Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Huge medieval cemetery found under Cambridge College

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating under the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge, have discovered one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Britain. The first remains on the site were found during renovations to the college’s Victorian building from 2010 to 2012. The discovery was kept under wraps until 2015, when Cambridge announced that archaeologists had unearthed the intact skeletal remains of 400 individuals, plus the disarticulated remains of close to 1,000 more people. The bodies were interred in the cemetery of the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist, the college’s namesake. It was in use between the 13th and 15th centuries and is one of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds ever discovered in Britain.

Historians have known since the mid-20th century that there was likely a cemetery under St John’s College, but they had no idea it was so massive. The hospital was founded by the community in 1195 to care for the indigent. It was a small structure in its infancy, but grew into a large institution that cared not just for the poor, but also for other residents and Cambridge University scholars. While the hospital did have support from the Church, the cemetery was a lay institution and the burials reflect this status in their simplicity. There is very little evidence of clothing or grave goods. A few artifacts have been found but it’s not clear from their positions that they were interred with the bodies. The vast majority of burials were done without coffins, many without even a shroud, likely because of the majority of patients at the hospital were poor.

The intact skeletons were found neatly buried in rows, but they were just the last group buried in those plots. Archaeologists discovered six “cemetery generations” on the site, meaning six complete turnovers of the space. Older remains would be taken to the charnel house or the bones removed to make room for new bodies to be buried in the newly vacated areas. Despite the turnover, archaeologists also found gravel paths, a well and seeds from a number of flowering plants in the cemetery. This indicates the graves were tended to by the community, and the cemetery was less of a boneyard and more of a park-like space where people could pay their respects and grieve their dead. That’s not something you find often in cemeteries of hospitals for the poor.

Also unusual for a medieval charity hospital graveyard is the lack of young women and infants. Out of the identifiable remains, half of them were women, most of them between 25 and 45 years old. Given the high rates of death in childbirth of both mothers and babies at the time, you’d expect to see more of the former and at least some of the latter. Historic research explained this imbalance. In 1250 the hospital promulgated an ordinance that prohibited the care of pregnant women. Its focus was to be “poor scholars and other wretched persons,” as long as said wretched were not carrying future wretches.

The hospital of St John the Evangelist was long said to have been in active use during the Black Death (1348-1350), but archaeologists found no evidence of this. There were no osteological indications of plague on any of the bones and no mass graves of the types most commonly used to dispose quickly of the infectious dead. The dead of St John will nonetheless be of aid to scholars researching the effect of the Black Death on Cambridge. The University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has just received a £1.2 million grant from the Wellcome Trust to study how the plague affected the city.

A spokesman said: “This collaborative project, with Professor John Robb as PI and collaborators Dr Toomas Kivisild, Dr Piers Mitchell, and Mr Craig Cessford, explores the historical effects of major health events such as epidemics.

“It will combine multiple methods (archaeology, history, osteoarchaeology, isotopic and genetic studies of both human and pathogen aDNA) to study the people of medieval Cambridge.

“It will use the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods.

By comparing samples from before and after the Black Death epidemic of 1348-50 for a wide range of social and biological indicators, this new research aims to reveal how the plague changed human well-being, activity, mobility health and the genetic constitution of Europe.

Rare image of Jewish man found on 13th c. pottery fragment

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

A fragment of 13th century pottery unearthed in Teruel, Aragon, eastern Spain, has been identified as a rare depiction of a Jewish man. The fragment was discovered in 2004, one of thousands that were squirreled away for later documentation. It was catalogued in 2011 but the image was only recognized as a Jewish figure this year by archaeologist Antonio Hernandez Pardos. This is a very rare find. Most surviving images of Spanish Jews from the Middle Ages are illuminations in Haggadot or Christian prayer books.

Unusual for pottery decorations from that period, which mostly featured geometric shapes or depiction of flowers, the Teruel fragment shows the lower part of the face of a bearded man wearing a frilled gown that Pardos was able to trace back to Jewish iconography from the period. [...]

The research by Pardos suggests the fragment was part of a work performed by the earliest known potters of Teruel, who were possibly commissioned by a Jewish resident of the area.

