Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

Share

UV reveals erased poetry in 13th c. Welsh book

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

The Black Book of Carmarthen is the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in the Welsh language. It was penned by a single scribe working at different periods around the year 1250. Its name refers to the color of the binding and to the Augustinian Priory of Saints John the Evangelist and Teulyddog in Carmarthen, west central Wales, which is reputed to have been the manuscript’s original home. It has passed through many hands over the years, several of whom have left their mark on the vellum pages and at least one of whom sought to erase those marks. Now thanks to an ultraviolet lamp and photo editing software, what was lost has been rediscovered.

With the exception of a handful of Welsh triads about the legendary horses of Welsh heroes, the contents of the Black Book are poems dating from the 9th to the 12th century. They’re a varied lot, with religious verses, odes of mourning and praise and some of the first written versions of Arthurian tales rubbing shoulders in the 54 folios. The first poem in the book is Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin (A Conversation Between Merlin and Taliesin), a dialogue between the legendary mage and the great Welsh poet who, like Merlin, was reputed to have the power of prophesy. Two of the pieces later in the manuscript are prophetic poems ostensibly authored by Myrddin during his “wild man” phase.

The first owner of the Black Book whose name we know was Sir John Price of Brecon (ca. 1502-1555) who had been tasked by King Henry VIII with searching dissolved monasteries for loot. He got it from the treasurer of St. David’s Cathedral on the westernmost tip of Wales almost 50 miles from Carmarthen which is where he learned of its origins at the priory. It next appears on the historical record in the hands of 17th century Welsh book collector Robert Vaughan, but there are notes on the pages of the book that identify owners between the two. Scholar, book collector and warden of Ruthin Hospital Jasper Gryffyth (d. 1614) wrote his name in Hebrew and a note about the poems on one of the pages. William Salesbury (ca. 1520-1584), polyglot author of a Welsh-English dictionary and translator of the New Testament into Welsh, left a note on the bottom of a page as well. Also, Vaughan wrote in another manuscript that the Black Book had been owned by poet Siôn Tudur (d. 1602) at some point.

One of those 16th century owners — researchers believe it was probably Jasper Gryffyth — took it upon himself to clean up the Black Book and erase the notes and drawings his predecessors had left in the margins. University of Cambridge PhD student Myriah Williams and Professor Paul Russell noticed there were shadows on some of the pages and thought they might be able to see what was erased using ultraviolet light and playing with the spectrum using photo editing software. They spent three years examining the fragile volume — it’s so delicate can’t be opened at more than a 90 degree angle — and last year found two ghostly faces staring back at them. The little drawings, dated to the 14th or 15th century, were accompanied by an inscription that indicates the book was donated to a family member.

[T]he 16th century owner’s penchant for erasure has been partly reversed to reveal snatches of poetry which are previously unrecorded in the canon of Welsh verse. Currently, the texts are very fragmentary and in need of much more analysis, although they seem to be the continuation of a poem on the preceding page with a new poem added at the foot of the page.

Williams said: “It’s easy to think we know all we can know about a manuscript like the Black Book but to see these ghosts from the past brought back to life in front of our eyes has been incredibly exciting. The drawings and verse that we’re in the process of recovering demonstrate the value of giving these books another look.

“The margins of manuscripts often contain medieval and early modern reactions to the text, and these can cast light on what our ancestors thought about what they were reading. The Black Book was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century, and the recovery of erasure has much to tell us about what was already there and can change our understanding of it.”

The new poem has no known match in Welsh verse, so it was probably the original work of the annotator. Williams and Russell will give a lecture about their discovery at the National Library of Wales on Wednesday and will emphasize the importance of this research which has the potential to reveal so much about medieval Welsh literature.

The National Library of Wales has digitized the entire manuscript. You can browse through it page by page. There are no transcripts or translations, but the notes from previous holders are eminently legible in the first few pages.

Share

Anglo-Saxon eye salve kills MRSA superbug

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Since Alexander Fleming first noticed that the Penicillium mold that had accidentally contaminated his petri dish was lethal to the Staphylococcus bacteria inside it in 1928, humans have become accustomed to a world where infections can be cured with no more effort than having to swallow a few uncomfortably large pills for a week. The days when a scraped knee could kill seem like ancient history, but they’re not. Bacteria have become increasingly resistant to the antibiotics in the medical arsenal and with very few new antibiotics discovered over the past two decades, the prospect of a world of infectious microbes we cannot kill has become a terrifying reality. According to the CDC, 23,000 people a year die from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Even Fleming knew the antibiotic gravy train ran on unstable tracks. He noted in the official Nobel Lecture (pdf) he delivered in the days leading up to the ceremony awarding him the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.” The bacteria that survive the antibiotic onslaught and their descendants develop resistance to that antibiotic. If any survive the next antibiotic deployed against them, they become resistant to that one as well and on and on through the entire pharmacopoeia.

