Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

When a nun faked her own death to escape the convent

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

Sixteen heavy tomes that document 425 years of official business by the archbishops of York are being thoroughly read, translated and indexed for the first time. From the 13th century through the 17th, the registers of the archbishops were carried around wherever they traveled and clerks recorded every act, letter and order in them. After the English Civil War, they were stored in London and ignored until the late 18th century when they were returned to the Diocesan Registry in York Minster.

They are now in the care of the University of York where researchers have been able to publish a few parts of them, but only sporadically and only in Latin. Thanks to an ambitious new project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, medieval historians from the University of York and The National Archives (UK) will transcribe and translate every word in every volume. The entries will be indexed and uploaded to an online database freely accessible to anyone who is interested.

Already fascinating stories are emerging from the records. The register from August 11th, 1318, records a monition, a formal admonishment from the archbishop, to one Joan of Leeds. Archbishop William Melton, future Lord Treasurer of England, warns said Joan, “lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house” which she had departed in deliciously dramatic fashion.

Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place”.

After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

There is no follow-up in the register as to whether Joan opted to return to her life of poverty and obedience or stuck with the carnal lust, but given all the Count of Monte Cristo shenanigans she had to go through to free herself of the former, I’d wager she went for the latter. I also can’t help but wonder whether all her sisthren really were deceived by whatever rudimentary dummy Joan could possibly have manufactured. Surely the ones who had direct contact with the non-body had to be willing conspirators.

The logs from Melton’s term as archbishop from his consecration in 1317 until his death in 1340 occupy an impressive five volumes, just shy of a third of the extant registers. He carried them with him as he went about the complex business of archbishopping, lord treasuring and tending to his enormous personal estates and riches. He played an important role in the wars of Scottish independence too, thanks to York’s strategic position on the northern border. In 1319, with England’s fighting men engaged in the Siege of Berwick, Melton mustered priests, clerics and civilians to fight Scottish men-at-arms at Myton on the river Swale. It was a slaughter, needless to say, with thousands of these amateurs either slain by professional fighters or drowned in the Swale. The archbishop barely fled with his life. Researchers hope to find out more about The White Battle, so named because of the high number of clergy, in the registers.

The records will be available via York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed, which currently provides free access to a database of 20,000 images of the registers from 1225 to 1650. So far more than 3700 entries have been indexed and are searchable by keyword, but there are no full transcripts or translations, just summaries. When the digitization project is complete, all of the registers, invaluable records of political, religious, military and family life in medieval York, will be fully searchable and readable for those of us who can barely make out the letters of British Church Latin of the Middle Ages, never mind read any of it.

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State bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York restored

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

An age-blackened four-poster bed from the Tudor era that evidence strongly suggests is the first state bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York has been restored nine years after it was discovered in shambles.

The Bed of Roses is the only surviving English medieval royal bed and the only known surviving piece of furniture from the Tudor-era Palace of Westminster. Tudor-era royal furnishings suffered wide-scale destruction during the English Civil War. It was made for the wedding of Henry VII (1485-1509) and Elizabeth of York (1485-1503) held at Westminster Abbey on January 18th, 1486.

The bed was dismantled and dumped in a parking lot for the garbage collectors to pick up, only to be rescued and sold at auction in Chester as a “profusely carved Victorian four poster bed with armorial shields.” It was bought online for £2200 by dealer Ian Coulson, owner of the Langley Collection of rare historic furniture. He thought it was a fine example of Arts and Crafts style furniture, but when he picked it up and took his first in-person look at it, he realized the oak parts were far older than 150 years. There were marks of hand tools and numerous repairs done over the course of many more years than

DNA testing of the wood identified it as European oak of a type that grows from southern France to Belarus. This oak was top of the line in the Middle Ages. Unlike the knotty oak native to England, this subspecies was regular enough that it could be sawed on power mills, producing beautiful even boards that were highly sought after by the crowned heads who could afford them. Edward III’s 1360 bed, for example, was made out of Latvian old-growth oak boards. The European oak was uniformly used across the whole bed, and the boards were treated with the same paint. If the frame were a composite made from salvaged elements, there would be inconsistencies that do not exist in this bed frame.

Coal primer was found under the varnish and fragments of what was once a colorful paint job . The remains of that paint were tested and found to include ultramarine, the pigment made from lapis lazuli that was more expensive than gold in the Tudor era.

