Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Biography of Chinese inquisitor found in 13th c. tomb

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Rear wall of the coffin chamber in née Wu's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Archaeologists have discovered a double tomb of a lord and lady of the southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The tombs were unearthed at a contruction site in Qingyuan County in 2014 but the findings have only now been published in English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, a translation of the Chinese-language archaeology journal Wenwu (Cultural Relics) which first published the discovery in 2015.

The two tombs date to the early 13th century and we are fortunate enough to know the identities of both the people buried within. One of the two tombs, Lord Hu Hong’s, had been broken into by looters in the distant past and so had been stripped of its valuables and grave goods. Only a smattering of porcelain with a decorative elephant motif survived the artifact raid. Thankfully the grave robbers weren’t interested in the kinds of things that most enthrall archaeologists today because they lack the showy obviousness and saleability of “treasure”, so they left behind a stele with a long biographical inscription detailing Lord Hu Hong’s many accomplishments. Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the deities by going against the expressed wishes of the deceased whose life history, according to the inscription, “has been inscribed on this stone to be treasured here, in the hope it will last as long as heaven and earth!”

Jar with elephant knob found in Hu Hong's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.The other tomb held the remains of Lord Hu’s wife née Wu. She too had an extensive bio carved in stone but the inscription is too worn and damaged to be readable at the moment. The good news is the looters missed her tomb, so it still contains some of the luxurious objects — gold earrings, gold and silver hairpins, gold combs, and a crystal disc that looks streamlined and elegant like something you’d see in a high-end jewelry shop today. Like her husband, she too was interred with a porcelain vessel decorated with an elephant motif. Archaeologists found a large quantity of mercury residue inside née Wu’s tomb, likely an attempt to preserve her body that failed spectacularly.

Hu Hong bore the title “Grand Master for Thorough Counsel,” a position he filled ably for the southern Song emperors.

He and née Wu lived at a time when China was divided between two dynasties, with Hu Hong serving the southern Song dynasty that controlled southern China, according to the researchers who described the findings. […]

Gold and silver tokens found in née Wu's tomb. The gold piece was also legal tender issued by the emperor. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Apparently, he showed “outstanding talent” as a child in school and, in 1163, passed a competitive series of government exams to get a junior position in the government according to the inscription found in Hu Hong’s tomb. He then rose gradually through the ranks. His career got a boost in 1179, when he agreed to serve on the southern Song dynasty’s northern borders. In 1193, the government recognized him as “best county magistrate of the year,” the inscription says.

As the “investigating censor,” Hu Hong prosecuted the “treacherous and the heretical” in 1195, the inscription says. He was made a military commissioner in 1200 and was charged with defeating a group of rebels. “At the time, the Yao tribes were rebellious, and he stamped the rebels out,” the inscription says. Today, the Yao live in China and Southeast Asia.

In his final years, Hu Hong was growing critical of his own government, and retired not long after 1200. “He knew that he was beyond his prime and insisted on retiring. Had he kept being outspoken, he would have been pushed out,” the inscription says.

“Although worried about current affairs and concerned with the moral decline of the time, and though he could not easily let go, he no longer had the energy to fight and serve,” the inscription says. He died in 1203, and his wife died in 1206. Their tombs were built side by side. Hu Hong and née Wu had two sons, three daughters and two granddaughters, the inscription says.

I like how the inscription just lays out the politics of the situation: he quit before they could fire him. At least he got to enjoy his three short years of life after retirement.

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12th c. silver and gold hoard found at Cluny Abbey

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

A hoard of hidden medieval treasure, a fortune in gold and silver coins, was an unexpectedly discovered during an excavation at the site of the famed medieval Abbey of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, eastern France. The team, which includes nine students doing field work as part of the University Lumière Lyon 2’s archaeology masters program, unearthed the hoard in mid-September while looking for the remains of an infirmary believed to have been located there in the Middle Ages.

The medieval loot included 2,200 deniers (or pieces of silver) mostly issued by Cluny Abbey itself as well as 21 gold dinar coins, originally from the Middle East which were stored in a canvas bag.

