Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Painted 14th c. burial vaults found in Bruges

Monday, September 20th, 2021

Excavations at the Church of Our Lady in the heart of historic Bruges, Belgium, have unearthed three medieval burial vaults, two of them with painted interior walls. Archaeologists have been excavating the former Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerkhof cemetery under the Mariastraat, the street in front of the church, since mid-May to recover remains and artifacts before construction of an underground pumping station. Within days the skeletal remains of about 50 individuals were uncovered along with coffin nails from the simple wooden boxes, now decomposed, in which they were interred.

The first two masonry vaults were discovered less than a week into the excavation. One of them was richly decorated with painted murals on the interior walls. Both long sides of the rectangular vault feature angels swinging censers so vigorously they’re horizontal. The short end at the head of the fault is a scene of Calvary — Jesus crucified with his mother Mary standing to his right and the apostle John on his left. Copious blood pours from the nail holes in his hands and feet and from the gaping spear wound in his side. At the foot end is a Sedes sapientiae, Mary enthroned with her arm around the child Jesus by her side. The main figural pieces on all four walls are sprinkled throughout with red flowers and red crosses bottony (a square cross with skinny arms that terminate in trefoils). Based on the painting style, the tomb has been dated to the late 14th century.

The third burial vault was unearthed last week. Its painted interior walls are very similar in style and motif, with angels wielding censers on the long sides peppered with florals and crosses. The short side at the head also features a scene of the Crucifixion, Jesus on the cross flanked by Mary and John, while a Sedes sapientiae decorates the opposite short wall. This tomb also dates to the 14th century, but is likely a little younger than the previous find.

When these vaults were built, they were rush jobs. At that time, bodies had to be buried within 24 hours of death, so bricklayers, masons, plasterers and painters had to make and decorate a vault with a quickness. Because the lime plaster never had the time to dry, the murals painted on the inside were basically frescoes, although not a deliberate choice so much as the exigencies of the situation. The condition of the paint can therefore be challenging. The murals in the first vault discovered are better conserved than the second.

To ensure the best possible preservation of the painted burial vaults, archaeologists called in specialist conservators to clean and stabilize the artworks as quickly as possible so they can be thoroughly photographed and documented. The crypts were then covered back up carefully to prevent damage from the elements. They will remain covered as long as they’re in situ. When the excavation is complete, the vaults will be lifted in their entirety and removed for conservation and study.

A 3D model of the first painted vault has already been completed (see below). A model of the second is in the works. This will allow people to see the vaults and conservators to assess their immediate condition needs without risking any damage to the delicate surfaces.


Hispano-Visigothic grave found at Spain cave hermitage

Friday, September 17th, 2021

Archaeologists have excavated a Hispano-Visigothic tomb in embedded in the rock next to the cave hermitage of San Tirso and San Bernabé in Burgos, northern Spain. A team from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) unearthed the skeletal remains of an adult in a limestone slab tomb that dates to the late 7th, early 8th century. This discovery pushes back the evidence of the site’s use for Christian worship by centuries.

The anthropological studies, especially the analyses of stable isotopes of hydrogen, carbon and strontium, together with the dating for the remains, offer us a glimpse into the life of this person, who could have been associated with the first hermits who sought a retreat in this idyllic setting where they could live in isolation, during centuries of great turbulence linked to the arrival of the Moors, just as was the case elsewhere close to the upper course of the River Ebro and its tributaries in the south of the province of Cantabria, the north of Burgos, Álava and La Rioja.

The hermitage was built into the caves of the karst complex of Ojo Guareña, a network of 400 caves and 70 miles of galleries eroded out of the rock by the Trema and Guareña rivers. Humans have left their marks on the caves since the Middle Paleolithic. The earliest evidence of human usage are lithic from flint knapping about 70,000 years ago. There is cave art created as far back as 10,000 years through the beginning of the Bronze Age.

The cave chapel that is now dedicated to Christian saints Tirso and Bernabé was built at the site of a much earlier pagan sanctuary. The dates of construction are unknown. The first hermitage was dedicated to Saint Tirso, possibly as early as the 9th century, more likely the 13th. By the 18th century the hermitage was dedicated to a second saint, Bernabé, and between 1705 and 1877, the natural vaulted ceiling of the cave was painted with brightly colored murals depicting the miracles and martydoms of the saints.

