Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Last chance to see Royal Armoury arms in America

Monday, October 27th, 2014

For the past decade, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, has had the unique distinction of being the only place outside of the UK to have a permanent exhibition of weapons and armour from Britain’s Royal Armouries. In fact, it was the first time any British national museum entered into a long-term collaboration with an institution outside of national borders. This arrangement was so special it literally required an act of Parliament to allow the artifacts to leave the country and create a Royal Armouries annex in America.

An assortment of more than 400 pieces of armature from the 11th century to the beginning of the 20th century have been on display on the third floor of the Frazier History Museum. While most of the artifacts are English, the Royal Armoury has amassed a collection of military and sporting weapons and armour from Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, India and more. The Frazier exhibition features selections from all over Europe.

The items — on loan from the National Museum of Arms and Armour — have been displayed at the Frazier since its 2004 opening in downtown Louisville. The Royal Armouries collection was a prize catch for Louisville philanthropist and businessman Owsley Brown Frazier, who founded the museum.

The formal agreement creating the collaboration was signed at the Tower of London in 2003.

Both sides said Friday the partnership has been a success, and said they looked forward to working together again.

“This pioneering arrangement has brought hundreds of our best objects, vivid exposure to English history, and aspects of our common story, to a U.S. audience,” Dr. Edward Impey, director general and master of the Royal Armouries, said in a statement.

The loan and the exhibition will end on January 4th, 2015. The Royal Armouries collection will return home and artifacts will be split between the Tower of London and the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Ten years ago they didn’t have the room to show the objects — that was one of the reasons the loan was beneficial to both parties — but recent renovations have increased the space at the Royal Armouries museums.

The Frazier has also undergone renovations and will be reconfiguring the third floor exhibition space in keeping with a shift in its thematic focus from weaponry to history, particularly the history of Kentucky and Louisville. The Royal Armouries display will be replaced with artifacts from the museum’s expanding permanent collection, including objects from the personal collection of museum founder Owsley Frazier.

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Staffordshire Hoard reveals Anglo-Saxon technique to make impure gold look pure

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

In the five years since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the more than 4,000 pieces of the hoard have been cleaned, cataloged and grouped by physical and stylistic similarities. Five hundred more objects and fragments were found hidden in the soil clumped on the pieces and in a follow-up 2012 excavation. About 1,000 new joins have been discovered, allowing conservators to puzzle together objects that have never been seen before, including previously unknown types of sword fittings and mounts. More than 1,500 pieces have been identified as fragments of a single helmet. The hoard has also been officially dated to the late 6th, early 7th century, an important transitional period between the decline of traditional Anglo-Saxon polytheism and the advent of Christianity.

Researchers have now turned to analysis of the composition of the alloys. Minute scrapings taken from the surface of about 200 gold objects were viewed through a scanning electron microscope exposing an ingenious system of making gold with a high silver content look as shiny as pure as the real thing.

The technique was not written down in Anglo-Saxon times, and had never been detected in metalwork from the period, but a similar technique was known from Roman accounts. It must have been spoken about by the brilliant Anglo-Saxon metal workers, and involved taking gold which was alloyed with up to 25% silver, and heating it in an acid solution – made from iron rich minerals such as brick dust – so that at the surface the silver leached out and could be burnished off. The surface would then appear to be the highest quality gold, but just below the surface there was inferior metal.

“They knew what they were doing,” said Eleanor Blakelock, the scientist who discovered their secret. “This wasn’t something which could possibly have happened by accident.”

The technique left the surface with more than 90% gold while just underneath it was 70 to 75% gold. The shiny surfaces could be enhanced with contrasting decoration like wire filigree made from darker, less pure gold. The objects intended for males — belt buckles, weapon fittings — appear to have a higher gold content than jewelry worn by women. Experts don’t believe it was done as a deception to pass off a cheaper alloy as gold. It was just a way to make the best of the materials at hand.

The discovery has also revealed new information about some of the objects. The five hilt fittings from a seax, a single-edged knife, for example, have an odd man out. Four of the pieces have similar alloy composition and were given the acid solution surface treatment. The fifth piece, the pommel cap, has a different alloy composition and was not given any surface treatment. That suggests it was a replacement piece or a later addition to the seax.