That’s how Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria came to set up shop particularly in hospitals because MRSA laughs at our puny human doctors with their losery old penicillins and amoxicillins. The rate of MRSA infections at US academic hospitals doubled between 2003 and 2008, and since there hasn’t been a new class of antibiotics discovered since the 1980s, MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria are only getting stronger.

The potential disaster here is so far-reaching it’s hard to grasp. It’s not just pneumonia and injuries that used to be easily treated that will become many times more fatal. Cancer treatment, organ and device (mechanical knees, hips, etc.) transplants, dialysis, open-heart surgery, any surgery at all, for that matter, including plastic surgery, even getting tattoos all rely heavily on antibiotics to keep patients alive. See the World Health Organization’s Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance (pdf) to learn more about the post-antibiotic apocalypse we’re facing.

Scientists all over the world are looking for new drugs to combat the rise of superbugs, among them a team from the University of Nottingham who have taken an approach so old it’s new again. The brain child of Dr. Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the University’s English department, the study tested the efficacy of a recipe for a salve to treat eye infections found in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of remedies for illness written in Old English around 950 A.D. in Winchester that is now in the British Library. Here is a translation of the recipe in volume two of Oswald Cockayne’s outstandingly titled Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, published in 1864-6. (I need to integrate “wortcunning” into my daily vocabulary.)

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel and let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.

No disrespect to Oswald Cockayne and his mastery of the catchy book title, but his translation needed updating for use in a scientific context. Dr. Lee translated the recipe from the original manuscript, researching ambiguous words for optimal accuracy. Researchers, led by microbiologist Dr. Freya Harrison, were meticulous in recreating the recipe as faithfully as possibly, even securing the wine from a vineyard that is known to have been in use in the 9th century. They made four batches of the salve and a control batch without any of the vegetable ingredients, then applied Bald’s salve to well-established MSRA cultures (with a dropper, not a feather) and waited for 24 hours before counting the surviving bacteria.

The team made artificial wound infections by growing bacteria in plugs of collagen and then exposed them to each of the individual ingredients, or the full recipe. None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

The team then went on to see what happened if they diluted the eye salve – as it is hard to know just how much of the medicine bacteria would be exposed to when applied to a real infection. They found that when the medicine is too dilute to kill Staphylococcus aureus, it interfered with bacterial cell-cell communication (quorum sensing). This is a key finding, because bacteria have to talk to each other to switch on the genes that allow them to damage infected tissues. Many microbiologists think that blocking this behaviour could be an alternative way of treating infection.

Bald’s onion and bile salve, it turns out, is an MRSA-killing machine.

Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them. But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”

It worked in vivo, too, on mice with MRSA-infected skin wounds at Texas Tech University.

As promising as this study is, it’s still in the early stages. The AncientBiotics program is crowdfunding to hire a summer intern to help them move forward briskly with this incredibly exciting research. They just reached their goal of £1,000 so they’ll definitely get funded, but given the modesty of the original goal and the global importance of this project, I’d love to see them raise a lot more than that. There are 26 days left in the fundraiser. Donate!

Share

Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.

Share

Richard III reburied today

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

More than 35,000 people lined the cortege route on Sunday, and more than 20,000 visitors have queued up to pay their respects to the mortal remains of Richard III in the three days the coffin has been on view at Leicester Cathedral. The culmination of this week of events is today’s reburial service.

A few tidbits about the service:

  • The current royal family will be represented by the Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, and the Duke of Gloucester who shares a title Richard held before he was king, but Queen Elizabeth II has written a tribute to Richard that will be printed in the service program.
  • After the service the coffin will be lowered into a tomb built of Yorkshire Swaledale stone. This is the first time the public will witness the actual lowering of a monarch’s coffin into the grave.
  • Descendents of people who fought at the Battle of Bosworth will be present.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, who is playing Richard III in an upcoming BBC series based on Shakespeare’s relevant histories, will read a poem called Richard written for the occasion by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Also University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer found Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard III are second cousins 16 times removed, see abridged genealogy here (pdf).
  • After the service the Cathedral will be closed to the public until Friday when the new memorial will be in place.