Once the excavation has concluded and the human remains have been recovered, these will be consolidated and restored at the CENIEH. They will subsequently be subjected to dating, morphometric and paleopathological studies, while Ana Belén Marín and Borja González, researchers from the EvoAdapta R+D+i Group at the Universidad de Cantabria, will participate in isotopic studies.


Two medieval jewelry hoards found in Russia

Sunday, August 15th, 2021

Two unique medieval hoards have been discovered in Russia this summer: a set of Volga-Finnish jewelry from the 6th century and a group jewelry and a bowl from the late 11th century or first half of the 12th. The former is the first hoard of Volga-Finnish women’s jewelry from the Migration Period ever discovered in the Suzdal district of western Russia. The latter is a hoard of 32 silver jewels including neck torques, bracelets and rings that predates the known settlements in the area.

The Suzdal hoard was unearthed on the right bank of the Nerl-Klyazminskaya river. It is a set of jewelry from a traditional Volga Finn woman’s costume. The non-ferrous metal objects include fragments of a headdress, three bracelets, an open-work brooch, more than 300 beads and a remarkable group of six hollow duck-shaped pendants that were once threaded on a leather cord decorated with metal beads. Waterfowl had religious significance to the Volga Finns and other Finno-Ugric cultures, as they were associated with their creation myths. There was also a metal bowl with a looping handle that is an extremely rare import from the Middle East and is older than the jewelry. It may have had ritual use.

According to manager Nikolai Makarov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, “These are not just collected items: they are elements of a woman’s costume. The find lifts the veil over the ‘Finnish prehistory’ of the Suzdal Opolye, which is known today to historians and archaeologists mainly as one of the centers of ancient Russian culture. Further research of the objects of the treasure and the settlement will make it possible to understand how Opolye was developed in the period preceding the Slavic colonization.”

Archaeologists believe the ornaments were hidden in a box made of birch bark near the settlement’s center, but the motive for hiding the treasure remains unknown.

The silver hoard was found on a forested slope near the village of Isady is northwestern Russia. The area has produced many a hoard — at least 17 documented ones — cached in the 13th century when the town of Ryazan became the first Russian city besieged by the Golden Horde forces of Batu Khan, Genghis’ grandson, in 1237. This one is earlier, however, and contains jewelry that is simpler in design and manufacture than the Ryazan treasures.

It is not a single set like the Suzdal jewelry, but rather wealth accumulated over time and buried, likely for safety. The jewels had been buried in a small container, now decayed. They include eight torques, 14 bracelets, 5 seven-rayed rings and several grivnas of the Novgorod type (triangular silver ingots). There are a variety of torque types, including twisted and braided ones, ones with hollow terminals and ones decorated with wolf’s tooth patterns. The bracelets are also varied in type (braided, knotted, smooth, rhomic ) and ornamented with varied motifs (crosses, palmettes).

The hoard has been dated by style, with comparable jewelry being widely found in hoards from the 11th and early 12th centuries. That not only predates the Ryazan siege and all its associated buried treasure, but also many of the settlements in the Staraya Ryazan area which date to the late 12th century.


Stained glass Nathan witnessed Becket’s murder

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

A new study has discovered that some of the stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral predates the 1170 murder of Thomas Becket by as much as four decades, which would make them among the oldest known stained glass windows in England and the world.

While there are fragments of painted window glass going back to late antiquity, the large figurative windows made by joining pieces of colored glass with soldered lead cames that we think of by “stained glass” took off with the development of Gothic architecture that allowed the installation of great windows. Very few examples predate the late 12th century.

Before this recent study, the oldest stained glass windows in the cathedral were believed to have been made after the fire that devastated the building in 1174. A series depicting the ancestors of Christ were installed in the clerestory windows of the choir between 1175 and 1220 during the post-conflagration rebuilding program (with a couple of decades of delays thrown in there when arguments between the archbishop and monks of Canterbury put a hold on glazing). They were reconfigured and moved to the Great South Window in the 1790.

In 1987, art historian Madeline Caviness proposed that four of the figures in the Ancestor Series were not Gothic but rather Romanesque in style, that they may have been older works adapted and reused in the late 12th, early 13th century. At the time, it was not possible to confirm or deny this hypothesis via scientific analysis of the elements in the glass because samples would have had to be taken, and of course one is not allowed to chip off chunks of Canterbury Cathedral’s 800-year-old (at least) windows.