Other analytical methods archaeologists used to test the metal content of the surface are not able to detect this technique, which means 1,400 year-old Anglo-Saxon metalworkers have done an impressive number on 21st century technology. Archaeologists now know they can’t trust standard surface analysis to determine the gold content of an artifact, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise.

In related news, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, co-owner of the hoard along with the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, opened its new permanent Staffordshire Hoard Gallery on Friday. About 300 pieces are on display in an exhibition that covers how the objects were made, how they were used before being broken up and buried, the tools conservators employed to clean the hoard. There’s even a Mead Hall to give visitors a glimpse into the life of the kind of Anglo-Saxon lord who would have owned such expensive weapons.

History West Midlands has a wonderful collection of videos uploaded this year about the conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard and overviews of eight featured artifacts (subscribe to the YouTube channel for future videos) I dare you to watch just one.

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Largest Viking hoard since 1891 found in Scotland

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Retired businessman Derek McLennan was sick and really didn’t feel like dragging his carcass and his metal detector to a Church of Scotland field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, last month. He didn’t want to disappoint his detecting buddies the Reverend David Bartholomew and Mike Smith, pastor of Elim Pentecostal Church, however, so he pulled it together and off they went. After an hour of searching, McLennan found a piece of silver buried two feet under the surface. At first he thought it was a spoon, but when he wiped some of the dirt off it, he saw a saltire (X marks the spot) design and realized he’d unearthed Viking treasure.

McLennan reported the find to Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and soon Galloway Council archaeologist Andrew Nicholson was on the scene excavating dozens of silver ingots, decorated arm rings and a solid silver cross with enamel decoration from the find spot. When the artifacts were fully excavated, McLennan ran his machine over the hole again and again got a signal. More digging unearthed a second layer of treasure, including a silver Carolingian pot complete with its lid that is one of only three of its kind ever found in Britain.

All told, the hoard proved to include more than a 100 individual pieces. It’s the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891, and there’s the possibility of more to come when the silver pot is opened and its contents excavated in the lab. The array of artifacts — stamp-decorated bracelets from Ireland, glass beads from Scandinavia, a beautifully graceful gold bird-shaped pin or hair ornament, silver ingots marked with runic inscriptions, even textile fragments still attached to the Carolingian pot — make this a find of international importance.

Describing the find as “historically significant”, Stuart Campbell, head of Scotland’s treasure trove unit, said one of the most exciting objects was an intact Carolingian (western European) pot with its lid still in place, a rare vessel likely to have been an heirloom held by the family that buried the hoard. Campbell described the examination of the pot, which has yet to be emptied, as “an excavation in microcosm”.

He added: “What makes this find so significant is the range of material from different countries and cultures. This was material that was buried for safekeeping, almost like a safety deposit box that was never claimed.”

Campbell said that a find like this could also influence the way Scots viewed their historic relationship with the Vikings. “We have the idea of Vikings as foreigners who carried out raids on Scotland, but this was a Viking area where they settled and traded, and the people who lived there were culturally and linguistically Norse.”

The hoard was buried in the 9th or 10th century. The silver cross dates to around that time. Its unusual enamel decoration is figural, possibly depictions of the four evangelists on each arm of the cross. The pot was already at least a hundred years old when it was buried, hence archaeologists’ belief that it may have been a family heirloom. Researchers hope the contents might reveal more information about who buried the treasure under what circumstances.

The discovery is governed by the Scottish law of treasure trove which claims the artifacts for the public trust, while rewarding the finder and landowner with a sum equivalent to fair market value of the finds. In this case, early estimates put the value at £1 million, but that could change once the artifacts are examined more closely and the contents of the pot assessed. The landowners, the Church of Scotland General Trustees, and Derek McLennan have already come to an agreement on sharing the reward equally. The Church’s portion will be dedicated to the local parish.