If you missed the transfer of the remains from the University of Leicester to the Cathedral and the Compline service that followed, Channel 4 has their entire coverage of the event available on their website. They will again be the only television channel broadcasting the reinterment live, but it looks like a sure bet that they’ll have that video available on their website if you miss it live.

Channel 4′s live coverage begins at 10:00 AM GMT (6:00 AM EST). In addition to airing the service itself, it will include discussions with some of the guests and the people involved in the discovery and reburial. The program will last three hours until 1:00 PM GMT. They’ll air a one-hour highlight reel at 8:00 PM GMT.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching live.

6:00 AM EDIT: Or rather I would be, if the Channel 4 viewer weren’t giving me an error. :angry:

7:06 AM: I can’t get it to work, dammit. I’ll have to watch it on demand later. For now, I’m listening to BBC Radio Leicester’s live coverage and following the Twitter RichardReburied hashtag.

The Leicester Mercury is liveblogging the reburial, as is the city’s dedicated King Richard in Leicester website.

7:23 AM: Here’s Queen Elizabeth II’s message:

7:31 AM: Professor Gordon Campbell, the University of Leicester’s public orator (dude, they have a public orator!) opened with a euology that was a brief, dry summary of Richard’s life, the discovery of his remains and the significance of his mitochondrial DNA. They don’t orate like they used to, man.

7:37 AM: The Dean just placed Richard’s personal Book of Hours, found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, on a cushion in front of the coffin.

7:49 AM: Check out this amazing headshake and eyeroll from John Ashdown-Hill of the Richard III Society. That’s Philippa Langley sitting next to him. I’m guessing is has something to do with insufficent recognition of Langley and the Society’s work in making this day come to pass.

7:58 AM: What a poetic sermon from the Bishop of Leicester.

8:02 AM: Here’s a neat story about the artist who made the ceramic vessels to hold the soils of Fotheringhay, Middleham and Fenn Lane that were blessed on Sunday and will be interred with Richard’s remains today. Michael Ibsen made the box, and a handsome one it is.

8:07 AM: Classic ashes to ashes dust to dust reading over the coffin which is now being lowered into the tomb.

8:08 AM: Apparently the soils will be sprinkled over the coffin, not placed in the tomb in the handsome box.

8:14 AM: “Grant me the carving of my name…” Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is beautiful and moving and Benedict Cumberbatch recited it like, well, a pro.

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

8:27 AM: And that’s all, folks. The luminaries are processing out. It was less than an hour long. No long, boring speeches. Beautiful music. Great poem. Epic Ricardian eyeroll. I couldn’t ask for more.

8:35 AM: Channel 4′s coverage continues with interviews of some of the principals — Langley, Ibsen, etc. I wonder if they’ll ask Philippa about the epic eyeroll. If, like me, you’re having trouble viewing the broadcast on Channel 4′s website, you can watch it online here instead. Wish I had remembered that an hour ago. :blankstare:

8:41 AM: They did ask John Ashdown-Hill about his eyeroll and he minced no words. He hoped the service would be peaceful, but “we still seem to be dealing with some lies from Leicester.” Daaaaamn… He wouldn’t specify the lies beyond saying they got Richard’s birthday wrong on the program.

8:45 AM: Benedict Cumberbatch was blown away by the poem. He looks stylish wearing a white rose lapel pin.

Share

Richard III cortege through Leicester on Sunday

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

The week of events leading to the reinterment of King Richard III on Thursday, March 26th, begins this Sunday with a cortege bearing his coffin from the University of Leicester to the Leicester Cathedral. After emerging from the university’s Fielding Johnson Building, the coffin holding Richard III’s remains will depart in a hearse at 11:40 AM and begin a slow procession stopping at historical sites from Richard’s last days.

The first stop is Fenn Lane Farm, the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. There the Reverend Hilary Surridge will lead a private ceremony bringing together soil from three locations of significance in the king’s life: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham (where he spent his early teens learning the knightly arts), and Fenn Lane (where he died).

Further stops include the Sutton Cheney church, the nearby Bosworth Heritage Centre and Bow Bridge, the medieval boundary of Leicester where the City Mayor, Lord Mayor and Gild of Freemen will welcome the remains. The cortege will then follow on foot to St. Nicholas Church where after a brief service the coffin will be transferred to a horse-drawn hearth to process through the city center.

