Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Crowds wait 10 hours to spend minutes with “China’s Mona Lisa”

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a 12th century painted handscroll by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) which is widely considered the greatest painting in China. Some scholars have dubbed it “China’s Mona Lisa,” because of its immense cultural hold, but artistically it has nothing in common with Renaissance portraiture.

The almost monochrome (there are some pops of green here and there) ink-on-silk scroll is 17 feet wide and just 10 inches high and depicts the vignettes of exuberant life on the Bian River, which runs through Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, during the Qingming Festival. Originally meant to unscrolled slowly by the viewer to enjoy an arm’s width at a time, from right to left, the painting moves from countryside to city and people change with it. Farmers tend their crops and men load their donkeys with wood outside the city so that they can sell it inside the city. Then the peaceful bucolic pursuits shift to hectic, population-dense urban environment bustling with activity: peddlers hawk their wares, fortune tellers tell fortunes, people buy food from street vendors or visit an elegant two-storey tavern, a long-range rice boat transports its cargo on the river. There are 814 people, almost all of them men, 28 different boats, 60 animals (livestock of various sorts), 30 buildings, 20 carriages and eight sedan chairs in the painting.

What there isn’t is any religious activity. The Qingming Festival, held in early spring, is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. People sweep their ancestral tombs and clean temples during the festival, but none of that is overtly present in the painting. The only hint of it is a group of people with willow brooms in a sedan chair who could conceivably have just come from sweeping their ancestors’ graves. There’s debate whether the Chinese title of the work, Qingming Shanghe Tu, actually refers to the festival. The scenes don’t match 12th century chronicles describing the city during the festival at all. “Shaghe tu” means “going along the river picture” but “Qingming” on its own means “clear-bright.” There are several possible interpretations not involving the festival.

In any case, the aim of the painting is to display the prosperity and peace. Most every stratum of society is represented except for the not-so-picturesque beggars, criminals and slum-dwellers. It’s not known exactly when Zhang Zeduan painted it, but if it was after the overthrow of the Northern Song Dynasty by the Jin in 1127, the artist was likely depicting an idealized view of the good ol’ days before Kaifeng was sacked by Jin armies and the emperor captured. Not that it’s literally Kaifeng in the painting. There are no recognizable landmarks, so it could be an ideal city from an ideal time.

The painting has been famous and coveted for 800 years. The first recorded time of many that it was stolen from the imperial collection was in the 1340s and for centuries afterwards emperors would find the stolen masterpiece when estates were confiscated from rich, troublesome nobles. There are more than one hundred seals and colophons (provenance notes) from different owners on the scroll. The earliest is by Zhang Zhu, a Jin Dynasty official, and dates to 1186.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival was a great favorite of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who took it with him when he was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. When the Soviet army captured him in 1945 as he attempted to flee the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo of which he nominally ruled, Pu Yi had the painting on him. The Soviets put it in a bank in northern China where it remained until 1950 when it was moved to a local museum. Eventually it made its way back to the Forbidden City, just as it always had, this time to the Palace Museum where scholars announced its rediscovery in 1954.

It has been there ever since, but is rarely displayed because of how fragile and precious it is. It last saw light at the Tokyo National Museum in 2012. Before then it went to Hong Kong in 2007 to take part in a nakedly nationalistic exhibition of China’s greatest artistic masterpieces on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of the island to China. The last time it was on display in Beijing was 2005 in honor of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Now it’s on display again in the Palace Museum for the 90th anniversary, and there are lines a thousand people long waiting to see the iconic masterpiece an hour before the museum opens.

“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”

Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.

“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

What a change from the Eliminating the Four Olds. It’s like The Cultural Revolution 2: The Re-Enculturing.

Here’s the whole scroll at a satisfyingly high resolution of more than 38,000 pixels wide. I recommend slowly scrolling from right to left, taking in all the details of dress, architecture, animals (Bactrian camels ftw), ship design, food, to experience the progression the way it was meant to be experienced.


