by Vladimir POVETKIN, artist-restorer
An archeological expedition to Novgorod, led by Academician Valentin Yanin and mounted in the year 2000, was rewarded with a find of extraordinary historical value. Experts conducting excavations at the Lyudinny Konets ancient district, Trinity 12th site (supervisor of studies A. Sorokin) run across an ancient book with texts written on "pages" of wax. The find was buried in a layer dated by the first quarter of 11th century.
The book consists of three limewood (according to J. Hater) panels, or folds of 190x150x10 mm in size. Each of them is pierced with holes at the back of the "pages" which makes it possible to "lace up" the book with strings for storage. The front and back covers, or folders, are adorned on the outside with carved geometrical patterns and straight and diagonal (St. Andrew's) crosses. From inside there are narrow raised borders around the edge concavities (kovcheg- narrow raised border around the edge of a flat wooden panel) or recesses like those on ancient icons. They measure on the average 155x115 mm. Their relatively flat "bottoms" bear traces of rough finishing cutters. The back of the lower frame is covered with crosswise knife cuts. As we know from earlier discovered in Novgorod panels for writing, such cuts were intended for retaining molten wax which cooled and hardened in them. The same technique was used, incidentally, in glueing together parts of various wooden objects, such as "gusli"-psaltery.
Wax was repeatedly poured into the four recesses of the pages of the book so that it now looks dark on the surface layers with their thickness varying from 3 mm to fractions of a millimeter. Texts of Psalms were inscribed upon such wax tablets (ceras-Lat.) with a sharp scriber, made of bone, or metal, in Church-Slavonic script; the psalms were learned by heart and the writings were then "smoothed out" with the flat end of the same scriber. And the procedure was repeated again and again.
When the manuscript, the book under review, was buried in the ground it contained Psalms 75 and 76 of Asaphand, and at the end of page four verses 4 - 6 of Psalm 67 of David. Also visible on the wax in places, although with difficulty, are traces of earlier writings. On the wooden borders of leaves there could also have been some writings, but they became absolutely illegible due to some reasons. On top of page 2, for example, still visible are horizontal lines and letter Ъ. In the opinion of Acad. A. Zaliznyak these were "explanations of the purpose of this book and of the benefits of reading of the Psalms". In places, where the wax layer was too thin, the sharp scribers could have cut it through, leaving barely visible traces of letters on the wooden base. Studying these traces of the old writings, Acad. A. Zaliznyak, as a linguist and paleographer, did his best to identify the old texts "superimposed" one upon the other by the ancient Novgorodian scribes.
The book was intended as an aid for people learning the Psalms and can also be regarded as a textbook. It must have been the property of one of the very first Christian mentors who preached after the formal baptism of the Novgorodians in 990. But could this very early dating really be an exaggeration-play of the imagination? The available evidence seems to rule that out.
The wear and tear of the ancient book is a fair measure of its long life. The amount of cuts and scratches on the front and back covers makes them look like kitchen boards. All sharp corners and edges are rounded from wear, and not only from outside, but also when unfolded. The holes for lacing strings are also "polished up". The traces of time also include the losses of texts on the raised wooden borders of the second page. In addition to that the book must have been through repeated "repairs" and even "rearrangements". So as to prevent it from "swelling", it must have been "sewn together" with a flax cord or a piece of a spruce root-a common ancient "technique" for repairing cracks- and prolonging the service life-of wooden kitchenware. After some time the strings were removed, since it was decided to glue up the fractures, and the holes were plugged up with wooden pegs.
The back of the book underwent just as many modifications. The two holes, piercing all the three folds, together with the inserted cords were originally spaced rather far apart. Later on they were plugged with wooden pegs and replaced with a new pair of holes, located closer to one another and nearer the edge of the leaves. It appears that carved patterns were added to the main artistic design later and some of them remained unfinished.
Finally-a look at the pages and their condition. Over the years the wax filling the kovcheg recesses wore out so that additional layers of different tone can be seen in places now. In general, one gets the impression that the four recesses contain different kinds of wax with only traces of the original general filling still preserved. One gets the impression that some time after another "smoothing out" of texts on page 4 the wax started flowing out and dropping away. And the owner must have decided to renew the filling, and in order to ensure better adherence of wax to the base the bottom of the recess was covered with a criss-cross pattern of cuts.
The 20 - 30 years age of the book is in no contradiction to the level of writing skill of the owner. He must have done his scribing on the wax without first warming up his "pen", but in some warm room or out in the open, but on a hot day. Having "scribed" one letter, quickly and
without mistakes, he withdrew the point of his "pen" from the wax and started "scratching" the next one without delay. One can see in several places traces of his haste as reflected in the imperfect shape of the ancient characters. And, clear enough, one must have possessed plenty of experience to be able to cope with the problems and peculiarities of writing on wax.
And that means that, while teaching his pupils, the preacher-craftsman was also perfecting his own skill. What is more-while aging together with his book, and trying to renovate it and being exposed to the trials and tribulations of earthly existence, he was able to grasp the true meaning of biblical texts. This went on until something happened
which influenced the fate of the teacher-scribe and the destiny of his book. Only time can tell whether or not we would be able to "figure out" the name of this one of the earliest Christian preachers in Novgorod-the-Great. As for the book, brought out from the layer of ancient dung, saturated with water, it is in obvious need of serious repairs.
Many waxed pages have disintegrated into hundreds of relatively bigger and thousands of fine bits and pieces, mixed with mud, feather-light, treacherously brittle and denying any attempts to glue them together. In other places the thin films of wax with traces of letters upon them have become "embedded" into the wooden base, swollen with water, and attempts to separate them are fraught with the risk of simply loosing them completely. But the "separation' is necessary both for the preservation of the carved wooden flaps (by means of reinforcing them in polyethylene glycols) and for putting into order of the manuscript so that it could be put on display in a museum and, even more important, read through. Such was the list of problems put before the researchers by this Novgorodian Psalter-the earliest dated book in the whole of the Slavonic world.
This Psalter will be the standard of comparison for other early Slavonic and early Russian books which have so far been dated only hypothetically, by conjecture. And V. Yanin and A. Zaliznyak are viewing this not only from a historical, but also from a linguistic perspective, comparing it with materials of the old-Russian book-making tradition and data obtained from the ancient birch-bark scrolls, above all those from the Novgorod area. *
It would also be no exaggeration to regard it as an artifact throwing light on one of the facets of the musical culture of Novgorod-the-Great - a document on the origins of the church choral tradition which made the Novgorodians so famous. And it was not accidental that the first "proponent" of what was then a new faith was a Book of divinely inspired chants: as was believed from time immemorial, the best way to remember something new is to sing about it.
Right after the discovery of the fragments of the Psalter by archeologists, V. Yanin and A. Zaliznyak tried to solve the problem concerning the nature of the writings preserved on the bigger wax fragments. If they were of a "housed" or social nature, like those often found on the birch-bark scrolls, it would make no sense looking for the likely original sites of other "floating" pieces of wax. Fortunately, researchers were able to identify fragments of texts of canonical psalms, as known from later copies. This gave researchers the key to the purposeful studies of the monument and its restoration. But say what one may, this search will not lead us to the ultimate "decoding" of the book. This is because on every page, except the first one, one can see large and irreplaceable gaps in the wax layer with texts. And that means that what we call "floating" fragments from the gaps, arranged in groups by the similarity of characters, will be almost useless additions to everything which has been possible to restore.
So, what makes it so important for a linguist trying to restore the canonical text which is repeated in the latter manuscript copies of the Psalter? The answer is that these studies will make it possible to identify "version" readings between the text on the wax, which will now be regarded as the basic, and the known copies. Surprising as it may sound, but differences in words, symbols and shape of letters were identified already on the first tablet in Psalm 75.
And let me say once again that, as compared with others, it has been preserved with minimal losses and the thickness of its wax layer on the base is the greatest. Incidentally, a photo taken at the moment of the book's recovery from the cultural layer will always be described in the subsequent publications about this monument.
Speaking in general, photos of the book in its original condition, including the countless wax fragments, promoted not only the comprehensive studies of the find, but triggered preparations for its restoration. Photographs were also taken of the subsequent stages of this work and many will remain as indispensable "supplements" to the restored original.
Looking back at the first days and weeks, when all of us felt equally helpless before this absolutely unexpected find, which was on the verge of disintegration, one feels that many things could have been done much batter and with greater foresight. Digging in the ancient dung, one can't help thinking at times that we would have liked to make the find in a different way. But all this is mere wishful thinking. In practice we were "gripped" with concrete objective on one hand and what one can call its indefinite future on the other. The book, although in a very sad plight, was there yet and no one could tell what could happen with it tomorrow, especially as one saw tiny worms trying to escape from under the wax fragments. One thing was clear-it was necessary to take pictures before it was too late and do so in all the details and with good lighting... In a word, on the threshold of an alarmingly indefinite future, I looked at the manuscript once again, touched it and felt absolutely hopeless. And there was no time to be lost since the threat of loosing the extraordinary find or its considerable fraction was very real. This was followed by timid attempts to decide on the restoration techniques.