The final stop at 5:45 PM is Leicester Cathedral where the king’s remains will be formally handed over from the University, holder of the Ministry of Justice exhumation license, to the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester. The congregation will hold a service of Compline with a sermon preached by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. On Monday the Cathedral will open to members of the public who wish to view the coffin and pay their respects. It will remain open during the week.

I haven’t been able to find any live video feeds of the entire cortege, but BBC Radio Leicester will be covering it. Listen live here. Channel 4 television will be covering the reinterment live on Thursday but is only scheduled to broadcast the arrival of Richard’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral on Sunday at 5:10 PM GMT.

Leicester has a website dedicated to reinterment week with lots of information and details about the events. The BBC has interactive maps of the cortege’s stops outside and inside the city. I’m hoping the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel, which has been replete with Ricardian goodness in anticipation of the reinternment, will have complete video of all the ceremonies.

Share

Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015


A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.

Share

From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, ca. 1420. Image courtesy Sotheby's.The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, side view. Image courtesy Sotheby's.Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Rudaba Makes a Ladder of Her Tresses, Folio 72v from Shahnameh of Shah TahmaspTahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Shah Tahmasp I and Mughal Emperor Humayun meet, fresco on the wall of Chehel Sotoun Palace Isfahan.Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish base, vaqf in the middle. Image courtesy Sotheby's.We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

Inscription of Shah Jehan on the side of the dish's foot. Image courtesy Sotheby's.So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.

 

Share

25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of 14th c. tower

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

In the Middle Ages, Rye was one of the towns of the Cinque Ports Confederation providing ships to the crown for coastal defense. Located at the tip of an embayment of the English Channel, Rye was an important shipping center for the iron bloomeries (smelting furnaces) of the Weald and other trade goods. Its tactical importance and close links to the monarchy made Rye a target for French attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. One of those attacks in 1339 during the reign of King Edward III saw French troops burn down 52 houses and one mill. In response, the city began to build permanent defenses, among them the Landgate Arch, a fortified entrance into the medieval city center over the only road that connected Rye to the mainland at high tide.

Landgate was a masonry structure with two towers on either side of an arched gateway. One of four fortified entrance gates to the city, it is the only one still standing today. Today it is still the only through-way for light vehicular traffic to reach the medieval city, but the tower itself is not open to the public. The floors and roofs of the towers are long gone leaving them open to the elements. Said elements include the excrement of pigeons and lots of it.

The fact that pigeons were converting the Landgate Arch towers into massive poop silos was noticed last month by members of the Rother District Council. Since guano is acidic and can eat through stone over time, the council contracted CountyClean Environmental Services to clean out the monument. CountyClean used a combination tanker truck that provides a high pressure jet while vacuuming up the sludge.

Mike Walker, Managing Director for CountyClean Environmental Services said: “Whilst we’ve removed other massive blockages such as giant fatbergs in sewers, we have never seen such a monumental mass of festering faeces before.”

“The build up of pigeon poo behind the doors was so big we had to force the them open. Once inside, it was like walking on a giant chocolate cake and the smell was awful – even through a facemask.”

“The floors of the towers and the steps leading to the top were swamped with 25 tonnes of pigeon poo. We filled our tanker several times over.”

The bird crap was almost three feet deep.

Share

Lead coffin inside stone coffin from Richard III dig opened

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

When the skeletal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester parking lot in two magical weeks September of 2012, the excavation team encountered another four graves in Trench 3 (Richard was found in Trench 1, see map here) on the site of what had once been the Grey Friars’ church. One of them stood out thanks to its limestone sarcophagus which was the first complete medieval stone coffin excavated in Leicester using modern archaeological methods. The other bodies had no surviving caskets, although evidence was found of two of them having been buried in long-decayed wooden coffins. Since the University of Leicester excavation team was under extreme time constraints, there was no question of exploring any other graves than the potential Richard’s at that time.

In July of 2013 the team returned to the Grey Friars site to excavate more of the church and, if possible, lift the stone sarcophagus found in the presbytery. The limestone box was cut in a tapered shape from a single block of limestone. The wider end was carved into a curve on the inside to create a niche for the head. The lid, also carved from limestone, didn’t quite fit and the mortar sealing it to the coffin was damaged. Water was able to get inside the coffin and over the centuries the unbalanced but very heavy lid fractured the sarcophagus extensively.