1000-year-old sarcophagus found in Odense

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Odense, Denmark, land of wonderous barrels of poop, has produced another treasure from deep within its bowels: an 11th century stone sarcophagus. The coffin was found on the site of the small timber church of St. Alban’s Priory where King Canute IV of Denmark, later canonized a saint, was assassinated by rebels in 1086. A light rail project was slated to cut through the area known to be the site of the historically important church, so archaeologists from the Odense City Museums surveyed it first. They were hoping to find out more about the church at the time of the murder of King Canute. Instead they found a sarcophagus on Wednesday, September 16th.

Cameras were present to capture the opening of the sarcophagus.

When they removed the heavy four-part limestone lid, archaeologists found an articulated skeleton, although only the leg bones were immediately visible because the upper body was covered in earth that had filled the top half of the sarcophagus through a large hole in the lid. The remains were excavated in situ and found to be the skeleton of a man about 30 years old of exceptional height. He was 187 centimeters tall, or just a hair short of six feet and two inches. The man was buried with a miniature eucharist set, a plate for the host and a chalice for the wine, near his hip.

The presence of communion gear suggests the man was a cleric, and the expense of a heavy limestone sarcophagus indicates he held an important ecclesiastical position. He was also buried just in front of the altar, the most honored placement in the church. Museum archaeologists believe the most likely candidate is Eilbert, Bishop of Odense from around 1048 to 1072. If it does prove to be Eilbert in that sarcophagus, it will be the oldest bishop’s grave discovered in northern Europe.

The skeletal remains and artifacts have been moved to the University of Southern Denmark for study. An X-ray of the disk revealed an inscription: “the Lord’s right (hand) has created strength amen.” It is likely a reference to Psalms 118:16, “The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.” It doesn’t help identify the deceased, but it confirms the disk is a communion plate.

We know the remains are not those of Canute even though he was buried there for a brief time. Canute’s ambition to invade England and wrest the throne from the ailing William the Conqueror (as Canute the Great’s great-grandnephew, Canute IV actually had a halfway decent claim to the throne, unlike William who was a) illegitimate, and b) only Edward the Confessor’s first cousin once removed) and his attempts to centralize power resulted in heavy tax and tithe increases. Peasants and noble in Jutland joined forces and rebelled against Canute’s taxes, chasing him to Odense where he and his brother Benedict took sanctuary in the church. The rebels broke in and ganged up on Benedict, slashing him to death. Canute, standing unarmed and unresisting in front of the altar, was struck with a spear or a sword (chroniclers differ on the point) and was struck on the head with a stone thrown through the window.

He and his brother were buried in the church where they fell. Miraculous occurrences at the church and years of famine that were seen as divine punishment for the martyrdom of Canute followed and a cult quickly grew up around him. In 1101, just 15 years after Canute’s death, Pope Paschal II canonized him. Canute was the first Danish saint and became patron saint of Denmark. A new stone church was built to accommodate the saint’s relics even before they were official saint’s relics. Canute and Benedict’s bones were moved to St. Canute’s Cathedral just over a decade after his death.

Further analysis of the St. Alban’s bones will hopefully answer some questions, like the cause of death and his country of origin. Bishop Eilbert was from Bremen which is about 260 miles south of Odense. I don’t know if stable isotope analysis can differentiate between northern Germany and Denmark. Researchers will also attempt to extract DNA which will give us information about his appearance and heritage.


Medieval bones found under 1950′s Westminster Abbey lavoratory

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Demolition of a 1950s block of bathrooms outside Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner has revealed scores of human skeletal remains dating to the 11th and early 12th century. The lavatory block is being removed to make way for the Abbey’s first new tower in almost 300 years, a subtle addition nestled behind the buttresses of the chapter house that will provide new and improved access to the Abbey’s attic (triforium) museum. Underneath Victorian drainage pipes, archaeologists found bones from at least 50 people, many of them disarticulated and stacked like cord wood, others in graves lined with chalk slabs in Anglo-Saxon/early Norman style, plus the remains of a three-year-old child buried in a wooden coffin and one adult man buried in an expensive coffin of Northamptonshire Barnack stone.

