Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Export bar for 14th c. ivory casket with Grail, wild men

Saturday, December 3rd, 2022

An exceedingly rare French Gothic ivory casket carved with low relief scenes of Arthurian romance is at risk of leaving the UK if a museum or gallery cannot be found to acquire it for the assessed price of £1,506,000. The UK’s Arts Minister has placed a temporary export bar on the object to give local institutions the opportunity to raise the sum by March 1, 2023.

The casket sold at Edinburgh’s Lyon & Turnbull auction house in May 2021 for £1,455,000, a world record for a medieval ivory casket and the highest price any single object has ever sold for at an auction in Scotland. It is one of only nine of secular Gothic ivory coffrets known to survive, and almost all of them are in museums like the Louvre and the Metropolitan.

[Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] member Stuart Lochhead said:

This French 14th-century carved ivory casket is adorned with scenes of chivalry and romance including depictions of wild men – ranging from the rescue of a lady from one such assailant to a procession of knights and ladies who lead the captured wild men in chains. Similar iconography exists on some of the other nine known mediaeval caskets of this type, but it is the present one that illustrates some of the earliest and rarest type of images.

No disrespect to the honorable members of the RCEWA, but while they’re right about the wild men being particularly awesome on this example, I’m not sure that the scene on the top of the casket depicts the wild men attacking the Castle of Love. The usual iconography of the Castle of Love, a chivalric metaphor for seduction, is women arrayed along the crenellations while fully human knights launch catapults full of roses and scale the walls to breach the ladies’ “defenses.” The wild men on this coffer are both fighting knights defending the castle and kidnapping women (rather gently, really, almost like they’re saving them from the knights). Two lions guard two gates at the bottom of the castle. This strongly suggests it’s the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the home of the Holy Grail according to the 13th century French prose romance L’Estoire del Saint Graal, so this is likely the culmination of Galahad’s Grail quest only with a bunch of wild men in the melee.

The Grail makes a starring appearance on the right side panel. A kneeling angel holds it aloft before the arrayed Arthurian knights. Galahad, holding the magical sword he pulled from the stone, is in the center. Scenes from another Arthurian romance, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, on the left side panel and on the left two sections of the back panel.

Elephant ivory imported from Africa and Asia had been prized since antiquity for its lustrous, flesh-like glow and carvable surface. In medieval northern Europe, it was a luxury material reserved largely for religious objects (book covers, statuettes, reliquaries, croziers). Ivory supplies plummeted in the 12th century, only picking back up in the mid-13th century when Mediterranean merchants established a new water-going route through Gibraltar direct to the English Channel for the textile dye and ivory trade.

By the turn of the 14th century, the higher availability of ivory had lowered the price enough that a material once exclusive to liturgical use was now available for personal objects like mirrors, combs, cosmetics vessels and coffers. Instead of religious subjects, these objects were carved with secular motifs popular among the aristocratic buyers of such high-end toiletry items — courtly love, Arthurian romance, falconry, capturing a unicorn. The caskets are believed to have been romantic gifts used to store love tokens, letters, jewels, etc. We know in one specific case, that of Clemence of Hungary, Queen of France for less than a year between 1315 and 1316, that her carved ivory box contained a comb and mirror set and a chess set.

Gothic ivory carving reached its apex between 1230 and 1380 and Paris was the center of production with other capitals following the fashions and trends established there. The style of carving and manufacture indicates the Edinburgh coffret was made in a workshop in Paris around 1330. By the end of the 14th century, plague, war and economic upheaval had throttled the ivory supply and carved objects became more scarce again.

One of the other rare features of this casket is its long ownership history. It can be traced directly to the early 17th century. A genealogy of the Baird family of Auchmeddan Castle in Aberdeen records the chest in the possession of Thomas Baird, Fransciscan friar of a monastery in Besançon, France, some time after 1609. It remained in the Baird family, passing to descendants by marriage. One of those descendants was the seller who put it up for auction last year, so the casket has been in Scotland for 400 years. That was one of the factors in the Committee’s decision to recommend the export ban.