Founded in 1170 by Alfonso II of Aragon on the border between his kingdom and Muslim Spain, Teruel flourished during the second third of the 13th century after King James I of Aragon conquered Xarq-al-Andalus, the Levante or eastern region of the Iberian peninsula. Under James I’s relatively enlightened rule, Jews and Moors moved from less tolerant climes and settled in Teruel. The earliest documentary evidence of Jews living in Teruel dates to 1258 when James I confirmed the Jewish community’s tax obligations to the crown. The first written reference to actual members of Teruel’s Jewish community comes 11 years later. It mentions Dueña del Cano and her late husband Samuel Najarí, an important money lender who was one of the crown’s top creditors.

Jews in Teruel thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, engaging in a variety of trades, particularly weaving and dealing wool. Several prominent Jewish scholars lived in Teruel. Things took a dark turn at the end of the 14th century. A delator (informer or denunciator) arrived in 1385, presaging the pogroms and riots of 1391 which spread through Spain like wildfire and resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews and forced conversions of thousands more. That bloody year was a turning point for Jews in Christian Spain. More and more laws were enacted against them, prohibiting money-lending, commerce with Christians, wearing the same clothes as Christians and forcing them into walled Juderías. Many Jews fled south to the more tolerant areas of al-Andalus. The Jewish community of Teruel was diminished but survived until 1492 when the last bastion of Muslim Spain, the Emirate of Grenada, fell and all of Spain’s Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity or expelled from the realm.

The small fragment of pottery is of outsized significance because despite the distinctiveness of the Jewish community in medieval Spain, with its unique legal status, designated living areas and particular religious/cultural traditions, there are few clear markers of Jewishness in the material culture. There’s no immediately identifiable Jewish architecture like there is Islamic architecture, no immediately identifiable ceramic tradition distinct from Christian or Islamic crafts. The exception is in objects of religious meaning and ritual purpose, but everyday things with an unmistakable Jewish identity are very rare in any period, all the more so in the first few decades of Jewish presence in Teruel.

This lacuna widened into a chasm during the Spanish Civil War when Teruel was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Fought over three months from December of 1937 through February of 1938, the Battle of Teruel devastated the city, subjecting it to constant artillery barrages and aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands of people died before the Nationalists finally won. Large sections of the medieval center of the city were destroyed, and what had once been the Jewish Quarter was all but leveled.

The war-damaged areas were extensively developed in subsequent decades. The Jewish Quarter was rediscovered in 1978 when the ruins of a building abutting its central square and three menorahs were unearthed. The structure was built in the mid-14th century when the neighborhood was going through a third phase of improvement. The large cellar built on powerful masonry arches discovered in 1978 was initially believed to be a synagogue because of its impressive size and strength. The Jewish Quarter wasn’t fully explored archaeologically until 2004 when a major urban renewal project in the plaza area provided the first opportunity for a proper archaeological survey of the site. The excavation revealed several layers of pottery fragments which gave archaeologists new insight into the evolution of the neighborhood in the 13th century, from the perspective of both use and production of ceramics.

There are boxes full of fragments from this excavation that haven’t been studied yet. Pardos expects there are more happy surprises to be found in there. His study of the fragment has been published in the journal Sefarad and can be accessed free of charge here (Spanish language pdf).

Lost Boethius songs played again after 1,000 years

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

Music that hasn’t been heard in hundreds of years was performed for the first time in almost a milennium at Pembroke College Chapel, University of Cambridge, on April 23rd. The concert was the culmination of years of research into medieval music notation which reconstructed lost melodies in a collection of songs drawn from philosopher Boethius’ great work The Consolation of Philosophy.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a senator and consul of Rome born in the late 5th century to a patrician family, young Boethius was given an exceptional education, rare at that time even among the scions of wealthy, noble families. He distinguished himself at an early age, holding a number of important offices under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. In 523, it all came crashing down when he was arrested for treasonous conspiracy with Byzantine Emperor Justin I against Theodoric. He was jailed for a year during which he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. He was executed in 524, but his work far outlived him and became a seminal influence on medieval philosophy.

Boethius also happened to be an accomplished mathematician and musician, and wrote another hugely influential treatise on the subject, The Principles of Music, which was still consider the essential text on the mathematics of music as late as the 18th century. Setting the Consolation, Boethius’ most famous work, to music, therefore, was a natural pursuit for medieval scholars. An 11th century manuscript in the Cambridge University Library known as the Cambridge Songs is a collection of texts that were in use at the Canterbury Cathedral Priory at the time. At the back of the book are some Boethian texts and a few of the famous Carmina Burana poems set to music.

