Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Staedtler erasers help solve mystery of ultra-thin 13th c. parchment

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

For a short window of about 80 years in the 13th century, small, portable bibles were produced on a large scale to satisfy the needs of the growing mendicant friar community and university students. Both groups needed bibles that were lightweight and easy to transport, a far cry from the large, thick-paged, multi-volume bibles common in scriptoria, libraries, churches and learning institutions. Between around 1220 and 1300, at least 20,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 portable bibles were produced, most of them in Paris, but also elsewhere in France, plus England, Italy and Spain. The university centers of Paris, Bologna and Oxford were the main production centers.

The first pocket bibles were pandects (single-volume bibles) and were consistently organized which made them easy to scan for a particular passage, a handy tool for the student and itinerant preacher. The script was tiny, with each letter a mere two millimeters high, and of course written painstakingly by hand. Each page was made of a tissue-thin parchment known as uterine vellum, the key to the books’ portability. Without pages a fraction of a millimeter thick, the pocket bibles of the 13th century could not have existed.

The economic woes and turmoil of the 14th century ended the pocket bible boom and soon the technology used to make the ultra-thin parchment, which had been kept hush-hush by producers keen to keep their lucrative trade secrets secret, was forgotten. Approximately 2,000 pocket bibles still exist today, the majority of them, about 54%, of French manufacture.

Codicologists, people who study the physical object of the book, have long debated how uterine vellum was made. Some medieval and early modern sources refer to the parchment as abortivum or charta non nata (meaning “unborn sheet”), suggesting that it was made from the skin of miscarried or aborted fetal calves. The sheer numbers of aborted livestock fetuses necessary to produce enough parchment for thousands of pocket Bibles and other manuscripts would have materially damaged the health of any herd, however, so some scholars have proffered alternative animal sources for the parchment, like rabbits or squirrels which unlike cows already have very thin skins. Others theorized that the thicker skins of cows or sheep could have been split to produce the ultra-thin parchment.

A study led by University of York bioarchaeologists sought to unlock the mystery of uterine vellum, to discover whether it was made using animals with exceptionally fine skin or the result of a specialized craft that worked any skins into tissue-thin sheets. The research team studied samples of uterine vellum drawn from 72 pocket Bibles and seven nonpocket Bibles. The sampled parchment ranged in thickness from .03 to .28 mm. The delicate, more than paper-thin pages were sampled using one of the greatest school supplies of all time: the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser. Remember how the bright white eraser would make little tubular crumbs greyed with pencil graphite that you had to blow or brush off your paper? Those characteristic crumbs were the means by which the samples could be taken without damaging the fragile parchment.

Participating archives and libraries were sent a kit with erasers, acid-free paper, nitrile gloves and 1.5 mL microcentrifuge tubes. Staffers donned gloves and collected the sample by erasing in one direction on an area of the page that had no writing, holes, tears or any other indication of weakness in the structure. The crumbs were caught on a folded page of acid-free paper and tipped into the tubes which were sealed and sent to the University of York laboratory.

The gentle unidirectional rubbing of the eraser on the pages generated an electrostatic charge that extracted protein from the parchment surface. Those protein samples were then studied using zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting and hair follicle pattern analysis, technologies that can determine which species of animals were used to make the parchment and their age at slaughter. The study found that none of the parchment was made from the skin of fetal or neonate animals. The youngest were eight week old calves and adult sheep and goats were also used. Of the 220 folios from 72 pocket bibles sampled, 68% were calfskin, 26% were goat, and 6% were sheep. Most of them were consistent within one bible, but five bibles were found to have parchment from more than one species. Researchers think that those five may be composite bibles rather than a single producer using skins from multiple animals to create one bible.

So since exotic animal hides weren’t behind the production of this practically see-through parchment, it must have been a specialized craft.

In order to make goat, sheep and eight week old calf parchment look as fine as if it had all come from new-born calves, the medieval artisans had to immerse the skins in alkali-rich liquefied lime so as to get rid of the fats in those skins by transforming the lipids into a form of detergent. That natural soap not only helped thin the skins but also helped whiten them by dissolving all the ingrained grime and stains.

The alkali in the lime also served to remove the thousands of tiny hairs in the skin – by weakening the chemical bonds which hold protein molecules together. However, too much exposure to lime would have also turned the skins’ collagen content into gelatine – thus irreversibly swelling and damaging the product. The medieval craftsmen seem to have discovered the precise time required to thin and whiten the skins in the lime, while not destroying them.

As well as immersing the skins in lime, the artisans also stretched them on wooden frames, scraped them with a special bladed tool – then spent many hours rubbing them with volcanic pumice stone to further thin and smooth them.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and can be read in its entirety here (pdf).


