Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

YouTube masterclass on the Cosmati pavement

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

I see from the recent story on the opening of Westminster Abbey’s triforium galleries that I am not alone in my obsession with its Cosmati pavement, the glorious inlaid semi-precious stone, marble, metal and glass mosaic in front of the High Altar. It was commissioned by King Henry III for his rebuild of the less glamorous Abbey built by Edward the Confessor. Odoricus, an Italian mosaicist trained in the geometric, abstract, allegorical Cosmati style, brought tesserae from Rome and combined them with local materials to create a unique pavement.

The mosaic was finished in 1268 and has been the epicenter of monarchical ceremony ever since. Thirty-eight kings and queens have been crowned on the Cosmati pavement. Trod upon for centuries by the softest royal slipper and roughest pilgrim clog alike, the pavement suffered greatly from wear and ground-in dirt. The marble tiles, which Odoricus is believed to have sourced from the remains of ancient Roman floors, likely had a millennium’s head start on wear, and layer upon layer of wax and polish only served to darken and dim a surface that had once been vividly colored and highly reflective.

Concerned about its deteriorating condition, church officials covered most of the Cosmati pavement with carpet in the 1870s. That’s how it remained, revealed in part or on rare ceremonial occasions until 2008 when Westminster Abbey undertook a comprehensive two-year conservation project. The team cleaned the surface, removing the old wax, polish and dirt with specialized solvents. Stone and glass conservators stabilized damaged areas, repairing damaged glass, stone and mortar. The last step was applying a new protective coating to make it possible for the pavement to be displayed safely and to its best shiny, colorful advantage.

When the conserved pavement was finally revealed in 2010, I yearned to write about it but how could I without proper high resolution before-and-after images? That would be just be cruel. Unfortunately, no such photographs were to be found, not from the Abbey’s communications department, not in the press, not from funders like the Getty which is always great about providing high-res pictures when it comes to its own projects, not even in a publication that I could buy. To this day, almost a decade later, as far as I know there are no books whatsoever documenting the conservation.

The recent discussion on the Cosmati pavement view from the triforium drove me to try one more time. I checked a site dedicated to the conservation that the Abbey had put up in 2012, hoping its sad little 500-pixel images had been upgraded, but the site doesn’t exist anymore. Then I checked YouTube.

Y’all, Westminster Abbey’s channel has a playlist of 51, count’em 51, videos covering the history, symbolism and conservation of the Cosmati pavement. These films are absolutely riveting. Interested in the background of Henry III’s commissioning of the mosaic? Done. Curious about the cosmological significance of the design and how the precise date of the end of the world is calculated in the inscription? Keep watching. How about those glass tesserae so atypical in Cosmati style mosaics? Six videos about them enough for you? Want to hear from the stone masons about the Purbeck Marble background repair? The mortar repair? The yellow limestone repair? The black marble repair? Boom, a video for each.

Clear your social calendar for the next few days and make way for the greatest playlist ever played.

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Westminster Abbey gallery open after 700 years

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Seven hundred years after it was built, Westminster Abbey’s eastern triforium has opened to the public for the first time. Soaring 52 feet above the Abbey floor, the gallery provides a one-of-a-kind view of the cruciform architecture of nave and apse, the Great West Door, the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and my personal obsession, the Cosmati Pavement in front of the Grand Altar whose intricate geometry is best appreciated from above.

It’s not just a great viewing perch. The triforium has been transformed into the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, a fitting exhibition space for 300 objects from the Abbey’s collection. It is divided into four sections with their own themes: construction of the Abbey, worship and daily life, relationship with the monarchy and the church’s pivotal role in preserving the national memory.

Artifacts on display include the Litlyngton Missal, an illuminated Latin manuscript that is one of the largest medieval manuscripts known, the Liber Regalis, the 14th century guide to coronations and royal funerals that remains to this day the basis of those ceremonies, the Westminster Retable, the oldest altarpiece in England that is believed to have originally adorned the Westminster Abbey of Henry III’s day. There is also a remarkable collection of royal funeral effigies, 21 of them dating from the 14th through the 17th centuries.

Among them are Mary I and Edward III (who had eyebrows made of dog hair, sadly missing today) and Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V, slender in her flowing red robe. These would have been placed on the coffin for the funeral procession, bewigged, fully dressed in robes of state and carrying the orb and sceptre. For this reason, they are jointed, like life-size dolls.

Then there are the personal details: for example, the painted head of Henry VII, probably by the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, may be a death mask because his mouth is slightly twisted – he died from a stroke. Just nearby is the long, tightly-laced corset worn by the effigy of his grand-daughter Elizabeth I, which would have been topped off with a ruff and a crown.

On Friday, June 8th, the Queen and Prince of Wales officially opened the new galleries and came face-to-effigy with their predecessors. They opened to the public on Monday. The space is small and the number of visitors allowed is limited, so tickets (which must be bought in addition to the general Abbey admission ticket) are timed in 15-minute intervals.

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Executed Anglo-Saxon found at wind farm

Friday, June 8th, 2018

The skeleton of a man from the late Anglo-Saxon period has been discovered during an archaeological survey along the cable route of the Rampion Offshore Wind Farm in the South Downs region off the coast of Sussex. Archaeology South East were contracted by European electric company E.ON to excavate the installation path of the cable that will carry the wind farm’s power and have so far unearthed archaeological material — flint tools, pottery, evidence of cultivation — dating from the late Neolothic to the Bronze Age, Roman era, Middle Ages and the post-medieval period. The complete skeleton interred in a grave hewn from the chalk bedrock South Downs is famed for is the most exceptional of these finds.

The skeletal remains of the adult male were found in 2015 on Truleigh Hill near Shoreham, West Sussex. Osteological analysis indicates he was between 25 and 35 years old when he died and likely lived a hard life up until then. There is evidence of a healed fracture on his left arm and repetitive stress on the vertebrae caused by bending or twisting movements. The skeleton was intact, missing only a few small bones from the hands and feet. There is no evidence of a coffin. He was placed in the grave on his back with his arms at his side in the east-west alignment typical of Christian burials.

Bone analysis put the date of his death between 1010 and 1023, while cuts to the neck pointed to a violent end. […]

Jim Stevenson, Project Manager for Archaeology South East, said: “Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the skeleton is most likely to be an execution burial of the later Anglo Saxon period.

“Most significantly two cut marks made by a sharp blade or knife were found at the mid length of the neck, which would have proved fatal.”

The grave site was located in an area known to have prehistoric graves. Apparently there were once burial mounds visible, but they were excavated flat in the 18th and 19th centuries and the digs were poorly documented so it’s not possible to pinpoint their location today. Isolated burials were sometimes found near the mounds. Perhaps this fellow having been condemned to death was denied access to a Christian cemetery and buried at an ancient holy site instead.

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Viking fire preserved largest Pictish fort

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

The 10th century Viking raid that destroyed the powerful Pictish hill fort of Burghead in Moray, northeastern Scotland, has the unintended consequence of preserving archaeological material that would otherwise have decayed into nothingness by now. The fire that razed the fort and ended more than three centuries of Pictish life at the largest and oldest fort in what is now Scotland charred organic remains and kept them from rotting.

Until recently, there hasn’t been a great deal of archaeological exploration of the fort site because it was presumed to have been largely obliterated. To paraphrase a famous pasquinade, Quod non fecerunt Vikingi fecerunt Scoti. When the modern town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809, more than half of the hill fort’s remains were destroyed. The elements and coastal erosion have been chipping away at everything else at an alarming rate.

In 2015, a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen began excavating inside the defensive walls and several significant discoveries were unearthed, including a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. This April the team for the first time turned their spades and brushes on the lower citadel and the sea-facing ramparts of the upper citadel. Much to their surprise, they found wood timbers in excellent condition in both locations. The timbers in the lower citadel were part of a massive defensive wall that would have been 20 feet high in its heyday.

[University of Aberdeen head of archaeology] Dr Noble explains: “We are fortunate to have the descriptions of the site written by Hugh Young in 1893. He describes a lattice work of oak timbers which would have acted as an enormous defensive barrier and must have been a hugely complex feat of engineering in the early medieval period.

“In the years that have passed since he made his observations, the Burghead Fort has unfortunately been subject to significant coastal erosion and the harsh North Sea environment.

“But when we started digging, we discovered that while the destruction of the fort in the 10th century may not have been good news for the Picts, the fact that so much of it was set alight is a real bonus for archaeologists.

“We have discovered that the complex layer of oak planks set in the wall was burned in situ and that the resulting charring has actually preserved it in amazing detail when ordinarily it would have rotten away to nothing by now.”

On the other side of the size scale, Pictish jewelry has been discovered at the fort, among them a bronze ring, a mace-headed pin and a hair or dress pin with a bramble design on the head. They’ve also had the good fortune of finding the fine archaeological resource that is old garbage. The team has unearthed several midden layers from the Pictish era which will shed new light on the daily lives of a people who left no written records. Here too remains have been unusually well preserved.

“What’s exciting is the level of preservation here. We’ve found animal bone which rarely survives in mainland Scotland because of the acidic soil. We are already getting really nice information about what people ate within the fort and we hope to extract a level of information we’ve not had for Pictish sites before.”

Excavations are over for the season. The University of Aberdeen team plans to return next year to work the coastal area which is under dire threat from erosion. The timber wall is less than five feet from the erosion line, so the next excavation will be under the pressure of a salvage mission.

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Anne of Brittany’s heart stolen, found

Friday, May 4th, 2018

On the night of Friday, April 13th, thieves broke in through a window of the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, western France, and stole the gold reliquary made to contain the heart of one of my favorite historic personages, Anne of Brittany. The alarm did sound, but it was insufficient to stop the thieves.

The only woman ever to be queen of France two separate times (both entirely against her will), Anne struggled her whole life to keep Brittany independent and after her sadly premature death in 1514 at the age of 37 was a revered symbol of Brittany’s unique history and culture. The reliquary that contained her heart was created shortly after her death and is inscribed “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.”

That dedication may have been part of the attraction for the thieves who may have been hoping to make big bucks by melting it, but the 6-inch reliquary and its lovely crown of nine fleurs-de-lis together total only 100 grams of gold. This is not the first time the gold reliquary and crown had a brush with the crucible. It was confiscated during the French Revolution and Anne’s heart thrown in the trash, a fate suffered by so many royal remains. The container was ordered melted down, but the order was never followed and the reliquary was kept intact in the Bibliothèque Nationale until 1819 when it was returned to Nantes. It has been part of the collection of the Musée Dobrée since the 1880s.

There were murmurs that Breton nationalists might have been behind the theft, but the authorities thought it more likely to have been the work of petty thieves. Councilors of the Loire-Atlantique department accordingly appealed in the press for the return of the precious artifact, pointing out that it has far more historical value than monetary.

A week later, Nantes police found the reliquary, a figurine and some gold coins, all stolen from the museum, at an undisclosed location near the museum.

Two men in their early twenties have been arrested and charged with “association with criminals” and “theft of cultural assets”. One is known to authorities. They both deny involvement. Two other suspects are at large.

According to Pierre Sennes, the Nantes prosecutor, the prized gold case “seems to be in good shape”.

The museum reopened to visitors last week, sans reliquary for the time being, but on Wednesday, May 2nd, the government of the Loire-Atlantique department announced that the Voyage in the Collections exhibition would be closed permanently because of the thefts and the damage inflicted on the display. It was supposed to run through September 30th.

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Largest known child sacrifice found in Peru

Friday, April 27th, 2018

The remains of more than 140 children and 200 young llamas have been unearthed at a Chimú Empire site on the northern coast of Peru. It’s the largest known mass sacrifice in history.

While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimú civilization is unprecedented in the Americas—if not in the entire world. […]

Huanchaquito-Las Llamas (generally referred to by the researchers as “Las Llamas,”) first made headlines in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found during an emergency dig directed by study co-author Prieto. An archaeologist and Huanchaco native, Prieto was excavating a 3,500-year-old temple down the road from the sacrifice site when local residents first alerted him to human remains eroding from nearby coastal dunes.

By the time excavations concluded at Las Llamas in 2016, more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 juvenile llamas had been discovered at the site; rope and textiles found in the burials are radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450.

The tell-tale marks of sacrificial killing are on their skeletal remains. There are cut marks on the sternum, dislocated ribs, likely from when they were pulled apart to access the heart.
The lack of hesitation marks suggests this was done by a very practiced and steady hand or hands. The children were between five and 14 years old, most of them between eight and 12. The llamas were even younger, less than 18 months old.

The evidence indicates all this killing took place at one extended event rather than having been spaced out over time.

The investigators believe all of the human and animal victims were ritually killed in a single event, based on evidence from a dried mud layer found in the eastern, least disturbed part of the 7,500-square-foot site. They believe the mud layer once covered the entire sandy dune where the ritual took place, and it was disturbed during the preparation of the burial pits and the subsequent sacrifice event.

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City Hall excavation rewrites Copenhagen’s history

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Last December, archaeologists began a secret excavation under City Hall Square in the heart of Copenhagen. It was kept scrupulously under wraps until February to give the team the opportunity to excavate what is thought to be the oldest burial ground in Copenhagen without risking contamination of the site by curious onlookers. Between December and the end of February, the remains of 20 men, women and children who lived around 1,000 years ago were unearthed just three feet under Denmark’s busiest square.

This is a highly significant find because by the known chronology, these individuals were the first Copenhagers, and archaeologists believe there are even more human remains to be found, at least another two layers of burials underneath the 20 already excavated. Since February, another 10 skeletons have been discovered. These 30 skeletons predate the legendary founding of the city by Bishop Absalon, who was said to have been given the site as a gift from King Valdemar in the 1160s, by at least a century, and upends the received wisdom that before Absalon built his castle Copenhagen was just a sleepy fishing village under the shadow of the neighboring urban center of Roskilde.

The human remains are now at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen where they are undergoing further tests, including DNA analysis. Once the testing is done, they will be studied in more depth at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. This research will rewrite the history of Copenhagen’s earliest days, replacing the founding myth with a whole different category of information grounded in the biological data of the first residents of what would become Denmark’s capital city.

Meanwhile, the excavation at City Hall Square continues and has now added structural evidence to the new history of Copenhagen’s founding. Archaeologists have unearthed a stone foundation that they think belonged to the first church built in the city.

“If it is a church, it would further prove that Copenhagen was an established city at the start of the Middle Ages,” Lars Ewald Jensen, the archaeological head of the Museum of Copenhagen, told Videnskab.dk.

“You can have a burial site without an established city, because there needs to be more elements present before one can call it a city. But then again, you can’t have a city without having a church.” […]

The stone foundation bears witness to either a church being at the location at some point or a dyke that has split the graveyard into two sections.

“We hope we have discovered the foundation of a church building, in which case it would be a church that co-existed with St Clemens Church, which was excavated in 2008, or is older. Potentially, we have discovered the oldest church in Copenhagen,” Stine Damsbo Winther, an archaeologist with the Museum of Copenhagen, told Videnskab.dk.

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Teacher and student find Harald Bluetooth silver

Monday, April 16th, 2018

Metal detector enthusiast Rene Schoen and his student, 13-year-old Luca Malaschnitschenko, were exploring a field near the village of Schaprode on the island of Ruegen in Northern Germany when they came across a circular piece of metal. At first Schoen thought it was a random bit of aluminium. After cleaning off some of the dirt and taking a closer look, he realized it was a coin.

Schoen is a volunteer with the Mecklenburg-West Pomerania state archaeology office, so he immediately reported the find. State archaeologists identified it as a silver coin from trading settlement of Hedeby. To prevent the treasure-hunters descending like locusts, they asked Schoen and Malaschnitschenko to keep their find a secret until the Office could arrange a thorough excavation of the site.

The coin was discovered in January, and archaeologists only broke ground this weekend. Still, in this brief period the team has excavated more than 4,000 square feet of the find site. The results have been nothing short of spectacular. They have unearthed a treasure far beyond the expectations set by a single silver coin, a hoard that could very well have belonged to King Harald Gormsson (r. 958-986), aka Harald Bluetooth, himself.

Braided necklaces, pearls, brooches, a Thor’s hammer, rings and up to 600 chipped coins were found, including more than 100 that date back to Bluetooth’s era, when he ruled over what is now Denmark, northern Germany, southern Sweden and parts of Norway.

“This trove is the biggest single discovery of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic Sea region and is therefore of great significance,” the lead archaeologist, Michael Schirren, told national news agency DPA.

The oldest coin is a Damascus dirham dating to 714 while the most recent is a penny dating to 983.

The find suggests that the treasure may have been buried in the late 980s – also the period when Bluetooth was known to have fled to Pomerania, where he died in 987.

“We have here the rare case of a discovery that appears to corroborate historical sources,” said the archaeologist Detlef Jantzen.

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Medieval cheating dice found at Bergen

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) excavating a medieval neighborhood of Bergen, Norway, have discovered a die with a non-standard numbering system (to put it extremely charitably) on four of its faces. Where the numbers one and two should be, there are an extra four and five instead giving this die a limited but suspiciously valuable range of rolling options: three through six.

In other words, somebody 600 years ago was either playing a game none of us today know about, or they had them some cheatin’ dice. The first interpretation is the least plausible. Plenty of dice have been found in Bergen from this period (more than 30), and none of them have idiosyncratic numeration like this one.

“The dice were found close to a wooden street that dates back to the 1400s. So when looking at the context and the dice design, there is just as much chance that someone has got rid of it, as they have lost it,” says Per Christian Underhaug who is the project manager for the excavations in Bergen,

“This part of Bergen was a densely populated district with several inns and pubs, and it is not unlikely that there were lots of games being played in them,” says Underhaug.

It’s very likely, as a matter of fact. Gambling was so widespread in Bergen that in 1276 the city banned it. Violators were subject to having all the money on the table confiscated and paying a significant fine on top of that. The prohibition of gambling didn’t stop it, of course, which is why more than a century later people were still playing dice games and finding ways to sweeten the odds.

The excavation is one of several taking place Vågsbunnen, one of the city’s lesser known medieval districts. Archaeologists hoped to make different finds here than in the other medieval areas of Bergen because it hasn’t been explored so thoroughly and because it was a working class neighborhood rather than a wealthy one. Also, once you dig down to cultural levels, the soil is very wet. This dig required use of a concrete coffer dam, lowered into the trench as soon as the team reached the first artifact layer, to keep them from being swamped. The challenges of excavating such an environment are offset by the potential preservation of organic material, as in the case of this discovery of the wooden die in fine condition.

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Met returns two stolen artifacts to Nepal

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned two stolen religious icons to Nepal more than 30 years after they were looted. One is a 11th-12th century Standing Buddha that was stolen from a shrine in the Yatkha Tole neighborhood of Kathmandu in 1986. The other is a stele known as the Uma Maheshwor idol that depicts the god Shiva and his wife Parvati and is estimated to date to the 12th-13th century. It was stolen from the Tangal Hiti temple in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley. The third largest city in Nepal, Patan is famed for its temples, palaces and rich tradition of artisan crafts.

The Met was given the Uma Maheshwor by a private collector in 1983. It wasn’t until the donation of the Standing Buddha in 2015 that the museum realized both pieces had been looted. Both statues feature in a 1989 book entitled Stolen Images of Nepal by Nepalese art expert Lain Singh Bangdel documenting the uncontrolled rash of thefts that ravaged Nepal from the 1950s through the 1980s. Temple deities were particular targets, stolen by the thousands. Easily portable — nobody thought to anchor them firmly when they were created a thousand or so years ago — and highly desirable to collectors, they weren’t guarded by security personnel. The local residents who worshipped them and prayed to them didn’t imagine they’d be ripped off and sold to unscrupulous Western collectors and institutions.

To its credit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reached out to Nepal once it became aware the pieces were stolen. On March 6th, museum officials and Nepal’s Consul General in New York City signed a repatriation agreement, and less than a month later both idols were back in their native land.

The sculptures arrived at the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu last Wednesday, April 4th. After the crates were opened, three men from the city of Patan traveled to Kathmandu to see their revered Uma Maheshwor stele for the first time in 35 years. The moment was all the more meaningful because Patan was devastated by the Gorkha earthquake that struck on April 25th, 2015, and many historical and religious structures and art works were damaged or destroyed.

Both works will now go the National Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu. This decision is not an uncontroversial one. The idols have profound spiritual meaning to the communities from which they were looted. They are considered living representations of deities. When they are put on display in a museum, they are exhibited as mere art pieces, a sharp decline in significance compared to the reverence they receive in their communities of origin.

There is a chance they might return to their shrines, however. By the terms of Nepal’s Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956, communities can apply to have idols returned to them, but they have to prove they can secure them effectively. If they can convince the Department of Archaeology that the sculptures won’t be in danger of theft again, they will be returned. It’s a slim chance at best.

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