The bounty also included a gold signet ring marked with the word “Avete” — a “word of greeting in a religious context” — as well as a folded 24-gram gold leaf and gold coin.

“The overall value of this treasure for the time is estimated between three and eight horses, the equivalent of cars nowadays, but in terms of the running of the abbey it’s not that much, amounting to about six days of supply of bread and wine,” said specialist Vincent Borrel.

In terms of archaeological and historical value, this treasure is off the charts. It is the first 12th century Cluniac treasure discovered in its original context during an archaeological excavation. It’s also the largest number of silver deniers discovered in one place and the only single hoard ever found to include Arabic coins, silver deniers and a signet ring. The intaglio stone is ancient Roman and engraved with the profile of a deity. (Religious context or no religious context, ancient engravings were prestige items and often used as signet rings by the medieval elite.)

Also of note is the survival of fragments of the original bag the hoard was stashed in. Fragments of it are still attached to some of the coins. There is also a surviving piece of tanned animal hide which was tied around the bundle of 21 gold dinars minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1106-1143).

Practically from the time of its founding by by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was one of the great monastic centers of Western Europe. They followed a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict that within decades had catapulted Cluny to the top of the ranks, making the abbey the undoubted leader in European monasticism. The city of Cluny grew into a city thanks largely to the Abbey and the trade, employment and pilgrim moneys it brought to town. By the second half of the 10th century, the Abbey of Cluny was already well-established as the top monastery in the country and it retained its prominence into the 12th century.

Its influence began to wane when newer, more austere orders stole Benedictine thunder and the idea of remote rule by a single abbot, distant from the satellite houses and largely unaccountable, lost its appeal. In the 16th century the Abbey of Cluny was sacked by Hugenots and never really recovered. Come the French Revolution, the monastic order was dissolved and under Napoleon the abbey itself was demolished and used as a quarry. Today only one of its eight grand towers still stands, which is why archaeologists continue to excavate it today, 90 years after the first archaeological explorations of the site began.

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Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery rediscovered

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered almost half a millennium after it was obliterated by order of Pope Pius IV. Unearthed between 2012 and 2014 during archaeological explorations of a site slated for housing development, the cemetery contains 408 graves, all aligned in parallel rows heads pointing to the west, and zero gravestones. It’s a miracle the former remained in any way intact considering what happened to the latter.

The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance [sic] said.

Pope Pius IV, canonized a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, would be appalled to hear any burials had been found unmolested and complete with grave goods. He certainly tried his utmost to ensure the opposite outcome. A zealot and ascetic who as a youth had eagerly worked as an inquisitor before being elected to the Holy Office permanently in 1550, Antonio Ghislieri rose in the ranks to become inquisitor general for all of Christendom in less than seven years. He was appointed by Pope Paul IV who, not coincidentally, was also a major proponent of the Inquisition and of an anti-Semitism so hateful and brutal that Hitler used his ghettoization system as a blueprint for his own.

When Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566, he picked up where his mentor had left off, rejecting the slight softening of the draconian anti-Jewish laws Pope Pius IV had attempted when he succeeded Paul IV. Pius V promulgated the Bull Hebraeorum gens sola on February 26, 1569, which opens with much the same gross nonsense Paul IV’s Bull had opened with:

“The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease.”

The forms in question were usury, helping thieves and robbers profit from their illegal activities (pawning, maybe?), and the worst crime of them all “lure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.” They probably turned people into newts too, but their victims got better before trial.

The Bull concludes with the decree banishing all Jews from the Papal States, excepting those in Rome and Ancona, within 90 days. A convent in Bologna was explicitly instructed by to destroy the cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Europe which had been in continuous use since the 14th century, by the Pope later that year.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Archaeologists found evidence of the sisters’ (or somebody’s, at any rate) handiwork in more than a third of the graves, 150 of which bear clear the tell-tale marks of deliberate, malicious desecration. The tombstones are simply gone. Destroyed so thoroughly as to not leave a trace, or employed in some other context where they are unrecognizable as anything but a piece of stone.

The human remains found in the graves will be given a respectful burial at a time and place yet to be determined.

