times has
depended on the chronicles of the courts. You see,
early Russia was built of wood, not stone. And
those buildings all normally perished by fire. Fire
consumed the commonplace writings and artifacts,
along with the buildings themselves. Russia has
been shortchanged in the knowledge of her own
history without such evidence.
But after WW-II, archaeologists realized that
Novgorod sits on wet loam. Since the soil is wet,
it doesn't absorb rainwater, or the oxygen that
water brings with it. Once something gets into that
soil, it's protected from decay. The upper parts of
buildings may burn, but anything below ground level
So archeologists have dug down into the dense wet
soil below this 1200-year-old city. They find the
artifacts of life before Alexander Nevsky. Most
interesting are the writings. Householders didn't
write on parchment (it was too expensive) or
papyrus (they were too far from any sources) or
paper (which had yet to come out of China.) They
wrote on birch-bark. Some 700 well-preserved
documents have turned up.
And what did people write about? Letters, poetry,
formulas for potions, prayers, school work. The
commonplace stuff you might find on your own
shelves. The problem is, we'd thought that only
priests wrote 800 years ago. Now we find not only
that the burghers of Novgorod wrote, but that women
wrote as well. We find marriage proposals. One
letter from a woman to her lover says,
I have sent three messages to you. What grudge do
you harbor against me that you have not visited me
The words slash across the bark, written rapidly
with mistakes, a few of which have been crossed
over and corrected -- the rest left, as though to
emphasize the force of her anger.
It's all so tawdry and ordinary that it's stunning.
These aren't the laundered works of professional
scribes. This is written language serving a people
long before we thought it did. It seems more like
the 19th century than the 12th. And we find all
those literate women! The myth of women's
ineptitude grew up in the renaissance, centuries
later. It has taken archaeology to reveal, at last,
an epoch that was far less primitive, and much
better balanced, than anyone had realized.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds