Archaeology Magazine

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Medieval Russian Memo

March/April 2016

Trenches Russia Birchbark Letter


During excavation of a medieval road near the Kremlin in Moscow, Russian archaeologists recently unearthed a birchbark letter dating to the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It was probably written by a servant to his master, and describes unforeseen travel expenses he incurred on an ill-fated trip to the city of Kostroma, about 200 miles to the northeast. According to the text, somewhere along the journey he was stopped by someone named “Yuri,” possibly an administrator, who fined the hapless servant twice. The letter reports that Yuri helped himself to 36 belas, a unit of currency at the time. “It is probably about a debt collection or an unpaid custom duty,” says Leonid Belyaev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, who is supervising the dig. “Or maybe just extortion.” This is only the fourth medieval birchbark text to have been discovered in Moscow. The other three are drafts of legal documents.