Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

1,000-year-old pet cat oldest on the Silk Road

Thursday, July 9th, 2020

In the eternal battle between cat people and dog people, the latter definitely win as far as the archaeological record is concerned. Many dog burials have been found in archaeological contexts, but cats, be they domestic or wild, are very rare discoveries.

So when the 1,000-year-old remains of a domesticated cat were unearthed in Dzhankent, Kazakhstan, it was a surprising find, not just because of the overall infrequency of archaeological cat burials, but because there is no evidence of widespread cat ownership in Kazakhstan until the 19th century when the Kazakh steppe was conquered by and eventually absorbed into the Russian Empire. Throughout the Central Asian steppe, most feline remains consist of single bones scattered over a large area, their domestication status unclear. Steppe societies were largely pastoral and semi-nomadic, and cat domestication tends to go hand-in-hand with urbanization and agricultural settlement where stores of grain were in need of feline protection.

Located on the marshes of the northeastern coast of the Aral Sea, Dzhankent was founded in the 7th century and by late 9th, early 10th century had developed into a well-populated town overlooked by a citadel and defended by a perimeter wall. Its growth is linked with movement along the bristling caravan route network of the Silk Road.

The skeletal remains of the cat was found in the fill of an abandoned house at the intersection of the citadel and city walls. They were well-preserved with no weathering or evidence that the bones had been marked, cut, gnawed on or in any way altered post-mortem. The find site was a midden and contained large numbers of discarded animal and fish bones, but the cat’s bones were articulated so it seems it was buried in the trash pile, an “expedient burial” with no associated ritual. Radiocarbon analysis of the femur returned a date range of 775-940 A.D. making it the earliest domestic cat found on the Silk Road.

The cat was at least a year old at the time of death, and bone wear suggests it was older. Nuclear DNA extracted from the bones found that the cat was male and while its species could not be ascertain with certainty, its genome bears the highest affinity to the domestic cat (Felis catus). Isotope analysis found enriched nitrogen values indicative of a diet high in marine protein.

An examination of the tomcat’s skeleton revealed astonishing details about its life. First, the team took 3-D images and X-rays of its bones. “This cat suffered a number of fractures, but survived,” says [Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg’s Dr. Ashleigh] Haruda. Isotope analyses of bone samples also provided the team with information about the cat’s diet. Compared to the dogs found during the excavation and to other cats from that time period, this tomcat’s diet was very high in protein. “It must have been fed by humans, since the animal had lost almost all its teeth toward the end of its life.” […]

According to Haruda, it is remarkable that cats were already being kept as pets in this region around the eighth century AD: “The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives. Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then,” explains the researcher. The fact that people at the time kept and cared for such “exotic” animals indicates a cultural change, which was thought to have occurred at a much later point in time in Central Asia. The region was thought to have been slow in making changes with respect to agriculture and animal husbandry.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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Cerne Abbas Giant is a youngster

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Snail shells have revealed that the Cerne Abbas Giant, the figure of a naked man sporting a club and a 30-foot phallus cut into chalk hillside in Dorset, is medieval at the oldest.

Martin Papworth, senior archaeologist at the National Trust, and environmental archaeologist Mike Allen said two species of snail that appeared for the first time in Britain in the Roman period – thought to have been brought over from France as food – were not found at the site.

However, microscopic species, found for the first time in the medieval period during the 13th and 14th Centuries, have been discovered in the samples.

“They arrived here accidentally, probably in straw and hay used as packing for goods from the continent,” Mr Allen said.

These remarkably content-rich snail shells also revealed changes in vegetation growth on the Giant over time. At some point the grass was allowed to grow over the chalk outline, but he was back to full potency by the Victorian period.

Cerne Abbas first appears on the historical record in the 17th century. A note in a November 4th, 1694, churchwarden record from St. Mary’s Church records three shillings spent “for repairing ye Giant.” Antiquarian interest in the Giant really picked up steam in the 18th century. John Hutchins wrote in The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (1774) that the Giant was said to have been cut by order of Lord Holles, then the owner of the land, perhaps as an obscene parody of Oliver Cromwell. Local old people, Hutchins reported, “averred it was there beyond the memory of man.” F. J. Darton wrote in English Fabric – A study of Village Life (1935) that the Giant was the work of farmers who banded together to keep soldiers from looting their properties during the Civil War. They had no firearms and so used clubs against would-be raiders. They cut the Giant as a symbol of their strength and resistance.

