Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

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13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

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Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

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Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

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Welsh Castles from the Clouds

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Cadw, the Wales’ Historic Environment Service, has launched a neat new initiative as part of its Time Traveller campaign to inspire interest in Welsh history and encourage tourism to Welsh historic sites. It’s a video series called Castles from the Clouds, so named because some of Wales finest castles are filmed by a remote controlled drone carrying high resolution cameras. The videos are short but sweet, providing sweeping bird’s eye view vistas of the castles.

So far there are four videos uploaded to the Cadw YouTube channel, with more to come.

Laugharne Castle:

Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century on top of a 12th century Norman earth and timber fortification by the de Brian family. It was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last sovereign prince of Wales. Most of what stands today are the remains of a Tudor-era mansion built by Sir John Perrot who was reputed to be one of Henry VIII’s bastards. In 1644, it was besieged for a week and captured by Parliamentary troops. Already severely damaged by cannon fire, after its capture the castle was slighted (deliberately destroyed in whole or in part) leaving it in ruins. Those ruins inspired Dylan Thomas who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in the castle’s garden gazebo overlooking the estuary of the River Tâf.

Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle was watershed (no pun intended) in the history of castle construction. Built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, the castle is encircled by a series of concentric walls and is surrounded by elaborate water defenses, artificial lakes and moats created by the damming a local stream. It’s the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is number one). By the late 15th century the castle was in decline. By the 18th several towers had collapsed and the waters receded. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the castle was given to the state that the water defenses were re-flooded. One tower still standing today leans even more than a certain tower in Pisa.

Kidwelly Castle:

Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle that began as a ringwork castle in the 12th century. The stone castle was built in the mid-13th century by the de Chaworth family with the outer defenses added in the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Henry VII gave it to Rhys ap Thomas who had fought for him ably at the Battle of Bosworth. You might recognize it from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

St Davids Bishop’s Palace:

St Davids Bishop’s Palace began life as a monastery in the 6th century. The Norse raiders made a meal of it at least 10 times over the next four centuries. The Normans built a motte and bailey fortification to protect the holy site which held the relics of St. David, patron saint of Wales. A succession of bishops in the late 13th and 14th centuries built the stone structures. Bishop Henry de Gower built the cathedral in the 14th century, including the Great Hall with its beautiful wheel window.

Another bishop, Bishop William Barlow, is largely responsible for its ruin. Initially a Augustinian prior, he became prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation and an active participant in the Dissolution of Monasteries. In 1536, he stripped the Palace’s lead roof to raise money for his daughters’ dowries. Without a roof, the palace began to fall apart. By the 17th century it was considered a derelict hulk unfit for repair.

Subscribe to Cadw’s channel to see new Castles from the Clouds videos as they’re uploaded.

As a dedicated aficionado of coloring (no, I never grew out of it and never will), I must point you towards another aspect of Cadw’s Time Traveller campaign, the printable coloring sheets of Welsh heroes and (there’s one heroine but she’s a rather passive, tragic one). They’re very simple line drawings suitable for crayon work and young colorers. I’d love to see them add more intricate examples.

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Rare 7th c. silver bowl found in western Netherlands

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Leiden University archaeologists have unearthed a rare and beautiful silver bowl from the from the early 7th century in Oegstgeest, a town in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands. It was discovered just over a year ago, on June 4th, 2013, during the excavation of village from the 6th and 7th century on the banks of the Rhine. The find wasn’t announced for a year to allow the team to complete the excavation without interference from treasure hunters and lookie-loos.

The silver bowl itself dates to late antiquity, probably around 300-500 A.D., and is decorated with plant and animal figures in gold leaf. On the inside, three large trees or plants go from the base of the bowl to a border frieze. The plants divide the frieze into three sections separated by rosettes. Each section features animal figures running, one set appears to be three deer, another is two bucks and a dog, the third is two mythological animals, one of which appears to be carrying a human leg in its mouth. These decorative motifs suggest the bowl was originally manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.

It’s the elaborate gold and garnet appliqués that date to the first half of the 7th century. The base of the bowl is inset with a central disc that has garnets inlaid in a cross pattern. Between the garnets are swirls made of knotted gold wire. Tiny versions of the swirls decorate the border of the disc. There are two mounts with suspension rings added to the outside of the bowl. They too are gold with garnet accents and swirls of knotted gold wire. The style of decoration is from the German Rhineland (except for the suspension rings which are more in keeping with English and Scandinavian styles), so someone took an expensive Eastern bowl and made it even more expensive by adding Germanic gold accents.

The rings are characteristic of hanging bowls and the handsome interior decoration would certainly be more effectively shown off if the bowl were suspended with the interior visible. However, in order to hang evenly the bowl would have needed a third ring and there’s no evidence of a third mount on the bowl, not even rivet holes. It’s possible the piece was in the process of being manufactured, which would make it a very rare artifact captured mid-production.

The bowl was presumably used as a drinking vessel or a wash basin initially, but at some point a small hole was made in the base of the bowl from the outside in. The hole would have made it impossible for the bowl to hold liquids without leaking and it seems to have been done on purpose.