The bed’s original residents did not have their initials carved onto the bed. No HR to make Henry’s ownership clear. However, the iconography does strongly point to him and his bride. There are single roses, representing the red of rose of Lancaster for Henry VII and the white rose of York for Elizabeth. Only they would use them and only for a few months. The double Tudor rose that would replace the single roses was created in April of 1486. There are also four lion finials and coats of arms of England and France on the headboard and footboard.

The headboard has a central panel showing Adam and Eve facing each other. Between them is a cockatrice (a beaked serpent) and under their feet are a dragon and a lion.Their faces resemble extant portraiture of Henry and Elizabeth, and even with demons and dangers between them and below them, still the serene figures triumph together. They are redemptive, symbols of salvation and the mystical union of God and Mary. The comparison of the King and Queen to saviors from evil were common in the Tudor era, especially so for Henry VII and the union of the warring houses.

The ceremonial bedchamber of Westminster Palace where Henry and Elizabeth would have gotten to work producing an heir to the throne was known as the Painted Chamber after the murals depicting religious royalty themes. In 1819, the mural on the north wall — the coronation of Edward the Confessor — was rediscovered. It burned 25 years later, but records of it indicate the shape of the bed and posts match the arcade at the center of the mural exactly. Symbols of fertility are appropriately present for a state bed. There’s an acorn, a bunch of grapes and a strawberry.

The royal coat of arms, the cross of Edward the Confessor, the roses, the Biblical references, the top-quality craftsmanship, expensive imported wood and insanely expensive ultramarine pigment all strongly indicate that this is the royal letto matrimoniale, but the one fact that would come closest to fully confirming its identity as the marriage bed of Henry and Elizabeth has thus far been impossible to ascertain. All attempts to radiocarbon date the wood have failed due to the layers of varnish. Dendrochronology results have been all over the place. Still, the odds of such an exceptional piece laden with the qualities and symbolism of the royal union that put paid to the Wars of the Roses being any other bed are slim to none.

Owned by the Langley Collection, the Bed of Roses is often loaned or exhibited in museums. Most recently it was displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum where it was the subject of a symposium on research into the bed’s history.

Ian Coulson had made a documentary about the research into the bed and the restoration process. It’s fantastic. I only wish it were longer.

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Dublin Apocalypse goes online

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Dublin Apocalypse, a 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation, is one of the greatest medieval treasures in the collection of Trinity College Dublin. It is also one of the least seen. Now the whole world can see it in high resolution thanks to a digitization initiative.

In medieval Europe illuminated manuscripts containing the Book of Revelation were hugely popular among royalty and the wealthy elite. These devotional aids were designed to help the faithful understand one of the most dramatic and difficult Christian texts.

The beautiful Dublin Apocalypse manuscript represents one of the most lavish examples of this tradition and is among the finest illuminated volumes in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The 14th-century Latin manuscript of the Book of Revelation is accompanied by exquisite illustrations in gold and vivid colours and depicts scenes of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, battles with many-headed beasts and the heavenly Jerusalem for its readers to enjoy.

The Dublin Apocalypse was produced in East Anglia in the early 1300s, likely by an illuminator known as the Ormesby Master. His highly individual style is characterized by intricate geometries in the borders, backgrounds and architectural features, complex compositions with remarkably soft flesh tones and a palette rich with pinks, blues, greens and greys applied in multiple layers of translucent washes. The illuminations in the Dublin Apocalypse are particularly stellar examples of his talents because unlike other Apocalypses of the period which have half-page illustrations, the Dublin manuscript’s illuminations take up almost the entire page.

Most of its history is unknown. Sometime in the early 19th century it was acquired by Franc Sadleir, Triny College fellow, professor and librarian, and he gave it to the university in 1837 in exchange for a bunch of uncatalogued annuals. A rather unbalanced deal, it would seem, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

Anyway his loss is our gain. Peruse the digitized Dublin Apocalypse here. You can leaf through the manuscript page by page, using the viewer to zoom in on the details, or you can open each page as a jpg and examine the whole thing at maximum resolution. There’s also an open as pdf function, but I got an error when I attempted to use it. In the upper left is a “Click for more information” link which explains the scene and verses of Revelation it depicts. The scans are wonderfully high in resolution so you can dig deep into the intricate illuminations.

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Sewer workers find 14th c. sword under Denmark street

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Crewmen working on a sewer project in Aalborg, northern Denmark, unearthed a 14th century sword on Tuesday. Plumber Jannick Vestergaard and machine operator Henning Nøhr were digging on the west side of Algade, a street in the city’s downtown, when a long blade emerged from the ground. They contacted the Northern Jutland Historical Museum which dispatched archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen to examine the artifact and find site.

It is a double-edged sword with a blade three feet long (93 centimeters) that is still sharp. The entire sword, hilt included, is 44 inches long. Both sides of the blade have a fuller (inaccurately known as a “blood groove”) down the full length which was used to lighten the weight of the sword without weakening it. Indeed, the whole swords weighs just over a kilo (2.2 lbs). The hilt has a circular pommel and a straight cross-bar with a round cross-section. It is of extremely high quality.

This style of sword was in use as early as the 12th century through the early 15th century. Museum archaeologists have been monitoring the municipal sewer excavations, documenting the stratigraphy of Aalborg. The sword was found in a waste layer on top of the street’s oldest paving. Previous findings in that layer date to the 1300s, which is the basis for the preliminary dating of the sword.

Swords like these were enormously prized, the property of the warrior elite and so expensive that only noblemen could afford them. They were not, as a rule, dropped, forgotten and buried on city streets. The few that have been unearthed were found in graves, buried with their owners as emblems of their status as fighters of noble rank. There is a cemetery nearby, but no trace of a grave was discovered at the find site.

The unusual location may be an indication that the sword was lost during a violent encounter and buried under the thick mud of low-lying ground before it could be recovered. There are marks from combat on the blade, and there were certainly plenty of opportunities for battle in the 1300s. During the first half of the century, the city was part of the Germanic province of Holstein and there were numerous clashes between the Danes and Saxons before Denmark’s King Valdemar IV received the province as part of his bride’s dowry when he married Helvig of Schleswig in 1340.

(I can’t help but speculate wildly and irresponsibly based on nothing at all but the wide possible date range that it might have been lost during the chaos wrought by the Black Death, which tradition has it reached Denmark when a ghost ship wrecked on the coast of northern Jutland in 1349. A full complement of rotting corpses failed to deter people from stripping the ship of its valuables and carrying some nasty little Yersinia pestis stowaways onto dry land along with the loot. Aalborg first received trading privileges from Valdemar in 1342 and quickly became a prosperous port city. Algade is but a few blocks away from the narrowest part of the Limfjord which bisects the northernmost tip of Jutland.)

The sword is now in the process of being cleaned and conserved. Once stabilized, it will go on display at the Aalborg Historical Museum on Algade a hop, skip and a jump away from where it was discovered.

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Fragments of 13th c. Merlin text found in Bristol library

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Fragments of a 13th century Old French text of Arthurian legends have been found inside a series of later bound books in the Bristol Central Library. Seven handwritten manuscript fragments from the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, were discovered by the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Librarian Michael Richardson while perusing a collection of the works of 15th century French scholar Jean Gerson.

The four-volume edition of Gerson’s works was printed in Strasbourg between 1494 and 1502, but it seems they were not bound because the first binding appears to have been done in England in the early 16th century. That’s when the fragments of the Old French manuscript became integrated into the books. Parchment was expensive and bookbinders often reused old “waste materials” in their bindings instead of using clean sheets. There is evidence on the leaves that at this time they were pasted on the front and back boards of the books. When the books were rebound at a later date, the pasted fragments were unglued from the boards and used as flyleaves (those blank pages you still find today at the beginning and end of a volume).

Richardson recognized the names of key figures, most notably Merlin, from the Arthurian tales on the oft-recycled parchment pieces. He called in Dr. Leah Tether, an Arthurian expert from the University of Bristol’s English department to assess the significance of those names and manuscript fragments. She identified them as pieces of the Vulgate Cycle, a telling of the Arthur legend that predates all English-language versions and is thought to have been Sir Thomas Malory’s source for Le Morte D’Arthur. There are other surviving examples of the text, these fragments have intriguing differences in the narrative.

The seven leaves represent a continuous sequence of the Estoire de Merlin narrative (though they are bound ‘out of chronological order’ in their current form) – specifically in a section known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin).

Events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and assorted other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers.

Merlin has been strategising the best plan of attack. There follows a long description of the battle. At one point, Arthur’s forces look beleaguered but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice leads them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using Sir Kay’s special dragon standard that Merlin had gifted to Arthur, which breathes real fire.

In the end, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, and the other knights, are accommodated in the Castle of Trebes.

That night Ban and his wife, Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter of which seems to prefigure Elaine’s yet-to-be-born son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice. He wakes up and goes to church.

We are told that during Arthur’s stay in the kingdom of Benoic for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue to fight and defeat Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to look after matters in his own lands, Claudas is once again triumphant.

The narrative then moves to Merlin’s partial explanation of the dreams of Ban and Elaine. Afterwards, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep (she wishes to do this to her parents). Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but resists sleeping with her. Merlin then returns to Benoic to rejoin Arthur and his companions.

In the newly discovered fragments, there tend to be longer, more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in certain sections – particularly in relation to battle action.

Where Merlin gives instructions for who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, the characters responsible for each division are different from the version of the narrative we know.

Sometimes only small details are changed – for example, King Claudas is wounded through the thighs in the known version, where in the fragments the nature of the wound is left unsaid, which may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

The damage to the fragments from their use in two different bindings will make it challenging to fully decipher the text. Researchers will use infrared imaging, if necessary, to read through the damage and publish a full transcript of the exciting new finds.

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Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has acquired a rare late 15th century book chest. The Bodleian’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books is one of the largest in the world, but this is its first book coffer and it’s a special one. At 8.5 x 12.6 x 5.5 inches in size, it is one of the largest examples of a book coffer from this period known to survive.

This acquisition gives us greater insight into the ‘everyday life’ of books and print culture more broadly. The coffer provides a link between books held at the Bodleian and cultural objects which were once united, but now usually live apart in libraries and museums around the world.

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

“The Bodleian collects books and manuscripts but also objects which helps us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood. The coffer is a remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context. Among other things, it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The coffer is made of leather-covered wood and is lined with red canvas. The cover is wrapped with nine iron bands, hinges and a lock to secure the high-value contents. Also known as a messenger’s box, it has two iron loops on the side through which leather straps would have been threaded through so it could be carried on a person’s shoulders or attached to a horse’s saddle.

A woodcut depicting God the Father in Majesty is affixed to the inside of the lid, one of only four surviving impressions of this print. His presence would have blessed the contents and protected them during their journeys. Other coffers from this time also contain religious prints on the inside lid, and it’s possible they served double duty as portable altars.

It is a version of an illumination in a 1491 Missal by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany, a Paris illuminator who was active in the last quarter of the 15th century. He was a versatile artist who created designs for woodcuts, metalcuts, tapestries and stained glass as well as creating illuminated manuscripts for his highest-end clientele. The hand-colored prints found in messenger’s boxes were produced in Paris between 1490 and 1510, which is how we know where and when this coffer was made. These boxes are the only sources of single-leaf French prints before 1500. They are literally the only examples we have of the dawn of printmaking in France.

We have confirmation that these types of lockboxes were used to transport precious books as well as other valuables because depictions of them being used for this purpose have survived, most notably a Rest on the Flight into Egypt made in Antwerp around 1530 which shows a partially open coffer by Mary’s side. At the back is a small book with metal clasps. In front of it are a rosary, a pair of scissors and a brush.

The coffer has gone display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in a new exhibition, Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures, which runs until February 17th. You can see 3D models of the box here.

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Speaking of looted art from Visigothic Spain…

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Two Visigoth reliefs looted from a church in northern Spain 15 years ago have been found in Britain and returned to Spanish officials. The theft was a total debacle, but the heavy reliefs depicting two evangelists managed to survive intact against the odds.

The 7th century limestone reliefs originally adorned the church of Santa Maria de Lara, one of only a handful of churches from the Visigoth era still remaining on the Iberian peninsula. Built in the 7th or early 8th century, the church was abandoned after the Umayyad conquest and was likely rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquista in the 9th century. It was donated to the neighboring monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza in the 11th century but was not maintained and fell to ruin, eventually being forgotten entirely. The remains were rediscovered by a priest on a walk in 1921. They were obscured by brush and the location was remote so even after the church was found locals still used the ruins as corrals for their livestock.

Its fortunes improved when scholars identified as a Visigoth church in 1927 and it was granted National Monument status two years later. It wasn’t until the custodian and guide built an asphalted road to the nearby town of Quintanilla de las Vinas in the 1970s that the church became a popular tourist draw and brought it enough money to fund the site’s maintenance.