This Reuters story has some beautiful close-ups of highly decorated gold and silver pieces. I’d embed it but it has an unkillable autoplay. :angry:

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Killer medieval bladder stone found in Gdańsk

Monday, October 13th, 2014

In 2001, archaeologists with the Gdańsk Archaeological Museum unearthed the largest medieval burial ground ever found in Gdańsk. It was located at the western end of a market town on a busy trade route and had been in active use from the 10th century through the beginning of the 19th. Archaeologists found approximately 1,000 graves buried over 800 years. With limited space and a lot of dead people, bodies were buried on top of each other, often damaging the earlier occupants. Construction of a church, monastery and the Market Hall also wreaked havoc on the burials. A third of the skeletal remains were badly damaged (that’s why the precise number of burials isn’t known), and some graves contained a mish-mash of disarticulated bones.

Grave number 300 was one of the latter, containing the partial remains of four skeletons that date between the mid-10th and mid-14th century: a 20-39-year-old woman, a 40-55-year-old man, a teenager and a fetus of undetermined sex. The grave also contained a kidney-shaped stone with a mottled brown and black surface that less keen eyes might have mistaken for a pebble. Upon closer examination in the laboratory, the 1.5 inch-long stone was found to be a calculus, a stone created from compressed compounds and crystals in urine. It’s not possible to determine which of the bodies interred in grave 300 were host to this painful little rock. The fetus is excluded for obvious reasons, but any of the remaining three could have produced the bladder stone.

Sections of the stone were cut with a diamond blade and polished using diamond abrasive wheels. The section was composed of three concentric layers — an inner layer with a core, a middle layer and an outer one — of yellowish color. X-ray spectrometry of five spots on the section surface found the stone was composed of calcium, ammonium, magnesium, uric acid, oxalate, phosphate, and cystine compounds, a result confirmed by other tests as well. The results indicate that this was a bladder stone.

What’s particularly fascinating about this discovery, other than the general coolness of a medieval bladder stone, is how much it can tell us about the life of the person it inhabited.

High content of phosphate compounds suggests that the diet in this case was rich in phosphate compounds, for example in fish meat. Other animal proteins were present in trace amounts, or not at all. Consistent presence of oxalate compounds in both internal and external layers indicates that the diet, at the beginning and the end of the calculus growth, was rich in highly acidic food (e.g., sorrel plant). On the other hand, complementary EDS analysis suggested that the basic structure consisted of calcium and phosphate. The analysis did not demonstrate a sharp differentiation of Ca in the whole cross-section of the stone from the core to the cortex, and increased value of phosphorus was present in analyses of [section points] II-IV. This confirms the observations of Robertson that urinary stones are often present in societies whose diet is rich in plant products and low in meat and dairy products. It is quite possible that each phase of the stone growth was affected by negative health condition, including prolonged starvation, or other diseases, which resulted in production of alkaline urine. This condition most likely led to ascending infection to the kidneys and/or hydronephrosis with uremia.

That infection may well have killed the stone’s owner. The rough texture of the stone’s outer surface is evidence of a highly aggressive bacterial infection in the final stage of the stone’s development, an infection that was likely the cause of death.

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Viking blacksmith’s grave found in Norway garden

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Leif Arne Nordheim, long annoyed by a group of flagstones that poked up above ground level impeding the path of his lawnmower, borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove them. At first the job was uneventful, but when he was finishing up with the last of the slabs, he unearthed what looked like a large pair of pliers or tongs. They looked like they might be a couple of hundred of years old but he didn’t think much of it until he came across a bent sword next. That’s when he realized they might be archaeological artifacts rather than old tools and called in the experts.

Archaeologists from the county Cultural Department and Bergen University came to excavate the site. They found an axe and several other pieces of metalwork that stylistically date to the 8th or 9th century A.D. State Conservationist Eva Moberg noted that this is an extremely rare find. The last time similar artifacts were unearthed was in 1913 at the grave of Viking blacksmith. Although no human remains were discovered in Mr. Nordheim’s back yard, it’s possible that this too was a deposit of grave goods for the person who used those tongs in life.

The excavation is continuing at county expense. The artifacts will be conserved and ultimately put on public display at the University Museum of Bergen. There’s excellent video of the yard and excavation in this news story which is almost entirely in Norwegian except for one archaeologist’s comments that are in English.

This is not the first time notable archaeological objects have been discovered in the area. In 1917, a farmer turned up the Eggja stone while plowing a field just a kilometer from the Nordheim homestead. The stone, found face-down over the grave of an adult male, is inscribed with about 200 runes of Elder Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet. It dates to 650-700 A.D. and is the longest surviving inscription of Elder Futhark. There are multiple possible interpretations of the runes on the Eggja stone, see the Rune Project database for possible translations of section 1, 2 and 3).