The ancient village was criss-crossed by several small waterways leading to and from the Rhine. The bowl was found in one of those small waterways, and archaeologists believe it was deliberately deposited as a sacrifice.

Researchers are assuming that the bowl, which is 21 centimetres wide and 11 centimetres high, was buried as part of a ritual sacrifice. Such gilded discoveries are extremely rare. This one is exceptional because such bowls were usually made of bronze. In addition, they were not, as a rule, lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This means that we are dealing with an artefact that is unique, not only for the Netherlands, but for all of Western Europe. (Until the discovery of this bowl there were no indications of the presence of a local or regional elite on the Oegstgeest settlement. It may be that in this period some members of the elite lived on ‘simple’ farms.)

The was in pieces when it was first found. A full restoration funded by the Province of South Holland has returned it to its former glory. The bowl is now on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities as part of the Golden Middle Ages exhibition that runs through October 26th. After that, it will be exhibited in the museum’s permanent collection on long-term loan from the Province of South Holland.

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Runes confirm Thor’s hammer amulet is a hammer

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.

Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.

Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”

There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.

The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.

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Ghent Altarpiece extensively overpainted

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

The Ghent Altarpiece, the 18-panel polyptych masterpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has had a tough life since it was completed in 1432. It’s been taken apart, stolen, split, burned, vandalized, cropped, pawned, hidden and shipped cross-continent. Even its permanent home in Saint Bavo, a glass enclosure built to protect the altarpiece from vandalism and theft, has proven inimical to the painting because of its inability to control temperature and humidity.

In 2008, a committee was convened to address the urgent conservation needs of one of the greatest and most influential works of medieval art ever made. After an in-depth study of each panel in situ, a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative and the creation of a fantastic website of high resolution scans and photographs, in October of 2012 the first eight panels — the outside wings — were removed from the polyptych and brought to a custom-built studio in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. There the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began a campaign of conservation and restoration.

The first cleaning phase saw the removal of yellowed and cracked varnish, much of it a synthetic ketone variety added in the 1950s. Older varnish and overpainting underneath the top layer were targeted next. Conservators also used cleaning windows to investigate the original frames which the van Eyck brothers considered an integral part of the polyptych. The cleaning windows revealed that the polychrome paint layer — a faux stone effect — isn’t all overpaint as was originally thought. There is later overpaint, however, and the cleaning revealed that the quatrains painted on the frames underneath the retouching and overpainting are actually different from the historical transcripts of them, a highly significant discovery.

To those early finds we can now add new information uncovered as the conservation project continues. As the KIK-IRPA conservators worked to clean the outer panels, they discovered that a surprisingly large part of the visible paint layer is actually overpaint. Previous analysis had failed to recognize this because the overpaint follows the age cracks of the original layer. The clothing of almost all the figures, the architectural elements in the background, the sculptures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the highlights on the faces and hands are all overpainted.

This find is of major art historical import, because while the overpainting follows the original closely, those early restorations were workmanlike. They can’t compare to the van Eyck brothers’ gifts for conveying the texture of fabric and the light and shadow. The 3D effect of a fold of clothing that the van Eycks were able to produce was flattened by the subsequent interventions. The overpaint also cut corners, painting over details the restorers weren’t capable of duplicating. When conservators removed the black overpaint from sections of the panel depicting donor Elisabeth Borluut, for example, they found cast shadows and cobwebs hidden underneath.

Paint samples analyzed with a 3D Hirox microscope by Ghent University scientists and by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence at the University of Antwerp confirmed the conservators’ observations. Cleaning tests on the panels determined that the original paint layer is in good condition, with little paint loss or abrasion from the overpaint. The conservation committee thus decided to go ahead and remove the overpaint. The painstaking process involves lifting the top paint layer bit by bit with a scalpel viewed under a binocular microscope.

The next phase of the conservation program will bring the new discoveries and analytical techniques to the interior panels that are still on site at Saint Bavo’s. They too will be studied using 3D Hirox microscope and Macro X-Ray Fluorescence, cleaning windows will reveal the extent of the overpainting and if conditions allow, we may soon see a whole new Ghent Altarpiece that hasn’t been seen in 500 years or so.

Meanwhile, thanks to financing from the Flemish government, the micro climate of the altarpiece’s glass enclosure has been stabilized. New LED lights thermic isolation liners now keep the temperature and relative humidity steady, protecting the wood and paint of the polyptych from dangerous fluctuations in heat and moisture. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will keep the altarpiece safe for the medium long-term.

Once this conservation project is complete, the Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece website which currently hosts the beautiful high resolution images of the altarpiece, will be expanded to cover the new discoveries and analyses. It will also feature a documentary on the current conservation program.

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Hundred Years’ War playing cards on Kickstarter

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

I love playing cards and I love history. Put them together and my heart grows three sizes that day. Since I’m not likely to get my grubby hands on, say, a gilt silver deck from 1616 that sold at auction for more than a half million dollars four years ago, I have to make do with more modest targets to assuage my covetousness.

Limited edition gold and silver packs of Hundred Years’ War cards printed by the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the classic Bicycle® brand of playing cards, would step very nicely unto the breach, dear friends. SPAAAADE&Co. has launched a Kickstarter project to fund the production of these cards. Their fundraising goal is $20,000. With eight days to go, they’ve raised $14,862. It would be an intense bummer if they got so close but failed to meet the goal, so go pledge now and book your set. One deck of each color is the reward for the $24 level, which you could easily pay for a couple of decks of far less awesome playing cards. Then there are fancier collector’s box sets and bricks with multiple decks and posters and uncut sheets and all kinds of neat rewards at the higher levels.

The art work was designed in collaboration with award-winning illustrator Hanuku and it is as beautiful as it is nerdy. Each color is represented by one of the sides in the Hundred Years’ War. The black suits are the French and the red suits the English. The number card designs are fairly standard, but the face cards, aces and card backs and packs are rich with historical references.

Ace cards are delicately designed using symbols and medieval motifs that represent each dynasty involved in the war.

Court Cards feature the major historic figures of the war. We’ve put real efforts to create a modern interpretation of the medieval costume designs and combine them with traditional court card elements. Court cards depict exceptional details with modern classic features. [...]

The back of the deck symbolizes the confrontation of two dynasties.

The Valois fleurs de lys crest faces off against the quartered crest of Edward III where the Plantagenet lions split the shield with the French fleurs de lys. Between them lie two crossed swords.

The face cards are the best. The Queen of Spades is Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI; the Queen of Clubs is none other than Joan of Arc. Okay, so technically she wasn’t a queen, but as a peasant fighter who turned the war around for France and probably the single most recognizable figure of the conflict, she is the perfect icon for the card. On the English side, the Queen of Diamonds is Catherine of Valois, Henry V’s wife, and the Queen of Hearts is Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III.

The Kings aren’t identified yet on the Kickstarter page, but if I were to hazard a guess based solely on the design, I’d say the King of Hearts is Edward III and the King of Diamonds Henry V, which would make sense with the Queen pairings as well. If the pairings hold for the Valois side as well, that would make the King of Spades Charles VI and the King of Clubs Charles VII, but they don’t really look like any images of those kings I know of.

The Jacks are badass too. The Jack of Spades is, to my utter delight, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms, Marshal of France, and convicted serial killer of hundreds of boys. The Jack of Clubs is Étienne de Vignolles, another of Joan’s closest comrades and a fighter of great skill who is the traditional face of the Jack of Hearts in French playing cards. The Jack of Diamonds is Edward, the Black Prince, the hugely successful military leader son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The Jack of Hearts is Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, one of Edward III’s most trusted lieutenants.

Irresistible, is it not? Spread the word and let’s get this thing funded.

 

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Early medieval gold coin hoard found in Netherlands

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

47 gold solidi unearthed in Drenthe province, the NetherlandsTwo metal detector enthusiasts searching in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province have discovered 47 gold coins from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The treasure consists of gold solidi minted in Constantinople, Rome, Ravenna and Laon, in northern France. Most of the coins, 38 of them, are Byzantine and depict the emperor Justinian. The most recent coin dates to 541 A.D. It’s rare to find loose gold coins from this period in the northern Netherlands; a coin hoard is unique. The last time gold treasure was unearthed in Drenthe was 1955.

The gold solidi each weigh more than four grams for a total of more than 200 grams, making the find the greatest amount of 6th century currency by weight ever found in the Netherlands. One coin is the only example of its kind discovered on Dutch soil. It’s a Frankish coin minted by the Merovingian King Theudebert (534-548), the first king to issue characteristic Merovingian coinage bearing his own image rather than the Byzantine emperor’s.

To prevent treasure hunters flocking to the site, no information is being divulged about the exact find area. We thus don’t know much about the context, but whoever buried the coins is likely to have been a high ranking personage in the local ruling elite.

That there was such a huge amount of money in circulation, according to an archaeologist involved means that Drenthe was an important political factor. [...]

The money may have been a diplomatic payment, probably a pay-off to keep the Drenthe people away from the boundaries of the Merovingian kingdom. That kingdom then was from the South of France to the major rivers in the [central] Netherlands.

Gold coin of King Theudebert I from Drenthe hoardVery little is known about the Netherlands of the 6th century and few archaeological remains from the period have been unearthed, so this find would be nationally significant even if it weren’t a flashy stash of gold solidi.

The discovery was made this spring, and the finders reported it promptly to the province’s government archaeologists. The find was announced to the public on Friday. The treasure was acquired by the Drenthe Museum which put the coins on public display starting Saturday. The hoard now takes its place as one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. Museum director Annabelle Birnie, as quoted in the Drenthe province’s press release:

“We are very pleased with our newest addition. It’s a great addition, and of great importance to our archaeological collection. In addition to the gold treasure of Tomahawk from the 5th century and the coin treasure Nietap from the 7th century, we now have a masterpiece in the 6th century, a period about which relatively little is known. This acquisition, combined with further research can give us new insights into this period of the Early Middle Ages.”

 

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