Even with a decent access road and thousands of visitors a year, Santa Maria de Lara was secluded enough that in 2004 thieves were able to use a crane to strip two 110-pound stone reliefs from the church and remove them unimpeded. They thought they had hit the jackpot. Very few Visigoth figural sculptures have survived, so these two pieces would be worth millions. Notice the conditional. They would be worth millions if they weren’t protected cultural patrimony, but they are.

As so often happens, the looters found themselves saddled with artifacts they could not sell for what they were worth. They had to take the hit and sell them off for whatever money they could get. And so in 2010, two priceless Visigoth reliefs were sold in Britain as garden ornaments for maybe 50,000 pounds apiece.

Somebody with a keen eye saw the “garden ornaments” for sale and thought they was much more to them. He alerted the Art Detective, private investigator Arthur Brand who recovers looted cultural material and stars in a TV show in the Netherlands dedicated to his exploits. Brand traveled to England to follow up, only to find that his informant had just died. His wife only knew a man named “Tony” was connected to the stones. All she had was his first name and a description of him.

It took Brand years to track Tony down. When he finally did, the fellow was suffering from dementia. He did remember the reliefs. He had seen them being delivered to London on a truck by a French art dealer and recognized that they might be Visigothic. Eventually he was able to locate photographs of them.

Brand then tracked down the French dealer, who pointed them towards an unnamed British aristocratic family living north of London.

“It ended up in the garden of an English nobleman, who did not know that it was world heritage, where they would stay like 15 years,” he said.

The owners were so shocked when told the truth that “they wanted to throw the artworks into a river and let them disappear forever. Fortunately we managed to convinced them not to,” said Brand.

I hope that was facetious. Destroying cultural heritage out of shame for having bought it through no fault of your own seems … well, nuts. Anyway it’s all good now. The reliefs are on their way back to Burgos and scholars are thrilled at what might be learned from them.

The looted artworks could also be “essential” evidence in a debate raging among scholars about the exact age of the church, said Oxford University researcher David Addison.

Addison said some believed it was a 7th century building while others dated it to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Brand’s return of the artifacts “would be a great service in this regard,” Addison said.

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A tale of Visigothic treasure lost and found

Monday, January 21st, 2019

It was August 25th, 1858. The night before had been dark and stormy, but this one was moonlit and clear. Francisco Morales and María Pérez were traveling on the road to Guadamar with their daughter Escolástica and a donkey when they reached the Guarrazar spring six miles outside Toledo. While answering the call of nature, Escolástica spied under the white glimmer of the moonlight a square hole barely covered with two flat stones. In the gap between them something shone gone. That something turned out to be a priceless treasure of gold crosses, goblets and other objects festooned with precious stones, pearls and glass. Francisco, María and Escolástica dug up everything they could find, rinsed the artifacts in the spring and quickly made off with their ill-gotten gains.

They didn’t know it, but they weren’t alone that night. Domingo de la Cruz, a gardener who owned an orchard near Guarrazar spring, had observed them digging up buried treasure. The next night, he went back to the site and did some of his own digging, finding a second, smaller collection of treasure. He too made off with it. Nobody told the authorities.

It was a hideous free-for-all. Within days unusual gold begemmed pieces began cropping up in the shops of Toledo’s famed gold and silversmiths. Many of them were broken up, melted down and reused making them untraceable. It’s said that one smith was so torn over what to do with a unique gold dove that he threw it in the Tagus. Gemstone trader José Navarro took a different approach. He had a yen for archaeology, so he bought numerous fragments and painstakingly pieced them back together, reconstructing the votive crowns commissioned by Visigothic royalty as donations to the Church, royals that can be identified with precision because pendant letters spell out the name of the exalted donors. Navarro did all this work under strictest secrecy. In 1859, his work as complete as he could get it, Navarro sold the crowns, pendants and assorted pieces to to Edmond Du Sommerard, director of the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny, France.

That’s when the news of this exceptional discovery finally broke wide. Cluny published their acquisition in the scientific press and Spain was horrified to discover that incalculably precious cultural patrimony had been found only after it was lost. The Spanish government repeatedly demanded that France return the treasure, but was blown off by Napoleon III and subsequent governments.