14th c. cog shipwrecks found in Sweden

Thursday, December 1st, 2022

The wrecks of two cogs dating to the middle of the 14th century have been discovered in Varberg, Sweden. The cogs were discovered this spring during an archaeological investigation in advance of a railway tunnel construction. The wooden remains were unearthed from what in the Middle Ages was the shoreline of the town of Getakärr (which charmingly means goat marsh), Varberg’s medieval predecessor. Cogs are rare finds and finding two of them 30 feet apart is unique.

The first Varberg cog is the largest and the best preserved. In fact, it is the best preserved cog ever discovered in Sweden. It consists of almost the entire port side of the ship, about 67 feet long and 16 feet wide, its ballast still in place. The second cog consists of the remains of a hull about 26 feet long and 15 feet wide. Examination of the vessels found that they were built with carvel planking (planks laid side to side creating a smooth surface) on the bottom and clinker built (overlapping planks) on the sides. The planks were sealed with moss and reinforced with crossbeams going all the way through to the exterior of the hull.

Dendrochronological analysis of the first timber samples from both ships has now been completed. The tree-ring analysis found that the wood from Varberg Cog 1 was felled in 1346 somewhere around the Netherlands, Belgium or northeastern France. The wood used to build Varberg Cog 2 was felled between 1355 and 1357 in northern Poland. This suggests they were not local ships, but had come from some distance. It is not yet clear what caused them to sink.

A number of daily use objects left by the crew were found in the excavation, preserved in the waterlogged soil of the shore. Archaeologists unearthed leather shoes, wooden utensils (spoons, bowls), barrel parts, and in Varberg Cog 1, they also found a significant amount of rigging, spare parts and other elements of the ships’ equipment. 

The wrecks have been laser scanned and 3D models created of them. Study of the ships is ongoing and will continue through 2023.

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast:

Varberg Cog 1 with ballast removed:

Varberg Cog 2:

Original polychrome paint found on Duomo sculptures

Monday, November 28th, 2022

Restoration of the marble reliefs on the north façade of the Duomo of Florence has revealed original polychrome paint on an exterior sculpture of Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels. The sculptures date to 1359-1360 and are mounted in an arched niche above the Porta dei Cornacchini, the door in the north wall of the cathedral. While the marble in the background is colorful — the Duomo is famous for the white, pink and green marble cladding that gives the cathedral its distinctive look — the sculptures themselves were previously believed to have been left the natural white of the marble.

The marbles of the north façade were in dire need of conservation, having suffered extensive erosion from rainwater runoff, deposits of surface dirt, black sulfurous encrustations and bird poop galore. Since restoration work began in September 2021, experts from the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore have cleaned more than 10,000 square feet of marble. The process revealed extensive traces of the paint, including the brown iris of Mary’s left eye, the blue-green color inside her mantle, red on the outside of her mantle and a rich damask pattern on the garment worn by the Christ Child. This is the first time such large sections of polychrome paint have been found on an exterior sculpture of the Duomo. Previous finds were just tiny glimpses — a few dabs of gilding and light blue on other sculptures.

Earlier attempts at restoration did more harm than good to the original colors. A coating of brown oxalate applied directly to the surface of the marble in the 1950s has darkened over the decades, obscuring the traces surviving paint. Conservators removed the layer of fluorosilicate over the oxalate, but decided to keep the oxalate in place because it protects the surface of the marble even as it darkens it.

The museum has said that this sculpture group was most likely not the only one on the Duomo in polychrome, though now they appear to be marble white.

The find has led to the image of the Duomo as one in color, with white, green, and pink on the exteriors and red and gold mosaics on the facade.

“The exciting find of multiple colors of the figures on Porta dei Cornacchini of the Florence cathedral,” said Duomo museum director Timothy Verdon. “It reminds us that Florence at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th was a very colourful city. The cathedral also had painted statues with gilding on the wings of angels and on clothing – thus, a celebration. A celebration that we forgot and are beginning to rediscover.”

See the conservators at work cleaning decades of filth off the sculpture in this video:


Gold disc brooch found in 7th c. Basel grave

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

An excavation of the Kleinbasel neighborhood of Basel, Switzerland, has brought to light 15 graves, some of them richly furnished, from an early medieval burial ground. The presence of a burial ground from this period had been known since the 19th century, so a rescue archaeology excavation was undertaken in the area before installation of new utility pipes. Earlier this year the excavation unearthed the 6th century grave of a young girl buried with a dazzling array of about 380 beads. The recent discoveries prove that the cemetery was more densely populated than archaeologists realized.

