Authenticity of the Russian birch bark manuscripts

Authenticity of the Russian birch bark manuscripts

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More than 1000 birch bark manuscripts have been found in Novgorod and other Russian cities in last 50 years. Many of them stayed in the soil for more than 700 years. In the same time, no special chemicals or methods were used by Slavs to preserve these papers (as Egyptians, Indians and Jews done with their manuscripts). They are just random papers like letters, notes or even shopping lists.

And these texts, when found, look like this (this is a child drawing dated 1240-1260):

How can we establish the authenticity of these manuscripts? How confident can we be that these things are not fake, or there is always some degree of uncertainty?

  1. Yes a buried piece of wood, or other biological tissue, could survive for thousands of years without decomposing with appropriate environmental conditions. While the conditions for this are rather specific; an anaerobic and antiseptic environment or at least one which limits microbial growth. These conditions can be found in quite few situations; tar pits, bogs, the Arctic/Antarctic, some deserts and some particular conditions, which have given us wonderfully preserved artifacts and species from bygone eras.

  2. It would be relatively easy to date these scriptures through carbon dating, or even radiation dating as they would have been affected by the Nuclear incident at Chernobyl.

See the Vindolanda tablets as another example of preserved records on wood. These date from the Roman occupation of Britain.

There is nothing implausible about the claim that these manuscripts were preserved. The book Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art discusses Mongolian birch bark documents that date from the 13th to 17th centuries.

Why are Russians so crazy about birch trees?

While traveling for a long time abroad, a Russian often misses his &ldquonative birches&rdquo. To hold a birch tree tight and cry. that&rsquos the only thing a Russian wants to do in a melancholic mood. Why, you ask? It&rsquos all because of the ancient Slavs.

Russian national tree

As the birch tree was one of the most widespread trees across Central Russia, it was considered as a tree of &ldquoRussian nationality&rdquo. Ancient Slavs didn&rsquot come across the massive Siberian fir forests until the 16th century expansion to Siberia - and a fir tree is actually not so easy to hug!

Sometimes even modern Russians are surprised that birches not only grow in Russia. How is it possible? Our birches!?

According to multiple folk proverbs and beliefs (described in Alexander Strizhev&rsquos &lsquoCalendar of Russian Nature&rsquo book), ancient pagan Slavs considered hugging a birch tree as a sign of good luck - it would also give you power and joy. Moreover, a birch tree was considered magical.

Birches were compared to humans - its thin trunk was frequently associated with a thin body of a young lady, while its spread boughs reminded of a girl&rsquos braids. A birch also has catkins, or flowers, that are called &lsquoearrings&rsquo in Russian, just because it reminded ancient Russians about girl&rsquos accessories.

A Russian peasant&rsquos household was based on birches until the Soviet era

Ancient Russians also considered that the birch tree had curative features - they drank &ldquobroth&rdquo squeezed out of its leaves and flower buds.

This is how a Russian's paradise looks like: Birches and churches

They made besoms from leafy birch branches and used them in the banya for scent and therapeutic beating (which was actually an ancient spa procedure that is still popular today). At the same time, birch tar was used for cleaning before soap came to Russia - and is still used in natural cosmetics.

However, lots of Russians are allergic to the birch tree&rsquos spring blossoming. Well, maybe they once smelled it too heavily!

Slavs burned birches in their stoves for heating, they produced boats, crockery and furniture from it. Birch barks were used widely - they were soft enough for carving and braiding, so it suited perfectly for decoration and design.

Birch bark 'beresta' handmade items

Birch bark souvenirs are still very popular in many ancient Russian cities. It was also used as manuscripts in 11-15th centuries before the mass production of paper began.

And finally: Russian peasants would make their bast shoes from birch barks up until as recently as the 1930s!

Birch tree juice is tasty!

A special place in Russians&rsquo hearts belongs to the birch&rsquos juice. It&rsquos extracted by making small cuts in the birch bark and, once cut open, it can drip for several weeks. It is transparent and has a sweet taste, so it is usually preserved and used as conservant, as well.

Collecting birch tree juice

Birch juice got a new wave of popularity in Soviet Union, especially after the Second World War, as it was an affordable source of sugar for people who suffered from hunger for a long time.

&lsquoWhite birches&rsquo is popular image in literature and art

&ldquoA white birch&rdquo was praised a lot in Russian literature. In folklore, there were usually lots of riddles devoted to birches. &ldquoIt doesn&rsquot bother about the weather but wears a white dress&rdquo &ldquoGreen but not meadow, it&rsquos white but not snow, curly but not head&rdquo, &ldquoRussian beauty stands on a glade, birds were flying by and sat on her braids&rdquo.

There is also a popular folk song called &lsquoLittle birch so lonely was standing&rsquo - &lsquoВо поле березка стояла&rsquo (&ldquoVo polye biryozka stoyala&rdquo)

Little birch so lonely was standing
In the field a curly one was standing
Lonely lonely was standing
Lonely lonely was standing

And there&rsquos also a man who simply canonized the birch tree in Russian literature. It was Sergei Yesenin, usually referred to as a &ldquomain peasant poet&rdquo. He was born in the land of birches - in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region (200 km south of Moscow) and when he left home, he felt a strong nostalgia for his native fields and birches. So he wrote a dozen poems about birches and nature, and called Russia &ldquothe land of birch calico&rdquo.

Here&rsquos his most well-known poem about the birch tree he wrote in 1913 - that every Russian knows by heart:

Under my window
Tucked in the snow
White birch retired
Clad in silver glow.

On the fluffy branches
Snowy-trim with silver-tinge
Melted around catkins
Forming white fringe.

Like golden fires
Snow-flakes blazed
While birch stood still
Asleep, or amazed.

Meanwhile, lazily
Strolling around,
Dawn threw more &ldquosilver&rdquo
On the twigs (and ground).

Then there were numerous artists who painted endless paintings with birch trees showing landscapes with sad, lonely birches&hellip

Alexei Savrasov. Early spring, birches near the river

. or beautiful and lush groves, where you can find shade from the summer sun (by the way, birch barks always remain cold! Even if it&rsquos very hot outside.).

Isaac Levitan. Birch Forest

Finally, birches make for a perfectly golden autumn, which all poets and artists adored, praising all those golden and reddish leaves.

Also, a birch is a perfect symbol of life flow. It&rsquos fresh and green in spring, then it fades and turns gold, and finally, it dies (like everything else), but in spring comes to life again again (not like everything else).

Birches in modern Russian music bands and memes

Modern Russians would never confess they hug birch trees on a daily basis. However, some of us have done it or at least thought of it. And for sure, when we see those leaves and branches trembling by the wind, our harsh northern hearts melt.

And the one certain sign that Russians love birches is the fact that they make fun of it, even creating &ldquogo hug a birch&rdquo memes and jokes.

Popular Russian actor Sergei Bezrukov is jokingly considered to be the main birch lover and hugger. He has portrayed Yesenin in tv shows, theater performances and has given numerous concerts reading his poems (featuring birches, of course) and singing songs based on them.

Russian actor Sergei Bezrukov

There is also a famous Russian music band called LUBE (apparently, Putin&rsquos favorite band, no less!) who sing patriotic songs and one of their most popular is &lsquoWhy are birches so rustling in Russia&rsquo.

Here is a combo - a music video where Bezrukov sings a LUBE song in a series where he plays a policeman in a Russian village. Everything is just perfect here. But beware! A Russian can spontaneously start crying listening to this!

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.

Old Russian slang term discovered

On June 22, 2016 researchers found this season's first birch bark manuscript at the Troitsky-XV site, in a layer from the first half of the 14th century.

On June 22, 2016 researchers found this season's first birch bark manuscript at the Troitsky-XV site, in a layer from the first half of the 14th century. Source:

Researchers encountered a previously unknown Russian word for thieves and crooks, "posak," in a birch bark manuscript that was recently unearthed during excavations in Novgorod. The finding was first reported on the Novgorod State United Museum-Reserve's website.

Excavations are being carried out at the Troitsky site of medieval Novgorod. On June 22, 2016 researchers found this season's first birch bark manuscript at the Troitsky-XV site, in a layer from the first half of the 14th century.

The document contains only one line: "UO ORTIMIYE UO POSAKA TRI BEREKOVESEKE." This is a record of dues or debts. "Berkovets" is a measure of the weight of grain or honey, which is equal to 10 poods (an old Slavic measurement). The exact meaning of the message is still unclear. The word "posak" has never been seen by contemporary linguists. Researcher Andrei Zaliznyak, Russia's leading expert on birch-bark manuscripts, interpreted it as a "thief" or a "crook," based on the Pskov and Tver dialects.

In 2015, Russian archaeologists found their first birch bark manuscript in Vologda. Despite difficulties with decoding, linguists managed to understand most of the first text from Vologda: entrepreneur Yakov, who lived in the first quarter of the 14th century, was trying to figure out if he was deceived by the messenger Ostap, who had promised to pass money to a certain man named Samoil.