14th c. birch bark letter found in Moscow

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Russian archaeologists have unearthed a letter written on birch bark in Moscow’s historic Zaryadye district close to Red Square. The archaeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences found the letter 13 feet below street level in a layer with more than 100 small and large artifacts dating to the 14th century.

The first birch bark letters were discovered in 1951 in Novgorod, preserved in its heavy, waterlogged clay soil. Letters were scratched on the inner, trunk-facing side of the birch bark sheet using a stylus made of iron, bone or bronze. The letters were dated with a combination of stratigraphy (dating of the layers in which they were found), dendrochronology (tree ring dating) and palaeography (handwriting analysis) and linguistic analysis (examining the features of the text). They range in date from the 11th through the 15th century.

The vast majority are letters from private individuals detailing the minutiae of their lives. Some are petitions of peasants to their lords. Some are debt lists, but since they open with the imperative “Take” it’s probable that they too were letters, probably of instruction on collecting the enumerated debt. One very special group of birch bark letters appear to be lessons and doodles. There are 17 drawings and notes by a young boy named Onfim. He lived in the 13th century and was around six or seven when he drew scenes of men on horseback, knights in battle, even himself as a fantastical beast next to alphabet and writing exercises. It’s a remarkable testament to a how highly literate this society was at all economic strata.

Since that first discovery in 1951, more than 1000 birch bark letters have been found, almost all of them in Novgorod. The second greatest number, 45, were found in Staraya Russa, a town 60 miles south of Novgorod. Only nine other cities can claim birch bark letter discoveries. None were found in Moscow until 1988. It took 20 years before a second and third were unearthed at the foot of the Kremlin. None of those three quite followed the Novgorod standard. Moscow 1, as the 1988 find was dubbed, was a draft or copy of a property deed or claim. Moscow 2 had a small inscription that was hard to make out. Moscow 3 was a very long inventory of property of a Muscovite prince and it was written in ink, not scratched with a stylus. (Only two of the thousand plus Novgorod letters were written in ink.)

That makes Moscow 4, the newly discovered piece, the first true Novgorod style birch bark letter found in the city. Like the overwhelming majority of the Novgorod ones, this is a private letter. The strip of bark has the smooth surface and carefully cut edges indicating it was specifically prepared for use as stationary. Each letter is printed very clearly and distinctly along the length of the fibers, as they are in Novgorod. The other Moscow letters were written against the grain.

The letter is a sad one. Addressed simply to “Sir,” it tells of the writer’s misfortunes while traveling to Kostroma, a city 217 miles to the northeast that was part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The writer was detained along with a certain Yuri and his mother by someone “who had the right to do so.” This person, likely an official of some kind, took 13 bel (a relatively small denomination of currency in medieval Russia) from them and then another three. Finally the author had to pay 20 and a half bel more to buy their freedom. The total of 36.5 bel was a signficant amount of money back then. Since it appears the captor had legal rights, this may have been the repayment of a debt with extra tacked on for interest.

Every Novgorod birch bark letter find is exciting, but the rarity of a Moscow find and the precise printing of this letter make it of particular interest to archaeologists. It will be conserved to ensure its long-term survival and studied further at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Most of the birch bark letters have been uploaded to an online database. The website is down right now but it was working earlier. From what I could gather when it was up, it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not quite a complete record. Still, you can photographs of each letters in high resolution, plus transcriptions and translations.


Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.


1000-year-old silver hoard found on Danish island

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Robert Hemming Poulsen lays fiber-optic cable for a living. For fun, he takes his metal detector with him on assignments and explores new places in his downtime. Last month Poulsen was installing a fiber-optic network on the Danish island of Omø when he struck up conversation with farmer Hans Peder Tofte. Tofte told him that as a boy he had found a silver ring on his property. Intrigued, Robert took his metal detector to the field and discovered several silver fragments and silver coins.

An experienced and responsible amateur, Poulsen stopped the search and alerted the Zealand Museum to his finds. With funding from the Danish Agency for Culture, the museum arranged for a more thorough exploration of the field. Last weekend museum experts joined Robert Poulsen and three of his experienced metal detecting friends to search the site. They discovered more than 550 silver fragments, silver coins, cuttings from silver coins and silver jewelry from the 10th century. This was an all-silver hoard.

All of the artifacts were unearthed in an area about 100 feet in diameter suggesting they were originally buried in a single hoard. The field has been ploughed for hundreds of years, however, so if there was a container, it has long since been destroyed and/or rotted away. The team dug beneath the ploughed soil just in case, but all they found was clean sand. There are no indications of an individual house or settlement in the area. It appears that the treasure was simply buried in a field.

