The Art of Onfim: Medieval Novgorod Through the Eyes of a Child
November 12, 2008 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Amazing collection of sketches and doodles, drawn on birch bark, created by a child in Medieval Novgorod.
posted by sidartha (26 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Anyone can edit wikipedia, did you say?
posted by davemee at 8:50 AM on November 12, 2008

Awesome, thanks! I was at a dig near Old Ryazan a few summers, but all the birchbark stuff we ever found were boring merchants' letters and the like. This is really cool. (I can't read the writing, though. Languagehat probably knows more about this, but these letters don't resemble either contemporary Russian or Old Church Slavonic.)
posted by nasreddin at 8:53 AM on November 12, 2008

By the estimate of the archaeologists who unearthed his works, he was around seven years old at the time that he made these drawings.

I would estimate the same, but not from archaeological methods. Child development has specific art milestones. Onfim draws pretty primitive humans, but they are mostly complete. That would seem to be put him at the low end of the 7-9 stage by this link.

Also: Awesome.
posted by DU at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, I see it's Old Novgorodese. No wonder.
posted by nasreddin at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2008

Very cool.
posted by digaman at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2008

Fantastic! Apparently medieval Novgorod was sorted for Es and whizz.
posted by Abiezer at 8:58 AM on November 12, 2008

Fascinating. Fantastic! Thanks!
posted by lostburner at 8:58 AM on November 12, 2008

Actually, looking closer and comparing to my own 7 year old, I'd say Onfim is probably 5 or 6. A real seven year old is less likely to draw 15 fingers in a broom-like arrangement.
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on November 12, 2008

@East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94
more on flickr

Thanks! I didn't even think to look there.
posted by sidartha at 9:09 AM on November 12, 2008

DU: I imagine it's up for some debate to what extent the art milestones are culturally specific. Those might be the milestones for American children, sure (or even contemporary first world children), but I wouldn't use them 100% to analyze old drawings.

That said: These are great. This is the sort of awesome stuff that makes archaeology cool. Big sites and monuments are nice, but these things are awesome.
posted by barnacles at 9:34 AM on November 12, 2008

In my youth, that's where I'm a Viking!
posted by From Bklyn at 9:37 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wonderful! Thank you for posting this.
posted by LarryC at 9:40 AM on November 12, 2008

I remember all the little boys in my elementary school classes endlessly drawing tanks and planes shooting bullets (imagined as a dotted line from the gun to the enemy). It's interesting to see that little boys never change.

Awesome and charming - thanks!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:50 AM on November 12, 2008

I just spent fifteen minutes I should have been working in Photoshop reading up on these and looking at all the Flickr pics. Now I'm looking askance at my Wacom tablet and wondering if there's any loose bark on the sycamore trees I can see out my window...

Excellent post.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:55 AM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I love how he does eyebrows. Very expressive. The one with the person in the background and the wide-eyed person more forward gave me a giggle, for some reason.

Really nifty stuff. Archaeology rocks.
posted by batmonkey at 10:11 AM on November 12, 2008

Oh, I see it's Old Novgorodese.

Well, not so much specifically that as Old Russian. There's a nice closeup of his alphabet chart here; it's basically a form of the standard Old Slavic alphabet. For anyone who reads Russian, there's a nice Wikipedia page on Onfim. The main researcher on the language of the birch-bark documents has been historical linguist Andrey Zaliznyak.

One interesting thing is that Onfim practices reading "by syllables," an ancient tradition I wrote about here: "The practice was to 'spell' a word by breaking it up into syllables and reading each with the old names of the Cyrillic letters, so that, e.g., великъ [velikъ] would be read 'веди езь, ве; люди иже, ли, вели; како еркъ, великъ' [vedi + ez' = ve; lyudi + izhe = li > veli; kako + yerkъ > velikъ], where vedi, ez', lyudi, izhe, kako are the names of the Cyrillic letters v, e, l, i, and k, but the hard sign, called yer, is read with the preceding consonant following it: yerkъ, pronounced 'yerk.'"

Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 11:01 AM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

This sounds like an Onion headline: "Man becomes despondent when his artwork described as 'wonderful, for a 7 year old medival peasant with no education or skill'."
posted by blue_beetle at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

...and they say hands haven't evolved much.

this is awesome. thanks.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Beauty. I love medieval landscapes (pictures of Novgorod in Wikipedia).
posted by iSimone at 1:48 PM on November 12, 2008

His horses! They have rune heads! These are so awesome!
posted by Michael Roberts at 3:47 PM on November 12, 2008

So, does these documents predate Beowulf, and if so, could we please start studying them in class instead?
posted by JHarris at 4:59 PM on November 12, 2008

This is one of the few archaeological discoveries that has actually made me choke up. The very first picture did it.

I wonder whatever became of Onfim?
posted by Countess Elena at 5:16 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is fantastic, thanks.
His artwork is very reminiscent of the stuff my son is currently drawing (he is aged 4). And my son is into beasts, knights (warriors) and monsters. Funny how things are so similar across the ages.
posted by Megami at 8:57 PM on November 12, 2008

So cool! This is the metafilter I love!
posted by serazin at 9:08 PM on November 12, 2008

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