Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Norway ship burial excavation begins

Saturday, June 27th, 2020

On Friday, June 26th, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment Sveinung Rotevatn broke ground on the country’s first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in 100 years. The newly-discovered Gjellestad Ship comes slow on the heels of the Oseberg Ship which was excavated in 1904. Archaeological methodology, technology and understanding is a completely different universe 116 years later, so even though the  Gjellestad Ship is known to be in a far worse state of preservation than the exquisite Oseberg (now on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo), methods like micromorphology, DNA analysis, soil analysis and stable isotope analysis will give archaeologists a far richer picture of the ship burial, its contents and context.

The Gjellestad ship was discovered during a ground penetrating radar scan of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, in October of 2018. The GPR picked up the distinctive shape of the 65-foot long ship set within the circular perimeter of what had once been a burial mound on top of it, lost over centuries of agricultural work. It was incredibly close to the surface, just 1.6 feet underground, and therefore incredibly close to destruction.

In September of last year, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) archaeologists dug a test pit and retrieved a sample of the wood from the keel to get an idea of the ship’s age and condition. There was good news and there was bad news. The good news was the ship was confirmed dendrochronologically to be a Viking ship, the timber for its keel felled between the late 8th century and the start of the 10th century. The bad news was it is being devoured by fungal growth and very close to destruction.

Norway allocated funds for an emergency excavation of the Gjellestad Viking Ship to recover whatever of the ship and its context can be recovered before it all rots away. Now that the official ground-breaking is out of the way, archaeologists will begin the official excavation on Monday. Stage one entails the painstaking sifting of all the topsoil above the ship to a depth of about one foot. The hope is there might be some iron rivets, boat fittings, artifacts that were churned up out of their original positions by ploughing.

The ship is bisected by a drainage ditch, so the team is taking advantage of the landscape in the project planning. Working under a protective tent that covers the entire length and width of the ship, the team will first excavate the bow which is about 23 feet long tip to drainage ditch. In the second phase of excavation, they will unearth the bow and the burial chamber which is expected to be about in center of the ship.

The team is hoping to find grave goods, but there is evidence that the mound was looted long ago. Grave robbers dug a tunnel down the center of the ship so all the more obvious portable wealth like precious metals and jewelry from the burial chamber is probably gone. On the plus side, utensils, household goods, pottery and the like placed in the bow and stern were likely left behind.

The full excavation is expected to take about five months. It will not be open, but archaeologists will plan guided tours, pandemic measures permitting.

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Rare whale bones found in Leith

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

Two bones from a whale that may date as far back as the medieval period have been discovered in Leith, Scotland. Archaeologists surveying the site of a new tramway unearthed the rare bones earlier this year between the post office and a scrap yard on Constitution Street. They are the radius and ulna from the fin of a large adult male sperm whale and are a matched pair. They have not been radiocarbon dated yet because a pandemic rudely got in the way, but the archaeological context suggests they could be as much as 800 years old, dating to the earliest days of Leith’s settlement.

Located at the mouth of the Leith river on the Firth of Forth coast just north of Edinburgh, Leith has served as the city’s major port since the 12th century. Shipbuilding and whaling were two of its major industries from inception, the latter continuing well into the 1960s when ships had to go far afield to Arctic and Antarctic waters to find any whales left to kill.

Amongst possible theories are that they were brought back in the 19th or 20th century as a memento as part of Leith’s historic whaling industry, that they came from the remains of a whale beached locally and were subsequently dumped there or that they were part of medieval deposits left there during the reclamation of the site in the 17th to 19th centuries, perhaps dating back to the medieval period.

Other finds of note made during the exploration include an iron cannonball likely dating to the 17th century when the defenses of this area of Leith were reinforced during the Civil War, the remains of large stone wall that may have been part of a seawall built in the 16th or 17th century.

When the archaeological work began in November 2019, the team took down a wall from a graveyard that was established on the site in 1790 and in so doing discovered a large charnel pit with tightly stacked bones. This was probably created when graves were disturbed during the construction of utilities on Constitution Street in 19th century. The graveyard itself will be excavated later this year.

City archaeologist John Lawson said: “Our work to excavate the area as part of preparatory work for the Trams to Newhaven project has offered really interesting glimpses into the area’s history, over the past three to four hundred years, and we’re endeavouring to conserve that.

“Discoveries like the whale bones have been particularly fascinating and exciting. These bones provide a rare glimpse into and also a physical link with Leith’s whaling past, one of its lesser known maritime industries and one which in the 20th century reached as far as the Antarctic. Given the circumstances of how they were found it is possible that they may date back to the medieval period, and if so would be a rare and exciting archaeological discovery in Edinburgh.”

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Lucca crucifix is Europe’s oldest wooden statue

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

A revered crucifix in the Cathedral of Saint Martin in Lucca has been discovered to be hundreds of years older than previously believed, making it the oldest surviving wooden sculpture in Europe. The Volto Santo (Holy Face) di Lucca is a monumental sculpture more than eight feet long depicting Christ on the cross. It is itself a holy relic and as such has never been radiocarbon dated before because the testing requires taking samples and destroying a part of the cross.

This year marks the 950th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. As part of program of events to celebrate its venerable history, the Cathedral of San Martino asked the Institute of Applied Physics and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics to analyze and date the sculpture. Technology now allows for radiocarbon dating extremely small samples, so for the first time, permission was granted to remove tiny bits for testing. Four samples were taken from different places on the crucifix — three of the wood and one fragment of canvas affixed between the wood and the paint in a technique known as incamottatura. They were carefully treated and cleaned to remove any organic residues or varnishes that might alter the data. The dates of all the samples converged around the early 9th century, but the possible range goes back as far as the late 8th century to the middle of the 9th.

That early potential date sets off a frisson of excitement, because it matches the legend behind the sculpture. According to the traditional tale relayed in a 12th century manuscript, the statue was carved by Nicodemus, the Pharisee who helped Joseph of Arimathea wrap the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, but as he was Jewish and therefore prohibited from depicting a human visage, angels carved the face of Christ, hence the “Volto Santo” even though it’s a full-bodied sculpture.

For 700 years it remained hidden in the city of Ramla, modern-day central Israel, where it was rediscovered by a northern Italian bishop named Gualfredo during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. An angel came to him in a dream and told him where to find it. He had it loaded onto a ship at Jaffa and put it out to sea without a crew or sails, praying that it would reach Christian lands. It reached the town on Luni the northern coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. John I, Bishop of Lucca, was visited by an angel in a dream and told to fetch the Volto Santo from Luni. The feat accomplished, he brought the statue to Lucca in 782, the second year of the reign of Pepin, son of Charlemagne, as King of Italy.

Its first appearance on the historical, rather than hagiographic, record is when Bishop Anselmo da Biaggio presented it to the cathedral of Lucca at its consecration in 1070. Art historians have long thought based on the carving style that the sculpture now in the cathedral was made after that date, that it was a mid-12th century copy of a lost original that was the kernel of truth in the legend.  The C-14 results prove that it is not a later medieval copy, but the original Volto Santo and it could even date to the time when legend says it arrived in Lucca.

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WWII silver cache found in 14th c. castle

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

A hoard of silver objects likely buried in World War II has been discovered on the grounds of a 14th century castle in Nowy Sącz, southern Poland. A group from the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association were surveying a site near the castle tower when their metal detector alerted them to the presence of what turned out to be a rusted out chest. The crate was corroded almost to nothingness, but the treasure it contained was in excellent condition.

They first unearthed some paperwork — apparently passes and receipts — in poor condition. Under the pages the chest was filled with silver tableware, including goblets, stemware, cups, flatware, serving vessels and candlesticks. In total 103 silver objects were found in the disintegrating chest. The pieces date from the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and the design style identifies them as Jewish ceremonial art.

Local archaeologist Bartłomiej Urbański, who was present at the search site, said: “It is Judaica, probably from the turn of the 19th and 20th century, connected to Jewish ritual and was probably buried during World War Two.

He added: “Is it connected with the buildings that used to be in this part of the city, or was it stolen by the Germans, who were then unable to take it away?”

The town of Nowy Sącz was founded by Wenceslaus II of Bohemia in 1292, eight years before he became King of Poland. Its location near an important trade route to Hungary garnered it significant privileges. Wenceslaus replaced a wooden watchtower perched on a hill within the city’s fortifications with a castle. In the mid-1300s, King Casimir III the Great greatly expanded the royal castle, integrating it into the new defensive wall he had built around the city. This grander castle of Nowy Sącz had two corner towers, at least one other tower, a residential building with multiple stories, and probably a moat separating it from the city proper. For the next 300 years, Polish kings and queens and visiting Hungarian and Danish royalty stayed in the castle. It was devastated by fire twice, once in 1522, once in 1611. After the second fire, the castle was rebuilt and expanded again in Renaissance style by Count Sebastian Lubomirski and, after his death, by his son Stanisław. That phase ended in 1655 when the castle took heavy damage during the Deluge (Sweden’s invasion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). It was patched up a couple of times by Austrian authorities after the Partition, but it never really recovered.

It was rebuilt again on a much smaller scale in 1938 just in time for the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces occupied the castle and used it as a barracks. Under German occupation, 20,000 Nowy Sącz Jews were forced into a ghetto. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and all of the town’s Jewish community was sent to slaughter in Bełżec extermination camp. German forces stored large quantities of ammunition at the castle and Polish resistance fighters blew up the depot in 1945, destroying what little was left of the castle. The tower was reconstructed one more time in 1959.

After so beleaguered an existence, only a smattering of walls a few feet high remain of the original 14th century structure. The town of   Nowy Sącz wants to rebuild the castle (yes, again) and convert the tower into a museum. The Sądecki Regional Development Agency contracted with the Nowy Sącz Historical and Exploratory Association to explore the castle ruins assisted by professional archaeologists. They were scanning for shrapnel and metal parts from the explosion when they discovered the silver cache.

The objects will now be transferred to archaeological conservators who will clean, conserve and catalogue them for future display in the local museum.

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Longhouse remains rewrite Iceland’s settlement history

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

The Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlement) records that the first Norse settler on Iceland was one Ingólfur Arnarson who left Norway in 874 and built a farmstead on the site what is today Reykjavík. Remains of longhouses from around that time have been discovered under the city, as we know from the high-precision dating made possible by the layer of volcanic tephra ash deposited in 871 A.D. (plus or minus two years margin of error) by an eruption at the Torfajökull volcano field. A site on the Stöðvarfjörður fjord has not one but two structures that significantly predate the tephra ash and the official settlement of Iceland.

Archaeological remains were discovered at the Stöð farm by accident in 2003 and the first excavations began in 2015. Since then, archaeologists have found the remains of two structures, both of them under the tephra layer. They are Viking Age longhouses. The most recent one dates to between 860 and 870 and is 103 feet long, conspicuously larger than other early Settlement Era longhouses found in Reykjavík. The one discovered during hotel development in 2015 was 66 feet long.

Excavation leader Bjarni F. Einarsson:

“It is also the richest longhouse ever excavated in Iceland. We have found 92 beads and 29 silver objects, including Roman and Middle-Eastern coins.” The bead horde at Stöð is twice as large as the next two largest found in Iceland combined. In fact, it is one of the very largest ever found at a Viking-Age site in all of Scandinavia.

The older of the two longhouses is even huger at approximately 130 feet long. Radiocarbon analysis of barley grains found in the longhouse layer dates it to around 800 A.D., seven decades before Ingólfur Arnarson set food on Iceland’s shores. The younger farmhouse was built within the collapsed walls of the older one.

Bjarni’s theory is that the older longhouse was a seasonal hunting camp. He believes such camps were operated in other parts of Iceland as well. “We have found several sites in Iceland where we can confirm human presence before the year 874. The site on Aðalstræti in downtown Reykjavík is one. Another is Vogur in Hafnir [Southwest Iceland].”

Seasonal camps would have played a vital role in the settlement of Iceland, extracting valuable resources and thus financing further exploration and settlement. Recent paleoecological research suggests the valuable resource that drew them there was walrus ivory. Walrus ivory was in high demand in Europe in the ninth century, as were the animals’ blubber and hides. It was also valuable: a single walrus tusk was worth the annual wages of one farm worker.

The very name of the farm supports Einarsson’s position. Stöð means camp or base.

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Tree rings reveal St Giles Kirk history

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020

Core samples taken from the great five-story timber frame inside the St Giles Kirk’s iconic crown tower in Edinburgh have returned unexpected dendrochronological results.

The original St. Giles Kirk was a Romanesque church founded by David I of Scotland in 1124. It’s not known when construction was completed, but the church was put to the torch by Richard II of England in 1385. It was rebuilt in Gothic style and then extensively altered in the 15th century. There are no records of when the frame was installed, and few records of when the spire was built. Chroniclers report that the church had a masonry spire by 1387 and that storks nested on it in 1416.

The South East Scotland Oak Dendrochronology project (SESOD) has been studying historic timbers to create a detailed tree-ring record for native oaks from southeastern Scotland. They thought the St Giles timbers might date to just after the construction of the masonry tower and hoped they were felled in SE Scotland, but because the supply of old growth oak was almost gone by then, most of the timber used in 15th century Scotland was imported from Scandinavia.

The dendrochronological analysis instead dated the timbers to the second half of 14th century when the crown spire was first completed. The wood came from northeastern Scotland. It was felled from the Royal Forest of Darnaway in Morayshire, source of the timber used in the construction of Stirling Castle, in the winters of 1453-4 and 1459-60. Some of the trees used were more than 300 years. This is the most recent use of Darnaway oaks known. Shortly thereafter the forest was closed to logging.

The new dendro-dates show this tower was greatly altered in the mid-15th century at a time when many other structural changes were being made at St Giles. The new dates infer the completion of the crown spire as being after 1460 and probably by 1467 when the church was granted collegiate status from the pope, although the crown spire we see today was repaired and much altered in 1653. […]

Amongst the patrons of the extensive mid-15th century construction work at St Giles are James II and, following his untimely death in 1460, his widow Mary of Guelders, who was regent of Scotland between 1460 and 1463 for their son, the infant James III. Their arms appear on shields on The King’s Pillar in the choir of St Giles, interpreted as a tribute to the late king by his devout queen.

The Forest of Darnaway was forfeited to the crown after the defeat of Archibald, the Black Douglas Earl of Moray, at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455, which may explain why timber from Darnaway was used to build the bell-frame in the tower at St Giles, through this royal patronage.

Although the timber was felled when James II was still alive, its supply to St Giles may have occurred when Mary of Guelders was regent, between 1460-1463, after James’ death in the summer of 1460. This question could be investigated further with more sampling as the precise felling dates are from the lower levels of the structure.

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Poltergeist, Norwegian style

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

A Viking grave has been discovered under the floor of a private home in Bodø, central Norway. The Kristensens were renovating the family home and pulled the floorboards to install new insulation under the bedroom floor. After digging up a layer of sand and the stone rubble underneath that, something shiny caught their eye. At first they thought the small dark circular object might be the wheel from an old toy. A little more digging turned up a heavily corroded iron axe and a few other iron pieces.

At this point Mariann Kristensen contacted Nordland County officials and they dispatched archaeologists from the Tromsø Museum to investigate the finds. The bead, axe and other objects appear to date to the early Middle Ages, around 950-1050 A.D. They have been transferred to the museum for study and conservation.

Archaeologists have begun a larger excavation of the find site; ie, under the Kristensens’ house. County archaeologist Martinus Hauglid thinks it’s most likely a grave from the Iron Age or Viking Age. The stones the Kristensens found under the sand layer are probably part of a burial cairn.

[Hauglid] said he had never heard of a find being made underneath a house.

“I never heard of anything like that and I’ve been in business for nearly 30 years,” he said. “They did a magificent job, they reported it to use as soon as they got the suspicion that it actually was something old.

The house had been in the family since it was built by Mariann’s great-grandfather in 1914. There is no family legend of Vikings in eternal slumber under the bedroom floor.

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Dump truck delivers topsoil, 9th c. Anglo-Saxon silver brooch

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

A rare Anglo-Saxon brooch that was once part of the most unwittingly valuable dump truck full of a topsoil is on its way to being declared treasure. It was discovered by a novice metal detectorist in a field near Swaffham, Norfolk, on May 9th, 2019. Numbers that should forever be his lotto picks, because it was literally the third time he’d ever gone metal detecting. He had no idea what he’d found, at first thinking it was Victorian. He reported his lucky strike to the local finds liaison for the Portable Antiquities Scheme who identified it as an Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch in Trewhiddle style dating to the mid- to late 9th century.

The brooch is made of silver with niello inlay. It is three inches in diameter and is complete with the pin mechanism on the back. The front features a central cross with concave arms over a saltire of open-work tongue-shaped lobes. Inside the lobes of the saltire are what appear to be three stacked pots with large, round flowers growing out of the top and bottom pots. The spaces between the saltire and the arms of the cross are decorated with zoomorphic figures typical of the Trewhiddle style. Around the edges of the disc are swirling foliar designs. Five domed bosses are riveted on the arms and center of the cross.

The Norfolk County Council dispatched archaeologists to the find site to excavate it. Beneath the layer where the brooch was found, the team unearthed a 19th century plough, so they knew the brooch was likely deposited on the field rather than having slumbered there for centuries. The landowner confirmed he had recently had a load of soil dumped on the field, but he didn’t know where it came from having simply “flagged down” a truck.

Topsoil deliveries usually don’t range far afield so the soil was almost certainly local, and this would not be the first time exceptional Anglo-Saxon brooches were found in the environs. The Pentney Hoard which includes six open-work silver disc brooches in Trewhiddle style, was discovered by a gravedigger in a churchyard not 10 miles away in 1978. The swirled foliar border, cross, saltire and bosses of the newly-discovered brooch are very similar to one in the Pentney Hoard, only in even better condition. Norfolk County Council’s senior finds archaeologist Steven Ashley believes the pieces were made by the same hand, or at least the same workshop.

The coroner’s inquest to determine the brooch treasure status has been opened. It is scheduled to close on June 9th, and it’s pretty much a given that the brooch will be officially declared treasure.

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Norway to excavate first Viking ship burial mound in 100 years

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

In October 2018, a geophysical survey of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, revealed the presence of Viking ship burial. The landowner had applied for a soil drainage permit and because the field is adjacent to the monumental Jell Mound, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) inspected the site first. Using a four-wheeler with a georadar mounted to the front of it. The high-resolution ground-penetrating radar picked up the clear outline of a ship 20 meters (65 feet) long.

The ship was found just 50 cm (1.6 feet) under the surface. It was once covered by a burial mound like its neighbor, but centuries of agricultural work ploughed it away. Subsequent investigation of the area found the outlines of at least 11 other burial mounds around the ship, all of them long-since ploughed out as well. The georadar also discovered the remains of five longhouses.

In order to get some idea of the ship’s age, condition and how much of it is left, in September of 2019, NIKU archaeologists dug a test pit was dug to obtain a sample of the wood of the keel. The keel was of a different type to ones from other Viking ship burials known in Norway. It is thinner and smaller than usual. The two-week investigation and analysis of the sample found that the ship does indeed date to the early Viking era. The wood was felled between the late 8th century and the start of the 10th century. 

In more distressing news, the analysis of the sample revealed that the wooden remains were under severe attack from fungus. The use of fertilizer on the farmland above the ship encourages the fungal growth and not only is the keel plagued by soft rot, the remains even at the deepest point where preservation conditions are the best possible are under acute distress.

Norway’s government has responded to the archaeological emergency by allocating 15.6m kroner (about $1.5 million) to excavate the Gjellestad Viking Ship and get it out of the ground before it rots to nothingness. While other Viking ship burials have been excavated in recent years, the last Viking ship burial mound to be excavated was the Oseberg ship in 1904-1905. If the Norwegian parliament approves the budget, excavation of the Gjellestad Ship is slated to begin in June.

[Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History,] said that even if the vessel was less well preserved that the team hoped, it could still provide important new information on Viking ship burials, as the Tune, Gokstad, and Oseberg ships, which were excavated in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, were not carried out to modern standards.

“It’s important because it’s more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this,” he said. “With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place.”

“These were very early excavations so there’s a lot of information that we really don’t have because of the way it was done at the time.”

He said that as well as the keel of the boat, there were also signs of burial goods and other matter inside the ship.

“We know that when we excavate we will be able to investigate some of those objects,” he said.

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Medieval church walls found in Ethiopia

Monday, April 27th, 2020

The remains of a medieval church have been discovered at the archaeological site of Debre Gergis in the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia.  Archaeologists from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw (PCMA UW) had begun to excavate the site last month when the fieldwork season was cut short after just eight days. Before the team was pulled out to beat coronavirus travel restrictions, the team deployed drones to record their discoveries for later analysis.

Visible above ground at Debre Gergis are ruins from the Aksumite Empire (100 A.D. – 940 A.D.), several sandstone pillars and a monumental obelisk 20 feet high. The obelisk, a uniquely Axumite architectural feature, is likely a grave marker, part of a vast ancient cemetery at the site.

The ruins of Debre Gergis have been visually surveyed and photographed, but the site had not been excavated. The goal of this first excavation of Debre Gergis was to thoroughly map and document the surface remains and to look for other potential spots of interest.  Locals report that there was a Christian church from the late Aksumite period, but there are no records of its precise age, design or layout. The team hoped to find remains from the church.

In two archaeological excavations, researchers noticed damaged walls probably constituting the outer part of a medieval church. One of them still contained wooden piles. In addition, a fragment of the apse was discovered, in the form of stone floor blocks with a semicircular layout.

The researchers also noticed a block with engraved inscription in Ethiopic. A preliminary analysis of its age based on the fragments of ceramic vessels discovered next to the block suggests that it dates back to 700-1100 AD. Works on translation are underway.

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