The symbols representing the musical notation, called neumes, recorded the melody, not the pitch, and instead of having a one-to-one correspondence between notation and sound, the neumes relied on the aural traditions and memories of the musicians to fill in the details of a melodic outline. Those traditions died off in the 12th century and without the essential contribution of musicians’ knowledge, the music recorded in early medieval manuscripts became unreadable.

Cambridge University’s Dr. Sam Barrett has spent 20 years studying neumes and reconstructing the lost knowledge that made the songs playable. An important piece of the puzzle was a leaf from the Cambridge Songs with Boethius songs that was cut out of the manuscript by a German scholar in the 1840s. He donated it to a Frankfurt library where it remained unremarked upon until 1982 when it was recognized as purloined by historian Margaret Gibson and returned to Cambridge. This rediscovery of this one page was of major import to Barrett’s work because its density of notations allowed him “to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it.”

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” [Barrett] said. “Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem. The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”

After piecing together an estimated 80-90 per cent of what can be known about the melodies for The Consolation of Philosophy, Barrett enlisted the help of Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia — a three-piece group of experienced performers who have built up their own working memory of medieval song. Bagby, co-founder of Sequentia, is also a director of the Lost Songs Project which is already credited with bringing back to life repertoires from Beowulf through to the Carmina Burana.

Over the last two years, Bagby and Barrett have experimented by testing scholarly theories against the practical requirements of hand and voice, exploring the possibilities offered by accompaniment on period instruments. Working step-by-step, and joined recently by another member of Sequentia, the harpist-singer Hanna Marti, songs from The Consolation of Philosophy have now been brought back to life.

Alas, there is no recording of the April 23rd performance online that I could find. I’ll update the post when there is. Meanwhile, here are two all-too-short excerpts of the reconstructed music. The first piece is played by all three members of Sequentia, from left to right Benjamin Bagby, Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen, the second by Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen.

Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings to be conserved

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos in northern Ethiopia was commissioned by and named after a priest-king of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled from about 1087 to 1127. The church was built in the early 12th century in the late Azumite style inside a cave facing northeast on the side of Mount Abuna Yosef in the Lasta Mountains, the church is as beautifully situated as it is remote. The town of Lalibela, later capital of the Zagwe kings of Ethiopia and famous for its rock-hewn churches, is just 12 miles away, but until 15 years ago, Yemrehanna Kristos took a day’s hard ride on a mule to reach. Recently a dirt road was built from Lalibela making the church accessible to 4WD vehicles. Even with a proper Jeep it still takes an hour and a half to get there.

Yemrehanna Kristos was a major site of pilgrimage, especially for people on the verge of death. Inside the cave behind the church are the bones of an estimated 10,000 people who journeyed from everywhere around Ethiopia and as far as Egypt and Syria to die at the holy site. Monks and priests live in the cave, some in a second building beyond the church, others sleeping on woven cots in the open cave.

The building itself is one of the best-preserved late Axumite churches in the country. The walls are made of timber beams alternating with white plastered stone which give them a striped look. The windows are covered with intricately carved wooden lattices. The design of the church’s interior is a simple central nave with an aisle on each side, divided by masonry pillars and arches. Every piece of wood on the inside of the church is painted. The ceilings are decorated with polychrome painted geometric designs. Scenes from the Bible are painted on the walls.

These murals are the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia, but they weren’t even published internationally until 2001 because between the layers of dirt on the surface and the darkness of the interior of the cave, they’re hard to see.

The figurative images are mainly New Testament scenes, many of which are now barely legible because of an accumulation of dirt. They include a depiction of the arrival in Egypt of the Holy Family, who are welcomed by an angel. Mary rides a donkey, with Joseph walking behind, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. The wooden ceiling is decorated with 17 painted medallions of animal motifs: wild beasts, birds, an elephant, a winged creature, a scorpion and a dragon. Other wall paintings have geometric designs.

The murals and church are in dire need of the tender attentions of conservators. Earthquake tremors have weakened the structure, putting cracks in the walls and damaging the priceless decoration. Previous inexpert and undocumented attempts at restoration have coated the murals with a layer of varnish, now darkened, and a rough cleaning attempt left brush marks on the surface.

Last fall, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to fund an 18 month-long structural analysis of the church, interior and exterior. Laser scanning and motion monitors will hopefully pinpoint the source of the movement in the building and identify areas of top concern. The WMF will work with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF) on the project.

The initial investigation will include in-situ microscopy, along with ultra-violet and infra-red examinations. Paint samples will be tested, partly to determine the original pigments and media used and to identify added materials. There will be small-scale cleaning trials, to test which materials should be used. Monitoring sensors will be installed to record temperature and humidity changes. A separate team from the University of Cape Town will undertake a laser scan survey to create a three-dimensional data model of the church and cave, to map structural movement.

Once they have the data, they will conserve the paintings for the first time under contemporary professional conditions. If all goes well, conservation will begin by October of this year and continue through early next year. The objectives will be to stop the paint from flaking and to clean the murals thoroughly.

Viking longship sets sail for North America

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair, named after the first King of Norway), an ocean-worthy Viking longship, set sail early this morning from Norway on a daring voyage that will retrace the steps of great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, the first European to cross the Atlantic and set foot on the American continent.

Sponsored by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, construction on the vessel began in 2010 in Haugesund, Norway. It isn’t an exact replica of an extant Viking ship. While replicas of excavated ships have been made, they don’t work very well on the ocean because the originals were burial ships. They could be rowed, but they weren’t meant for the ocean voyages that took the Vikings across half the world. So instead of relying exclusively on archaeological remains, the builders of the Draken Harald Hårfagre combined traditional Norwegian boatbuilding knowledge, a living craft with deep roots going back to the Viking era, with archaeology — the 9th century Gokstad ship was one particular inspiration — and descriptions in the Norse sagas. It is an open clinker-built ship with an oak hull, Douglas fir mast, hemp rigging and a silk sail. At 115 feet long, 27 feet wide with 50 oars and a 3,200-square-foot sail, the Draken Harald Hårfagre is largest Viking ship built in modern times.

The aim from the beginning has been to create an operating Viking ship. That means roughing it in a serious way. There’s no under deck where the crew can rest and take shelter from the elements, just a large tent where 16 people at a time sleep in four hours shifts. The only space underneath the deck is a shallow space just large enough to carry ballast and food. The food is cooked is an open air kitchen on the deck, the ancestor of the galley discovered on the 15th century Dutch cog that was raised earlier this year.

The ship was completed in 2012. The first sea trials were held in the fjords of Norway and after some adjustments were made, it set sail on its maiden overseas voyage in July of 2014 to Wallasey, in Merseyside, northwest England, which has a strong Viking history. The mast broke and the crew had to replace it in Wallasey, but they made it work. After three weeks of repairs, the ship sailed back to Norway via the Isle of Man, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland without a hitch.

All of this was essential practice for the big show: the transatlantic voyage to North America. On April 23rd, the epic voyage was inaugurated with a Dragon’s Head Ceremony in which the dragon head so associated with Viking ships was mounted for the first time.

The dragon’s head is traditionally not mounted until departure for longer journeys and its purpose is to protect the ship and the crew from sea monsters, bad weather, evil creatures and unforeseen raids. The ships mythological head is uncovered in the ceremony, and the great adventure of sailing the historical route from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the USA will be wished fair winds and following seas.

The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube to the delight of history nerds everywhere.

The America Expedition is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Captain Björn Ahlander and a crew of 32 damn hardy men and women selected from 4,000 applicants have embarked on a voyage of 6,000 miles that will taken them to Iceland, Greenland, through the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, Toronto and into the US via the Great Lakes. The first US port of call will be Fairport, Ohio, and then on to Tall Ship festivals in Bay City, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Then it will head back east again through the Great Lakes, the canals of New York State to the Hudson River. Yes, a Viking longship will be going through canal locks. The sail is coming down for that part, obviously. After a stop in New York City in September, the Draken Harald Hårfagre will winter at the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

You can follow the voyage in real time on the expedition’s website and get updates from its Facebook page. If you’re interested in the construction and operation of the ship, check out its fascinating YouTube channel.

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

Amulet invoking elves and the Trinity found in Denmark

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

An archaeological excavation in advance of drainage work in Svendborg, a city on the island of Funen in southeastern Denmark, unearthed a medieval amulet invoking both elves and the Triune God of Christianity. It didn’t look like much at first, a small square piece of metal just two centimeters (.8 inches) long and wide, but that’s because it was folded down the short side five times. Once unfolded, it was 13 centimeters (just over five inches) long.

It was discovered on the Møllergade, one of two main roads encircling Svendborg’s old town. Previous excavations of the Møllergade have unearthed layers going back as far as 1150, but the amulet likely dates to the mid-13th century when the road was expanded northward as the city grew. While amulets of this kind have been found elsewhere in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, this is the first one found in Svendborg.

Metallurgic analysis found that the amulet had a high silver content. The piece of metal was painstakingly unfolded, without damaging the surface, and National Museum of Denmark curator Lisbeth Imer, an expert in inscriptions, examined the interior surface of the amulet under a microscope. She found five lines written in lower case Latin characters by someone with a sure hand and an eye for minute detail. The letters are between two and four millimeters high and are interspersed with crosses for added amulet value.

The translated inscription reads:

I charge you Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan, elf men and elf wives and all demons by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and by all of God’s saints, that you do not harm God’s handmaiden Margareta either the eyes or limbs. Amen. You are great in eternity, Lord.

Gordan, Gordin and Ingordan feature on many wood and metal amulets found in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their significance has long been debated by historians, but several medieval manuscripts refer to them as folkloric figures. The Codex Upsaliensis, written in the first quarter of the 14th century, includes the phrase “I invoke you, elves, Gordin and Ingordin.” Carmina Burana, the manuscript of 254 poems and songs of traditional itinerant performers written in 1230, 24 of which would famously be put to music by Carl Orff in 1936, has a song in which Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan appear as the villains. It’s the 54th piece, known as CB54, and it reads like a warding spell. I’m posting the whole thing because, simply stated, it’s awesome.

Every kind of demon being –
Come hobbling, come squabbling,
Sightless or unseeing —
Mark well my words, my invocation,
My command, my incantation.

Creatures of all phantom company
Who populate the principality
Of that vile dragon creeping
With venom seeping –
Whose high and mighty fundament
Sweeps full one third the stars’ extent –
Gordan, Ingordin and Ingordan:
By the Seal of Solomon,
Magi the Pharaohs call upon,
I now exorcise you
And substantialize you:
By sages three: Caspar,
Melchior and Balthazar:
By David’s playing
For the allaying
Of Saul’s dismaying
And your gainsaying.

I adjure you
And conjure you
By the mandate of the Lord:
Be unkind not,
Hurt mankind not,
Manifest misericord:
Show but once your faces
And retract your traces
With forsaken races
To hell’s hiding places.

I adjure
I conjure
By that awesome
By that fearsome
That gruesome Judgement Day,
When unending punishment
And horror and dismay
And unbounded banishment
Shall drive demonkind
Into damnation
But shrive humankind
Unto salvation.

By that same unnamed, unsaid,
That unutterably dread
Tetragrammaton of God:
Fall to fear and trembling
As to disassembling
I now exorcise
Spectres: demons: ghosts: hobgoblins:
Satyrs: sirens: hamadryads
Nightmares: incubi and
Shades of the departed –
Flee to ruination,
Chaos and damnation,
Lest your foul conflation
Rend Christ’s congregation.

From all our enemies, good Lord, deliver us.

It’s a great example of how Christianity interpreted traditional folk beliefs and ancient religions as a direct threat to the souls and unity of its believers. I imagine Archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento spoke an incantation like this when he cast out the two demons/previous deities from the temple before he converted it into a church, only that was in the late 6th, early 7th century when the corpse of Greco-Roman polytheism was still fresh. Denmark only converted to Christianity in the 10th century, however, so while satyrs, sirens and hamadryads may have been thin on the ground so far up north, elves and trolls were very much in the picture when this song was sung and written down.

Amulets provide fascinating glimpses into the long transition. The practice of invoking elves, demons and other assorted types from folklore like giants and trolls dates back to the Iron Age and is consistent even as the dominant religions change. In runic amulets from the Viking era, these creatures appeared next to the gods Thor and Odin. The wearer asked the gods for protection from disease or misfortune as incarnated by the characters from folklore. Once Christianity was established, the old gods were replaced with the new one and His scriptural support staff, but the structure of the invocation remained the same: a prayer asking a deity to prevent evil from befalling a person by calling out the scoundrel types who would do them harm. If said evil has a name, it can be contained and dispelled. Exorcising by substantializing, as CB54 puts it.

Svendborg was growing rapidly in the 13th century, and large-scale Christian structures were constructed in the burgeoning market town. The Church of Our Lady was built then, as was the Franciscan monastery. The Church of St. Nicholas, originally built of stone in the mid-12th century, was expanded and reconstructed in brick in the 1200s. Institutional growth can’t necessarily speak to the experience of the individual, however. The amulet bridges that gap.

The Svendborg amulet gives a rare insight into how ordinary citizens used Christianity in their daily lives. Long has it been known that the clergy forces were strong in contemporary Svendborg, and now there is also evidence that the faith among ordinary people was strong, says [Svendborg Museum archaeologist] Allan Dørup Knudsen:

“Our knowledge of the townspeople and their daily life in the Middle Ages is unfortunately very limited, but through this amulet we get very close to Margareta and can feel her suffering and prayers for a good and disease free life.”

The amulet has also conferred on Margareta a very cool kind of immortality: she is now the oldest known female resident of Svendborg.

Runestone lost for 250 years found in garden patio

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

A thousand-year-old runestone missing for 250 years has been found in the garden of a home in the village of Boddum in Thy, northern Jutland, Denmark. It all started in November of 2015 when farmer Ole Kappel called the Museum Thy to report he had a stone with some carved lines on it lying in his garden. He asked for an expert to examine it and tell him what it was. In March, Museum Thy archaeologist Charlotte Boje Andersen and National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Imer were amazed to find that the stone lying around in Kappel’s garden was the Ydby Runestone, carved between 970 and 1020 A.D. and last seen in 1767.

“It was one of the biggest moments in my time as an archaeologists and a completely one-of-a-kind discovery that highlights how important Thy and the western part of the Limfjord were in the Viking era,” [Andersen] said.

The Ydby Runestone was first documented in 1741 by bishop and antiquarian Erik Pontoppidan in the second volume of his collection of notable Danish inscriptions, Marmora Danica. Pontoppidan reported that the stone was moved from a place known as “Hellesager,” where it had stood upright over a triangular underground tomb surrounded by stones, to the village of Flarup. In 1767, Danish naturalist and illustrator Søren Abildgaard tracked down the runestone near Flarup. He made an accurate drawing of stone and the runes on three of its four sides and recorded its location in his travel diary.

After that, the stone disappeared. We don’t know when it was displaced, but landscape painter RH Kruse looked for it assiduously in 1841 and it was no longer there. None of the residents had any information about the runestone. A local farmer told Kruse that as far as he knew, the stone hadn’t been there for 50 years. A teacher named Nissen who was an avid documenter of runestones wrote to the National Museum in 1898 that he’d learned the stone had been used to build a railway bridge and was probably underwater.

Kruse had the wrong idea, thankfully. Ole Kappel acquired the stone 25 years ago when he bought a farm property and demolished the house. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to salvage what he could, including a pile of old stones from the foundation of the farmhouse. He took some of the stones home and used them in his landscaping. In fact, he told the thrilled experts, there more of the old farmhouse stones in his front yard patio. Andersen and Imer took a look at the pavers and saw two pieces that matched the shape of the runestone. Kappel’s sons Anders and Kristian pried up the two stones and more runes were revealed.

Imer was able to identify the stone because the extant runes matched the one recorded in Abildgaard’s drawings. Translated into English, it reads: “Thorgísl and Leifi’s sons placed/ at this place/ the stone in memory of Leifi.” Based on the parts that are missing, Imer thinks the stone, which was about six feet high and three feet wide when intact, was broken into about eight sections. All together, the rediscovered pieces form about half of the original runestone.

Andersen has checked the records and she thinks the stone was swiped in the 1820s when the farm Kappel bought was built. The farm was just a few hundred meters from the runestone’s last known location. The owner appears to have helped himself to the runestone and used it as raw material to build the foundations of his farmhouse. The Kappels plan to keep looking for the other missing pieces.

The recovered stones went on display at Heltborg Museum for a month so residents of Thy could see their long-lost cultural patrimony. The stone is now in the National Museum of Denmark where experts will assess whether it should be declared treasure trove. (It should be and will be.)

Viking treasure pokes finder in Denmark

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Søren Bagge had only been metal detecting for a couple of months in August of 2015. With no particular expertise, he picked a field near Lille Karleby on the Hornsherred peninsula of Zealand, Denmark, to scan just because he happened to have grown up nearby and so could easily stop at home for coffee breaks. The first couple of days he found a few Arabic silver coins. The next signal from his metal detector was weak too, but when he dug into the top soil, he found a small silver cup. He’d felt something pointy stabbing him as he was digging up the cup, so he suspected there was more to be found in the spot and rushed to alert the Roskilde Museum.

It was the weekend, though, and nobody was around to pursue his lead. Bagge put the cup back where he found it and reburied it to keep it safe until Monday. On Monday Roskilde Museum archaeologists did a small excavation on the spot. About a foot below the surface they encountered multiple artifacts and realized they had a Viking hoard on their hands. They removed the entire lot in a soil block to excavate it with careful deliberation in laboratory conditions.


Before excavating the soil block, archaeologists took it to Roskilde Hospital where it was CT scanned in the Radiology unit. The scan showed there were a great many artifacts encased in that soil block. It gave archaeologists a blueprint of how to proceed. There is video of the block’s arrival at the hospital and the scan. This video is in Danish, but you don’t have to understand what they’re saying to appreciate the excitement of the CT reveal.

The excavation revealed an exceptional treasure of 392 pieces. The silver cup Bagge found was one of two. There were 53 gilt bronze and silver pendants, more than 300 beads made of glass, amber, rock crystal and silver, 18 Arabic and Western European coins, a braided silver chain, a bracelet or arm ring with five smaller rings attached, elaborately decorated pieces from France, Eastern Europe and Ireland or Scotland. Some of the objects of Scandinavian manufacture were already antiques when they were buried in the second half of the 10th century.

I hesitate to play favorites with so many beautiful and important pieces, but the large ball penannular brooch, also known as a thistle brooch, is breathtaking. Penannular brooches were relatively common in the Viking era, but nothing like this one has been found in Denmark before. It’s Irish or Scottish and was made in the 10th century. It’s called a thistle brooch because it is decorated with three spheres in the shaving brush shape of the thistle bud. The brooch is large — 10 inches long — with a wicked long pin. It was that pin which poked at Søren Bagge when he was digging.

These large brooches were worn by elite men, high-ranking clerics and royal family members, with the pin facing upwards. There was a law on the books in Scotland that provided compensation for people who were accidentally stuck by long-pins. In a little historical irony, the reason the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland is that, according to legend, a barefoot Norse invader stepped on a thistle during an attempted nighttime raid on a Scottish army encampment. His cries of pain warned the Scots that the Vikings were coming and Scottish forces successfully repulsed the attack.

Another impressive import/pillaged piece in the hoard is a trefoil strap mount with acanthus decoration. This was a Frankish design which would later be copied in Scandinavia, only the Norse usually put stylized animal designs or geometric shapes inside the three leaves rather than the French acanthus motif. The French used trefoils as fittings on a sword strap. The Vikings converted them into a jewelry — belt buckles, brooches — and they’re usually discovered in women’s graves where there are no swords or any other weapons, for that matter. The Frankish style dates the piece to between the late 8th century and the 10th century.

Seven hollow silver beads in the hoard are of both Scandinavian and Slavic origin. The six largest, most elaborate beads decorated with rich filigree and showing the remains of gilding were probably manufactured in Poland or West Russia in the 9th or 10th century. They are very rare finds in Scandinavia. The seventh bead, on the other hand, is rounder with a silver spiral applique’ that is more typical of Scandinavian beads.

The bracelet or arm-ring with the rings attached is certainly a Scandinavian piece. The four smaller rings are closed with a knot, and the fifth and smallest ring is threaded through a heavy silver bead. The rings would have clinked together and chimed when the wearer moved her arm. Archaeologists think the design might represent Odin’s dwarf-forged gold ring, Draupnir (“the dripper” in Old Norse), which “dripped” eight rings of equal weight to the original every ninth night. In Norse mythology, it’s a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As for the silver cup that started all of this, it and its companion are different. One is decorated with triangle designs close to the lip. One is plain. The decorated one is bigger and heavier than the plain one. Both were likely drinking goblets for the upper echelons of Norse society. Other Viking hoards also include silver cups, one larger and more ornamented than the other. Archaeologists think the uneven sets may have been used during important banquets or festivals where the honored guest would get to use the fancier cup and the host would take the plainer one. The style of the cups indicate they were made between 700 and 1000, but since the treasure was buried up to 50 or so years before the latter date, we can shave a few years off of that broad estimate.

The treasure went on display at the Roskilde Museum in December and is now in the National Museum for further study.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

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