Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

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.

Share

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.

Share

From the annals of people are terrible

Saturday, August 26th, 2017


On Friday, August 4th, visitors to the Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, Essex, did something so stupid and reckless it defies understanding. Parents of a young child lifted him over the barrier into a medieval sandstone sarcophagus, presumably to capture a precious memory of their cherub desecrating a funerary artifact. As anyone with two neurons to rub together could have predicted, the coffin was knocked off its stand. The impact cracked the fragile sandstone down the middle and took a chunk out of the floor of the coffin.

Museum staff discovered the damage later that day because in addition to being irresponsible numbskulls, the parents are also craven cowards who hightailed it out of the museum as quickly as their chicken legs could carry them without notifying anyone to the havoc they’d wreaked. Curators only found out what had happened by reviewing CCTV footage from security cameras.

“The care of our collections is of paramount importance to us and this isolated incident has been upsetting for the museums service, whose staff strive to protect Southend’s heritage within our historic sites,” said Claire Reed, the conservator responsible for repairing the sarcophagus.

“My priority is to carefully carry out the treatment needed to restore this significant artefact so it can continue to be part of the fascinating story of Prittlewell Priory.”[…]

The sandstone casket that was damaged is the last of its kind. “It’s a very important artefact and historically unique to us as we don’t have much archaeology from the priory,” said Reed.

Crack running down the side and base of the coffin. The new damage is the chunk missing from the bottom of the coffin. The missing piece on the edge is pre-existing damage. Photo courtesy Prittlewell Priory Museum.Conservators are currently assessing the damage, but at first glance they expect it should be able to be repaired without breaking the bank. The council thinks it might take fewer than £100 ($130). Suitable materials for restoring historical artifacts can be expensive, however, and then there’s the cost that will be incurred by creating a new display for the coffin when it goes back on display. For its own protection, it will have to be completely enclosed, so museum visitors will have to pay in distance and separation from the artifact for the carelessness of two idiots.

Founded in around 1110 A.D. by Robert FitzSuen as the Priory of St Mary, a cell of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras in Lewes, Sussex, Prittlewell was a small monastery with fewer than 20 monks at any given time. Most of the medieval priory was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. That and later construction is why archaeological material from the original priory is so sparse. Henry VIII granted the monastery, its lands and revenues to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor of England and Keeper of the Great Seal, who also scored a number of far larger and more valuable monastic estates in the wake of the Dissolution.

Prittlewell remained in private hands until the early 20th century. The Scratton family made the most pronounced mark on the estate in the Victorian era, extensively renovating, rebuilding and adding to what was left of the medieval monastery to create an impressive and livable country home. Having lived in the era before Poltergeist, they created a walled kitchen garden over what had been the monks’ burial ground. The inevitable hauntings ensued and visitors have reported seeing a ghostly monk wandering the halls of the former cloister.

In 1917 Prittlewell Priory, the buildings, the 22-acre property and six adjacent acres were bought from Captain Scratton by prosperous local jeweler and benefactor Robert Arthur Jones. He donated the whole kit and caboodle to the city of Southend with the explicit intent that it be turned into a multi-use public facility for the benefit of the people of Southend. Jones explained his reasoning at the time:

“I think it is a sin for a man to die rich, it is a great privilege to me to be able to do this, for I believe strongly in facilities for recreation. There will now be no need for such an out of the way and costly park as Belfairs. Prittlewell, with its historic and old-world associations, its beautiful trees and lakes, and its nearness to the centre of town, is an ideal place. Part of the building would be suitable for a museum, and there would also be refreshment room accommodation, while the grounds would provide facilities for cricket, football, tennis, hockey and other sports. I propose that the name of the park should be Priory Park”

In 1922 Prittlewell Priory opened as Southend’s first museum and Priory Park as its first public park. The damaged sarcophagus was unearthed near the former priory church in 1921 during the archaeological exploration of the site that accompanied its conversion into the museum and park. It contained a skeleton, likely the remains of senior monk because a stone coffin was an expensive object that would have been used for brothers of high rank.

Share

400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Monday, August 21st, 2017