While they had hoped to lift the sarcophagus whole, archaeologists realized once they’d chiseled away the dirt caked on the sides of the coffin that the stone was too cracked to remain intact during the lifting process. They decided instead to lift the lid and remove it separately first. Nine people used lifting straps to manually raise the lid to ground level. Inside the sarcophagus they found a second coffin, this one made from lead. It was intact except for a hole at the feet where the lead had collapsed inwards.

Now the team had to lift the lead coffin before they could remove the fractured sarcophagus. They did this by dismantling one end of the limestone box, taking it apart piece by piece according to the existing fracture pattern. When they made enough space for it, they slid a wooden board underneath the lead coffin and two people lifted the lead coffin out like they were carrying it on a stretcher. The coffin was then transported to an infirmary so the insides could be explored with an endoscope to make sure there were no preserved soft tissues requiring special conservation conditions. There weren’t any; the remains were fully skeletonized.

Armed with the endoscope data, the team’s next step was opening the lead coffin. There were still intact solder joints that researchers did not want to damage because they could contain information about the construction of the coffin, so instead they decided to cut an opening all around the base of the coffin, lift the lid and sides and leave the skeleton on the lead base. In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists found some hair, small fragments of a fragment that looks like linen and a piece of cord. The fabric is probably what’s left of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in while the cord is a piece of the rope used to secure the shroud by tying around the legs.

When the stone sarcophagus was first unearthed, experts thought it might have contained the remains of Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, a knight and former mayor of Leicester who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362. Its location in presbytery of the friary church near the high altar was extremely prestigious, and a stone coffin with a lead coffin inside was an ultra deluxe burial package, a combination only someone with a great deal of wealth and position would be able to secure. Sir William seemed the likeliest candidate at first glance. Documentary research discovered two other possible candidates: leaders of the English Franciscan order Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272) and William of Nottingham (d. 1330).

Well, throw all of that out because surprise, the skeleton inside the lead coffin is female! She was a woman of means, as confirmed by stable isotope analysis of her bones which found that she ate a high-status, protein-rich diet — game, meat and a great deal of sea fish — only just below Richard III’s adult diet in quality. She was over 60 at time of death and radiocarbon dating found she died in the latter half of the 13th century or in the 14th.

Documentary research found the names of seven women closely associated with the friary. The radiocarbon dating results eliminated three names of women who died in the 16th century. Of the four remaining, the biggest shot was Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who was a dedicated patron of the friary. She died in France, however, and as far as we know was buried there as well. Of the three remaining women on the list, only one is specifically recorded as having been buried in the church: Emma Holt. All we know is her name and that she was buried in the friary church in 1290 because in September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence shaving Purgatory sentences off by 20 days for anyone who would say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester.” There’s no way to confirm is our leaden lady is Emma Holt. There are no known descendants for DNA matching. We don’t know her age at death, her looks or anything else about her that could link her to the skeleton.

Although the identity of the woman who had such significance to the Franciscan order that she was buried in the fanciest casket in the fanciest part of the friary’s church is likely to remain unknown, it is worth noting that she was not the only woman granted the honor of being laid to rest under the feet of praying monks. In the two Grey Friars digs, archaeologists found 10 graves. Five were left undisturbed in place. Five were excavated and the remains examined. One of those five proved to be King Richard III. The other four were all women.

Two of them were inside the choir on the opposite side of it from where Richard was found. They were between 40 and 50 years old at time of death and radiocarbon dating shows indicates they died between 1270 and 1400. One of them had what seems to be a congenital hip dislocation which would have required her to walk with a crutch. The other lived a life of physical labor. Her arms and legs bore the tell-tale sign of regular use in lifting heavy weights. Like the woman in the lead coffin, these ladies also ate a high quality, varied diet rich in proteins.

The fourth female skeleton had been disturbed — note for RM: these were the disarticulated female remains mentioned in the first press conference — so there’s limited information on her, but she too appears to have done hard physical labor in her short life before dying in her early to mid-20s. Since the choir and presbytery would be reserved for important, wealthy people, the fact that two women who did hard labor for years were buried there may suggest the friary’s top donors were not just aristocrats and clerical leaders, but members of the burgeoning middle class of merchants and tradespeople who had money in their pockets but made it by working hard with their hands.

As for the ratio of men to women being so lopsided, as unexpected as that is, it could very well just be a coincidence.

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.

“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.”

Here’s a brief documentary video of the lead coffin’s removal from the stone sarcophagus in situ and its opening in the laboratory. You can see how they took apart the stone coffin, how they cut the lead with what look like pruning shears and the fragments and remains inside in the lead coffin.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

April 2015
S M T W T F S
« Mar    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication