The Oldest Russian Book Is Not Really a Book

Summer of the year 2000 was a celebratory time for Russian archaeologists. On the 13 of July a new finding was made at the never-ceasing dig location in one of the oldest Russian cities of Novgorod. Three waxed wooden plates (19×15×1 cm) with remnants of text later appeared to be parts of the oldest known Russian book.

Wax tables or cerae are not supposed to be a long term medium for text. It is even more astonishing for the oldest known Russian book to be a set of three wooden tablets with four wax ‘pages’ containing psalms 75, 76 and a small fragment of psalm 67. ‘Pages’ were bound with wooden pegs placed in the specially made holes at the sides of tablets.

Nogorod Codex (Новгородский кодекс), which has been dated to be used in the first quarter of the 11th century and maybe even in the last years of the 10th century, displaced Ostromir Gospels (Остромирово Евангелие) as the oldest Russian book. The later still remains to be the earliest precisely dated East Slavic book written on parchment.

Wax tablets are a rare finding in Novgorod region. The vast majority of text found руку were birch bark manuscripts. Another challenge for conservators was to choose methods of preservation for the finding. The problem is that wood and wax have quite different storage requirements.

The other important finding is related to the palimpsest nature of the medium. Wax tables were generally reused many times over the life span. Many thousands of letters were imprinted into the wooden base under the wax over the years of usage. Nevertheless several partial texts were recovered by Andrey Zaliznyak (the foremost expert in that area of knowledge) and his colleagues.

For conservation purposes wax and wood were separated from each other. Storage conditions of these two materials are very different and even contradictory. These days you can see the copies of all the six sides of the three tablets at the Novgorod Integrated Museum Complex along with some other wax tablets (and codices), birch bark manuscripts and other old books.