And let me repeat that the book is made of different materials-wood
* See: V. Yanin, "Its Hours of Glory", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2001-Ed.
and wax. The restoration problem would have been much simpler had the leaves been made of juniper, because archeological finds made of this wood often preserve their original shape in "natural" drying. But lime-tree leaves, after remaining for a century in moist soil, had, unfortunately, lost all of their positive properties and now need long and special treatment with polyethylene glycole. And to perform this kind of treatment one has to separate the leaves from the layers of old wax.
And this latter material produced some problems of its own. Being in the form of bits and pieces of different shapes and sizes it dropped down from its original positions and was often pressed back onto the wooden base in a haphazard man-
ner. All these fragments have to be assembled in an orderly manner on some fitting surface so that some of them could later be restored into their proper original places. In the second version-wax was in bigger flat pieces with cracks which stuck to their original positions. In this case they could be lifted off and transferred onto another flat base so as to be put back on their proper place later. Some of the wax was in the form of thin small pieces with many cracks. They were "glued" to the wooden base and trying to lift them off would have provoked some irreparable damage. We had nothing better than hope that these small fragments will survive the treatment with polyethylene glycols.
One can add to that that wax is a very "gentle" material which can be ruined by excessive heat, like that from powerful lamps. As it was, we had to use just that kind of lighting, in combination with delicate fingers, in order to "repair" fragments which had probably suffered from too much heat. And the wax in this particular book proved to be excessively brittle-probably due to many invisible cracks.
And say what you may, we had to try and glue them together by hook or by crook. That required some moderately fast glue, like that used earlier for the "repairs" of birch-bark scrolls. The agent is called polybutil methacrylat (PBMA). But the idea had to be rejected because this glue is based on acetone which ruins wax. And I remember another case which confirmed our apprehensions. In 1978 experts decided to "reinforce" fragments of lyre-like musical instrument of 11th century with new wooden parts. * And it was established that the properties of the original fragments, which had already been treated by that time in the chemical lab of the Hermitage, were different and repelled the glue.
And although they finally did manage to glue the two kinds of wood together with PBMA, this proved to be very difficult and the restored musical instrument required very careful handling.
Later on experts in fresco restoration told us to place the old bits of wax, removed from the wooden folds of the book, in the right order on the new base, covered with thick and sticky honey-material of the "related" kind-but our tests proved to be far from what we had expected.
After some time I took a couple of wax pieces with no traces of writing and covered their edges with PBMA. Then I put them together and waited for some time. The results exceeded by expectations in terms of strength and thickness of joints. This gave us a ray of hope for the actual repairs of the ancient manuscript.
Using the PBMA glue is accompanied by obvious problems: its adhesive properties will not always be sufficient and "convenient" and one shall have to either dilute it, or make the best out of its rapid hardening. And the most convenient "asset" of this glue is its reversibility-bits and pieces glued up in wrong places can be replaced by dissolving the glue with acetone.
And it took quite some time cleaning the flaps of the writings on wax from the sticky layer of dung. To prevent the drying of wood, all the three "dirty" folds, or flaps were placed just as they were into dishes with water, and the level of water was just enough not to cover the wax to prevent its fragments from floating up from their original position. And there were even greater problems with the middle "bilateral" flap. For cleaning it, and later all the others, we used gauze covers saturated with solutions of polyethylene glycol (30 percent PEG-1500), which slowed down the drying of wood. And we were also able to pick up bits of wax from the wooden flaps and transfer them onto another base.
We began by removing bits and pieces, scattered in disorder, whose original positions on the pages were yet to be determined. A. Zaliznyak tried to determine their belonging to concrete tabloids and even positions in the text, collecting them in special boxes with labels. When this technique failed, the bits were arranged on glass plates which were most convenient for arranging and rearranging these pieces in different patters.
While doing that the wax pieces were also sprinkled with water and cleaned up from dung with brushes. This was easy with unbroken pieces, while others, with invisible fractures, often fell apart, making it almost impossible glueing them up together in the proper order.
Places on the pages freed from wax fragments were also cleaned from dirt and the wood was washed from time to time with polyethylene glycol solutions. Left in their original positions were bits and pieces which undoubtedly belonged to the original text.
These "documentary" remains of the text had to be taken off and placed onto glass in an undisturbed manner. After that every fragment was washed, dried and then glued up in the right order, gradually producing an orderly pattern. The greatest problems were with removing thin patches of wax which were not firmly attached to the wooden base but were too "crushed up". It was impossible to replace them one by one-this had to be done all at once or in "sections". Such "difficult" patches were brushed over with glue and left up to dry, keeping in place even the smallest fragments. After that they could be lifted up with a pallet, transferred onto glass plates and put in proper patterns. When the "material" dried up, the glue film on the surface could be carefully washed off with acetone.
* See: V. Povetkin, "'Musical' Archeology", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2003. - Ed.
In this manner all the four pages or folds were gradually cleaned from wax. It was only on the second and third ones that small segments were left, covered with thin film of wax and firmly attached to the wooden base.
As the pages were cleaned from wax, they were also "washed" with brush from sticky dung and this revealed carved symbols and ornaments. After taking photographs at this stage of work the pages were sent to the Laboratory of Conservation of the Novgorod State Museum-Preserve. There experts took steps to "reinforce" the damaged old wood and put into order the wax texts separated from the base. Among the mass of the preserved bits of wax it was necessary to identify those which could "supplement" the preserved fractions of the manuscript. Considerable problems were caused by some obviously irreparable losses on each tablet, especially on the second, third and fourth. But the work had to be continued, no matter what.
We placed on separate glass squares four glued-up wax tablets, or rather what was left of them and needed "replenishment". They had been glued together in conveniently large sections and could be easily turned over for adding new pieces. At the end of the restoration program these bigger fragments could be glued up into a single whole.
Our most indispensable "aid" were the canonical texts of psalms 75 and 76 which had been specially prepared and later made more precise by A. Zaliznyak. They were verified not only page by page, but also line by line and letter by letter. For every page a sheet of paper was placed under the glass bearing the appropriate words and thanks to that it was clear which symbol, or letter, had to be found to fill in this or that gap in the original. In some cases the wax fragments, sticking to one another suggested a word or symbol which did not match the texts of the more recent copies of the Psalter. Discovering such "discrepancies" is of great importance for linguists, to say nothing of the fact that each of these, even insignificant discoveries, threw light on the former owner of the book. We also learned about the shape and numbers of signs and symbols used in the given manuscript and, consequently, in the Slavonic world thousand years ago. The store of this paleographic data helped us find the missing pieces of wax even by barely visible letters upon them.
Studies of this kind are plausible only in close cooperation with linguists. Of great importance in our particular case was experience gained after years of restorations and studies of ancient birch-bark scrolls conducted by the Novgorod Archeological Expedition, and especially thanks to the efforts of V. Yanin and A. Zaliznyak. If one can describe gaps in such scrolls, flat or laminar, fractures in wax happen to be of very different shapes and sizes-either concave and polished or multifaceted as in some minerals. Such facets can be very "fine-grain" and one has to take a very close look to be sure that the fragments really fit. I, personally, made many such mistakes and after some time the glued pieces had to be separated again.
A great help in this work were many external "marks" on the wax fragments, such as traces of letters, titles and horizontal "lines of division". And there was also a special "group" of "clean" wax pieces. Putting them together is difficult, but important for tracing glossed-over imprints of earlier texts. A fair number of "clean" fragments on page 4 could be finally arranged in the proper order because on their back side one could distinguish traces of old cross-cuts, so-called "glue" cuts. The thickness of every piece was also an important aid in choosing their original place.
While the wax tablets, assembled bit by bit, were placed, as has been said, on four special pieces of glass, we had to use several such glasses for the scattered fragments and very tiny bits. Fragments of wax were grouped by similar symbols, letters or other clues, and it was especially important to decide what was the top and the bottom of each of these pieces and not to mix them up. The simple vertical position of wax fragments was determined in many cases, excluding cases of lamination, by their back side by tracing imprints of wood fibers. But telling the top from the bottom could only be done with the help of a magnifying glass, by the scratches left by the sharp writing tool. The owner of the book held his "pen" not vertically, but at an angle to the page, just as we do it now. And he did his writing with the right hand. That left some visible and typical traces-a typical wax "crest" in the left upper part of each letter of symbol. Thanks to such seemingly insignificant "clues" we were able to cope with the serious problem of putting each wax fragment into its proper place on the tablet.