University of College London (UCL) researchers were recently able to test Caviness’ hypothesis using a non-invasive technology modified specifically for use on stained glass windows still in their original architectural context. They customized a portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometer with an ingenious attachment dubbed the WindoLyzer that counters interference from the lead cames that bind the glass pieces. The attachment was modeled with software and 3D printed, so it can be replicated at will at little expense for easy and cheap in situ element analysis.

Researchers looked at three figures that were part of Ancestors of Christ series: Methuselah, Ezekias and Nathan. Nathan is one of the figures Caviness pointed to as being Romanesque. The pXRF shines an x-ray beam on the glass. The glass radiates and the spectrometer can detect the chemical element composition of the glass from that radiation.

The condition of the surface of the cathedral glass, already prone to deterioration from its relatively unstable composition and then exposed for centuries to nefarious environmental elements, made it challenging to characterize all of the elements in glass. Five of them are fully quantifiable by pXRF — Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn), Rubidium (Rb), Strontium (Sr) and Zirconium (Zr) — and together they are sufficient to date and identify glass recipes by region, sometimes even by workshop.

Methuselah and Ezekias were made of similar glass and installed in the arched clerestory windows during the reconstruction, ca. 1178-9 for Methuselah, ca. 1213-1220 for Ezekias. Nathan was installed in the clerestory around the same time as Ezekias, but the type of glass marks it as a much earlier production, made between 1130 and 1160.

Now that Nathan has been confirmed to predate the fire by decades, researchers think the windows that managed to survive the conflagration were dismantled, stored and then reinstalled as part of the Ancestor Series.

Prof Caviness said she was “delighted” to hear that her assessment had been confirmed by Dr [Laura] Ware Adlington.

“The scientific findings, the observations and the chronology of the cathedral itself all fit together very nicely now,” she told BBC News. Prof Caviness, who is now 83, told me that the finding had jolted her out of a “Covid numbness” that she had been feeling.

“I wish I was younger and could throw myself more into helping Laura with her future work. But I’ve certainly got a few more projects to feed her.”

The study has been published in the journal Heritage and can be read here.


Viking coin, hack silver hoard found on Man

Monday, July 19th, 2021

A Viking-era mixed hoard of coins and hack silver has been discovered on the Isle of Man. The group of 87 coins and 13 pieces of cut up silver arm-rings were discovered in April by retired police officer Kath Giles who has redefined beginner’s luck by finding four, count’em, four hoards since she began metal detecting three years ago. Only last December she discovered a magnificent assemblage of braided gold arm ring, cut silver armband and giant ball-type thistle brooch.

The coins were minted between around 990 and 1030 A.D. in England, Dublin, Germany and the Isle of Man. Most of them are silver pennies and bear the faces of King Cnut of England, Denmark and Norway, King Aethelred II of England and Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. The coins struck in Dublin and Man bear the image of King Sigtrygg Silkbeard, the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin from the 990s until his abdication in 1036. The dates of the coins indicate the hoard was deposited around 1035 A.D., so right at the end of Silkbeard’s reign and in the waning decades of Viking Age hoard depositions on the Isle of Man.

Located in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man was at the intersected of active trade routes linking Ireland, England and northern Europe during the Viking Age. This is represented in the diversity of coinage found in hoards from this era, and in the prevalence of hack silver, old jewelry cut into pieces for use as currency based on the purity of the precious metal content.

A comparable albeit far larger mixed hoard was discovered in Glenfaba in 2003. It dates to the same period, around 1020 A.D., and also contains a combination of Hiberno-Norse and Anglo-Saxon coins with a hefty proportion of hack silver.

[Numismatist Dr. Kristin] Bornholdt Collins said:

“The Northern Mixed hoard is the fourth Viking-Age coin hoard to be found in the Isle of Man in the last fifty years. It may have been added to over time, like a piggybank, accounting for some of the older coins, though for the most part it is a direct reflection of what was circulating in and around Man in the late 1020s/c. 1030.

Like the similarly dated, but much larger, Glenfaba deposit, found in 2003, the new hoard might be compared to a wallet containing all kinds of credit cards, notes and coins, perhaps of different nationalities, such as when you prepare to travel overseas, and shows the variety of currencies available to an Irish Sea trader or inhabitant of Man in this period. The two hoards together provide a rare chance to study the contents side by side, right down to the detail of the dies used to strike the coins. Having this much closely dated comparative material from separate finds is highly unusual and essentially “doubles” the value of each find.

In addition to the array of coins, both hoards contain a significant hack-silver or bullion portion, which would have been weighed out and possibly tested for its quality in the course of transactions. This is generally expected in finds dating to the ninth- and tenth centuries from Viking regions, but appears to be a special feature of the later Manx hoards, too. This may be because bullion was especially convenient for international trade since it was practical for any size transaction and was decentralized, a currency without borders or political affiliation; in this sense, it was a modern-day equivalent to a cryptocurrency—we might even say it was something like the original ‘Bit-coin’! It seems only logical, then, that it was so popular in a cosmopolitan trading hub like Man, even several decades into the 11th century, when closely regulated minted silver was well on its way to becoming the norm across Northern Europe”.

The hoard has been declared Treasure by the Isle of Man Coroner of Inquests. It is temporarily on display at the new Viking Gallery of the Manx Museum before traveling to the British Museum where a valuation committee will determine its fair market value. The hoard will be offered to Manx National Heritage


Carved brick mural tombs found in China

Thursday, July 15th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a cluster of 12 rare carved brick tombs dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) in Jinan, capital of Eastern China’s Shandong province. Inscriptions found in the tomb indicate they all belong to one elite family, the Guo, who lived in the late Yuan Dynasty. Eleven of the 12 are elaborately frescoed and carved brick mural tombs. One is a stone chamber tomb.

“The tombs were arranged in an orderly and apparently planned way, and some of the owners were related by blood, providing new material for the study of the arrangement of family cemeteries in the Yuan Dynasty,” Li [Ming, director of Jinan’s archeology institute] said.

The 12 Yuan tombs were part of a group of 35 tombs of different ages unearthed at the site since excavations began in April.  It’s the largest group of Yuan brick mural tombs discovered in Shandong.

Yuan Dynasty carved brick tombs feature designs carved into the brick with chisels and wooden hammers. The carving creates patterns enhanced by brick placement to convey a three-dimensional relief effect.

Over 60 pieces of pottery and porcelain wares, bronze mirrors, copper coins and other cultural relics were unearthed during the excavation, which will help with the study of porcelain during the Yuan Dynasty reign in the region and the surrounding areas.


2021 conservators bust 1940 conservator for forging demon wall

Sunday, July 11th, 2021

Painting conservators working on the west wall of the choir in Sauherad Church in southeastern Norway have discovered that the ostensible 17th century “Demon Wall” discovered during conservation work in 1940 was not discovered by the conservators. It was made by them.

The dense black line drawing of demons, animals, clerics, princesses, one drawing linked to the next, all interwoven together in minute detail, cover the full width and height of the wall from the arch 8.5 feet above the floor to the top of the ceiling. The figures in some parts of the drawing are so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye from the floor.

Built between 1150 and 1250, Sauherad Church was ravaged by fire in the mid-17th century and extensively rebuilt. An altarpiece depicting scenes from Revelation was made in 1663. Around 1700, frescoes were painted on the walls and ceilings by Lauritz Pettersen. By the end of the 1700s, the church was in a dilapidated state, but it was repaired and expanded in 1848 and today is known for its surviving frescoes.

Gerhard Gotaas and his son Per Gotaas were employed by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to restore the faded frescoes on the walls of Sauherad Church from 1935 to 1941. The demon wall came to light in August 1940. Conservator Gerhard Gotaas wrote to Henry Fett, head of the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage and an expert in medieval Norwegian church art, that they had uncovered “faces and figures of humans and animals” on the west wall of the choir.

The drawings, unique in the Norwegian archaeological record, attracted much attention at the time of the discovery. Demons and the devil make an appearance in Norwegian church art, but always as part of a larger traditional Christian composition emphasizing the redemptive power of God and Christ. The demon wall of Sauherad is all damnation and no salvation.

Henry Fett wrote about the wall in glowing terms in his 1941 book A Village Church:

Here the devils of revelation, the demons of the time, the eerie powers of existence, with all its uncontrolled and fateful forces and eerie mask life are depicted – all this which Christ had declared war, we have on the west wall of the choir. In large swarms, demons and devils hover in space, herd upon herd – a whole air squadron, an insect swarm of demons, animal masks with human features. human masks with animal features, the animal in man unfolds in all sorts of fantastic bastard forms, spiritual complexes have taken shape. What a gallery of demonic face types!

