Some things never change—200 years ago birds nesting in the rafters of Zvenigorod, Russia’s Cathedral of the Assumption, were likely distracting pew-sitting churchgoers from the sermon just like they do today. What the churchgoers didn’t realize was that the birds were hard at work creating an archive of daily life in the small town, which sits some 30 miles west of Moscow. Last month, as the church was prepared for a major renovation, archaeologists found historical documents dating back to the 1830s alongside bird skulls, decomposing nests, and eggshells in the cathedral’s ceiling as they cleaned and prepared it for renovation.
According to local daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, [Dmitriy Sedov, research director of the Zvenigorod Historical and Architectural Museum] estimates that the piles’ oldest fragments likely date to the 1830s, when the roof was last replaced. Many of the fragile artifacts are easily datable simply because they were published with that specific information — that by chance survived not just sharp pecks but also weathering over time. Pages from calendars, for example, are from 1916 and 1917; a bulk of the find also consists of handwritten letters that often reveal their age along with elegant calligraphy probably executed by members of the aristocracy. Some of these are even marked with personal ink stamps or are still affixed with fragments of wax seals.
Other documents record the town’s civic, religious, and educational affairs; among the lot: bus tickets, delivery contracts, a county court slip, students’ notebooks and diplomas, parish registers, and even church confessional statements. Less official are the examples of vintage candy wrappers that date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, from those by the still-active caramel candy-producer “Duchess” (Карамель Дюшес) that feature pears to some that depict the Sun image from a tarot deck, which package candy known as “caramel oracles” (Карамель Гадательная). A hint of another indulgence of a different nature arrives in the form of an incredibly well-preserved cigarette pack, produced by the Russian brand “Tary-Bary” (Тары-Бары). The illustrated scene, which shows three men in deep conversation, is actually a copy of Russian realist Vasily Grigorevich Perov’s 1871 painting, “The Hunters at Rest,” as some have noted. Contrasting with these tokens that suggest individual pleasures, however, are ration cards from the 1930s and early 1940s — artifacts of an era marked by Stalin’s harsh collectivization policies.
Swifts and jackdaws, which collected the documents to build nests, run their archives differently than people do, wrote Sedov in a statement on the museum’s website. Instead of gathering up the most historically important documents and shelving them according to subject and chronology, the birds took whatever they could find. The result is an “incredibly diverse collection of fragments of human thoughts, feelings, experiences, concerns, passions and desires,” he wrote, forming “a single giant discordant chorus” of Zvenigorod life from 1830 through the early 1900s.
Local historians can thank the town’s accidental avian archivists for leaving them a nest egg so rich in history.