At first we put glue on the butt of the fragments and in a matter of minutes one could see whether or not the pieces were glued up well. If not, the procedure had to be repeated on the other side.
And in doing all of these things haste is simply inadmissible. For example, you cannot use pincers and this approach proves to be more difficult than moving a straw from place to place with forger's tongs. So we had to use miniature spatulas for picking up a bit of wax from the right side and pushing it on with a finger from the left, or used wooden sticks when a piece was too small.
It was often necessary to simply move fragments from place to place, arranging them in groups. This could best be done on a smooth glass surface. And even then we had problems, strange as it may sound, with the glass being covered with dust and tiny bits of fiber. The work took whole weeks and even
months-time enough for our work stations being covered with so much dust that it became another snag. Dust and bits of fiber became firmly attached to wax on the surface and between the pieces so that they could not be "blown off because a jet of air could also damage the samples. And mechanical cleaning was just as undesirable, and what remained to be done was to try and carry over wax fragments onto a clean piece of glass-something that takes lots of time and attention.
If we happened in a day of hard work to put into its right place on a page even one tiny fragment, it was regarded as quite an achievement, and not just waste of time, to say nothing of the strain on the eyes. But still and all, there was quite a number of "unattached" pieces left. The final attempts to "fill in" the damaged tablets were made not on glass, but directly on the wooden folds which still contained some traces of wax and letters, as well as cuts from the old processing tools.
And then there came the time when each tablet consisting of several bigger sections, assembled on glass, could be glued together and into one piece. After that they could be put back into their proper places. And, as one could expect, the tablets differ in their "completeness". The first has been almost fully reassembled, with some of the missing letters easily "guessed at" and posing no problems for the reader. Appreciable losses remain in the center of the fourth tablet, and that despite of its many "repairs". And there are even more losses in tablets 2 and 3 and that despite the additions of very appreciable segments of text. Fragments of the manuscript, glued together, formed, after drying, big "massifs", even as big as a tablet, which can be easily put back on the folds with the help of a wooden spatula. That completed preparations for the next stage of the work.
One can recall at this stage that the folds had been specially treated for several months-water in the decomposing wood was gradually replaced with solidifying polyethylene glycols. Of special concern was the middle fold with bits of wax sticking to both of its sides. Fortunately, they were preserved as they were through all of our laboratory tests. And there was yet another cause for concern. We know that not all wooden archeological finds keep their original dimensions after chemical treatment. And that is exactly what happened to us. The folds of the book, made of tender lime wood and being buried underground for years, shrunk in all directions, crosswise to the wood fibers, after treatment with polyethylene glycols. And they became more narrow, which caused obvious problems with "fitting in" the wax tablets.
The problem concerned all the three folds. Even after some reinforcing treatment, each of them remains in the form of bigger or smaller fragments. And there remain fractures and gaps which have to be "filled in", probably using present-day healthy wood, or some adhesive wood meal or probably a combination thereof.
It would have been better to simply "glue up" the cracks stretching from top to bottom in the folds (in places without losses). But because of the shrinkage and the need to put back into place the wax tablets, these cracks will have to be expanded, probably by fitting in some inserts.
This solution seems to be preferable for every wax tablet, especially the second and third, where fragments of old wax layers remain with traces of letters. And it would also be possible to put the monument on display in a museum in a condition as close as possible to the original.
During our restoration work we also thought of other possibilities of preservation of the book and putting it on display in a museum. That was suggested by studies of A. Zaliznyak who tried to discover some traces of wax writings on the bottoms of the folds. And it would be necessary to use some special devices for studies of the top layers of the wooden bases of all the four wax tablets. In the opinion of Prof. V. Yanin the "reassembled" tablets cannot be replaced on the folds until the aforesaid studies are completed. This being so, the glued-up wax tablets can be put on display, placed on copies of the original folds made of contemporary lime-wood. According to another suggestion they can be left on transparent glass bases, accompanied with documentary photos of the originals.
Such is the present status of the oldest Slavonic manuscript. The first stage of this work is over-the monument has been saved. But putting it on display in a museum is still a thing of the future. Careful studies still have to be conducted to try and detect traces of text in places where the wax layer was too thin-something which requires special optics and computer gear.
In 2002 A. Zaliznyak and S. Troyanovsky visited the Oxford Center for studies of ancient documents at the invitation of the British Academy. This visit proved that similar facilities can be provided for our scholars here.
Appropriate equipment has already been acquired by the Novgorod State Museum and will be used for studies of birch-bark scrolls, ancient coins and other antiquities.
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