Traces of older wall paintings beneath the density of demons date to the time of the altarpiece, so mid-17th century, and the demons were believed to have been added shortly thereafter. There was speculation that they might have been painted by the proverbial insane priest. Fett nominated Jens Christensen Slagelse, who worked at Sauherad Church from 1621 to 1641.

Curator Susanne Kaun and art historian Elisabeth Andersen set up scaffolding to examine the murals under magnification, UV light and raking light. They also and scoured the archives for information about the discovery and 1940 conservation.

Gotaa claimed in his correspondence that he had found incised drawings and color remnants, but Kaun and Andersen found no incisions at all, and the original faded color elements that were from 17th century featured zero demons. The Gotaas did it all themselves, and bamboozled everyone for decades.

“We suspected for a long time that a lot had been painted and added, but when we saw the extent of Gotaa’s hand – we could hardly believe it,” Andersen says.

“That a conservator himself has painted his own decor, and claims that it is something he has found, is contrary to all conservation principles – also in the 1940s,” Kaun adds.


Coventry’s medieval civic sword comes home

Thursday, July 8th, 2021

Coventry’s 14th century civic sword has returned to its hometown 550 years after it was removed by an angry king. The sword, or rather, the hilt and a tiny stump of the blade which are all that survive, is part of the Burrell Collection art museum in Glasgow and has been loaned to Coventry for its City of Culture 2021 exhibition.

Carrying a sword in front of a king during processions, coronations and other official occasions was an unambiguous symbol of supreme temporal power in the Middle Ages. The right to a bearing-sword was sometimes extended to powerful nobles (dukes and earls) and by the late 14th century, to mayors of cities. It was a recognition of the growing importance of cities to the monarch, a ceremonial honor that lent city government an aristocratic cachet even as it became a symbol of their civic liberties. London was the first to receive the grant of a mayoral sword. By 1500, 17 cities in England and its overseas possessions (Calais in 1392, Dublin in 1403 and Drogheda in 1468) had been granted civic swords.

We don’t know the precise date when Coventry was granted its civic sword, but it was before 1384 because the City Annals (compiled many centuries later) note that in that year Richard II ordered that the sword be carried behind the mayor instead of in front of him as punishment because the mayor “did not do justice.” Richard restored the mayor of Coventry’s right to carry the sword in front in 1387. Chronicler Henry Knighton of Leicester writing at that time described the Coventry sword as “gladium ornatu aureo” (sword decorated with gold). This is the earliest surviving contemporary record of a civic sword in Britain.

By the 14th century, Coventry was the fourth largest city in England. It was rich in natural resources — timber, stone, arable land, pastures for grazing, the River Sherbourne for water and mill power — and prospered from trade, particularly wool production. Royal charters had granted Coventry extensive privileges, including the right to export merchandise overseas, freedom from certain tolls and both city and county status. The sword was one of those privileges.

Coventry had supported Lancastrian kings Henry V and Henry VI with troops and money. It became a de facto capital when Henry VI and his queen consort Margaret of Anjou moved the royal court there in the 1450s and parliament was called there several times between 1456 and 1460. Henry and Margaret even processed with the Coventry civic sword in front of them. After the defeat of Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, the city made peace with the new Yorkist King Edward IV, but it wouldn’t last. The Earl of Warwick, formerly allied with Edward, turned coat and made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou. He occupied Coventry with 3,000 soldiers in March 1471. Edward showed up at the city’s massive defensive walls with his army demanding entry and was denied.

After Warwick’s forces were routed and the Earl killed at the Battle of Barnet on April 14th, Edward retaliated against Coventry by withdrawing many of its privileges, including county status, and confiscating its civic sword. The fate of the sword was unknown until it was rediscovered by accident in a rubbish heap in Whitechapel in 1897. It was first in the private collection of Sir Guy Laking, the first director of the London Museum. It later was acquired by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell who gave it to the City of Glasgow in 1944.

The Coventry Sword today is not the same as the one Henry Knighton wrote about — it dates to around 1460 — but it is still a gladium ornatu aureo. While the blade was amputated, the hilt was in good condition considering its rough life. The ivory grip is intact, as is the bronze crossguard with gilded ornamentation of a Tudor Rose and Edward IV’s badge, the Sun in Splendour. The bronze pommel’s gilded decoration and silver side medallions also survived, to our good fortune. The silver medallions on the side of the pommel bear the Royal Arms and the arms of Coventry (elephant and castle), which is how we know which sword it is.

The sword is on display at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum until November 21st.