Removing birch bark from live trees is harmful to tree health and should be avoided. Instead, it can be removed fairly easily from the trunk or branches of dead wood, by cutting a slit lengthwise through the bark and pulling or prying it away from the wood. The best time for collection is spring or early summer, as the bark is of better quality and most easily removed.

Removing the outer (light) layer of bark from the trunk of a living tree may not kill it, but probably weakens it and makes it more prone to infections. Removal of the inner (dark) layer, the phloem, kills the tree by preventing the flow of sap to the roots.

To prevent it from rolling up during storage, the bark should be spread open and kept pressed flat.

Birch bark can be cut with a sharp knife, and worked like cardboard. For sharp bending, the fold should be scored (scratched) first with a blunt stylus.

Fresh bark can be worked as is bark that has dried up (before or after collection) should be softened by steaming, by soaking in warm water, or over a fire.

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The minimum level of contribution is only $1 per month. Pledges received from our patrons cover the editing services for our bookish podcast!

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These pledges help iBookBinding to continue its work and bring more information about bookbinding and book arts to you!

From Russia with love

The emblem of middle region forests of Russia is white-trunk birch. White-trunk birch became a symbol of spring, light and love to the fatherland. The word “birch” is very ancient and is connected with the verb “to keep, to take care”, since the Slavs considered the birch as the protecting people gift of God. The year began with spring and people celebrated it not with fir, but with the birch.

The birch was necessary planted near the houses, people tried to surround the village by “protecting” belt of birches, as they believed that “birch spirit” can guard against cholera and another diseases. The birch was planted near the gate, there was a bank and people could speak with a tree and ask it to give them might and strength. Birch forest is light and clean and is always full of birds, berries and mushrooms.

It is really hard to imagine the Russian sauna without the birch broom. Phytoncides out of leaves and buds sterilize the air. Especially successfully they cope with pathogens of typhoid fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria.

The birch was widely used in a peasants’ life, and first ways of Slavs’ written language was made on the birch bark and was preserved in the ground till now.

Birch sap is the sap extracted from a birch tree, such as a North American Sweet Birch or a Silver Birch. The sap is often a slightly sweet, thin syrupy-watery liquid. The tree sap contains sugars (namely xylitol), proteins, amino acids, and enzymes.

Birch sap must be collected during a specific time of the year, depending on the species and geography, at the break of winter and spring when the sap moves intensively, typically between the first thaws and the start of bud development. The collected sap can be drunk as a tonic and it is a traditional beverage in Russia.

Birch sap collection is done by tying a bottle to the tree, drilling a hole into its trunk and leading the sap to the bottle by a plastic tube. A small birch (trunk diameter about 15 cm) can produce up to 5 liters of sap per day, a larger tree (diameter 30 cm) up to 15 liters per day. Birch sap has to be collected in early Spring before any green leaves have appeared, as in late Spring it becomes bitter. The collection period is only about a month per year.

«Березовый сок» на Яндекс.Фотках
Birch sap may be consumed both fresh and naturally fermented. It is a very refreshing drink.

Birch sap can also be used as an ingredient in food or drinks, such as birch beer or wintergreen flavored candy. Concentrated birch sap is used to make birch syrup In Russia this tonic is used as a traditional herbal medicine functioning as antiseptic, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-itching treatment.

Fresh birch sap is highly perishable even if refrigerated, it is stable for only up to 2-5 days. Shelf life can be prolonged by freezing or pasteurization. However pasteurization destroys some ingredients and can alter the taste of the product. Frozen birch sap is fairly stable.

Also, they stored birch brooms, covered roofs with the birch bark, made boats, clothes, shoes out of this material they braided boxes, punnets, in which honey, milk, berries and other products could be kept for a long time. Moreover the birch bark was added to the dough.

Krasheninnikov S. P. describes the scenes of Kamchadals’ life (1948).
The bark, catkins and new branches was a source of vitamins. Kamchadals fine minced unripe bark and eat it with dry caviar, make sour bark with birch juice.

The healing properties of the birch are known from time immemorial. There are many pieces of advice in different herbals of the XVI – XVII centuries.

This tree gives everything to people for their health: juice, catkins, leaves, bark, new branches, tender thin roots, birch coal, tar. Also it has bioenergetic therapeutic effect. A man fells himself sprightly, calm and full of strengths of life in the birch forest.

Since olden days the birch bark considered as very important medicinal raw material, with the help of which people treated the diseases of joints, urinary and nervous systems. The Slavs sprinkled the wounds with the ground birch bark for its fast healing.