The child is too young to have been pledged to the monastery or to have worked there, and the fact that he or she was buried in a wooden coffin indicates a high social status. The bones aren’t preserved enough to determine sex by visual examination. The adult man is missing his skull. His stone coffin was moved to its current location by work crews under Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Gothic Revivalist architect and Surveyor to the Fabric at Westminster Abbey who restored the 13th century chapter house in the 1860s. Scott had the coffin moved because it would have blocked a new window in the chapter house and had it built into a brick wall. The coffin bears the tell-tale signs of interference from this period. A corner of the lid is broken, likely the result of workers lifting it to have a look inside. The skull was probably removed at that time.

The original Romanesque church that would become Westminster Abbey was built by saint and king Edward the Confessor as part of an expansion of the Benedictine monastery on the site. He dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle but it was known as the “west minster” in contrast to St. Paul’s Cathedral which was London’s minster to the east. St. Peter’s was completed in 1065 only days before Edward’s death. He was buried in front of the high altar.

It was King Henry III, a highly devout man who took Edward the Confessor as his patron saint, who decided to replace Edward’s church with a new one in the glamorous Gothic style pioneered by Abbot Suger in the Church of Saint-Denis in the mid-12th century. Henry envisioned the soaring new church as a more majestic shrine for Edward’s bones and those of England’s kings and queens. The Romanesque church was demolished in 1245 and construction began. Saint Edward’s remains were translated to the new shrine on October 13th, 1269. By the time Henry died in 1272, the apse and radiating chapels of the eastern end, the north and south transepts and choirs were completed.

The stacking of the bones was the work of Henry III’s construction team.

Paw Jorgensen, who supervised the excavation by specialist firm Pre-Construct Archaeology, said they had originally been buried in a small burial ground just outside the south transept walls. The highest status individuals, the kings, queens and most senior clergy, would have been buried within the church itself, but the newly found remains were close enough to indicate they probably were those of senior clergy. When Henry demolished Edward the Confessor’s church and began his own massive construction project, the land was dug up, and they were all reburied in a layer under the surface of what was the 13th-century masons’ yard, littered with chips of the stone used to build a platform to take the enormous weight of the new building.

Some of the skulls have small square holes in them which were likely caused by Henry’s workers wielding pickaxes with less than pious care. Even with holes the stacked bones are in quite good condition, much better condition than the chalk-lined graves which have been damaged by leaks in the Victorian drainage pipes. Archaeologists hope laboratory analysis of the bones will pinpoint who they were, their profession, age, diet, health and where they were raised.

Jorgensen says the lavatory block is “built as solidly as a nuclear bunker” making it “a nightmare to demolish.” As the tedious process continues, archaeologists expect to find more bones. As it is, the 50 or so already discovered bring the total number of people known to have been buried in Westminster Abbey to an impressive 3,350. Once the remains have been studied, they will be reburied in the grounds on the church.


Getty and Armenian Church reach agreement over stolen Bible pages

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Five years ago, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum was wrongfully in possession of seven pages ripped out of the 13th century Bible that belongs to the Church. Now the parties have come to an agreement: the Getty acknowledges that the Armenian Apostolic Church owns the pages; the Church donates the pages to the Getty. This way nothing has to actually move or change hands, but the Getty, which in its initial response to the suit insisted that it had “legal ownership” of the pages and that the lawsuit was “groundless and should be dismissed,” has to admit the Armenian Apostolic Church is the true owner.

The Zeyt’un Gospels were commissioned in 1256 by the Catholikos, the leader of the Armenian Church, Constantine I. This Bible is the first signed works of T’oros Roslin, scribe and the greatest Armenian illuminator of the Middle Ages. The pages (there are actually eight of them; the Church didn’t know about the last one when it filed) are canon tables, concordances listing passages in the Gospels that describe the same event. The text is therefore sparse, just chapter and verse references.