José Amador de los Ríos, art historian, archaeologist and a pioneer in recognizing the literary and artistic wealth of Medieval Spain, was enlisted to excavate and document the find site in 1859 after the treasure had made headlines. He found a few loose pearls and gemstones that had fallen off the jewels, graves, some architectural remains and lots of evidence that the site had been thoroughly picked over by local looters who had heard about the treasure through the gossip mill.

It was Ríos who recognized that while the form of the votive crown and the decoration were of Byzantine design, the pieces were manufactured locally. The conventional wisdom among European historians at that time was that Spain was a penurious backwater in the early Middle Ages and that the splendors of the Visigoths which had so astounded the Umayyad conquerors who took Toledo in 712 A.D. had to have been Germanic in origin.

In 1861, a very nervous Domingos de la Cruz went to the Royal Estate of Aranjuez where Queen Isabel II was staying and offered her majesty what was left of the treasure he’d discovered. Much hemming and hawing and hypothetical “if somebody happened to have purloined gold Visigothic treasure a few years back and wanted to hand it in, would he get thrown in the dungeon or paid off?” kind of talk ensued. Queen Isabel agreed to accept the remaining treasure — including the votive crown of King Suintila (r. 621-631) — and give Domingos de la Cruz a fabulous pension of 4,000 reals a year in return. The Suintila crown was stolen in 1921 and has never been found.

Cluny kept Guarrazar’s Visigothic treasure for 80 years until Heinrich Himmler stepped into the picture. In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Himmler returned most of the treasure to fellow fascist General Francisco Franco. Six votive crowns, a goblet and crosses are now in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid while the Cluny Museum still holds three of the crowns and a few smaller objects. The Royal Palace in Madrid has one crown left.

With all the loss that has bedeviled Spain’s greatest Visigoth treasure since it was discovered, proper scientific study was long in coming. The first comprehensive study took place in 1995 and revealed that the gemstones traveled great distances. The cabochon sapphires are from Sri Lanka. The emeralds are from the Austrian Tyrol.

The question of why they had been buried in the first place was still open, however. Historians speculated that the priceless religious artifacts had been secreted in consecrated graves to keep them safe from the invasion force of Táriq Ibn Ziyad. Spanish archaeologist Juan Manuel Rojas found this explanation wanting.

With the help of the Guadamur City Hall, Rojas embarked on an investigation that led to the establishment of an archeological site that the public can now visit.

During recent years, the walls of a building more than 30 meters long have been unearthed as well as a basilica, the remains of what appears to have been a palace, a Visigoth graveyard and even a guest house for pilgrims. Rojas’ research has led to the revelation that the place where the treasure was hidden was not a field at all but a religious complex not unlike the one at Lourdes, France, with its own healing water that sprung from the well where Morales cleaned the jewels. So, far from being buried in an ignominious field, the royal treasure had been hidden in a prestigious site whose own ceilings were decked with votive crowns.

When its occupants found out about the unstoppable advance of the Muslim and Berber forces, they sought somewhere to hide the jewels and decided on the graveyard. Raising two tombstones, they removed the bodies, buried the treasure, covered it with cloths and sand and put the corpses back on top. When Escolástica went to relieve herself at the spot more than 1,000 years later, she ducked behind what had once been the wall around the cemetery.

You can see the crown of King Reccesvinth (649-672) in a 3D scan here, another votive crown here and a third here. I regret to inform you that the 360 degree views of the crowns requires Flash to run, but the resolution is great and there are a paucity of good images of the treasure out there, so it’s worth the annoyance to check them out.

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The oldest clove in the world

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

An excavation at the ancient port of Mantai in Sri Lanka has unearthed what is likely to be the oldest clove in the world.

Located on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, Mantai was a pivotal hub of trade between the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the east and west coasts of India and the interior of Sri Lanka from the time it was founded around 200 B.C. Merchant ships stopped at the port in the middle of the Indian Ocean laden with goods from the East (China, southeast Asia islands and mainland) and West (Europe, Africa, Middle East), part of a complex network of trade routes that linked the ancient world for the duration of Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura Kingdom and beyond, from the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. through the 13th century.

Archaeological exploration of Mantai was still in its infancy when it was brusquely interrupted by civil war in 1983. In the three seasons of excavations, archaeologists had unearthed a rich assortment of ceramics and semi-precious stone beads from India, Arabia, the Mediterranean and China. Much of the context of those finds was lost or damaged during the war, as were the records detailing the stratigraphy of the site.

