Wednesday 25 January 2012

Wood use in medieval Novgorod

Yesterday I received a new book on medieval woodworking by post: Wood use in medieval Novgorod. This very interesting 470 pages book is edited by Mark Brisbane and  John Hather and was published by Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK in 2007 (ISBN 978-1-84217-276-6). With the book also comes a cd containing around 500 images of archeological objects. For those interested, it is still available for only 19.9 UK pounds. 

Novgorod was the captital of a medieval Russian republic, with a govenor chosen among the aristocracy. The city served as a major trading post with Scandinavia and the Hanseatic League. The city is situated somewhat halfway between Saint Petersburg and Moscow, next to immense forests and Lake Ilmen. The availablility of vast amounts of wood made it the prime source of material for this town, from housing, roads, furniture, tools, daily utensils, etc. Combined with the watery surrounding this created an ideal anaerobic condition for preserving wooden artefacts, ranging from the 10th century till the 16th when water drainage became common. Excavations have taking place at various sites in Novgorod since 1933 onwards, and an unprecedented amount of medieval objects and structures have been found and preserved. Due to the fact that large wooden structures are found, precise dendrochronological dating of the objects can take place. Unfortunately the research results were published in Russian journals, books, unreadable and unobtainable for many of us. This book solves that problem. It provides a good summary of what has been found and describes the current state of research, including many line drawings and photos (highlights) of the actual wooden finds. As an extra, a cd is added with colour images of some finds.


Clawhammers and nailpullers from Novgorod. (a-c) 14th century, (d) 13th-14th century, (e) 13th-15th century, (f) 15th century (g) 13th century, (h) 11th century nailpuller, (i) undated nailpuller. Note that the clawhammer handles sometimes ends in a twisted bit.

 Two turned mallets from Novgorod from pine and ash.

Chapter 3 of the book is dedicated to medieval woodworking tools. This chapter gives a short description of the tools, along with line drawings. There are however some peculiarities among the finds. The axes discussed show only felling type axes. The typical broad axe or side axe, common for the western medieval woodworking trade is not mentioned.  The boring tools mentioned in the book are spoon bits that were fitted in wooden handles like augers and gimlets. No mention is made of wooden braces, which became common in Europe in the 15th century. If you take a careful look at the spoon bits, 'e' and 'f' could easily have fitted into a brace, though the former is dated too early. Another missing tool is the plane. There is no mention of plane blades or wooden plane bodies found. The tools shown which crudely can perform the same function as planes are adzes, inshaves and scorps. Most interesting in this chapter, however, is the find of a spokeshave dating from the 11th century. So far, the earliest mention of a spokeshave is from 1510 (W.L. Goodman, The history of woodworking tools).

Novgorod boring tools/ spoon bits. (a) 13th-14th century, (b-d and i) 12th century, (e and h) 13th century, 
(f) 14th century, (g) 12th-13th century.

The chapter on household objects includes a picture of the furniture used in medieval Novgorod. So far excavated furniture fragments show that it was only very basic. I will dedicate a future post to discuss the Russian medieval furniture. Other chapters deal with housing, agricultural and fishing tools, games (including the over 200 chess pieces found and several Nine Men's Morris or Merrill's game board), combs, tally sticks, musical instruments, turning and turned objects, lasts for shoe production, spinning and weaving, tribute collecting seals, barrels, transport devices, combs, toys, wax tablets, etc. All in all, the book gives a fine overview of what is found in medieval Novgorod. I wished I was able to read Russian and had access to the other works on wood use in this intriguing place.

 Nine Man's Morriss board, late 13th-14th century, made of spruce.
The back of the board, showing another game board.