Since 1951, archaeologists have been digging up artifacts that belong to the time between 11th and 14th century in Veliky Novgorod, Russia. These artifacts include beresty or manuscripts made from birch bark, which was used as a cheap substitute for paper in olden days. As luck would have it, these artifacts were buried in a type of clay that could preserve both hard objects made of metal and soft ones made of leather, or in this case birch bark. During these excavations, around 1,100 pieces of beresty were found and among them was the art of Onfim, 7-year-old boy who used the bark for doing his learning exercises and doodling.
Also known as Anthemius of Novgorod, Onfim was a boy from 13th century Novgorod, Kievan Rus, who made drawings of himself and the people he knew when he got bored while learning to write. The archaeologists found a total of seventeen such soft birch bark items, out of which twelve were illustrated.
Novgorod in Kievan Rus, now Veliky Novgorod located 120 miles south of Saint Petersburg, Russia, is a city surrounded by birch trees. The local people had used the bark of these trees for writing for centuries. Onfim practiced his alphabet on these birch barks. Apart from the learning exercises and drawings he made on the bark as shown below, he also wrote texts from the Book of Psalms that were familiar to him. These texts include phrases like “Lord, help your servant, Onfim” and other partial texts from Psalms 6:2 and 27:3.
On this piece of bark, Onfim practiced his alphabet on one side and on the other side drew a picture of himself disguised as a beast over which he wrote “I am a beast”. The beast has a long neck, pointy ears, a curly tail, and is either spouting fire from its mouth or has a feathered arrow in it.
Like any other boy of his age, Onfim fantasized about being a knight and fighting the enemies. In this picture, he must have started with writing his alphabet on the right and then began drawing a grown up version of himself as a knight (his name written to the right), on a horse, holding the reins in one hand and a spear piercing his enemy in the other.
More battle scenes…
Alphabetic exercises, a series of syllables and “portraits of little Onfim and his friends.”
Like father, like son. Onfim’s drawing of himself with his dad in a similar outfit and pose.
On the left Onfim’s father and mother and on the right two children playing around a tree along with more writings.
Though all these pictures seem like mere doodles, they show Onfim’s ability to express himself through drawings as well as his thoughts and dreams. Who knows, may be he did grow up to be a knight just like his father.
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