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600-year-old canoe section found in New Zealand

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014


In 2012, Auckland University archaeologists recovered the remains of a canoe from a sand dune near the Anaweka estuary on South Island, New Zealand, after it had been exposed by a storm. It’s a 20-foot-long section of the hull carved from a single timber of New Zealand matai wood which was preserved by the waterlogged, low-oxygen environment. The top side is straight, the other curves up to a point. The point is the end of the canoe hull while the other end is a flat butt joint where a second section of hull was once connected. Adze marks are visible inside the hull section. The outside has been smoothly finished so the vessel can cut through the water with minimum drag.

Four transverse ribs are carved into the inside of the hull at regular intervals and a horizontal girder intersects the ribs down the length of the piece. Because the ribs are heavier on the side with the curved end, that was probably the lower side of the canoe. This is the first time these kinds of ribs have been documented in New Zealand, although they were reported in the Southern Cook Islands just a hundred years ago.

The edges are perforated with lashing holes chiseled through the wood. Four of them are still packed with caulking made from pounded wads of bark (probably from the totara tree). Radiocarbon dating performed on three wood samples from different areas of the hull and four caulking samples taken from three of the lashings returned a result of around 1400 A.D. for the last time the canoe was caulked.

That’s enormously significant as Wairau Bar, a settlement on the northeastern coast of South Island that is the earliest known colonization, dated to the early 1300s. The Anaweka canoe, therefore, was in use within a century of colonization. There is only one other surviving canoe from early colonization found more than 30 years ago in the Society Islands 2,500 miles away from South Island. Archaeologists have had little to go on to reconstruct the ocean-going canoes Polynesians used for maritime migration and long-distance travel between islands after colonization. The main sources have been observations by European explorers centuries later and analysis of canoe-related vocabulary in Austronesian languages. This new find lends rare insight into the maritime technology that drove the East Polynesian settlement of New Zealand.

When intact, the canoe was probably at least 46 feet long. Archaeologists believe it was a double canoe, although it could also have been a single with an outrigger. It was a large, complex composite of planked and dugout canoe, an adaptation of East Polynesian maritime technology developed in the wake of the colonization of New Zealand. The form required very large trees to produce, trees that would only have been available to the Polynesians after settlement in New Zealand.

A raised relief of a sea turtle is carved into the outer hull at the curved end. A carved ridge runs behind the turtle to the very edge of the hull. Archaeologists believe the ridge may depict the wake of the turtle as it swims, which may be a clue to which way the canoe moved through the water (matching the direction of the turtle, that is). This is a spectacular feature, not just because it’s adorable but because it’s a clear representation of Polynesian culture. The Maori rarely used turtles as decorative motifs before the arrival of Europeans, but turtles are all over Polynesian art. Sea turtles are known to make very long ocean voyages, so they were more than appropriate spirit animals for the people who colonized the Pacific, and they make fine figureheads for the ocean-going canoes that made colonization possible.

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Skeletons holding hands found in lost chapel cemetery

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed the skeletal remains of an adult male and female who are still holding hands 700 years after they were buried side by side. The lovers were found along with nine other individual burials at the site of a cemetery on the north side of the Chapel of St Morrell in Hallaton, Leicestershire. They human remains have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th century.

Built on the side of a hill that appears to have had sacred structures on it at least since the Romans, the chapel was a site of pilgrimage in Middle Ages, in use from the 12th century to the 16th. The last documentary evidence of the chapel as an active pilgrimage site is the 1532 will of Frances Butler, a Hallaton priest. He left all his worldly goods to another priest, Edmund Oliver, with the stipulation that he travel to four shrines to ensure the ideal disposition of Butler’s soul. “St Mawrell of Hallaton” was one of the four.

Sometime after that it fell into disuse. Eventually the chapel crumbled and its location was lost to memory. The hillside became the locus of an annual Easter custom called the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking in which hardy men from Hallaton and the neighboring village Medbourne chase a wooden canteen down the hill and over a stream. The event begins on Hare Pie Bank, so named because that’s where the hare pie gets eaten before the bottle kicking begins.