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


Share

Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

Share

Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

Share

St. Cuthbert’s treasure is back and better than ever

Friday, August 4th, 2017

The Treasures of St. Cuthbert, a collection of relics of the saint and his medieval sanctuary, have gone back on display at Durham Cathedral after six years out of public view. The exhibition is part of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure project, an ambitious £11 million redesign that transformed the display spaces in the 11th century masterpiece of Norman architecture to showcase its exceptional collection including Anglo-Saxon carved stones, original copies of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter and illuminated gospels dating as far back as the 7th century. The new exhibition also opens to visitors previously inaccessible areas of the former monastery like the Monk’s Dormitory and the Great Kitchen, grand medieval rooms that managed against all odds to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the organizational, spiritual and iconoclastic upheaval of the Reformation, Cromwell’s suppression of the church and use of the cathedral as a POW camp for Scottish prisoners during the Civil War and a number of destructive architectural mutilations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Open Treasure experience has been delighting visitors since July 2016, but St. Cuthbert’s treasures are so delicate they require stringent conservation conditions. Conservators waited a full year, monitoring climactic conditions in the new permanent home for the saint’s relics to ensure they were ideal for their long-term preservation. On Saturday, July 29th, the Treasures of St. Cuthbert reopened in their new abode: the Cathedral’s extraordinary Great Kitchen, a massive space with an octagonal ceiling glorious enough to make numerologist angels weep. For centuries the kitchen produced food for hundreds of Benedictine monks and for the deans and canons that followed them after the Reformation. It was still in use as a kitchen well into the 1940s. That continuous use saved it for posterity and it is now one of exactly two surviving medieval monastery kitchens in the UK. (Thanks again for reducing all those monasteries to rubble, Henry VIII!)

Henry VIII’s dissolution minions are also responsible for the current condition of one of the most important relics on display. The Commissioners ordered that Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral, one of the richest and most beloved pilgrimage sites in the country, be destroyed. The employed a local goldsmith sledgehammer Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, carved by the monks of the famous Lindisfarne Priory at the end of the 7th century A.D., open because they were sure there were treasures to be looted inside the wood of the coffin. There weren’t. All they got for their brutality was whatever satisfaction they derived from busting the greatest example of Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain to bits.

Saint Cuthbert was Prior of Lindisfarne when he died on March 20, 687. His cause of death is believed to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the priory and slumbered peacefully for 11 years until the monks reopened the coffin and found his body had not decayed. The discovery of the incorrupt body launched the cult of Cuthbert and garnered him a sainthood. Unprepared for an intact body (they likely had planned to transfer his bones into a small ossuary only to find a fully enfleshed corpse instead), they hastily scared up a new coffin made of oak and carved with simple but elegant linear drawings of the Evangelists and their symbols, Christ, saints and angels. The figures are labelled in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes. These are the earliest carvings depicting Christ found outside of Rome.

When the Viking raiders struck the priory in the 9th century, the monks took Cuthbert’s coffin and his relics with them when they fled in 875. The traveled extensively, stopping at major cities along the way so pilgrims could flock to see the saint’s miraculous body. Cuthbert’s posthumous itinerancy came to a close in 995 when his remains were settled in Durham. Just over a century after that, his body, still in the Lindisfarne coffin, was placed into a new coffin and installed in a new shrine in the Norman cathedral.

After Henry’s pillage crew came away empty-handed from the destruction of the shrine, Cuthbert’s remains, still undecayed and still inside the damaged coffin, were placed inside yet another coffin and reburied in the cathedral. The tomb was opened again twice in the 19th century, mainly out of sheer curiosity. It was the first of these reopenings in 1827 that discovered the saint’s gold and garnet pectoral cross deep in the folds of his garments (turns out Henry’s Commissioners sucked at looting, despite their extensive experience in the field), a silver portable altar and Cuthbert’s elephant ivory comb in the coffin.

After the second reopening in 1899, the remains of the Lindisfarne coffin, now in fragments, were removed. Restoration attempts, one as recently as the 1980s, used damaging methods that today’s conservators eschew. Still, the coffin was on display for many years in Durham Cathedral, set high up so the carving was all but impossible to see in any kind of detail. The fragments have been re-conserved now, puzzled together using a non-invasive, reversible approach and put on display in a bespoke, climate-controlled case at eye level so visitors can revel in the unique decoration of the most important surviving wooden artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Also on display in the Great Kitchen is the pectoral cross, one of the greatest and most significant examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork marking the transition from their traditional iconography and decorative style to Christianity and bearing the wear and tear of Cuthbert’s constant use of the piece. The comb, which looks a tad on the grubby side but must have been quite a fancy thing in the saint’s day because it was likely manufactured in North African in the 4th century, and the portable altar.

Original 12th c. sanctuary knocker. Photo courtesy Durham Cathedral.Then there are the artifacts associated with the shrine that aren’t directly connected to Saint Cuthbert in person, for example an incredibly rare group of embroidered silk and gold vestments donated to the shrine in the 10th century by King Athelstan and a magnificent 12th century knocker from the door of the sanctuary in the shape of the head of a leonine hellbeast complete with a little guy’s legs sticking out of the fearsome creature’s mouth. The legs are each devoured by the mouths of the double-headed snake which form the knocker itself.

There’s even a dragon-slaying sword, the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword that legend has it was used by Sir John Conyers to kill the Sockburn Worm. This is the story that inspired Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on one side of the pommel and that of England on the other, the falchion was for centuries ceremonially presented to the new bishop of Durham when he first crossed the boundary into his diocese. The last bishop to be so fortunate is the current one, Bishop Paul Butler, who crossed the River Tees into his new diocese in 2014. From now on, the dragon-slaying sword is staying put in the Great Kitchen. Future bishops will have to make do with a replica.

