Medieval chess set DNA tested

The Sandomierz chessmen, a chess set from the 12th or 13th century discovered at Sandomierz Castle in southeastern Poland, were made from the bones of horses, cows and deer, DNA analysis has revealed. They were originally believed to have been carved from deer antlers, or the bones of an exotic large animal like an elephant.

University of Warsaw researchers were able to drill small samples from the underside of the pieces and extract an almost complete mitochondrial genome identifying the more elaborately decorated side of the set as having been made from horse bone while its opponents were made from cow bones. One pawn (believed to have been carved later than the others) was made from the bone of a red deer.

The chessmen were discovered in 1962 during archaeological excavations of what had been the heart of the medieval city. Only about 50 medieval chess pieces have been found in Poland, but most of them were individual finds. The Sandomierz chessmen, on the other hand, compose a practically complete matched set with only three missing pieces.

The pieces were carved by hand, ground down and polished to a gloss. It’s possible one side was originally dyed or painted another color, but all traces of that are gone so today they’re both just plain bone-colored. Some of them were created in twos, connected by a base that was then cut apart to separate the individual pieces. Carved in the abstract style typical of medieval Islamic chess sets in keeping with the religious prohibition against realistic depiction of human figures, they were embellished with incised parallel lines and dot-and-circle markings carved using a compass.

The Gothic-style Sandomierz Castle was built by King Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. All that remains of that castle today are some of the foundations of the tower. (The rest was blown up in the 17th century by Swedish troops during the Deluge.) It was preceded by an earlier stronghold dating to the 10th century. In the 12th century, the castle was the seat of Henry I of Sandomierz, Piast dynasty prince and son of Boleslaus III, ruler of Poland. Henry led the Polish troops in the Second Crusade (1147) and returned again to the Holy Land in the 1150s.

At the time of the find, archaeologists believe that Henry may have brought the chessmen back from his travels in the Middle East, but the DNA evidence that they were carved from the bones of native European animals opens other possibilities, even as it cannot conclusively determine where they were manufactured. For example, they could have been brought to the city by Dominican friars from Italy — the find site was next to the Dominican church of St. Joseph’s, founded in 1226 — or via the trade routes connecting Kiev to Western Europe. They could even be locally produced. The incised lines and compass decorations have been found on other early Polish antler and bone products.

Medieval gold jewelry, silver coin hoard on display

The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the National Museum of Antiquities) just announced the discovery of a unique hoard of medieval gold jewelry and silver coins. The hoard consists of four gold earrings, two strips of gold leaf and 39 silver coins. The coins date to between 1200 and 1248, which indicates the hoard was buried around the middle of the 13th century. The jewelry, however, was already 200 years old when it was buried with the coins, a much prized heirloom collection.

The hoard was discovered in 2021 in Hoogwoud, North Holland, by Dutch historian and metal detectorist Lorenzo Ruijter. He reported the find to regional heritage authorities. He had to keep his discovery a secret for two years while experts at the National Museum of Antiquities cleaned, conserved and investigated the hoard before announcing the sensational find.

Gold jewelry from the High Middle Ages are extremely rare finds in the Netherlands, so the four 11th century earrings are the most significant pieces in the hoard. They are large, about two inches wide, and crescent shaped. Two of the four pendants have intricate filigree decoration. The other two are engraved with decorative scenes. One of them was damaged (probably by agricultural activity) and is incised with a floral motif. The other pendant is engraved with the image of a man’s head surrounded by radiating lines. This represents a portrait of Christ as Sol Invictus. Only three gold earrings similar to this have been found before in the Netherlands.

Only one side of the earrings is decorated and the suspension loops are so delicate compared to the weight of the jewelry that archaeologists believe they were not worn through pierced ear lobes, but rather worn on a head scarf, hood or head band. This type of adornment is seen in German illustrations from the period.

The two strips of gold leaf fit together, so they were likely part of the same decoration. Small textile fibers still attached to the leaf suggest the strips bordered a garment, likely a seam or a waistband.

The 39 silver coins are small pennies from Holland, Guelders and Cleves, the Diocese of Utrecht and from the German Empire. Traces of textiles found with the coins indicate they were originally buried in a bag or wrapped in cloth. The most recent of the coins were struck in 1247-8 by William II of Holland when he was elected King of Germany after Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV. William died in 1256 in Hoogwoud where the hoard was found. He was in the area engaged in one of several of his wars against the West Frisians when he and his horse fell through weak ice into a frozen lake. His West Frisian enemies killed him before the cold lake could finish what it had started, and buried him under the floorboards of a local house. That gives the hoard enormous archaeological significance in the history of Holland as a region and of the Netherlands.

The hoard is on display at the museum until mid-June of this year. It will go back on display in October as part of The Year 1000 exhibition. These are temporary loans, however. The hoard itself is still property of the finder.

Roman shrine found under Leicester Cathedral

The base of a Roman-era altar stone has been discovered under Leicester Cathedral, the first Roman altar stone ever found in Leicester. The area was previously believed to be a garden space in the Roman city, but archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service (ULAS) uncovered the remains of a Roman building in the northwest quarter of the site. Inside the cellar of this building was the base of an altar stone.

This was not a plain subterranean storage room. The floor is concrete and the stone walls were painted. The quality of construction materials, the decorative paintwork and the presence of the altar indicates the room was a private shrine or otherwise devoted to religious worship. The room dates to the 2nd century A.D. and was accessed by an external passageway with timber walls and a flagstone floor. The cellar was demolished and filled deliberately in the late 3rd or early 4th century.

The altar was found toppled face-down into the rubble layer. It was made of local sandstone from a quarry just one mile away and was decorated on three sides. The back is plain, so it was probably originally placed against a wall. About half of it survives. Archaeologists estimate it would originally have been about two feet tall.

Mathew Morris, who led the dig, said the discovery of the Roman altar – the first to be found in Leicester – was “amazing”.

He added: “For centuries, there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present cathedral. This folktale gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower.” […]

“Underground chambers like this have often been linked with fertility and mystery cults and the worship of gods such as Mithras, Cybele, Bacchus, Dionysius and the Egyptian goddess Isis. Sadly, no evidence of an inscription survived on our altar, but it would have been the primary site for sacrifice and offerings to the gods, and a key part of their religious ceremonies.”

Leicester Cathedral was built in the heart of the medieval city at least as early as the 12th century and likely earlier than that. The current building mostly dates to the 19th century when the church was extensively restored, but Leicester was a seat of a bishopric from 680 A.D. until the Saxon bishop was chased out of town by invading Danes in 870 A.D., so it’s likely there was a Saxon church predating the Norman cathedral.

As part of an ambitious restoration program complete with construction of a new Heritage Learning Centre, the old churchyard and gardens have been undergoing a comprehensive excavation since October 2021. The excavation unearthed more than 1,100 burials dating from the end of the Saxon period in the 11th century to the middle of the 19th. Radiocarbon dating of the earliest skeletal remains will narrow down the date range, and also confirm that the original parish church of St. Martin’s was founded in the late Saxon period.

The remains are currently undergoing examination that archaeologists hope will shed new light on the lives and deaths of Leicester’s inhabitants over nearly 1,000 years. When the research project is concluded, all of the individuals will be respectfully reinterred by Leicester Cathedral.

Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of a structure believed to be from the Anglo-Saxon period. If the date is confirmed, this will be the first Anglo-Saxon structure ever found in this area of Leicester. It will expand the known map of Anglo-Saxon occupation of the town after the end of Roman occupation. A silver penny from the period (880-973 A.D.) found near the structure is the first Anglo-Saxon coin found in Leicester in almost two decades.

Medieval king’s wharf found in Oslo

An excavation in the waterfront Bjørvika neighborhood of Oslo has unearthed the remains of a long section of a wharf believed to have been built by a medieval king of Norway. More than 26 feet of the foundations of the pier have survived in excellent condition under the thick clay of the Oslofjord seabed.

The wharf foundation was built by interlacing massive logs into bulwarks that were then embedded into the seabed. Impressions of barnacles and mussels on the logs indicate they were left exposed in the water. The structures built on top of the foundations over time pressed them deeper into the clay where they were preserved even when the surface structures were lost.

A small mystery is that inside the bulwark there are several layers of dung, food waste, fish bones and sodden peat.

“This is very mysterious,” says [NIKU archaeologist and project manager Håvard] Hegdal. “How has this come into what has been a closed construction? There has been a floor above us, and probably a building, and it shouldn’t be possible to throw food scraps and other things down here.”

There was also a lot of dirt from a boat inside these layers. And it shouldn’t have come in here in any case. So ‘King’s wharf’ may have had a reasonably short lifespan, and that is quite strange.”

Slices will be taken from the bulwark logs so they can be dated dendrochronologically. Haakon V (r. 1299-1319) is the likeliest candidate for construction of the wharf. It was during his reign that Oslo surpassed Bergen to become capital of Norway, and it was Haakon who had the Akershus Fortress built to defend the city and as a royal residence. The foundations of the pier were found right outside the remains of the royal palace that preceded Akershus Fortress.

If the timbers date to after 1319, then it wasn’t a royal wharf after all because after Haakon’s death the property was given to the dean of St. Mary’s Church. A layer of blue clay covering the remains was deposited in a mudslide in the late 14th century so that’s the outside date boundary, but the wharf was built long before then.

The remains of the wharf have been scanned to create a 3D model. 

Mother and child buried holding hands

An excavation at the site of a future primary school in Marseille has revealed a cemetery from the Middle Ages that contains an unusual three double graves. The remains of an adult woman and a young child were found inside each of the graves, likely mothers and children. They died and were buried at the same time, and were laid to rest with tenderness and affection. In one of them, the child is holding the adult’s hand.

The cemetery was in use from the 7th to the 10th century A.D., but the double burials are from the earliest part of the range. The deceased were interred in shrouds and wore modest copper, bronze and iron jewelry typical of the Merovingian era. That dates the burials to the 7th or 8th century.

Archaeologists discovered almost 95 burials in the cemetery, many of them children. For the most part they were interred on their backs in simple graves. Some of the graves are tile burials in which the deceased was laid to rest on a bed of flat roof riles. A few of the graves are formed and lined by slabs of local stone. Neither the tile nor the cist burials have surviving roofs, but fragments found in the graves suggest some of them may have originally had covers. Wood fragments discovered in the some of the burials indicate the presence of wood planking.

The tombs were repeatedly reopened over the years, not by looters, but to make room for new bodies. After a decent interval to allow for the decomposition of soft tissues, a grave was opened and a newly-dead occupant added, often on top of the original occupant. The graves were likely visible on the surface in order for people to make these additions easily.

The site was occupied long before the Merovingian era. The excavation revealed a dozen or so pits and postholes dating to around 1400-1300 B.C., evidence of a Bronze Age occupation. One of the pits contained the remains of a child. One of the larger postholes contained a ceramic vessel that may have been used as cinerary urn for cremated remains. A large pit originally dug to extract clay for ceramics was later utilized as a temporary habitat. A plethora of stake holes point to it having been used as shelter by multiple people. Those were temporary structures, but a mudbrick wall points to the site having been used to erect more permanent dwellings later on in the Bronze Age.