Fur collectors and tribute collectors in Novgorod used cylindrical wooden seals to secure and mark bags of fur and other items. I want to try making some of these, as the mechanism is very intriguing.
Seal locks, wooden cylinders bored through vertically and horizontally, were used to both secure and mark tribute sacks, usually of fur. (Yanin 2007) They were usually made of thin birch or alder branches, with the bark initially left on. Dimensions are approximately 7-8 cm long by 5-6 cm wide. At least fifty-one have been found in Novgorod, with thirty-eight on the same property, an administrative center. (Yanin 2007)(Noonan & Kovalev) Seal locks are found as early as 970/980, but the bulk of these finds date to the 11th century, with some finds from the12th century. (Franklin, Yanin 2007)
The seals are locked by knotting the ends of the drawstring of a sack, and running both ends of the drawstring through the longer axis groove, centering a second knot, finally driving a peg through the shorter axis groove, cutting it flush and splitting it, thereby retaining the knot. This prevents the bag from being untied without either cutting the drawstring or splitting the lock. Some finds have been found with this string still in the lock. (Yanin 2007, Kolchin) (figure 1, 2g, 3-7)
Seal locks provide their own window into the growth and scope of the Novgorod fur trade.
Pelts were packaged and sent to Novgorod from the northern hinterlands in sacks sealed with these wooden locks, often marked with both owner and the collector or location. Six seal locks with listed locations where the tribute was collected have been found in Novgorod, all from the northwest hinterlands of the Svernaya Dvina, between 520- 900 km distant from Novgorod itself. (Yanin 2007, Makarov 2006) Some squirrel bones were found at Minino, with finds supporting widespread squirrel hunting from the 10tn through the 13th centuries. (Makarov 2012) Cross referencing these finds with names from the birchbark documents allows us to see that Novgorod had begun to assert territorial claims in the northern Dvina in search of fur as early as the 11th century (Makarov 2006)
Inscriptions include marks of princes, locations and amounts collected, and names of tribute collectors, with some seal locks being merely notched to indicate a quantity. (Petrova et al, Yainin 2007) Not all are inscribed, but all indicate tribute or fee activity in their context. When inscriptions are present, they name owners, collectors, or administrative officials, or summarize the contents. The inscriptions may include symbols, names or both. (Kolchin, Franklin) Some ten of the seal locks with retained plugs are uninscribed, however these also had lost their bark, and potentially the inscriptions therewith. (Yanin 2007)
The locations of these finds in the residences of the local elite, and their markings indicating their content’s status as tribute, allow us to see that tribute was collected by the local landowners, not the Prince directly. (Yanin 2007) Some of the inscriptions refer to individuals appearing in the birchbark charters discussing tax collection, further supporting the local role in taxation, as seen also in the agreement Novgorod maintained with its princes. (Michell & Forbes)
One of these seal locks has five notches cut into it, which Noonan and Kovalev suggest indicates five sorochoks/one sack of fur. (Noonan & Kovalev 2004) (figure 2f) Another pair is labeled ‘Khoten’, and can be linked to a tax collector named Khoten found in birchbark document 902.
I suspect the holes would be bored out with a spoon bit, possibly in longer pieces that could be cut into multiple cylinders.
Excerpted from my paper for An Tir’s Kingdom Arts & Sciences Championship 2017, Forty Pelts in a Bundle: Archaeological Evidence for the Use of the Sorochok/Timber Unit in Medieval Novgorod. Paper available in full here:
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