Share

Coptic murals found in Egyptian monastery

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

Medieval Coptic murals have been discovered on the walls of the Monastery of Saint Bishoy at Wadi El Natrun in the Nitrian Desert of northern Egypt. The monastery was damaged by flooding in 2015 and experts from the Ministry of Antiquities have been working since then to restore it. The frescoes were discovered under a layer of modern mortar. They were painted between the 9th and 13th centuries and depict saints and angels. Some of the frescoes have Coptic inscriptions underneath them.

“The most distinguished paintings are those on the western and eastern walls of the church,” [Ministry of Antiquities scientist Ahmed El-Nemr] said, describing the painting on the western wall as showing a woman named as Refka and her five sons, who were martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire.

The painting on the eastern wall depicts three saints and an archangel, and features Coptic writings below.

El-Nemr explained that when restorers removed the modern additions they stumbled upon the ambon, an elevated platform that is a feature of many orthodox churches.

The newly discovered ambon is made of mud-brick covered with a layer of mortar and decorated with a red cross.

Some geometric drawings, crosses and lettering were also found in various parts of the church.

The age of the paintings, inscriptions and the ambon are of particular significance because they date to a period when the monastery church was undergoing extensive alterations. Historical and religious records document extensive changes to the architecture and decoration of Saint Bishoy’s in 840 AD, during the Abbasid era, and in 1069 AD, during the Fatimid caliphate. Archaeologists hope the newly discovered features may elucidate some the church’s original design and fill in some of the blanks in the timeline of its construction phases from antiquity into the modern era.

The monastery was founded in the 4th century by Saint Bishoy (320 – 417 A.D.), a deeply devout monk who, like many of his time, emulated the ascetics and lived in the desert wilderness. His humility, dedication to prayer, hard work and the poor earned him a following of thousands who flocked to live in mountain caves surrounding his cave in what is now Deir el-Surian, about a third of a mile from the Monastery of Saint Bishoy.

According to Coptic hagiographies, Bishoy’s humbleness netted him at least two personal meetings with the risen Christ. The first time he was washing the feet of passing strangers, as was his wont, when he spotted crucifixion scars on the feet of one of them and realized he’d just washed Jesus’ feet. Another time he offered to carry an old ailing monk up the mountain on his back only to find the ailing old man was Jesus in disguise (again). Jesus told him then that because he had kept his body pure through his asceticism and used it only to serve the poor, lowly and God, including carrying God on its back up a mountain, Bishoy’s body would never decay.

Jesus kept his promise. When Bishoy’s body was moved to the Wadi El Natrun monastery in 841 A.D. by order of Saint Joseph I of Alexandria, 52nd Pope of Alexandria, it was indeed found to be incorrupt. The saint’s body lies in the monastery church to this day, and according to witnesses is still incorrupt.

Share

Longhouse, Anglo-Saxon coin found at destroyed Pictish fort

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Burghead Fort near the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, northeastern Scotland, was a major power center in the early Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. Between 6th and 9th centuries, the promontory fort at the site of the modern town of Burghead dominated the region. It was the largest of its time, three times larger than any other fort in Scotland. It is also the oldest known Pictish fort.

Its true origin and great historical significance wasn’t understood in the early 19th century. The fort was believed to be Roman, “the Ultima Ptoroton of Richard of Cirencester and Alta Castra of Ptolemy,” as Major-General William Roy labelled it in his drawing of the floor plan and sections of what was left of the fort in 1793. You might think that its purported Roman origin and association with the 2nd century writer Ptolemy who was believed to have described it in his Geography would be sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation, but you would be wrong. More than half of the fort’s surviving remains were destroyed when the town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809.

Burghead Bull, British Museum. Photo by Ealdgyth.The orgy of destruction was entirely undeterred by the exceptional discovery of as many as 30 symbol stones engraved with realistic line art of bulls. Now known to be rare Pictish stones, most of them were casually reused as construction materials in the quay wall of the new harbour and are considered lost. Today only six of the Burghead Bulls survive, two in the Burghead visitor centre, the rest in the Elgin Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. All that’s left of the Pictish fort above ground are some lengths of the earth and rubble inner ramparts and a snippet of one of the outer ramparts on the southern side. A subterranean ritual well in a rock-cut chamber discovered during utilities work in 1809 is the most intact remnant of the fort.

Archaeological digs at Burghead began in the late 19th century (less than a hundred years from “who cares?” obliteration to desperately seeking antiquity). They usually focused on the perimeter of the structure — the inner and outer ramparts, the defensive wall — and while the occasional artifact was found, the fort was generally considered to have been gutted beyond recovery by the construction of the town and harbour.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2015 and this season has seen remarkable discoveries: evidence of a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. Pictish architectural remains are rare and there are major lacunae in our understanding of Pictish buildings. The longhouse gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the Picts’ living spaces within a great fort. The coin not only helped establish the dates for the occupation of the longhouse, but it is from a key transitional period when Viking raiders began savaging Pictish territories and would ultimately bring about the demise of Pictish kingdoms.

Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

Share

New imaging approach reveals hidden text from two eras

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

In the Middle Ages, old manuscripts were recycled for their valuable vellum and parchment pages. The writing was washed or scrubbed off and the leaves filling with new content. Because so many ancient works have been lost, scholars have for centuries attempted to recover the original texts from these medieval palimpsests, often using caustic materials that damaged the pages in the long term. Nowadays researchers have much better options thanks largely to a panoply of imaging technologies that have been a godsend to the study of palimpsests, revealing erased and overwritten text that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Synchrotron imaging is better than Superman because it can see through lead boxes.

Some of the recycled parchments pose greater challenges than others. With the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 15th century, the demand for bookmaking materials soared. Not only were medieval manuscripts cannibalized for their pages, but the bindings were reused to bind newly printed books. This was a common practice well into the 18th century, so there are a lot of old printed books out there with fragments of medieval and ancient texts hidden in the binding. Scholars knew there might be literary treasures in there, but were stumped by the difficulty of accessing and reading binding materials.

Now researchers at Northwestern University have made a breakthrough. It was a book from the university library’s collection that inspired the new approach. It’s an edition of the Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod that was printed in Venice in 1537. Northwestern acquired it in 1870 and out of the 30 known surviving copies of the edition, this is the only one that still has its original slotted parchment binding, a widely used technique in Venice from 1490 to 1670 in which slots were cut into the binding parchment to match the shape of the book spine.

Slotted parchment bindings often used recycled parchments. The ink was usually removed for aesthetic purposes, to make the outside surface of the parchment a uniform color. In this particular book, the ink on the interior parchment surface was not removed. Iron gall ink is acidic and over time, speeds up the oxidation and decay of the parchment.

The Northwestern librarians noticed the slotted parchment binding in the Hesiod and realized its significance. They also saw the faintest hint of text on the book board. Researchers from the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) examined the binding in greater detail and found evidence that the writing on the book board had been removed, likely by the bookbinder, by washing or scraping. His efforts weren’t entirely effective, much to our advantage. Over time the gall ink that wasn’t removed had degraded the parchment and the writing began to re-emerge. NU-ACCESS researchers found two columns of text plus marginalia were very dimly visible through the parchment on the front and back covers of the book.

The writing wasn’t legible with the naked eye, so scientists Marc Walton and Emeline Pouyet turned to imaging, starting with visible light hyperspectral imaging. The writing became a little clearer, but it still couldn’t be read. X-ray fluorescence imaging gave the team new information about the chemical composition of the ink, but again, it wasn’t able to bring the ancient text out of hiding. They were going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Jaws, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) was that boat.

[T]he bright x-ray source and fast detection system allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding. When the researchers sent the more clearly imaged writing to [Northwestern history and religion professor Richard] Kieckhefer, he immediately recognized it as sixth-century Roman Law code [the Institutes Justinian], with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins.

Walton and Pouyet hypothesize that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code.

It was an exciting find, but the NU-ACCESS team had greater ambitions. Synchrotrons aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and most researchers don’t have access to the powerful (and expensive) equipment. Even if they do, rare old books in delicate condition can’t always be shipped to a synchrotron facility. For conservation reasons, they often can’t be shipped anywhere at all. Walton and Pouyet turned to Northwestern’s computer scientists to seek a cheaper, more readily available technology that would be able to read challenging palimpsest texts trapped in bookbindings.

“There is a vast number of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and each wavelength has its advantages and disadvantages,” said [Aggelos] Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of them can penetrate deeper into the specimen, some of them have better resolution, and so on.”

Using a machine-learning algorithm developed by his team, Katsaggelos discovered that not one imaging technique but a fusion of two would yield the best results. His team combined visible hyperspectral imaging, which includes wavelengths within the visible light spectrum to provide high spatial resolution, with x-ray fluorescence imaging, which provides high intensity resolution. The algorithm informed the researchers of the relative contribution of each modality to produce the best image.

“By combining the two modalities, we had the advantages of each,” Katsaggelos said. “We were able to read successfully what was inside the cover of the book.”

Katsaggelos’ data fusion image was so clear that it rivaled an image of the main text produced by the powerful x-ray beams at CHESS.

Walton and Pouyet plan to take this show on the road. They want to examine books in museums and other institutions using the combination of hyperspectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence to read hidden texts on pages and bindings. You can read the team’s publication of their results in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta here.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

September 2017
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication