From the 11th to 14th centuries, the people of Novgorod had an unusually literate culture for its time. Men, women, peasants, and even children knew how to read and write, and they used slips of birchbark for business and personal correspondence.
Messages on birchbark were typically short, written on the inner, smoother side of bark strips – 5-15 inches by 1-5 inches on average. They usually name the writer, then the recipient, followed by a statement and a clear ending. Many writers began with a cross as a way of blessing. There was no punctuation or capitalization.
The birchbark was prepared for use by being boiled in water to make it pliable (Lobatcheva et al). However, in my experiments in rendering birchbark that I had purchased online, hot, non-boiling water curled up the bark like cinnamon.
More experiments will be needed to determine how to reproduce “boiled” bark as it might have been rendered in period.
What DID work was simply soaking the bark for at least a few hours, with better results from soaking overnight. The pieces I ordered online were pretty thick, so soaking enabled me to peel them apart into thinner strips — thus giving me more pieces to work with.
The thinner the strip, the more flexible it is, too, and easier to curl, fold, or manipulate in other ways. The oldest message found, according to Lobatcheva et al, had been torn into thin strips and tied in a sailor’s knot before being thrown away.
Writers pressed letters into the bark with a sharp-pointed pen made from bone or iron – no ink was used. More than 200 of these pens from the 10th-15th centuries have been found in Novgorod.
The bark is soft enough that a stylus will leave an indentation without any ink. (Again, thinner strips seem to work better, as the indentations leave a little discoloring in the bark to make the letters easier to see.) I’ve also found that wooden and brass pens work just as well. A lead stylus will leave a gray mark similar to a pencil.
Fuller, Michael J. “Medieval Novgorod: Metal Artifacts.” Medieval Archaeological Remains at Velichy Novgorod. Web page with photos from a museum visit. July 30, 2006. http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/NovgorodMetalp.html
Lobatcheva, Irina; Bosworth, Amanda; and Lobatchev, Vlad. Letters One Thousand Years Old. Lexington: Parallel Worlds’ Books, 2014.