Novgorod or Veliky Novgorod, is one of the major historical cities of Russia, and it started out as a trading station for the Varangians who traveled from the Baltic region to Constantinople by (possibly) late 10th century AD. But as it turns out, this historically significant settlement of northern Russia is also home to around thousand personal ‘tomes’ that are inscribed on bark of birch trees and are almost preserved in perfect condition. In fact, historians hypothesize that there are 20,000 similar specimens still waiting to be salvaged from the conducive anaerobic clay soil layers of the city environs. And among these documents, there are doodles of a 7-year old boy, thus suggesting how childhood imagination and playfulness were quite universal in human history.
The sketches we are talking about hark back to circa 13th century AD, and they were made by a child named Onfim. It seems daydreaming and heroism-fueled reveries intervened with this 7-year old boy’s spelling lessons, so much so that he went on to draw himself as an imposing warrior with a sword and spear, after just writing the first eleven letters of his alphabet in the upper-right corner. And on closer inspection, one could also discern the horse upon which the ‘hero’ is mounted, along with the extended spear slaying his adversary – while the label of ‘Onfim’ makes the artist’s name clear.
But of course, the imagination of 7-year old Onfim was not just limited to portraying himself as a hero. At times he took the fantastical route to depict himself as a ‘wild beast’ (as made clear by another label proclaiming – ‘I am a wild beast’). The beast also seems to have a friendly attitude, as it carries a sign saying ‘Greetings from Onfim to Danilo’ – with Danilo possibly being Onfim’s schoolmate.
The last specimen alludes to the quintessential scope of how a child loves his/her mother and father. Onfim here sketched both his parents, thus mirroring a striking resemblance of how kids nowadays regularly draw their parents on preliminary school sketching projects.
Now lastly, there is obviously more to these bark-inscribed medieval documents, beyond the adorable ambit of the daydreaming escapades of a 7-year old boy. To that end, some of the ‘adult’ letters conform to daily activities and responsibilities. For example, one of them lays a curse because of some monetary debt issue, while another talks about how a wife has suffered due to her rigorous husband. Some of these documents also tread the poignant route, with one letter describing one brother’s plight with poverty to another brother.
In case you are interested, you can take a gander at the database of these bark-etched documents from medieval Novgorod.