In the Middle Ages, canon tables were often depicted in an architectural setting, the columns of numbers placed between drawings of literal columns. What makes these pages exceptional is the illumination by T’oros Roslin who decorated each page in a riot of brilliant colors and gold paint. The tables are divided by columns and topped with intricately detailed geometric panels. Birds, vines, trees, vases line the borders and stand proudly atop the header panels. No two pages are the same.

This Bible, in addition to being an irreplaceable Armenian national treasure, is held to be sacred and miraculous. The Zeyt’un Gospels were venerated as having protective powers which is why in 1915 when the Ottoman government began massacring Armenians, the book was carried through every street of Zeyt’un in an attempt to ensure the entire city would be under its divine protection.

Later that year, church officials gave the Bible to a member of the Armenian royal Sourenian family. The Sourenians had connections in the upper echelons of the Ottoman government, so the hope was they wouldn’t be killed or deported and could keep the Gospels safe. They lasted a year before they were deported to Marash in 1916, but they did receive special treatment that allowed them to survive transportation instead of starving to death like so many of their compatriots.

The Sourenian pater familias loaned the Bible to his friend Dr. H. Der Ghazarian for what was supposed to be a few days. At the perfectly wrong time, the Sourenians were unexpectedly deported and lost track of the Zeyt’un Gospels. It seems the book remained in Marash for the duration of World War I. It surfaced there in 1928 but various obstacles kept it out of the Church’s hands until 1948 when the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul took possession of it and gave it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, for safekeeping and display. The Bible remains there to this day.

The missing pages were spotted in 1948 when the Bible returned from Aleppo after it was authenticated by the same Dr. Ghazarian who had it for a while during the war. Although the Church investigated, it was never able to discover who stole the pages and when. At some point the pages ended up in an anonymous private collection in Watertown, Massachusetts. They were seen in public for the first time since the Genocide when the collector loaned the pages to the Morgan Library for a 1994 exhibition. After that exhibition, the Getty acquired the pages. Thirteen years later, Armenian attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan who has often represented victims of the Armenian Genocide discovered the pages were at the Getty and alerted the Church. The Getty refused all requests to repatriate the unquestionably stolen pages and the lawsuit ensued.

It seems to me the Church is conceding a great deal for the sake of a statement of historical ownership. There really is no question that the pages were stolen, so why shouldn’t they be reunited with the rest of the Bible?

The following statement from Getty director Timothy Potts irks me:

“That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations.”

The removal of the pages was the destruction. They weren’t “saved.” They were ripped out and sold on the black market, bought by unscrupulous collectors and the Getty. The Bible itself survived a genocide and two world wars and has been conserved in a museum for 67 years. The Getty having taken care of blatantly stolen pages for a decade hardly makes it the heritage-preserving hero of the piece.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys seem happy, at any rate.

“This is a momentous occasion for the Armenian people, coming at a historic time, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. I want to thank the Getty for joining in a solution that recognizes the historical suffering of the Armenian people and that will also allow this Armenian treasure to remain in the museum which has cared for it and made it available to the Armenian and larger community in Los Angeles. We are pleased that both sides arrived at an amicable solution,” said Lee Crawford Boyd, the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder representing the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. “The sacred Canon Tables are now being recognized as having belonged to the Armenian Church. Together with the Church and the Armenian people, we are thrilled with this outcome.”

No word on whether this on-paper ownership switcheroo was accompanied by some kind of financial settlement.

To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, including primary sources, maps, eye-witness statements, a timeline of events and a collection of horrifying photographs, please visit the website of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.


7th c. skeletons unearthed at Temple of Concordia

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Palermo have unearthed what they believe are two 7th century skeletons at the feet of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. They have yet to be radiocarbon dated, but if the archaeologists are right, the remains are evidence of an Early Christian cemetery in front of the temple in the period shortly after the temple was converted into a church.