A decade or so ago, local historian John Morison found a reference in a 1606 Glebe Terrier (a survey of parish lands that were income-generating parts of a clergyman’s benefice) that the “Chapel of St Morrill” was on or around Hare Pie Bank. The Hallaton Fieldwork Group (HFWG) did a geophysical survey of the site which found a square perimeter about 120 feet across with various architectural features inside. Together with ULAS and some local volunteers, they began excavating Hare Pie Bank.

This is the fourth year of excavations on the site. The tiled floor of the chapel has been unearthed, along with the remains of walls and lead from the windows. Coins were found dating to between the 12th and 16th centuries, confirming the documented period of activity. Underneath the chapel remains archaeologists found Roman remains, among them a square ditch that may be evidence there was a temple on the site. Given that the vast Hallaton Treasure of more than 5,500 Roman and British coins, a silver bowl, ingots, jewelry, the complete skeletons of three dogs, the bones of more than 300 pigs consumed in a feast and an exceptional Roman cavalry parade helmet were discovered just a few hundred yards from Hare Pie Bank, it seems likely that this area has held ritual significance since before the Roman conquest.

So it makes sense, considering the hill’s long sacred history, that there would be a chapel built on the site. It’s not clear, however, why the small chapel had its own cemetery.

Vicki Score, ULAS project manager, said: “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave. The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church in Hallaton. This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time.”

The team believe the chapel may have been an area of pilgrimage. Alternatively, the bodies might have been refused burial in the main church, perhaps because they were criminals, foreigners or sick.

Further study of the skeletal remains might help explain their burial. So far, in addition to the lovers, one older male has been found with a wound from a sharp weapon like a pole axe on his skull that was probably what killed him. The teeth of a young man who was buried with his legs raised to his chest indicate that he experienced trauma as a little boy. He’s likely to have been felled by illness, and in fact there is a reference by a 17th century historian to Hallaton having been a holy place visited by flocks of sick people.

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19th c. vibrator: sold! 11th c. Viking sword: no takers

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

The Christie’s Out of the Ordinary auction held in London on September 3rd offered an eclectic array of objects, to say the least. A pair of Victorian taxidermy red squirrels playing cards rubbed shoulders with an Enigma machine and a framed 1746 map of London 12’7″ wide.

The lead item in the sale was a late medieval broadsword with an illustrious history. The blade is of Viking manufacture. It was captured by the English at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066, three weeks before the Battle of Hastings. It’s not certain what road it took after that, but by the 13th century it was in the hands of the de Bohun family. Since the first Humphrey de Bohun in England was a Norman nobleman who fought by William the Conqueror’s side at the Battle of Hastings, it’s possible he acquired the Viking sword on the field at Hastings.

What’s certain is that a few centuries later, the Viking blade had been remounted with the de Bohum coat of arms in gold and enamel on the pommel. Sir Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex, fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, this time on the losing side. His nephew was killed by King Robert’s own hand and Sir Humphrey was taken captive. He would be exchanged for King Robert’s wife. daughter and a handful of other important Scots. The sword probably wasn’t used on the field at Bannockburn as it wasn’t au courant for mounted combat, but it could have been with Sir Humphrey as a side arm in camp. The broadsword is mentioned in his will just five years later.

Expectations for this sword were high, with a pre-sale estimate of £80,000 – 120,000 ($129,584 – 194,376). Expectations were dashed when this historically significant weapon failed to sell.

A 19th century vibrator, on the other hand, exceeded expectations. Only slightly used — the condition report describes the exterior as having “some light wear, scuffing and scratches, consistent with age” — it sold above estimate at £1,625 ($2,675). It’s actually quite ingenious, made out of celluloid and white metal by Dr. Benjamin Y. Boyd who patented it in 1893 under the suitably vague title of “electrical instrument for medical purposes.”

