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):

Child drawings from Novgorod

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?

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    The Wikipedia link gives the answer to the first part of your question: the anaerobic environment created by mud.
    – two sheds
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 17:51
  • @twosheds The only problem with this explanation is that since 50's, manuscripts of the same type were found in other Russian cities (e.g. in Moscow, right in front of the Kremlin), where conditions were totally different. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 19:33
  • Yes, in some cases wood can survive in water for even tens of thousands of years - prehistoric posts and pillars are sometimes found.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 1:27
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    Another example is mokkan 木簡, wooden tablets used in ancient Japan as charms, tags, jotting notes, etc. More than 100,000 are found and oldest date from 7th century. link 1(registration required) link 2: tinyurl.com/nr4zmnp
    – Valyok26
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 23:17
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    Looks fake to me. One guy has 8 fingers on one hand and the other has only 3. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 23:42

3 Answers 3

  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.

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    They didn't do carbon dating because (citing person who is somehow related to the project, from Russian Wiki): "there was no doubt about their authenticity". Is carbon/radiation dating that expensive? Why they aren't checking all the found documents by default? Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 1:55
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    There isn't really a standard operating procedure for all museums or even for each archaeologist. While carbon dating is a powerful technique it was only really perfected in the late 50s, so it is understandable that some of the original finds were not dated when they were found. I would also suppose that the transfer of such technology from the west into the Soviet Union would not have been easy as it involved NUCLEAR knowledge and techniques. In a modern context no carbon/radiation is not expensive if you already own the proper equipment and have a technician to do the tests. Continued
    – BOB
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 14:17
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    It should be noted that carbon/radiation dating does require and destroy a small amount of the artifact, a little under a gram or even less, this might be why no dating has been attempted. However, due to the plethora of artifacts it would indeed seem surprising that they have not tried the technique. They could easily have sent samples for independent analysis if they don't have the means. Now, there may be some Russian bluster and state sanctioned truth in the assertion : "there was no doubt about their authenticity". Continued...
    – BOB
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 14:35
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    However, the fact that the different manuscripts show different languages(Russian, Finnish...) and are in a varied geographic distribution, do lend them credence. There are also corroborating artifacts of the same type from different parts of the globe. So, on the whole they do seem authentic, carbon dating would confirm it though.
    – BOB
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 14:57
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    @Timofey: Carbon dating is a destructive technique, requiring that a minimum mass (which has slowly been decreasing over time) be first burned to pure charcoal. Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 2:16

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

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    I think it addressed one sub-question that I later edited out of the question. Original question asked whether there were other similar records.
    – MCW
    Commented May 3, 2015 at 11:12

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.

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