One of the highlights of the newly-discovered graves is that of an elite young woman who was about 20 years old when she died in the 7th century. The grave was damaged during construction in the early 20th century. The skull is lost, as is the body below the knees, but the riches she was buried with remain. The grave contained a rare gold disc brooch made of a base plate made of a non-ferrous metal that was then topped with gold. The disc was then adorned with gold wire filigree and inlayed with green garnet gemstones and blue glass. The brooch likely held together a cloak, now gone, at her neck. She was also wearing a necklace made of 160 glass, amethyst and amber beads (or had them sewn onto the collar or bodice of her garment). There was also a leather strap decorated with metal crosses that terminates in a large amber pendant. Around her waist was a belt with an iron buckle and a silver tongue. Hanging from the belt was a chatelaine with pierced Roman coins, metal artifacts and a bone comb.

Other notable graves found in the current excavation include a child’s grave containing a large silver inlay belt buckle, metal belt fittings, scissors and a comb, and a stone cist grave containing the skeleton of an adult man. The man’s face bears the unmistakable evidence of violent blow from a sword. Amazingly, the man survived the disfiguring injury as he died after it was fully healed.

Basel was founded as a Celtic oppidium, or fortified settlement, in the 1st century B.C. The Romans built a military camp on the site of the settlement and by the end of the 1st century A.D., it was absorbed into the Roman province of Germania Superior. Roman control weakened in the 3rd century, but the troops along the Rhine managed to repel invasions from the Germanic Alemanni confederation several times in the 4th century. The Alemanni finally won around 406 A.D., settling throughout the Swiss Plateau. They and the Franks after them occupied the old Roman castle and the town’s fortunes were revived. It was minting its own coins in the 7th century and was made a bishopric in the 8th. The Roman castle was converted into Basel’s first cathedral. What is today the Kleinbasel area was the castle/cathedral hill, the nucleus of the early medieval settlement.

Rare medieval bone flute found in Kent

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Excavation of a development site at Herne Bay, Kent, on the southeastern coast of England, has unearthed a rare medieval bone flute. The instrument was discovered within the bounds of a rectangular enclosure bounded by a ditch. It was found in a layer with pottery dating to between the 12th and 15th centuries.

It’s a fipple or duct flute, an end-blown flute like a recorder or slide whistle. The form is an ancient one — the world’s oldest confirmed flute was carved from the bone of a griffon vulture 40,000 years ago, and the Neanderthal Flute, a partial flute carved from a bear bone is 20,000 years older than that  — but there are long gaps on the archaeological record between the prehistoric flutes and the ones that emerged in the early Middle Ages and the latter are still rare finds. Only around 120 archaeological examples have ever been discovered in Britain, ranging in date from the 5th century to the 16th.

The flute was carved from the tibia shaft of a sheep or goat. Five finger holes were bored out of the top, and a thumb hole out of the bottom of the shaft. Archaeologists believe it may have had a mouthpiece of some kind that is now lost, but other than that, the flute it intact and in excellent condition.

Henry VI quarter noble is oldest English coin in Canada

Monday, November 14th, 2022

A gold coin found in Newfoundland is the oldest European coin ever found in Canada. The coin was discovered on a beach on the south coast of Newfoundland this summer by local amateur historian Edward Hynes. He reported the find to provincial archaeologists as required by Canadian law and experts identified it as a quarter noble minted in London between 1422 and 1427, during the reign of King Henry VI. It therefore predates the arrival of Europeans on the island by 70+ years. The previous oldest-known European coin discovered in Canada, a half groat found at the Cupid Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site, dates to 1491.

John Cabot explored the area at the behest of King Henry VII in 1497, and European fishing boats soon followed, lured by the enormous shoals of cod in the northern Atlantic waters. Portuguese explorers claimed Newfoundland and Labrador for the nascent Portuguese Empire in 1501-1502. Seasonal cod fishing camps were used by Basque, English, French and Portuguese fishermen thereafter until the first permanent European colony on Newfoundland would be founded by Britain in 1583, 160 years after Elizabeth’s great-great uncle minted the quarter noble.