Renown archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie surveyed the Giant in 1926 and concluded that it dated to the Bronze Age. His sole evidence was the presence of a nearby Bronze Age settlement. General Pitt Rivers, the owner of the Giant before he donated it to the National Trust in 1919, believed it was a Roman-era cult figure of Hercules with his club. Eighteenth century antiquarian Dr. William Stukeley was certain the Giant represented the “famous and first Hercules, the Phoenician leader of the first colony to Britain when they came hither for Cornish tin.” Other theories place its origin in the pre-Roman Iron Age, a representation of a Celtic god or the Anglo-Saxon god Helith/Helis.

We should find out just how wrong they were in a few months. Soil samples were taken from the giant’s elbows and feet in March are to be analyzed using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a technique that can determine when the minerals in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. The soil testing was delayed by the pandemic and results are now expected in the autumn. If all goes well, the OSL results will narrow down the date to a reasonably tight range.

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Digital pilgrimage to Canterbury ca. 1408

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

The medieval shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral has been recreated and the videos released 800 years to the day since his body was translated to the cathedral on July 7th, 1220. A  project three years in the making, researchers teamed up with digital modelling experts to create CGI models of the four main loci of pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral as they would have appeared to pilgrims in the early 15th century, a period for which there are numerous sources about the practices and operation of the shrine. What’s unusual about these video models is that the focus not just on the recreated the spaces, but also on how pilgrims of different classes interacted with the shrine, relics and cathedral.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was slain by four knights on December 29th, 1170, in the main hall of Canterbury Cathedral. Eyewitness Edward Grim wrote that the top of his skull was cut off and his brains scattered on the floor. The shock of this brutal assassination of a cleric on hallowed ground reverberated throughout Europe, and Becket was quickly considered a martyr. He was canonized a saint two years and two months after his death. In 1174, King Henry II, whose angry exclamation contra Becket had spurred the knights to commit this sacrilege, had to submit to a public act of penance at Becket’s tomb which had already become one of Christendom’s most important sites of pilgrimage.

He was buried under the floor of the eastern crypt covered by a stone slab. Two holes in the stone allowed pilgrims to kiss the tomb. The cult of Becket exploded and pilgrims visited the tomb in huge numbers over the next five decades. On the 50th anniversary of his death, July 7th 1220, Becket’s remains were translated to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel. The crown of his skull was kept in a gold reliquary in the Corona Chapel. The place of his martyrdom in the northwest transept and the original tomb were also sites of pilgrimage.

The shrine and Thomas Becket’s bones were destroyed by order of another Henry, eighth of his name, in 1538. Henry VIII went at Becket extra hard during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, even ordering the obliteration of his name, damnatio memoriae-style.

Using pre-Dissolution sources including first-hand accounts of pilgrims, archaeological materials (pilgrim badges, architectural features) and later scholarship, researchers recreated the physical sites and determined sums received at the four different stations and how well-trafficked they were. The Trinity Chapel shrine was the primary attraction, receiving by far the majority of the offerings. The Corona Chapel received the second highest sums (about 6-17%), the Martyrdom Chapel about 1-7% and the original tomb about .5-11%. The videos include people to convey how pilgrims made their offerings and moved around the sites.

Here is the digital reconstruction of Trinity Chapel, ca. 1408, viewed from the southwest.

Various pilgrim activities are taking place in the movie. A monk stands by the shrine and invites pilgrims to lay their offerings on the altar, including a merchant couple who present their child and give a candle in thanks for his deliverance from sickness, and a sea captain who gives a ring after surviving a storm. To the left of the screen, lower-status pilgrims have the miracle-stories in the windows explained to them by a clerk. Behind the shrine another monk points out the gems and precious objects to a higher-status merchant and his wife, encouraging them to add a gift of their own. In the niches around the marble tomb base other pilgrims pray to St Thomas on their knees.