Excavations resumed in 2009-2010. With so much ground to cover and not much time to cover it, the team of archaeologists from the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology, the European Research Council-funded Sealinks Project and the University College London Institute of Archaeology focused on an in-depth investigation of the material in a single very deep trench south of the central occupation mound. The trench was 10 x 10 feet wide and a whopping 33 feet deep, reaching middle Holocene layers. The goal was to recover a multitude of small finds from ceramics to organic remains to fossilized particles of plant tissue that would allow the team to establish a series of precise radiocarbon dates to serve as a much-needed baseline for future excavations.

Among the organic remains recovered from the deep trench are spices that were some of the most valuable trade goods that moved across the East-West routes through Sri Lanka, notably cloves and black peppercorns.

Only a handful of cloves have previously been recovered from archaeological sites, including these from France, for example – other archaeological evidence for cloves, such as pollen from cess pits in the Netherlands, only dates from 1500AD onwards – and there are no examples from South Asia.

Earlier finds of clove have been reported from Syria – but these have since largely been discredited as misidentifications. The clove from Mantai was found in a context dating to 900-1100AD, making this not only the oldest clove in Asia – but we think the oldest in the world.

We also found eight grains of black pepper at Mantai, plus a further nine badly preserved grains that we think are probably black pepper too. The earliest are dated to around 600AD, the time when international maritime trade became increasingly large and well established across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Cloves are not native to Sri Lanka. They were grown in the Maluku Islands, more than 4000 miles east of Sri Lanka by sea, and traded to Europe where they were highly prized from Roman times onward. They were used as spices to enhance the flavor of food and drink, but also widely used for medicinal purposes and personal hygiene, like to combat the heartbreak of halitosis. Black pepper was less rare and less distant, but still so desirable that it was known as “black gold” at the apex of the maritime spice trade from the 16th century through the 19th. The peppercorns found at Mantai probably came from the Western Ghats of India.

From the 16th century, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was colonised by various European powers, from the Portuguese (1500s-1600s) to the Dutch (1600s-late 1700s) to the British (late 1700s-1948). They were all drawn by the island’s profitable trade in spices – although the British turned the fledgling coffee industry there into an incredibly lucrative tea trade which is still important to the island’s economy to this day.

But, whether or not the cloves we unearthed at Mantai turn out to be the oldest in existence, the presence of the spice at this 2,000-year-old site is solid evidence of the ancient spice trade that existed long before these wars of conquest.

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Blue tartar identifies medieval woman illuminator

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

A team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York have discovered lapis lazuli embedded in the dental tartar of a medieval woman. The presence of this extremely expensive pigment in her teeth indicates that the woman was a manuscript illustrator of the highest caliber.

She was buried around 1100 A.D. in the cemetery of a small monastery in Dalheim, western Germany. The woman’s monastery is in ruins today with only a few architectural remains still surviving. The date of its founding is unknown (it might have been as early as the 10th century) with the earliest written records dating to 1244. It was destroyed by fire in the 14th century, but until then it was home to a small community of just over a dozen religious women.

The skeletal remains of the woman were analyzed as part of a project to study dental calculus that forms on the teeth during life and calcifies. Stable isotope analysis of hardened plaque specimens can identify what people ate. Or ingested, as must have been the case of the woman with blue pigment particles embedded in her plaque.

She was between 45 and 60 years old at the time of her death. There is no sign of an explicit cause of death on her skeleton — no evidence of illness, injury, infection or repetitive motion or stress. Only one unusual feature stood out: the blue stain on her teeth. Spectographic analysis revealed that the blue came from lapis lazuli.

“We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman’s teeth,” explains [University of York researcher Anita] Radini. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” states co-first author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The use of ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” says Alison Beach of Ohio State University, a historian on the project.

The unexpected discovery of such a valuable pigment so early and in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly difficult. As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters did not sign their work, a practice that especially applied to women. The low visibility of women’s labor in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume that women played little part in it.

The findings of this study not only challenge long-held beliefs in the field, they also uncover an individual life history. The woman’s remains were originally a relatively unremarkable find from a relatively unremarkable place, or so it seemed. But by using these techniques, the researchers were able to uncover a truly remarkable life history. […]

“Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place,” explains Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the paper. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries – if we only look.”

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