While most of the hoard is composed of fragments of hacksilver as small as .1 grams, including tiny cuttings of Arabic coins called dirham clips, it has a number of rare and important pieces. There are multiple coins from the reign of Harald Bluetooth. Minted between 975 and 980 A.D, the Harald Bluetooth cross-coins are considered the first Danish coins. They are so thin that the design on one side shows through on the other, and the silver content and weight are so low that metal detectors can’t detect them. Any find of Bluetooth coins, therefore, is always archaeologically significant.

Besides the Arabic and Danish coins, the hoard also contains silver coins from England, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Some coins have yet to be identified. Three unidentified coins were found in an unusual configuration: one coin folded over the other two. Similar pieces have been found before in England, but they’re from later in the Middle Ages and the they have one complete coin folded over a half coin thereby created a one-and-a-half denomination. All three of Omø coins in this configuration are complete.

The jewelry is all in pieces. Among the fragments of bracelets, rings and pendants are two objects of particular interest: a cross and pendant that are decorated in the same style as an important hoard of jewelry discovered on the German Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee in 1873. The Hiddensee treasure dates to the 10th century and is believed to have belonged to the family of Harald Bluetooth himself. The difference is the Hiddensee jewelry is all made of gold, while the pieces found on Omø are silver. That makes them unique. No other silver Hiddensee-type jewelry has been found before.

By Danish law, historical finds are treasure trove and property of the state. The Zealand Museum will thoroughly document and photograph every piece before sending them to the National Museum for valuation by experts. Finder Robert Poulsen will receive a reward based on the value of the hoard. The Zealand Museum hopes they will then get the hoard back for exhibition, but that depends on whether the National Museum deems its security measures sufficient to protect the find.


Hiker finds 1,200-year-old Viking sword

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

A hiker in Norway has discovered a 1,200-year-old Viking sword in such good condition that with a vigorous oiling, a little time on a whetstone and a new grip it could still be used today. Gøran Olsen was hiking an ancient trail in Haukeli, south central Norway, when he sat down to take a break and caught a glimpse of the sword under a pile of rocks. The single-edged blade is 77 centimeters (30 inches) long and made of wrought iron. It is of a type that was common around 750-800 A.D.

The trail where the sword was found crossed a mountain plateau between western and eastern Norway. Most of the year the pass is covered in snow and ice, and the climate during summer months when the snows have melted allowing the trail to be easily hiked is low in humidity. This combination helped maintain the condition of the sword, leaving it a bit rusty and dulled, but otherwise remarkably well-preserved.

“The sword was found in very good condition. It is very special to get into a sword that is merely lacking its grip,” said Hordaland County, Norway, archeologist Jostein Aksdal. “When the snow has gone in spring, we will check the place where the sword was found. If we find several objects, or a tomb, perhaps we can find the story behind the sword. This was a common sword in western Norway, but it was a costly weapon, and the owner must have used it to show power.”

Finding an associated gravesite would be a very lucky break, but odds are long. Other artifacts have been found along the trail before. It’s possible that the sword may have been inadvertently lost by a traveler or someone who was caught in bad weather and died of frostbite. There could easily be no grave to be found.

The blade has been sent to the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, for conservation and eventual display.

“We are really happy that this person found the sword and gave it to us,” said County Conservator Per Morten Ekerhovd. “It will shed light on our early history. It’s a very (important) example of the Viking age.”


Agincourt thank-you sceptre to go on display

Monday, October 12th, 2015

For the first time in 600 years, a sceptre King Henry V gave to the City of London in gratitude for its support in the Hundred Years’ War will go on public display. The City of London helped finance the Battle of Agincourt, loaning Henry 10,000 marks (about three million pounds in today’s money). After Henry’s forces won so decisive a victory against the flower of French chivalry arrayed in much greater numbers against them on October 25th, 1415, the king had the sceptre made and presented it to the city as a thank you gift.

Made by the finest craftsmen — including French ones — of the age, the sceptre is 17 inches long and made out of two spiral-carved stems of rock crystal with ribbons of inlaid gold. At the top of the sceptre is a gold crown topped with fleurs-de-lis and crosses and decorated with gemstones from around the world: red spinels from Afghanistan, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Arabian gulf. Inside the crown is the king’s coat of arms painted on parchment. The sceptre was made between 1415 and February of 1421 when it appears in a painting of the coronation of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V.

It’s a near-miracle that the sceptre has survived all this time.

Under the republican protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War, the Crown Jewels were sold off and there was a danger the sceptre could have met the same fate, had it not been hidden away by the City authorities.

Eight years after Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Monarchy which followed, it took the cowardly self-interest of the serving Lord Mayor to save the sceptre.

During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Sir Thomas Bloodworth – rather than lead the rescue efforts – made sure his personal treasures were safely sent out of the City, including the sceptre, only returning in person three days later.