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Update: National Museum secures Galloway Hoard

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

National Museums Scotland has successfully raised the £1.98 million ($2,550,000) necessary to acquire the Galloway Hoard. Half of the money will be given to metal detectorist Derek McLennan, who discovered the hoard in a field in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in 2014, as an ex gratia payment in accordance with the terms of the Treasure Act which awards finders of artifacts adjudicated to be treasure a cash sum equivalent to their market value as an incentive to disclosing these kinds of discoveries instead of looting them for secret resale or to keep for themselves. The other half will go to the landowners, the Church of Scotland, which will dedicate its share to the local parish in which the treasure was found.

The Galloway Hoard was assessed by the valuation committee at such a large sum because it is the richest Viking hoard ever discovered in Britain. It includes silver jewelry, silver and gold ingots, a unique gold bird-shaped pin, a lidded silver-gilt pot, arm rings, brooches, a solid silver cross pendant decorated in enamel with the images of the Four Evangelists, bejeweled aestels (manuscript pointers), glass and crystal beads, a rock crystal jar and much more. Besides the sheer quantity and quality of the precious objects in the hoard, they are without parallel in the different places and cultures they came from. The rock crystal jar is believed to have been made in the Middle East; the lidded pot is Carolingian; the glass beads are Scandinavian; the stamp-decorated bracelets are Irish; one of the silver pieces is engraved with runes at first thought to be Scandinavian but have been found upon closer examination to be Anglian. The ages of the objects vary significantly as well. The hoard was buried in the early 10th century, but the Carolingian pot was at least a century old by then, so it was likely kept as an heirloom for several generations before being used to hold the treasures it still contained a thousand years later.

Some of the greatest of the treasures found inside the vessel are of little pecuniary but inestimable archaeological value. They are the remains of textiles that survived wrapped around several of the pieces stored inside the vessel and around the pot itself, plus leather and wood fragments. These exceedingly rare surviving organic materials, never found before in a hoard of this age, contain a wealth of information about the Viking Age, its travel and trade routes. They’re also a major conservation challenge, which is one of the reasons the Galloway Hoard was not allocated to a Galloway museum. NMS has the resources, expertise and carefully controlled conservation environment to ensure the continued survival organic remains.

The hoard has been on temporary display at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh since the summer. The exhibition just closed on October 1st, but fear not, the treasures will be back in public view after a period of conservation and study. Here is Martin Goldberg, curator of the museum’s Early Medieval and Viking collections, guiding viewers through the exhibition and some of the objects from the Galloway Hoard.

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Medieval iron hoard found in Slovakian oven

Monday, October 9th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a hoard of 10th century iron hidden in a medieval oven in the village of Bojná, western Slovakia.

The Slavic inhabitants of the region hid it in a stone oven at the beginning of the 10th century. Iron was in that era was a very precious metal; as the metal “hrivna” it was used for currency.

“The surprising discovery consists of 36 hrivna, bridle bits from a horse harness, two keys from a Slavic settlement and other iron objects,” said head of research in Bojná Karol Pieta from the Archaeological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Strategically located at the foot of the Považský Inovec mountain range where a pass through the mountains connects the Váh and Nitra river basins, the town’s history long predates the presence of the actual town. The first historical records alluding to Bojná date to the 15th century, but the area was dotted with hill forts defending the pass under the Slavic kingdom of Great Moravia (833 – ca. 906/907).

One of those hill forts, today known as Bojná I – Valy, has been found to be a rich source of archaeological materials even predating the Great Moravian fortifications. The oldest writing in Slovakian history were found there, Latin inscriptions dating to the late 8th, early 9th century, the earliest days of Christianity in the area. It was in the 9th century when Great Moravia was at its zenith that the fortress became a hive of activity. The remains of several blacksmith shops from this period have been unearthed and their work products have been found by the thousands — farming and craftsmen’s tools, battle axes, knives, swords, seaxes, horse fittings, chain mail, spurs. Some of the weaponry and armature is gold and silver plated, evidence of the presence of a significant number of elite warriors.

Reconstruction of 9th century Slavic dwelling on the foundations of the original, Bojná I – Valy fortress, 2015. Photo by Karol Pieta.The fort was conquered in the early 10th century by invading Hungarians who burned it down. It was never rebuilt and the people who had lived and worked there moved on, leaving behind their cached valuables in the rubble. The stone oven containing the iron pieces was found on the west side of the Great Moravian-era fortification. They had been placed in an earthenware vessel and then stashed in the oven, a brilliant hiding place when there’s a real threat of fire and destruction looming. In fact, it was so effective that archaeologists found the vessel intact and undamaged, unmoved even. It stood in the same exact spot where some 10th century Slav left it doubtless in the hope of recovering his treasures when the carnage was over.

Archaeologists are currently working on a reconstruction of the east gate of the Bojná I – Valy fortifications. This 9th century Great Moravian monumental gate was enormous with a tower 40 feet high and thick defensive walls to match. The hill fort already has a few modest reconstructions — three private dwellings — from its heyday, but the hope is the added drama of the reconstructed 9th century gate will draw tourism to the site. Construction is scheduled to be complete in the middle of next year.

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Viking wooden weaver’s sword found in Cork

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

A Viking-era wooden weaver’s sword has been unearthed in Cork City, Ireland, at the site of the Beamish & Crawford brewery on South Main Street in the historic medieval city center. It’s not really a sword; that’s just the common name for it. It’s more of a utility tool, the blunt side used to hammer down threads on a loom and the pointed end to pick the threads while weaving a pattern.

The perfectly-preserved wooden sword is a little over 30cm in length, made entirely from yew, and features carved human faces typical of the Ringerike style of Viking art, dating it roughly to the late 11th century.

Consultant archaeologist Dr Maurice Hurley said it was one of several artefacts of “exceptional significance” unearthed during recent excavations at the South Main Street site, which also revealed intact ground plans of 19 Viking houses, remnants of central hearths and bedding material.

“For a long time there was a belief that the strongest Viking influence was on Dublin and Waterford, but the full spectrum of evidence shows that Cork was in the same cultural sphere and that its development was very similar,” he said.

“A couple of objects similar to the weaver’s sword have been found in Wood Quay [IN DUBLIN], but nothing of the quality of craftsmanship and preservation of this one,” said Dr Hurley, adding that it was “quite miraculous” how the various wooden items had survived underground in such pristine condition.

Not miraculous, exactly. Just your basic science: waterlogged earth is low in or missing oxygen and the microorganisms that consume organic materials can’t live in that environment. That’s how we get perfectly preserved wooden daggers, textiles, letters written on birch bark, human bodies, etc.

Founded by two businessmen, William Beamish and William Crawford in 1792 by acquiring an even older brewery (there may have been beer made at that location as early as 1500), the Beamish & Crawford brewery sold 12,000 barrels its first year. By 1805, less than 15 years after its founding, it was producing more than 100,000 barrels a year, making it the largest brewery in Ireland and the third largest in the UK. It held that position until 1833 when it was overtaken by Guinness.

In more recent history, B & C’s parent company was bought out by Heineken who shuttered the brewery on South Main in 2009. The buildings were left to their own devices and the inevitable ensued: in 2011, the site was declared derelict. It was still derelict in 2014 when the Heineken and developers BAM Ireland proposed it be turned into a multi-use events space. Cork City Council approved the plans and things seemed good to go, but the project has been beset with delays, overruns and unexpected expenses.

Handle detail. Photo courtesy of BAM Ireland.All the archaeological materials found there haven’t exactly helped the construction come in on time and on budget, but they have generated a great deal of excitement and interest. Cork Lord Mayor Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, who was thrilled to have the opportunity to hold the dagger, thinks these discoveries will put Cork’s Viking history on the map for once. Dublin and Waterford get all the attention for their Viking history. The extent and quality of the finds indicate that Cork was similarly settled and influenced by Viking culture.

The artifacts excavated at Beamish & Crawford are now at the National Museum of Ireland where experts are studying them and conserving them to ensure their long-term stability now that they’re no longer in their protective anaerobic environment. There’s a chance they might go on display at the Cork Public Museum in the future, perhaps as part of an exhibition on the Vikings in Cork. The mayor thinks that because interest in the weaver’s sword and other objects is so strong, they might get fast-tracked into an exhibition by February 2018.

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Take a 3D tour through Rothwell charnel chapel

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Rothwell charnel chapel is the UK’s most complete surviving medieval charnel house, rooms used to contain the bones of the dead to make room in cemeteries for the next generation of corpses. The charnel chapels attached to churches in the Middle Ages weren’t scary places. They were well-lit, clean, sturdily built with permanent access from the exterior (doors, stairways) so the general public could visit and pay their respects to the dead. Rothwell Parish Church built its charnel room under the church and contains the remains of at least hundreds of people who died in the Middle Ages.

It’s difficult to know how many charnel chapels existed in medieval Britain. Historians have generally thought they were fairly rare compared to their frequency on the continent, but researchers from the University of Sheffield think they have located as many as 60, or at least what little is left of them Time and the destruction wrought by the Reformation took an incalculable toll. That’s why Rothwell’s is so significant. One of only two medieval charnel chapels still remaining in situ (the other is St Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent), it is largely intact and still contains human skeletal remains placed there between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins, who led the project from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Rothwell charnel chapel is a site of major international significance. Surviving charnel chapels, with human remains still housed inside, are very rare in England. What is so fascinating about the Rothwell charnel chapel it is that it presents an ideal archaeological resource for researchers to use to advance our understanding of how the remains of the dead were treated during the medieval period.

With so little hard data to go on, many historians thought charnel houses were of minor religious import even in their heyday in England, that they were just places to store bones dug up from the intercutting of new graves or during church construction. The University of Sheffield’s Rothwell Project has upended that belief. It wasn’t until the 13th century that charnel houses and chapels began to be constructed. Before that, dug up bones were reinterred in the new grave or in mass pits. The new charnel spaces of the 13th century were the first time human skeletal remains were kept above ground in meaningful quantities. That’s a major shift in attitude and approach, and it can’t be explained in utilitarian terms because reburying the bones is a lot easier, cheaper and faster than building an above-ground space for them.

Rothwell Project researchers think this shift is connected to the doctrine of Purgatory receiving official Church recognition in 1254. Souls suffering the torments of purgation could be sped on their way to heaven by the prayers and hymns of the living on their behalf. Charnel chapels in mainland Europe are known to have had confessionals and been treated as places or repentance and forgiveness. English charnel chapels also had priests whose duty it was to hear confessions and offer absolution. The Sheffield team thinks all this is linked together, that charnel chapels, like chantries in the churches above them, provided the public with the opportunity to pray for the souls of the departed still locked in purgatory and to avoid the same fate themselves. The rejection of purgatory and confession by Protestants explains why the charnel chapels and their human remains were so cruelly disposed of during the Reformation. The bones were reburied, often in unconsecrated ground, and the rooms either walled up so no trace of them was visible from the outside or reused for random purposes rented out to local merchants for cool storage.

Unfortunately Rothwell charnel chapel is not widely accessible as an archaeological resource, no matter how valuable it might be, because it can’t accommodate human traffic (not of the living kind, anyway) due its delicate preservation conditions. The space is tight, keeping moisture and temperature steady is a challenge, and one false move could irreparably damage the structure and human remains.

In this day and age, there are other options. The Digital Ossuary is a collaboration between the University’s archaeology and computer science departments which has captured the physical space of the charnel chapel, its proportions, where the medieval access points were, high-resolution detail of the bones which will allow osteological study that was previously impossible as well as help determine conservation practices for the long-term preservation of the charnel.

“This new digital resource provides an opportunity for people all over the world to explore the site and helps us to preserve this fascinating window into the past for future generations.” […]

The new digital resource, together with research on the chapel, will be fed into undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield.

Archaeologists leading the project are also welcoming the input of researchers who might be interested in working with the model, which has been published via ORDA, the University’s file sharing platform.

And now, without further ado, here is the 3D flythrough of Rothwell Parish Church’s charnel chapel.

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Possible Viking boat grave found in downtown Trondheim

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of what appears to be a Viking boat grave under the market square in central Trondheim, Norway. In the final days of the excavation, the team of archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) recognized a boat-shaped feature in the soil even though there was no visible wood and the site had been repeatedly disturbed by later construction which pockmarked it with postholes and pits.

Further excavation revealed that there was no wood left to be found. It has long since rotted away leaving only the imprint of the boat, corroded rusty lumps and the a few barely preserved nails. Those meager features were sufficient for archaeologists to identify them as parts of a boat. It was at least four meters (13 feet) long and was placed in a north-south orientation.

Two long bones were also found, which is how we know this was probably a boat burial. They were in very poor condition, however, and only DNA testing can ascertain conclusively whether the bones are human. A piece of sheet bronze found leaning against one of the bones is likely a personal belonging interred with the deceased as a grave good. The very few other artifacts that have been discovered seem to be personal objects as well.

Dating is tricky. The team unearthed a small fragment of a spoon and of a key in one of the later postholes dug into what was once the middle of the boat. They can’t be sure these pieces are from the grave, but if they are, then they can loosely date the boat burial from the 7th to the 10th century. This is the first boat burial from this period discovered in downtown Trondheim.

The location away from today’s harbor and the fjord suggests that the boat grave dates from the late Iron Age, or perhaps the early Viking Age.

– It is likely a boat that has been dug down into the ground and been used as a coffin for the dead. There has also probably been a burial mound over the boat and grave, says NIKU’s Knut Paasche, a specialist in early boats.

He believes that the boat type is similar to an Åfjord boat, which has historically been a common sight along the Trøndelag coast.

– This type of boat is relatively flat in the bottom midship. The boat can also be flat-bottomed as it is intended to go into shallow waters on the river Nidelven.

Excavations are over for the season and there are no current plans to explore the site further.

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Golden altar of Sahl Church removed for study

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Sahl Church in the Northwest Jutland village of Sahl near Struer is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Built around 1150 out of granite ashlars, it has several notable features: a rune stone built into the chapel’s west wall, 16th century frescos, a burgundy silk velvet chasuble embroidered with silver thread made from the wedding dress of Queen Anna Sophia that is still used today on special occasions. Its most spectacular feature is the Golden Altar, a gilded copper altarpiece made by a Danish master artisan from Ribe in around 1200. Embedded with crystals around the borders, the reliefs on the altarpiece panels depict figures and scenes from the Bible, particularly the childhood and suffering of Jesus, and Christian symbolism.

Popular devotional objects in the Middle Ages, only seven golden altars remain today in Denmark and only two of them in their original locations. (The rest are kept at the National Museum.) The bursts of iconoclastic zeal and the preference for plain church decor of the Reformation took a heavy toll on these objects. Many of them were destroyed and the ones that remain are not in the best of the condition. The altarpiece of Sahl Church is by far the best preserved of the seven, largely intact with no major missing parts. Most of the crystals were lost by the 1930s, but they were restored by National Museum experts in 1935.

In 1850, Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, an archaeologist who was Denmark’s Inspector for the Conservation of Antiquarian Monument, surveyed the church as part of an inspection tour of the area. He warned in a letter that Sahl’s vicar was “adamant that the strange old altarpiece was to be removed” and when he wasn’t able to get rid of the priceless medieval gold and crystal altarpiece, he hired a local artist to paint over the wings. They weren’t original to the piece, thankfully, and they’re gone now but it lends some insight into why there are so few of these inestimable treasures left. Changes in fashion and taste can wreak havoc on historic artifacts, even ones whose value in sheer materials is blatantly obvious. This same vicar, by the way, also had the church’s medieval wooden coffer axed to pieces FOR FIREWOOD. Yet another page in the endless People Are Terrible ledger.

The altar has not been absolutely dated. What we know of their ages has been deduced from analysis of the design style and craftsmanship. When it was last restored more than 80 years ago, it was only spruced up. A new study of the Sahl Golden Altar by conservators at the National Museum of Denmark will give experts the opportunity to use modern methods of analysis to test the wood itself. Dendrochronology, if successful, can provide very precise dates. It will also be X-rayed and the gilding analyzed. They hope the study will reveal more information about the altar’s construction and materials.

While the altar is at the museum, visitors to Sahl Church will see a large-scale photograph of it draped over its usual location.