The mystery of how the coin came to be where it was discovered is likely to remain for some time.

“It’s difficult to explain at this point why it’s there, who dropped it. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect to be hanging out of the pockets of migratory fishers,” says Brake.

According to the former curator of the Bank of Canada’s Currency Museum, Paul Berry — who worked with the team studying the find — it was likely no longer in circulation when it was lost, but that doesn’t help provide answers as to how it got there.

Once conservation and study of the coin is complete, it will go on public display, likely at The Rooms museum in St. John’s. The find site, which is being kept secret to prevent would-be looters from harrying it, has not been archaeologically excavated yet, but may be in the future.

Archaeological society snipes 1,700-piece Anglo-Saxon collection before auction

Sunday, October 30th, 2022

A collection of more than 1,700 Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating to the 6th and 7th century A.D. has been acquired by the Kent Archaeological Society just before it was to sold at public auction last Friday. The Ozengell Anglo-Saxon Collection includes a wide array of jewelry, buckles, weapons fittings, glassware and pottery found in excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground near Ramsgate in Kent.

The first Anglo-Saxon artifacts were found at the site in 1846 during railroad construction. Many of those objects are now in museums including the World Museum in Liverpool and the British Museum. The objects amassed in the collection were unearthed from 192 graves at the Ozengell Anglo-Saxon cemetery between 1977 and 1981.

Some of the stand-out pieces of the collection include a gilt-silver disc brooch set with three wedge-shaped garnets, large numbers of amber and glass beads, a hemispherical glass bowl and two glass globular bottles with narrow necks, a pottery urn decorated with a linear pattern, another decorated with triangles and stippling, a circular incense vessel, copper, bronze and gilt-silver buckles, iron shield bosses, knives and a pair of tweezers with incised decoration. The collection was loaned to The Powell-Cotton Museum from 1983 through 2010. Only a selection of the massive collection was ever displayed.

After the Ozengell Collection was returned to the owner, he sold four glass pieces from the collection at auction in 2011. Eleven years later, 50 boxes full of the remaining 1,700 pieces were offered in a single auction lot at Roseberys in London with a pre-sale estimate of just £12,000-15,000 ($14,000-17,000). Before the hammer could fall, however, a private sale was arranged to the Kent Archaeological Society. It complements and augments the society’s nationally important collection of Anglo-Saxon grave goods. Selected objects will go on display in concert with artifacts from the Kent Archaeological Society’s wider collection.

Viking unhacked silver hoard found in Sweden

Thursday, October 27th, 2022

Sweden sees Norway’s Viking hack silver hoard and raises with a Viking hoard of silver jewelry and coins in pristine unhacked condition. The hoard was discovered in an excavation of the Viking settlement of Täby, outside Stockholm. It was cached under the wooden floor of one of the Viking Age (800-1050 A.D.) houses about 1,000 years ago.


The hoard consists of eight torc-style braided neck rings in exceptionally good condition, two arm rings, one finger ring, two beads and 12 coins perforated for use as pendants, 11 of them mounted with hanging loops. The coins had been placed in a linen pouch which was then added to the jewelry in a small ceramic pot. Fragments of the linen pouch have survived, giving archaeologists a rare opportunity to study an organic material.

“When I started to carefully remove the neck rings one by one, I had this extraordinary feeling of “they just keep coming and coming”. In total there were eight high quality torque-style neck rings, extraordinary well preserved despite having been made and deposited almost a thousand years ago. They looked almost completely new,” [archaeologist] Maria Lingström says. […]

The coins are a perfect example of the far-reaching connections and blossoming trade, which flourished in Viking Age Scandinavia. Several coins are of European origin, representing countries as England, Bohemia and Bavaria. In addition, the treasure consisted of five Arabic coins, so called dirhams. One of the European coins is extremely rare and was minted in the city of Rouen, in Normandy, France. It dates to approximately the 10th Century AD. According to Professor Jens Christian Moesgaard at Stockholm University, this type of coin has previously ever been identified from drawings in an 18th century book.

Here is a very cool video of the first neck ring being carefully loosened and removed from the ground. It’s rare to see these moments of an archaeological dig filmed and shared, for some inexplicable reason, even though it’s total popcorn material.

Viking hack silver hoard found in Norway

Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

A hoard of hack silver from the Viking era (8th-11th c.) has been discovered in Stjørdal, central Norway. It consists of 46 objects, all of them silver. Only two of them are intact — whole finger rings — while the rest are broken pieces of coins, bracelets, a braided necklace, chains and wire. They were collected and cut or broken to use for the silver weight. Most examples of hack silver hoards found in Scandinavia contain a fragment from each larger object. This hoard is unusual for containing several fragments from the same object.

The hoard was discovered last December by metal detectorist Pawel Bednarski. He found the two small silver rings first, then more and more pieces began to emerge. Ultimately Bednarski pulled 46 objects from the ground, all of them barely buried between an inch and three inches beneath the surface. After rinsing the clay off of one of the pieces, he realized he had found something of archaeological importance and reported the discovery to municipal authorities.

This is a rather exceptional find. It has been many years since such a large treasure find from the Viking Age has been made in Norway, says archaeologist and researcher Birgit Maixner at the NTNU Science Museum. […]

This find is from a time when silver pieces that were weighed were used as means of payment. This system is called the weight economy, and was in use in the transition between the barter economy and the coin economy, explains Maixner.

The coin economy in continental Europe continued even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but in Norway there were no coins minted until the late 9th century. It was a barter economy until the end of the 8th century when the weight economy began to take hold. It was far more agile than barter because instead of having to manage the bulk of goods to be traded, small pieces of silver are easily packed and carried. Valuation is also far easier, requiring nothing more than a scale.

The total of the silver weight in the hoard is 42 grams, which according to the Gulating Act (a collection of Norwegian land laws dating back to around 900 A.D.) would buy you .6 of a cow. Most of the objects weighed less than a gram, so it seems likely they had already been used as currency. Was this perhaps the change drawer of a merchant?

[T]he find contains an almost complete wide, band-shaped bangle, divided into eight pieces. Such broadband bangles, as archaeologists call them, are thought to have been developed in Denmark in the 8th century.

“We can imagine that the owner has prepared for trading by dividing the silver into appropriate weight units. That the person in question had access to entire broadband bracelets, a primary Danish object type, may indicate that the owner was in Denmark before the person traveled up to the Stjørdal area,” says Maixner.

Another unusual feature is the age of the Arabic coins. In an average Norwegian treasure find from the Viking Age, approx. three quarters of the Islamic coins minted between 890 and 950 AD. Only four out of seven coins from this find have been dated, but these date from the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 8th century to some time in the 8th century.

“The relatively high age of the Islamic coins, broadband bracelets and the large degree of fragmentation of most of the objects is more typical of treasure finds from Denmark than from Norway. These features also make it likely to assume that the treasure is from around 900 AD,” explains Maixner.

Scottish museum acquires 8th c. gold sword pommel

Monday, October 24th, 2022

An exceptionally rare gold sword pommel that is one of the only ones of its kind ever found in Scotland has been acquired by National Museums Scotland. It was made around 700 A.D. out of solid gold and is decorated with intricate gold filigree, geometric patterns and stylized zoomorphic designs. Garnets are set in the goldwork. Goldwork of any quality from this period is rare in the UK; this object is so rich and so skillfully crafted that it is a unique example on the Scottish archaeological record.

The pommel (the widened fitting atop a sword’s grip) was discovered by a metal detector hobbyist near Blair Drummond in Stirlingshire, Scotland, in late 2019. He reported the find to the Treasure Trove unit but the usual process of determining treasure was disrupted by the pandemic, so only now has the artifact been officially claimed for the Crown and allocated to National Museums Scotland.

“Early medieval Scotland is a really interesting period,” [Dr Alice Blackwell, Senior Curator of Medieval Archaeology and History at National Museums Scotland,] said.

“You have a number of culturally distinct kingdoms and the pommel’s design has taken from the different cultures and melded them together “

That melding of different cultural styles is known as “insular art” style, which was made famous by illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Dr Blackwood said this fusion of styles had made it hard to determine where exactly it was made and whom it may have belonged to.

However, she said it potentially could have belonged to royalty due to the higher standard of goldwork the pommel had compared with other goldware found in this period.




December 2022


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