The Bower Manuscript – Birch-mark Manuscript collection of Buddhist Sage Yosamitra

The fragmented manuscript collections of Buddhist monk Yosamitra, dates back to the fifth or sixth century AD. It is known as the Bower Manuscript, named after its discoverer, Lieutenant H. Bower, who bought it in 1890 from a local treasure hunter in Kuchar, in Eastern Turkestan. Turkestan is an extensive region of central Asia between Siberia in the north and Tibet, India, Afghanistan, and Iran in the south: formerly divided into West Russian Turkestan and East Chinese Turkestan. The manuscript was found buried in the relic chamber of the memorial stupa built in honor of Yosamitra at the Ming-oi of Qum Tura in Kuchar, on the great caravan route of China. It is today preserved as part of the collections of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

On his return to India Bower took the manuscript with him to Shimla. In September 1890 he forwarded it to col. J. Waterhouse who was the then president of Asiatic society of Bengal. In February 1891, it was taken over by the famous epigraphist and Indologist Hoernle who was the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. After the completion of its translation and editing, Hoernle returned it to Bower in 1898. He took it to England where it was purchased by Bodleian library Oxford in 1898.

The Bower Manuscript in reality is a collection of seven distinct manuscripts written on fifty one birch bark in a combination language of Prakrit and Sanskrit. It is written in Indian Gupta script. But unfortunately, the more important portion of it, Parts I- III, which deals with medicine, is incomplete.

After detailed study of the manuscript Hoernle came to the conclusion that the scribes of Parts I- III and Parts V-VII were Indian Buddhist monks. The use of birch-bark for writing shows that they must have come from Kashmir or Udyana. Hoernle concluded that they passed the manuscript to the scribe of Part IV, who seems to be a native of Eastern Turkestan or China. But the ultimate owner of the whole series of manuscripts was Buddhist monk Yosamitra. The collective manuscript was found in the relic chamber of the memorial stupa built in his honor at the Ming-oi of Qum Tura which indicates that he must have held a prominent position in that monastery.

The beginning of the first treatise in this manuscript is forty three verses, in ornate poetic language, about the mythical origin and medicinal uses of garlic. It describes eight different methods of using garlic as a medicine. The medicinal passages in the manuscript are quite similar to various Samhitas most probably copied from these early Sanskrit works. The large medical treatise called Navanitaka forms the second part of the Bower manuscript.Navanitaka quotes numerous formulae from the Cikitsita-sthana (treatment section) of Charaka’s Compendium. As the date of the Navanitaka manuscript is somewhere in the second half of the fourth century A.D., later than the Charaka Samhita, Hoernle held the view that it was compiled before iCharaka Samhita was revised and completed by Drdhabala, who lived several centuries later.

The first part of the edition published in 1893, second part in 1894-95, and third part in 1897. This completed the edition of the text and translation. After an interruption of seven years the Sanskrit index of the Bower manuscript was published in 1908 and a revised translation of its medical portions in part one two and three in 1909.

Block, Eric Garlic and Other Alliums RSC Publishing, Cambridge UK 2010
Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India, Oxford at Clarendon Press 1907
Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, The Bower Manuscript published by the order of the government of India 1893
Wujastyk, Dominik(Trans. Editor)The Roots of Ayurveda Penguin Classics 0003-Revised edition 2003

Authenticity of the Russian birch bark manuscripts - History

The Gilgit manuscripts, which were found in the village of Naupur in the 1930s (now in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan), are one of the most finds of important Asian manuscripts. The cache was first discovered in 1931 by locals in an ancient ruin, which may have been the residence of a Buddhist monk. They are thought to be the remnants of a Buddhist library, dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AD.

The explorer Aurel Stein, who was passing through the area at the time the manuscripts were first discovered, reported the find in a newspaper article, and several excavations followed. The majority of the Gilgit manuscripts are now held the the National Archives in New Delhi and Shri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar (see this essay for more details). The British Library also has a small selection of the manuscripts.

Meanwhile I have sent some well preserved leaves of two mss. which had been secured from the hands of villagers to Dr. Barnett at the British Museum as a temporary deposit. I have left it to him either to examine them himself or to pass them into competent hands. Kindly put yourself into touch with him, in case you thought it desirable to take up this limited task.

The two manuscripts mentioned by Stein are:

(1) Or.11878A: Eleven folios of a birchbark manuscript containing the major part of the Saṅgharakṣitāvadāna (Divyāvadāna XXIII), and a part of the monastic regulations of the Mulasarvāstivāda school of Buddhism.

(2) Or.11878B: Seven folios of a manuscript containing the Sanskrit text of the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka).

While the vast majority of the Gilgit manuscripts are made from birch-bark, the pages containing the Lotus Sutra (pictured above) are made from paper. The white appearance of the paper is caused by the use of gypsum to 'size' the paper before it was written on. The manuscript had probably travelled west from one of the Buddhist kingdoms of the Silk Road, such as Kucha, where many manuscripts of this type have been found.


Shayne Clarke, Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives of India: Facsimile Edition. Volume I. Vinaya Texts. National Archives of India and IRIAB, Soka University, 2014.

Oskar von Hinuber, "The Gilgit Manuscripts: An Ancient Buddhist Library in Modern Research." In Paul Harrison and Jens-Uwe Hartmann (eds.), From Birch Bark to Digital Data: Recent Advances in Buddhist Manuscript Research , Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, 2013. 79-135.

Noriyuki KUDO, "Gilgit Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra Manuscript in the British Library, Or.11878B–G." In Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 28 (2015), 197-213.

Russian souvenirs

What do you know about traditional souvenirs from Russia? Most probably you've heard of Russian nesting doll (it's called 'mastryoshka' in Russian), but not many visitors to our country can remember other traditional crafts. During your Moscow tour you'll be able to see beautiful Palekh and Fedoskino wooden boxes, bright shawls from Pavlovsky Posad, elegant amber jewelry, funny felt boots and numerous other souvenirs.

This section represents the history of the main Russian crafts. You'll have an idea of what to look for during your trip to the country and learn the story of the Russian folk art. Your Moscow tour guide will help you to find the perfect gift from Russia. A very famous place to buy souvenirs is the Izmailovo market, which offers the largest selection of items of decorative and applied art, fine art, and folk handicrafts.

If you're not into shopping souvenirs it might be a good idea to buy something traditional you can eat or drink, and we'll give you some tips on what food or drink could be a good present to your friends.

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Amber is a common name for fossilized tree resin known since ancient time for its natural beauty and magic qualities. 90 % of all amber in ther world comes from Kalinigrad region in the west of Russia. During your tour to Moscow or St Petersburg you’ll have a great opportunity to get an elegant piece of jewelry with more

Pavlovo Posad is a small town not far from Moscow known all over Russia for its shawls and scarves factory. The factory has been in town since the end of the 18th century but its production is in great demand up to now. The shawls usually feature bright floral pattern. read more

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Valenki or Russian felt boots used to be very popular footwear in winter. They’re not so widespread today in big cities but are still common in the countryside. Valenki are among the warmest footwear that can be used in severe winters, today valenki are usually worn by little more

Birch bark crafts have been popular in Russia since ancient times.During your tour of Moscow you can get numerous boxes, jewelry, baskets made of birch more

Bogorodsk toys are wooden carved figures of animals, birds and people doing various tasks such as pecking chicken, bears chopping the wood or hare playing musical instruments. These toys are excellent educational material for the kids and will be a lot of fun for the whole more

During your Moscow tour practically in every gift shop you will certainly find a lot of souvenirs, reminding of Soviet period of Russian history. Famous writer Maxim Gorky said “Without knowing the past, it's impossible to understand the true meaning of the present and the aims of the future”. Your Moscow tour guide invites you to dive into the depth of Soviet history to learn more about some curious things that you can buy while visiting more

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Ushanka or shapka ushanka is a traditional Russian fur hat. It has ear flaps that might be tied at the chin to protect ears and neck from the cold or fixed at the back of the head. It is known in the west sometimes as simply ‘shapka” (which actually means “hat’ in Russian) and its name ‘ushanka’ derives from the Russian word ushi (“ears”).read more

Budenovka is a hat used as the uniform of the Soviet troops from 1918 until 1940. Nobody wears it now but it became an iconic image from the Russian Сivil more

Willing to get a Faberge egg? The cost of such a lovely souvenir can be around 10-20 millions USD. Does it sound a bit pricey? You might go for a much cheaper option and get a more

Orenburg down shawls may become a great souvenir for women, who appreciate handmade things.This type shawl originated in the Orenburg area about 250 years ago. The shawls are made of a special blend of silk and thin goat fiber. read more

Beautiful metal trays painted with mixed garden and wild flowers come from a small village Zhostovo.Nowadays Zhostovo trays still produced in Mytishchi Area are considered a great present that keeps the warmth of craftsmen hands a peace of mysterious Russian more

This metal container, traditionally used for heating water during the tea ceremony, is often mentioned in our literature, songs and folklore. read more

Watch the video: Traditional skills - Russian oil Birch bark tar