Within the last few years, the National Museum has conducted further studies on several of the golden altars. The results from this will be gathered in a publication about the unique cultural heritage of golden altars from the Middle Ages, which exists in Denmark.

It is the Carlsberg Foundation, which has granted the money for analyzes of the alhl from Sahl, and the experts hope that the results will be available at the end of the year.

In addition to a new study of the altar, the church itself will also be thoroughly reviewed. This appears in a publication published in the beginning of 2018, where the churches in Estvad, Rønbjerg and Vinderup will also be described.

The publication of the four Western Jutland churches is published as a volume in the National Museum’s great work of Danish Churches, which aims to publish descriptions of all the churches of the country. The project started in 1933, and today about two thirds of the Danish churches are described.

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Reindeer hunters find Viking sword in Norway

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Einar Ambakk weilds the Viking sword he just found. Photo by Einar Ambakk.A group of reindeer hunters discovered a Viking sword last month while stalking the mountains of Lesja in Oppland, south central Norway. Einar Ambakk found the three-foot-long sword nestled between rocks on August 23rd at more than a mile in altitude. The sword was embedded hilt-down in the gaps between stones. Half of the blade jutted up above the rocks. Einar saw it first and, not even recognizing that it was a sword, placed both his hands on each side of it and lifted it up. Only when he’d pulled it all the way out did he realize he, like a young and confused Once and Future King, had just drawn a sword from the stone.

The hunters reported their discovery to the municipality. Experts examined the weapon and determined it dates to the Viking era, around 850-950 A.D., and is exceptionally well-preserved. The sword’s fine condition and high-altitude location 1,640 meters above sea level generated much excitement. Two glacier archaeologists from Secrets of the Ice, a metal detectorist and a local archaeologist went to the find spot with the reindeer hunters to explore it further.

They were fortunate to be able to find the precise place. The hunters didn’t record the GPS coordinates, but the pictures Einar Ambakk took of the sword had geolocation data enabled, so the team was able to use that information to identify the exact find spot even in the stark mountainous terrain which doesn’t have much in the way of landmarks to help guide them. Even if there had been some peculiar rock formation or other fortuitously identifiable feature, it could only have provided a general search area. The sword selfies made a full and accurate archaeological investigation of the specific site possible, something that was not an option, for example, when a hiker discovered an earlier Viking sword 300 miles southwest of Lesja in 2015.

They found no other artifacts with a 20 meter area of the find. This is significant because if the sword had been schlepped up the mountain by someone who met their end leaving the sword as mute witness to his final days, the team would probably have discovered the remains of other equipment even though the organic materials (including the body and clothing) had rotted away. There is no evidence of ritual weapon sacrifice, a nearby burial, or anything else that might explain the sword’s location.

Nor is there evidence on the sword and in the context of the find to indicate the sword was hidden below the surface and only recently shifted into view due to the movement of the stones in the permafrost. No scratches, no dents, no dings, no bending, at least one of which you’d expect to find had the sword recently been put through a stone wringer. Archaeologists think Einar Ambakk found it pretty much in its original position, perhaps a little lower from sliding down into the crack between the stones.

It may seem strange for the sword to have survived on the surface for more than one thousand years. However, to all appearances this is what happened here. Isolated finds of well-preserved iron arrowheads are also known from the high mountains, and some of these artefacts are even older than the sword. The preservation is probably due to a combination of the quality of the iron, the high altitude and the mostly cold conditions. For most of the year, the find spot would have been frozen over and covered in snow.

The sword would most likely have had bone, wood or leather covering the grip, but the organic parts are no longer preserved.

Because a Viking’s sword was likely his most prized possession, it wouldn’t have just been abandoned or forgotten during a mountain-top jaunt. Not that the find site is ideally suited as a walking trail. The rocky terrain would have been treacherous and there was a well-established path nearby without any such obstacles. It’s possible the owner of the sword got lost in the white-out of a blizzard and died, but, as the glacier archaeologists point out, if that were the case, then where is the rest of his gear? You don’t climb a mile up a mountain carrying only a sword.

The sword is now at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo where it will be studied further and conserved.

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