Paging Brother Cadfael

Wednesday, July 7th, 2021

Restoration of an effigy in Dundrennan Abbey in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, has shone a flashlight on the penumbra of medieval murder mystery. The “Abbot’s Stone” is installed against the west wall of the nave of the abbey’s ruined church. A robed abbot lies recumbent with his crozier diagonal across his body and a dagger plunged into his chest. His feet rest on the small, contorted figure of a disemboweled man, his entrails spilling out through a gash in his abdomen. The effigy is believed to date to the 13th century,

Mr Cox, formerly of the cultural resources team at Historic Environment Scotland, said: “It seems possible that this memorial commemorates an abbot of Dundrennan who was wounded or assassinated.

“The small figure at his feet likely represents his assailant. The symbolism is rather poignant, the scene depicting the abbot as triumphant over his assailant in perpetuity.”

The carving would originally have covered a tomb chest and is one of number to be recently conserved at the abbey, which sits in a valley around five miles from Kirkcudbright.

The Cistercian abbey at Dundrennan was founded in 1142 by Fergus, Lord of Galloway. It was the first of Scotland’s 13 Cistercian monasteries. The early Gothic church was notable for its three stories and open arcades, an unusual design in Scotland, and considerable remains of it managed to survive the Reformation. There are large sections of the 12th century transepts and early 13th century nave still extant, as are significant portions of the mid-13th century chapter house.

It was not destroyed during the Scottish Reformation; it was just neglected after it. The monks were evicted in 1560, and in 1587 the abbey was annexed by the Crown. Some of the lands were used to create a lordship for James VI’s groom of the bedchamber in 1606. The buildings were used to house livestock. By the 18th century, the abbey was a wreck and numerous visitors wrote about its dilapidated condition.

Records from the Abbey’s are sparse, so much so that we don’t even have a complete list of its abbots. There are just a few grave stones, charters and legal documents and none of them refer to a stabbing or disemboweling, alas. One extremely important record has survived: a certain Adam Blacadder is documented as having been appointed commendator (administrator) in 1541, a role he held until his death in 1562.


10th c. royal church found under Saxony cornfield

Monday, July 5th, 2021

The remains of a church built in the 10th century by the first Holy Roman Emperor have been discovered under a cornfield near Eisleben, in Saxony-Anhalt, northeastern Germany. State archaeologists have been excavating the site of the royal palace of Helfta built by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I west of modern-day Eisleben.

Since digs began in May, the team has unearthed the foundation walls of a classic three-aisled cruciform basilica about 98 feet long and 66 feet wide with a transept and semicircular apse on the east end. Church-related artifacts found so far include a Romanesque bronze crucifix with enamel, a prestigious object made in Limoges in the 13th century, and a large piece of a church bell.

The church was founded around 968 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great who had moved to Rome two years earlier to take a more hands-on approach in his unruly relations with the papacy and widen his sphere of influence in Italy. Building large, showy churches in Germany, especially in his ancestral duchy of Saxony, was part of his program to establish himself as Emperor of the Romans and the newly-minted Holy Roman Empire as the true papal-approved successor to the Roman Empire. (The Byzantine emperor begged to differ.)

Historian Thietmar von Merseburg wrote in his early 11th century chronicle that the church at Helfta was dedicated to Saint Radegund, a 6th century Thuringian princess who dumped her husband Merovingian Frankish King Chlothar I in favor of an ascetic religious life. Theitmar also recorded that Otto the Great had been personally present when the church was inaugurated.

More than 70 graves including brick and stone tombs from the 10th through the 15th centuries have been found inside the church precinct and in the adjacent cemetery. Objects recovered include a gilded belt buckle, coins, knives and several enameled bronze brooches. which was the final resting place for many of the region’s elite. Thietmar’s account describes one such burial. It was his own relative Count Werner von Walbeck, whose remains were transported from Walbeck to be buried in the churchyard in 1014. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition, so Thietmar had the entrails removed and buried in the cemetery in lieu of the fully intact corpse.

Martin Luther was born and died in Eisleben, and it was the Reformation he sparked that cause the church’s ultimate destruction. For 500 years it dominated the landscape and religious life of the area. Come the fury of the Protestant Reformation, its walls were torn down to its foundations and its very location obliterated from the record.

The excavation of the site will continue until early September and will widen the dig area to the area around the church. Archaeologists hope to unearth remains of the settlement and fortifications the grew around the Ottonian royal palace.





September 2021


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