It’s been seen by very few people in the past 600 years. The sceptre emerges from the protective confines of London’s Guildhall during Coronations when it is borne by the Lord Mayor of London, and for the “Silent Ceremony” in which the outgoing and incoming Lord Mayor place their hands upon it during the annual inauguration of a new mayor. The last time it was seen in public was at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sceptre’s connection to Agincourt was only recently discovered by Dr. Michael Hall, curator of the Rothschild Collection at Exbury House, Hampshire, and Ralph Holt while researching the treasures of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London since the 18th century. Dr. Hall and Mr. Holt with the help of Dr. Clare Taylor, wife of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, have authored a book on the silver and gold of Mansion House. The book, the third in a series about the collections of Mansion House, covers more than 80 precious objects, including the regalia of the Mayorality.

The Honour and Grandeur: Regalia, Gold and Silver at the Mansion House will be released later this month to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. This is the first time the sceptre has been published in its long life, believe it or not. The sceptre itself will celebrate the anniversary by going on public display for the first time. Unveiling the Crystal Sceptre: Henry V’s Gift to the City opens at Guildhall Art Gallery on Saturday, October 24th, the day before St. Crispin’s Day. The exhibition will tell the full story of the sceptre, starting with the City of London’s financial support for Henry V’s great battle and following King Henry’s 1421 pilgrimage to holy sites associated with his three patron saints.

During that pilgrimage he may have stopped in Hedon where he presented the mayor with another Agincourt-related treasure: the Hedon Mace, an iron mace believed to have been an actual weapon used at the Battle of Agincourt which Henry had silver-gilt and presented to the city again as thanks for its support. The Hedon Mace will be on display with the Crystal Sceptre, the only objects given by Henry V that have remained with their original recipients for 600 years.


10th c. Danish Borgring fortress to be excavated

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

The 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand last year was identified by a geomagnetic survey and a few test pits dug at the gates and ramparts. There are only seven ring fortresses of the Trelleborg type known to exist, and the last one was found 60 years ago. The discovery of Borgring 30 miles south of Copenhagen was exciting because of its rarity and because it opened up the possibility of an excavation done with the latest archaeological technology.

The Danish Castle Centre will bring that possibility to life, thanks to a 20 million kroner (ca. $3 million) grant from the AP Møller Fund and 4.5 million kroner (ca. $687,000) from Køge Municipality. These generous gifts will fund a three-year excavation of the Borgring fortress.

blockquote>”With the grant, the Danish Castle Centre – a division of Museum Southeast Denmark and Aarhus University – has worked out a unique research project seeking to explore the secrets Borgring is hiding beneath Danish soil,” the Danish Castle Centre said.

“With the use of modern archaeological methods the scientists and archaeologists will investigate how the fortresses were used, how they were organised, how quickly they were built, their age and what environment, landscape and geography they were a part of.”

So far, it has become clear that the massive ring fortress has a diameter of 142 metres with 7 metre-high palisades, while it also endured a fiery blaze at one of its gates.

The Trelleborg fortresses were all built according to the same geometric plan — circular with gates aligned on the cardinal compass points — within an hour’s march of each other. Counting tree rings at the type site of Trelleborg pinpointed the construction date to early 981 since the timbers were felled in autumn of 980 and would have needed some time to cure before use. The other fortresses date to approximately the same time, and their strikingly similar design and aligned placement suggests they were conceived by a single mind.

There are some anomalies with the Borgring, however. Its gates are not perfectly aligned along the cardinal points; there is an 11-degree dislocation which may have been a topographical necessity to ensure that it looked properly symmetrical in its landscape. Also samples of burned oak timbers found at the north gate were radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D., which places the fort in the general age range of the other trelleborgs but isn’t precise enough to confirm that it is in fact one of them. Dendrochronological analysis can narrow it down further.

The precise date is important with these fortresses because the most prevalent theory right now about their construction is that they were built by King Harald Bluetooth in reaction to his defeat at German hands in 974. To defend his territory from further incursions, Bluetooth set about building an extensive network of forts and infrastructure (bridges, roads) in Denmark and southern Sweden. Harald Bluetooth died in 985 or 986, just five or six years after the first Trelleborg ringfort was built. If Harald didn’t build them, his son Sweyn Forkbeard may have, not to as a defensive installation to keep out the Germans, but as military training camps to prepare his troops for his raids on England in the first decade of the 11th century and his full-scale invasion of the island in 1013.

The excavation is slated to begin next year and with the fortress being a short distance from the highway so close to Copenhagen, the archaeological team is expecting a significant amount of interest from the public. The team plans to build an observation deck so visitors can follow the archaeologists at work without getting in their way.


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

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1000-year-old sarcophagus found in Odense

Friday, September 25th, 2015

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

Cameras were present to capture the opening of the sarcophagus.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Medieval bones found under 1950′s Westminster Abbey lavoratory

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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