The skeletal remains were found in a single grave. A fully articulated skeleton of what preliminary analysis indicates is an adult male is on top, his skull oriented west and his arms crossed on his chest. Underneath his legs are the bones of the other skeleton; its sex has not yet be determined. No grave goods or artifacts of any kind were found to aid in dating. Excavations are ongoing and the remains will be analyzed to pinpoint their age.

Here’s a video of the excavation shot by tour guide Rosa Maria Montalbano.

The Temple of Concordia was built around 440 B.C. in Archaic Doric style in the ancient Greek city of Akragas. It’s not certain which deity it was dedicated to, possibly the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The name Concordia was assigned to it by 16th century Dominican friar and historian Tommaso Fazello, known as the Father of Sicilian history or the Sicilian Livy. He got it from a 1st century Roman inscription on a marble slab in the city of Agrigento which read: “CONCORDIAE AGRIGENTINORUM SACRUM RESPUBLICA LILIBITANORUM” or “[Erected] by the republic of the Lilybaeans, as sacred to the concord of the Agrigentines.” (The ancient city of Lilybaeum is modern-day Marsala, where the wine comes from.) Fazello translated that as “Temple of Concordia of the Agrigentines, made by the Republic of the Lilybaeans,” deducing from the inscription that the temple was constructed at the expense of the Lilybaeans after a military defeat.

In fact, the inscription doesn’t say what was erected and in any case it was carved 500 years after the temple was built, so it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate even if it were referring to the temple. Lilybaeum wasn’t founded until the late 300s B.C., so the city didn’t even exist when the temple was built. Historians starting with 18th century classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville called out the errors in Fazello’s attribution and now it’s universally acknowledged to be false, but the name stuck anyway.

The Temple of Concordia was converted into a church in 597 A.D. by archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento (559-630) and there’s a wonderfully juicy story behind it. A biography written by the 7th century monk Leonzio, abbot of Saint Saba in Rome, tells the tale. After Gregory was appointed archbishop entirely against his will (he preferred a life of withdrawn contemplation), a priest and presbytery in Agrigento conspired to replace him as archbishop with a certain Leucio who had been exiled for his heretical beliefs on the incarnation. The conspirators bribed the guards and hid a prostitute named Evodia in Gregory’s chambers while he was at church.

The next morning the conspirators “caught” the prostitute and scandal erupted. They had Gregory arrested and imprisoned. The people of Agrigento loved their archbishop who took care of the poor and performed miraculous healings regularly so they didn’t believe the story. They insisted he be freed and caused enough of a stink that the Pope’s deacon had to smuggle Gregory on a ship to Rome for trial. When he got to Rome, he was jailed for two and a half years before his supporters in Agrigento were able to enlist the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Patriarch to finally secure a trial.

There were more than 100 jurors arrayed against Gregory and only a handful, including the imperial delegation, on his side. It seemed Gregory was doomed, but in a shocking Law & Orderesque twist, Evodia recanted her testimony on the stand, naming the conspirators who had coerced her into setting up the saintly cleric. The conspirators were exiled and Gregory returned to Agrigento, his reputation and position restored. Unwilling to preside over his congregation in a church that had been profaned by the usurper Leucio, Gregory turned his back on the city proper and looked to the Valley of the Temples for his new cathedral.

He chose the Temple of Concordia. Planting the signum, the cross of Christ, over its threshold, Gregory exorcised the ancient pagan demons of Eber and Raps who still dwelled in the temple. (The “demons” may be transmutations of an original double dedication, hence the theory that the temple may have been dedicated to Castor and Pollux.) Now consecrated and holy, the temple was converted into the new cathedral.

Gregory of Agrigento is the patron saint of the conservation of archaeological and architectural patrimony. That’s both ironic and appropriate, because while he destroyed significant parts of the temple to Christianize it, as a church it survived in far better condition than the other temples in Agrigento which were damaged in earthquakes and pillaged for construction material. In the conversion process, all of the temple’s decorative elements and the altar were destroyed. The back wall of the cella (the inner chamber) of the temple was demolished to make a new entrance, the columns walled up and 12 arches cut into the sides of the cella to give the building the nave and two aisles of a classic Christian basilica.

Gregory dedicated the new church to Saints Peter and Paul. In the late Middle Ages the church was rededicated to its builder and excellently renamed San Gregorio delle Rape, or Saint Gregory of the Turnips because the humble, ascetic Gregory was said to have tended to the vegetables of his flock. In 1748, Bourbon king Charles V of Sicily had the church dismantled and the temple restored as much as possible to its original form. Today it is considered the second best preserved Doric temple in the world after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens which was itself converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

There are known Early Christian burials cut inside the temple and in catacombs outside, carved into the rocky outcroppings west of the temple much like Greek catacombs were carved east of the temple hundreds of years earlier. The skeletons unearthed this month are the first indications that there may have been Christian burials in the ground in front of the temple, which in the 7th century would have been the back of the church.


Medieval skeleton pulled out of grave by uprooted tree

Monday, September 14th, 2015

The newly established Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) had a fasinating first commission: to recover skeletal remains torn out of the ground when a tree was uprooted during a storm.

The beech tree had stood outside Collooney, County Sligo, Ireland, for 215 years before a storm blew it down last winter, pulling out the roots and the top half of a skeleton with them. The body was snapped in two when the tree toppled, leaving both femurs broken while the lower legs remained undisturbed in the grave. The National Monuments Service hired SLAS to excavated the remains in the ground and to painstakingly remove the bones embedded in the tree’s root matrix. The found part of the skull and spine in the roots, but other bones were destroyed by the roots as the tree grew.

Preliminary analysis of the bones by osteoarchaeologist Dr Linda Lynch revealed that the deceased was a young man 17-20 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating found he was buried between 1030 and 1200 A.D. While a strapping 5’10″ tall in a time when the average height was 5’5″, the youth suffered mild spinal joint disease likely caused by heavy physical labour from a young age. There is evidence on the bones that he did not die an easy death. Sharp force injuries on the ribs and hand point to his having been cut repeatedly with a knife or sword.

He was given a formal Christian burial. His grave was aligned east-west and he was placed in the grave with his hands folded over his pelvic region. There are records from the 19th century that describe a church and graveyard nearby, but no other human remains or archaeological evidence of a church were found during the excavation. Also, the tree was planted in 1800, so any graveyard in the environs of the medieval body probably wasn’t in its immediate surroundings. He may have been an isolated burial rather than one of many buried in a cemetery.

The skeletal remains will studied in more depth and post-excavation work on the site continues.


Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

Friday, August 28th, 2015

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.


Settlement Era longhouse found in Reykjavík

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

The ruins of an early Viking longhouse have been discovered under an empty lot on Lækjargata, a street in downtown Reykjavík. The lot was excavated in advance of construction of a four-star hotel because it was known to have been the site of a turf farm built in 1799. Archaeologists did find the remains of the farm as expected soon after excavations began in April, and then completely unexpectedly found the remains of the longhouse in June. All of the Settelement Era (874-930 A.D.) remains found in Reykjavík before this one were further to the west. The discovery of the Lækjargata longhouse indicates that early Viking-era Reykjavík was either larger or more spread out than scholars realized.

The longhouse was at least 20 meters (66 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide — the remains extend into the neighboring property so the full perimeter has not been established — and had a central fire pit 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, one of the longest ever discovered in Iceland. A separate cooking pit was unearthed with the remains of animal bones inside and stones that were heated and used to keep water hot or to cook food over. An area of red earth and blackened material is likely evidence of an uncontrolled, destructive fire. Archaeologists believe the fire occurred just after the abandonment of the home or, more likely, was the impetus for said abandonment.

Early settlement archaeology in Reykjavík relies on layers of volcanic tephra ash deposited around 871 A.D. by an eruption in the Torfajökull volcano complex 250 miles southeast of Reykjavík to help date sites. Based on the ash found in the remains of the turf walls of the longhouse, Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir believes it was built around a century after the 871 tephra fall. Spindle whorls found in the longhouse bracket its age on the other end; they disappear from the Icelandic archaeological record after 1150 A.D.

The discovery generated much excitement among archaeologists and the general public. The excavation drew crowds who peppered the archaeologists with questions about the longhouse and the fate of the site. The original plan was to salvage whatever archaeological material was found, removing it from the site to a museum, but that was before they knew there were so significant and ancient remains there. The hotel developers suggested there might be some way to integrate the archaeological site into the hotel, something that has been done successfully before elsewhere.

This week Reykjavík’s environment and planning committee took an important step in ensuring the preservation of the longhouse. It called for the prompt establishment of an advisory committee on how to handle the longhouse site and other recently excavated remains near the harbor.

The resolution from the planning committee says that the new advisory committee should formulate proposals on how best to preserve the sites in question for the future and how best to display them openly to the public.

The committee should set to work quickly and include the city culture, tourism, environment and planning committees in its work; as well as the city council cabinet. It is very important to preserve these sites, the resolution states.


15th c. monster raised from Baltic Sea

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Sweden sees your 17th century gun carriage, England, and raises you a 15th century sea monster. On Tuesday before a crowd of fascinated thousands, divers lifted the wooden figurehead of a late 15th century Danish warship from the Baltic Sea off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden. The figurehead weighs 300 kilos (661 pounds) and is carved out of the last meter of a 3.4-meter-long beam. The design is a fierce toothy monster of indeterminate nature.

“Last time it looked at the world, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus were still living,” Johan Ronnby, professor of marine archaeology at Sodertorn University, said as the ferocious-looking figurehead, which was intended to scare the enemy, was brought to the surface.

“It’s a monster. It’s a sea monster and we have to discuss what kind of animal it is. I think it’s some kind of fantasy animal – a dragon with lion ears and crocodile-like mouth,” Ronnby said.

“I’m amazed, We knew that it should be a fantastic figure, but it was over our expectations when we saw it now. It’s a fantastic figure, unique in the world.”

There’s something in his mouth, too, something or someone being devoured by this fearsome beast. It reminds me of the biscione on the Visconti family coat of arms.

The wreck was first found by sport divers in the 1970s, but archaeologists only learned about it in 2001 when artifacts from the ship surfaced. They took a wood sample from one of the ship’s exposed timbers and dendrochronological analysis revealed the oak tree that made that timber was chopped down in northeastern France during the winter of 1482-83. That means the ship was likely constructed in Flanders or the Netherlands. In collaboration with local divers, archaeologists explored the wreck, retrieving a number of artifacts including nine carriages for iron breech-loading guns which are now on display at the Blekinge Museum. They found that the ship was constructed using carvel planking, with hull planks laid flush next to each other rather than with the slight overlap of earlier clinker-built vessels,

Researchers have identified the ship as the Gribshunden, the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which sank while anchored off Ronneby in 1495. Historical sources report that the ship was on its way to Kalmar, Sweden, where King Hans would meet with the Swedish regent Sten Sture the Elder to discuss Sweden’s increasing withdrawal from the Kalmar Union. For unknown reasons, the ship caught fire and sank, killing many men but not the king, who witnessed the horrific demise of his flagship and its crew from a nearby boat. He cancelled his trip to Kalmar in the wake of the disaster. (Two years later King Hans defeated Sten Sture in battle and secured the Swedish throne.)

The location of the wreck, off the coast of Ronneby near the island of Stora Ekön, matches the historical accounts of the Gribshunden‘s sinking. The ship’s large size (at least 35 meters or 115 feet long), the tree ring dating, the carvel construction all support the identification. Also archaeologists were able to recover some mortar from the hold of the ship and found that the lime came from the Danish island of Saltholmen near Copenhagen.

The Gribshunden is the oldest armed warship ever found in Nordic waters, and while most of the wreck is still buried in the seabed, archaeologists believe it may be the world’s best preserved 15th century ship. The study of the unique wreck is of international significance because it dates to such an important period in the history of navigation and may reveal new information about the construction of Age of Discovery ships.

The figurehead is now at the Blekinge Museum where it will spend the next few months in a bath of sugar water. That will leach the corrosive sea salt out of the wood in preparation for long-term conservation. The water-saturated wood will have to be dried very gradually to ensure it does not crack and warp. Conservators will decide which method to use once the desalination is complete. Freeze-drying is a prime candidate.

People can see the figurehead inside its water bath at the Blekinge Museum when the artifacts laboratory is opened to visitors every Thursday afternoon. On August 30th, Archaeology Day, experts will be on hand to answer questions about the figurehead and the wreck.

For an in depth explanation of the wreck’s history and archaeology, read this exceptional post by Rolf Warming of Combat Archaeology who participated in the salvage operation.

Here’s video of the wreck in situ filmed this June:

This news story shows the raising of the figurehead:


Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

I’m asking for a friend. (The British Library is my friend, right?) On display at the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is a medieval double-edged sword made of steel with an inlaid gold wire inscription on one side. The inscription appears to read:


Experts haven’t been able to decipher this mysterious assortment of letters, so the British Library’s phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog is opening up the floor to the Internet. Some think it was a religious dedication of some kind using the first initials of words. There are inscribed crosses on the other side and an inlaid crescent near the point on both sides which may be the maker’s mark.

The sword was discovered in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July of 1825 by workers widening and deepening the river just below the lock to make room for larger vessels. The Bishop of Lincoln gave the sword to the Royal Archaeological Institute which in 1858 donated it to the British Museum. It dates to around 1250-1330 and has a straight cross guard with a wheel-shaped pommel atop the grip. Weighing 2 lb 10 oz and measuring 38 inches long, the sword was a killer, capable of cleaving a man’s skull in two.

This kind of sword was a classic knightly weapon of the 13th century and is depicted in many an effigy and illustration. Here’s an example from the British Library’s 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in which French knights besiege Rouen in 1203/1204 during King Philip Augustus’ invasion of Normandy.

In fact, the sword was believed to have a very close connection to French knights from that turbulent period. When the sword was first discovered, workers found other armature — swords, daggers, chain mail — in the muck of the riverbed leading to speculation that these were the remains of French knights who had drowned in the river after the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. When the First Barons’ War broke out between King John and his nobles in 1215 after John refused to abide by the terms of Magna Carta, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the throne of England. He accepted and turned up with an army in May of 1216. Louis waltzed into London unopposed and was proclaimed king in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He doesn’t make the official king list because he was never crowned, but for a while in 1216-1217 the Dauphin of France actively occupied half of England.

The tide turned when King John died in October of 1216. Even though John’s son Henry was only nine years old, barons who had sided with Louis switched sides in droves. William Marshal, “the greatest knight that ever lived,” was Henry’s regent and fought at the head of his army, drawing more knights to abandon Louis for Henry. On May 20th, 1217, forces loyal to the nine-year-old King Henry III of England attacked the city of Lincoln, then held by the French. The English held Lincoln Castle, however, so while Marshall’s army took the north gate of the city, Falkes de Breauté deployed his crack crossbowmen along the castle ramparts to rain a hellfire of bolts into the French occupiers. It was a rout, followed by a very thorough pillaging of the city that has gone down in history as the Lincoln Fair. French knights who weren’t killed or captured fled, some of them sailing down the Witham. Some of the ships, laden with men, arms and armour, sank drowning the flower of French chivalry and, ostensibly, leaving their stuff behind for canal diggers to find 600 years later.

Without identifying marks connected to specific knights, this story is impossible to prove. Still, the design and period of the sword make it relevant as a weapon very much like those used during the battles between the English crown and its unruly barons. It’s neat to think that it may even go a step further and be an actually relict of the First Barons’ War.

If you have any ideas about what the inscription might mean, join the party in the comments on the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry where smart people are saying smart things.





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