He minces no words at all in the body of the patent application, however. The device is an “improved electrical, urethral, vaginal, and rectal vitalizer” and check out how it’s powered:

It is composed of alternate cylinders of zinc and celluloid or other insulating substance, and silver, copper or other metal, so connected with a fluid, either acid, alkaline or neutral, on the inside of the combined cylinder, and moisture or secretions from the mucous membranes from the body, on the outside of said cylinder, as to form a series of electric batteries, when introduced into a mucous cavity, thus forming or producing a voltaic current of electricity at each cell. Each of these cells consists of three cylinders, a negative and positive element A O, separated by an insulator B. The current passes from a cylinder of one element through the affected part, to the cylinder of the opposite element.

That’s a lot of progress since Dr. George Taylor invented his steam-powered Manipulator 24 years earlier. Dr. Boyd kept the improvements coming, to coin a phrase, receiving another patent in 1895 for two versions of the “electrical instrument for medical purposes,” one a version of the 1893 device, the other with a dedicated rectal function.

In 1909 he gave male genitalia their chance at an electrotherapeutic apparatus. It consists of two cups, one shaped to fit the scrotum and the other the penis, that were filled with plain or medicated water (God knows what kind of medication he had in mind) and had a current sent through them. This would treat varicoceles and “diminished vigor” by “contracting the varicose veins and dilating the dorsa and other veins of the penis, thus curing the varicocele and restoring the natural vigor simultaneously.”

I wasn’t able to discover much of anything about the dedicated Dr. Boyd, but there is this juicy tidbit in a 1909 issue of the Illinois Medical Journal:

It is reported that Mrs. Leopoldine Boyd has filed a bill for divorce against her husband, Dr. Benjamin Y. Boyd, a Chicago physician, alleging that he had deserted the complainant and was living with another woman.

Why Dr. Boyd, you dirty dog, you.

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First Viking fortress in 60 years found in Denmark

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from Aarhus University and the Danish Castle Centre have discovered the remains of a huge circular Viking fortress on the Vallø Estate, about 30 miles south of Copenhagen on the Danish island of Zealand. Only seven of these ringed fortresses have ever been discovered, all of them in Denmark or the southern tip of Sweden, and the last one was found 60 years ago. It’s design is in keeping with the Trelleborg-type fortresses built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D.

Much of this discovery was done in the research phase. Archaeologists suspected there was another fortress on Zealand. The Vallø site was a likely candidate because it was in a place where old Viking roads met close to the Køge river valley which in Viking times was a navigable fjord with one of the island’s best natural harbors. This made it an ideal setting for large military installation.

The team did a detailed laser survey of the site, measuring the minute features of the landscape. They found that a mound that was barely visible to the naked eye had a distinct circular outline. To investigate further before attempting excavation, they called in Helen Goodchild, an archaeological geophysics expert from the University of York, to do a magnetic survey of the site. Geomagnetic data derived from measuring variations in the magnetic field of the soil identified the archaeological features of a circular fortress.

The image from the geomagnetic survey revealed a massive structure 475 feet in diameter, which makes it the third largest of the Trelleborg-type fortresses after Aggersborg (787 feet in diameter), in Limfjorden, Denmark, and Borgeby (492 feet in diameter) near Lund in Scania, Sweden. The inner ramparts are 35 feet wide and circular, surrounded by a spiked palisade. Four gates are placed at the cardinal points of the compass. This is the same plan as the other Trelleborg-type fortresses.

Armed with this key information, archaeologists chose to dig in the areas most likely to produce information about the fortress as quickly as possible. The first trenches were dug at the site of two of the four gates. Both of them were burned down at some point. Large charred oak timbers were found at the north gate, a precious find both because the sturdy timber gate is another feature of the Trelleborg fortresses and because they’ll give us a precise date for the fortress.

Nanna Holm underlines that the fortress was a genuine military facility, and probably the scene of fighting as well. She’s in no doubt that it dates back to the Viking Age.

“Fortresses built like this one were only built in the Viking Age, and the burnt timber in the gates enables us to fix the date using radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. We’ve sent off samples for analysis, and the result should be available in a few weeks’ time. The date will be vital. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, it will help us to understand the historical events with which it was connected.” [...]

“We can’t wait to find out whether the fortress dates back to the time of Harald Bluetooth, or whether it was built by a previous king. A military fortification from the Viking Age may shed more light on the links between Zealand, ancient Denmark and the Jelling dynasty – as well as teaching us more about the period during which Denmark became Denmark,” says Holm.

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Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. [...]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

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