This is the reconstruction of the Corona Chapel.

The Corona Chapel held a golden head reliquary, containing a piece of St Thomas’s skull that had been hacked off at his martyrdom. This reliquary had been remade in gold and studded with jewels in 1314. The popularity of pilgrim badges showing the head suggest it was a popular attraction within the Cathedral, but its small size and high value meant most pilgrims would only have been able to see it from afar.

The movie below shows the Countess of Kent, who has been invited by the Prior to a private ceremony. He removes the head reliquary from its display case, opens the top to reveal the relic inside, and offers it to the Countess to kiss. Her retinue of ladies-in-waiting look on, and pilgrims may have congregated outside the chapel to catch a glimpse of proceedings.

Third is the Martyrdom Chapel, site of Becket’s murder.

Here there was a small altar that had a reliquary containing the point of the sword which had cut into his head. The flagstones were said to bear the marks of his final footprints, and pilgrims came to kiss them.

The scene shows a mass on the morning of the Feast of the Martyrdom (29th December). On the eve of the feast a handful of hardy pilgrims were allowed to stay overnight in the Cathedral, swapping stories about Becket and eating and drinking around a fire. At dawn they went to the first of three Masses in the Martyrdom.

Last but not least is the original tomb where Thomas Becket’s body was kept for 50 years.

Even after the Translation, the now-empty tomb continued to be venerated as a site which had held the saint’s body – mostly likely by the long-term sick, who could stay without causing disruption to the activities in the cathedral.

A number of particularly ill or disabled pilgrims sit in long vigils around or at the empty tomb, while a clerk looks on to protect the valuables and aid those in need. To the left, a group of lower-class carers have formed a support group to discuss issues in caring for their sick relatives. As at the main shrine, a number of offerings in wax or crutches and other proofs of cure can be seen hanging around the tomb as proof of the saint’s power.

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Massive 10th c. wall points to first Polish capital

Sunday, July 5th, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed a large section of a 10th century defensive wall in Poznań, central Poland. Excavations in advance of construction of a new apartment building discovered the massive stone, sand and wood wall 23 feet below current ground level. At 130 feet wide and 40 feet high, it is the largest medieval defensive wall ever found in Poland.

Samples of oak wood from the wall were subjected to dendrochronological analysis and revealed the embankment was built in stages over three decades. The oldest wood came from a tree felled between 968 to 970. This is when construction of the ramparts began. The next oldest sample was felled a decade later in 980, the one after that in 986, the last in 1000.

Poznań was founded as a defensive fortress on an island between the Warta River and its tributary the Cybina. The stronghold was believed to have been built in the 8th or 9th century by the Polans, the Slavic tribe that gave the country its name, first settled in the Warta river basin in the 8th century. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland and was an important political, military and religious center at the dawn of the Polish state. Duke Mieszko I, the first Christian ruler of Poland, is believed to have been baptized in Poznań and the first Christian bishop of Poland took Poznań as his episcopal seat and the first cathedral in Poland was built there in the late 10th century.

The discovery of such a large the wall proves that the southern part of the castle complex was much larger than previously believed and that the town it defended was of major significance.

Given that only the more important settlements featured such ramparts and that Poznań’s defensive infrastructure consisted of three fortified rings joined together, suggests that the city could have been the country’s first capital, rather than the nearby city of Gniezno as previously thought.

Antoni Smoliński, the chief archaeologist working on site, said:

“Until now, we believed that Poznań was a settlement of secondary importance. However, given the discovery of the massive defences, this statement is highly questionable. The Early-Medieval city was, indeed, a strategic centre and the post-christening capital of Mieszko I’s Poland.”

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Norway ship burial excavation begins

Saturday, June 27th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rare whale bones found in Leith

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lucca crucifix is Europe’s oldest wooden statue

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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WWII silver cache found in 14th c. castle

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Longhouse remains rewrite Iceland’s settlement history

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

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

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

Excavation leader Bjarni F. Einarsson:

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

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

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

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

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

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Tree rings reveal St Giles Kirk history

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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