Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Earliest prayer beads in Britain made of salmon vertebrae

Monday, June 27th, 2022

The earliest prayer beads ever found in Britain have been discovered in a grave on the island of Lindisfarne just off the coast of Northumberland. Fashioned out of salmon vertebrae in the 8th or 9th century, the necklace is the only artifact ever found in a Lindisfarne grave.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a religious center founded in the 7th century by King Oswald of Northumbria, is famously the location of the first Viking raid of Britain in 793 A.D. The Vikings came back numerous times over the next century and the last of the monks left in 875, taking the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated by the monk Eadfrith around 700 A.D., with them.

A monastery was rebuilt on the island after the Norman invasion, but little of the Anglo-Saxon monastery remains, and until recently there were no comprehensive excavations. In 2014, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts partnered with crowdsourcing portal DigVentures to raise funds for an archaeological exploration of the site targeting the Anglo-Saxon priory. Crowdfunded excavations have been ongoing at the site since then. (Donate to the 2022 fundraiser here.)

The beads were found around the neck of an adult male, likely one of the members of the monastic community, during the 2021 dig season. The holes in the vertebrae through which the spinal column runs were enlarged, either during the making of the necklace and/or over time as the bones wore against the threading. Fish were among the earliest identifiable symbols of Christianity, making fish bones a thematically appropriate material as well as a plentiful local resource for devotional jewelry.

Dr David Petts, the project co-director and a Durham University specialist in early Christianity, told The Telegraph that the fish vertebrae appear to be prayer beads for personal devotion: “We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we’ve got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity.”

He paid tribute to Marina Chorro Giner, a zooarchaeologist, for recognising the significance of the vertebrae: “This bright, eagle-eyed researcher looked at them and said, actually these aren’t just fish bones, they’ve been modified and turned into something.”

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Child buried with glass bracelets at ancient Odeon

Sunday, June 26th, 2022

Archaeologists excavating the Roman-era Odeon theater in the ancient Greek city of Kelenderis have discovered the grave of a small child buried with four glass bracelets. Almost 150 burials have been discovered in the ancient Odeon since excavations began in 1987, but this is the first one of them to contain any grave goods.

The young child was buried inside a wood coffin of which only the iron nails have survived. He was wearing a garment with delicate white buttons. The garment has decomposed; the buttons survive. On his arm were four solid glass bangles in perfect condition. Inside the coffin was an ostracon — a piece of pottery with an inscription written on it — and a ceramic teacup.

The grave has not yet been dated, but archaeologists believe from the context that it was medieval. The remains of several infant burials were unearthed around this one, so this part of the Odeon appears to have been a dedicated children’s cemetery. However, the newly-discovered grave is not like the others. It is the only one with a coffin, and the only one with the remains of clothing. Radiocarbon dating and other analyses of the bones should fill in some blanks about the date and unusual elements of the burial.

Today the city of Aydıncık on the southern coast of Turkey, Kelenderis was founded by colonists from Samos in the 8th century B.C., Kelenderis became an important stop on Eastern Mediterranean trade routes and flourished during the 5th and 4th century B.C., then came to prominence again under the Roman Empire, reaching a new peak of prosperity in the 2nd century.

Unlike many other prominent Greek and Roman urban centers in what is now Turkey, which were destroyed in raids and natural disasters and have long gaps in their historical record post antiquity, Kelenderis was continuously populated throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman eras to the present. That makes modern Aydıncık dense in unexplored archaeological layers. Today most of the visible remains are Roman — public baths, the Odeon, the agora, defensive walls — grouped near the fishing port.

This year’s excavation has also solved a long-standing mystery about the city’s Byzantine history.

Speaking about the exciting discovery, the head of the excavations Mahmut Aydın said, “Excavations continue for 12 months of the year in the ancient city of Kelenderis. This year, we have completed the excavation and consolidation of the cavea, the sitting area, and the supporting walls behind the Odeon structure. Now we found a furnace that excites us. We knew for years that there was production here, but we couldn’t find the oven. The oven is 1,300 years old. We think that roof tiles were produced inside the furnace. Because during the excavations we carried out last year and this year, a large amount of roof tiles, dated to the seventh century, were found around the furnace. Since the roof tiles were faulty, we found them scattered around it. When we completely empty the inside of the furnace, we might find even more faulty roof tiles.”

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2,550 wood offerings found at Templo Mayor

Saturday, June 18th, 2022

More than 2,550 wooden offerings have been discovered at the Templo Mayor in the historic center of Mexico City. The objects include darts, dart throwers, pectorals, earrings, masks, ear plugs, serpentine scepters, jars, headdresses, and figural representations, including one of a flower and another of a bone. They were ritual deposits made to consecrate new buildings and as offering to the patron deities of the temple, Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture.

The objects were made from softwood, mostly pine, along with some white cedar, Montezuma cypress, tepozán (aka Rio Grande butterfly bush) and aile (aka Andean alder). Almost all of them are complete, preserved for more than 500 years in anaerobic soil of the ancient lakebed. They are in such good condition that many of them retain their original polychrome paint.

Serpentine scepter and other objects excavated. Photo by Mirsa Orozco, INAH.The Templo Mayor was the religious center of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, and was built and rebuilt in seven phases between the founding of the city in 1325 and the early 1500s. The Spanish destroyed it in 1521 and over time its exact location was lost. It was rediscovered in the early 20th century in what was then an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City. It would not be fully excavated until 1978 and 13 buildings had to be demolished to get to the temple.

Since excavations began, more than 7,000 artifacts have been unearthed. Most of them are offerings — figurines, clay pots, skeletons of animanls, gold, snail shells, slate, obsidian knives —  but wood offerings were exceedingly rare, and the few that were found disintegrated almost instantly after being removed from their contexts and exposed to the air.

Archaeologists have a practices to prevent that sad fate today. Organic archaeological materials preserved in wet, dark, cool, low-oxygen environments are now kept wet until the water can be removed gradually. Decades of constant PEG showers preserved entire ships like the Mary Rose  and the Vasa. A giant custom-built freeze drier took over for PEG in the conservation of La Belle. The conservation of the 2,500 wood offerings will employ a cutting-edge method that requires neither prohibitively expensive petroleum product nor a prohibitively expensive freeze drier. INAH conservators are using a far cheaper and more accessible product: synthetic sugar.

Archaeologists working with the conservation team first transferred the wooden objects to the field laboratory where they were submerged in water and kept in plastic containers so they can be documented and assessed. Once in the conservation laboratory, the objects are soaked in a solution of synthetic sugars (lactitol, trehalose) which are chemically compatible with wood and can withstand attacks by microorganisms and fluctuations in humidity. The first solution is a week concentration of 5% sugars in water. As the cells of the wood absorb the sugars, the objects are moved into increasingly stronger concentrations in 13 stages until the solutions reach the maximum concentration of 82%. This process takes six to nine months.

Once the sugar solution has fully impregnated the wood, the objects will be rinsed and cured inside a heat chamber at 120F (the same temperature I use to dehydrate fresh garlic paste to make garlic powder). This final bake crystallizes the sugar within the cell walls of the wood, thickening the cell walls and maintaining the original volume of the artifacts.

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1,300-year-old shipwreck found in France

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a ship that navigated the Garonne river in southwestern France in the 7th-8th century. The wooden ship was unearthed buried under the bed of the Estey de Lugan, a silted-over stream outside the city of Bordeaux. The thick, water-logged clay has preserved the organic materials of the ship, including some rope fittings, for 1,300 years. There is almost no surviving written history chronicling navigation methods from the period, so the survival of this shipwreck is a unique testimonial to naval design in early medieval France.

The wreck is about 40 feet long, out of an estimated original length of about 50 feet when it was intact. The keel and dimensions indicate it was a cargo ship capable of both river and coastal navigation. It has a flat floor that would have allowed it to carry bulk goods. Both oak and softwood were used to construct it.

INRAP archaeologists will first document the ship in meticulous detail with photogrammetry, a 3D virtual model numbering and recording every individual piece of wood. The planks will be dismantled and numbered so that they can be reconstructed once stabilized and conserved.

The removal of the wreck will give archaeologists the unprecedented opportunity to study how it was constructed and how it navigated the waterways. The team will also be able to study the waterways themselves. The ship was found in a relatively remote area, a stream that was already non-navigable when it was documented in the 18th century. That a cargo vessel would take to a small stream off the Garonne attests to how these marshy areas near major waterways were used by trade vessels.

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Two pieces reunite to form rare Viking sword hilt

Thursday, June 9th, 2022

Two pieces of a Viking sword hilt of exceptional quality and rarity have been reunited after 1200 years. The first piece was discovered last year by a metal detectorist in a field in Stavanger, southwestern Norway. It was a small irregular piece and the finder had no idea what it was, so he handed it in to the Stavanger Museum of Archaeology for further investigation. A year later, a friend of the finder returned to the field and found a large sections of an ornately decorated sword hilt. Museum conservators realized this was a match for the little fragment found the year before.

The hilt is from the most ornamented and heaviest Viking sword types, known as a D-sword. Only about 20 D-type sword pieces have been found in Norway, and they were either imported and/or copied meticulously by local smiths. The decorative style dates it to the early 9th century.

It is still difficult to see the details in the hilt, but the décor includes gilded elements of the typical animal styles found during the Iron and Viking Age, from ca 550-1050, according to the press release. The hilt also contains geometrical figures in silver, made with the so-called niello technique. This means that a metallic mixture of sorts was used to make black stripes in the silver.

Both ends of the crossguard are formed as animal heads.

“The technique is of a very high quality, and both the lavish and complicated decor and the special formation of the crossguard make this a truly unique find,” archaeologist Zanette Glørstad from the Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, says in the press release.

The closest comparable example is a bronze sword hilt with silver gilt inlay and niello enamel discovered on the Isle of Eigg (now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh ).

The hilt pieces were found in the Gausel area of Stavanger on a field adjacent to the farm where the richly-furnished tomb of a Viking woman was discovered in 1883. Dubbed the Gausel Queen, the elite woman was buried with 40 artifacts of exceptional quality — bronze, silver and gold jewelry, knives, drinking horns, a cooking pan, fittings from a reliquary box — including rare and expensive imports from Ireland.

The Queen was not alone. Other Viking graves have been found there, and many more are known to have been destroyed during agricultural work. Even with spotty old archaeological practices, accidental discoveries and looting marring the archaeological record, more and more varied Medieval Irish metalwork has been discovered in this area than in any other place in Europe. Archaeologists believe this part of the coast was one the major departure points for Viking ship voyages westward across the North Sea.

The hilt is now undergoing cleaning and conservation before it goes on permanent display at the museum.

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Rusty 14th c. saber wielded by Turkish raiders or Greek defenders?

Wednesday, June 8th, 2022

A medieval curved sword from the early 14th century has been discovered in a ruined monastery on the northwest Aegean coast 40 miles southeast of Thessaloniki. It was unearthed in an excavation of the ruins of Agios Nicolaos Chrysokamaros, a small fortified dependency of the Saint George the Zograf Monastery on Mount Athos just across the bay.  Very few late Byzantine swords have been found in Greece, and this is the only one to have been unearthed by archaeologists in its original undisturbed archaeological context.

The 14th century was a turbulent time on the Chalcidice peninsula, primarily due to conflicts between the Latins and the Byzantine Empire. The Catalan Grand Company, Aragonese mercenaries initially engaged by the Byzantine emperor who would later double-cross them, spent a solid two years between 1307 and 1309 sacking the monasteries on Mount Athos. Incursions by Turkish pirates, Balkan potentates seeking to chip away at Byzantine territory and the growth of Ottoman power kept the Aegean coast in constant turmoil.  There were 300 monasteries on Mount Athos in 1300. By the end of the 1300s, there were only 35 still standing.

The sword is heavily corroded and incomplete with a surviving length of 18 inches. It has a single edge and is curved throughout its full length. It was bent and burned in the raid that destroyed the monastery outpost. Several of the metal rings from the scabbard fused to the blade. They are the only part of the scabbard to survive.

This type of saber was used by both Byzantine and Turkish soldiers, so it’s difficult to know who wielded this weapon before it was buried.

[Excavation leaders] Maniotis and Dogas have identified three military actions in the 14th century that could have led to the sword being used there: attacks along the coast by Turkish pirates, which included the kidnapping in 1344 of administrators from the Mount Athos monastery; the occupation of the region from 1345 until about 1371 by the forces of the Serbian king Stefan Dušan, who aspired to conquer Byzantine territories in the West; and the siege of Thessalonica by Ottoman troops from 1383 until 1387, when the Chalkidiki region was often raided for food.

Maniotis can’t say for sure, but he thinks the sword may be of Turkish origin, and that it was used in a pirate raid on the monastery.

The excavation has revealed that the monastic outpost was very well fortified indeed, encircled by a granite block wall more than six feet thick. The tower was used as a shelter for villagers during military attacks and pirate raids, and to keep important religious relics and food stores safe. Evidence of severe fire damage was found in the same archaeological layer as the curved sword, indicating the tower was set alight in a raid.

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Iceland man-made cave was dug in the 10th c.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

A man-made cave near Oddi in South Iceland is much older and larger than archaeologists initially realized. An analysis of the layers of volcanic tephra revealed that the caves were created in the middle of the 10th century, not in the early 12th century as previously believed.

The first of the caves was discovered in 2018 and then a second larger one was found to be connected to it. The current research team has been excavating the caves since 2020. The larger cave of the two was collapsed, forcing archaeologists to dig deeper to get access to the cave in the safest possible conditions in a challenging environment with crumbling sandstone walls. So far it has only been partially opened.

The investigation into the cave system is part of a larger exploration of the literary culture that thrived in Oddi during the 11th and 12th century. The Oddverjar clan who lived there were famed as historians, poets and authors of some of the most important Norse sagas, including the Heimskringla. There may even be a direct reference to the caves in one of those sagas.

Kristborg says that the cave currently being excavated may possibly be Nautahellir, Bull Cave, which is mentioned in Jarteinabók Þorláks Biskups (Bishop Þorlákur’s Legends of Saints), which dates back to 1210 – 1250. The manuscript relates how Nautahellir collapsed with 12 bulls in it. One was then rescued from the rubble.

“Although it’s older than that, it’s likely that [the cave] was used for livestock,” explained Kristborg. “Whether it was for that specific bull, we don’t know. But the history of its use obviously goes back further than we’ve managed to trace yet.”

The caves at Oddi have a complex and fascinating story to tell, says Kristborg, but the scope of the current investigation is such that she and her team need to keep their focus narrow. “These are huge structures and an unbelievably large system of caves that we’re only just starting to come to grips with. […] We’d need to undertake a much, much larger study with a much bigger crew in order to get to the bottom of this and trace this history in full, the history of these caves’ use.”

Here is a 3D scan fly-through of the cave:

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Climb the scaffolding with restorers of Gothic fresco in Siena

Saturday, May 28th, 2022

The city of Siena has embarked on an innovative restoration program for The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a masterpiece of 14th century Gothic fresco art by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the Sala dei Nove (Hall of the Nine) of the Palazza Pubblico. The scaffolding went up in March and diagnostic investigations of the frescoes have begun. When the study is complete, conservators will use the new information to craft a targeted restoration plan.

The room is currently closed to the public during the study phase and the initial conservation phase. Come October, visitors will be allowed inside the hall to admire the masterpiece as it is restored. Special guided tours will be offered, led by the restorers themselves. Best of all, visitors will be allowed to climb the scaffolding and view the fresco and the conservation work at eye-level, just like the conservators do.

Lorenzetti was commissioned by the Sienese government to paint the frescoes in the council hall of Siena’s nine executives (hence the Hall of Nine) in 1338. An homage to the room’s function as the Republic’s center of power, the fresco is a rare example of art from the period with a civic theme rather than a religious one. Lorenzetti utilized imagery associated with religion (bearded Wisdom looks a lot God, the virtues of Good Government look a lot like angels or cardinal virtues, horned tyrant looks a lot like the Devil, Vices of Bad Government look a lot like demons) to symbolize the advantages of a republican system in stark contrast with the viciousness of tyranny.

An inscription in the lower border makes the association explicit:

“This holy virtue [Justice], where she rules, induces to unity the many souls, and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord; and he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him. Therefore to him in triumph are offered taxes, tributes, and lordship of towns; therefore, without war, every civic result duly follows—useful necessary, and pleasurable.”

The finished paintings covered three of the four walls in the room. The allegories of good and bad government are accompanied by illustrations of their effects in the city and the country.  It is a tour de force of figural, landscape and architectural imagery and the fresco series was immediately hailed as Lorenzetti’s greatest masterpiece. For the next decade, he was the undisputed leading artist of the city until the Black Death took him along with 50% of the population of Siena in 1348.

The last time the frescoes in the Sala dei Nove were restored was 35 years ago. The painted surface began to suffer from gradual deterioration very soon after the work was completed, and while the last intervention stabilized them, they are again in need of attention. The study takes a multi-disciplinary approach. Restorers are working with architectural archaeologists, chemists, petrographers, physicists and architects to analyze the works both to determine their conservation needs and to learn more about Lorenzetti’s painting technique.

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Looted Viking hoard returns to Herefordshire

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

A Viking hoard illegally recovered and hidden from the authorities by unscrupulous metal detectorists will, after a seven year saga, finally go on display in the county where it was stolen.

George Powell and Layton Davies discovered the hoard in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015. It was a sensational find, containing about 300 coins, Anglo-Saxon jewelry, Frankish jewelry and silver ingots, but it was never reported. Powell and Davies were ill-intentioned from the beginning, neglecting to get permission from the landowner to scan the field and opting to sell an archaeological treasure of inestimable historic value on the black market for quick cash instead of reporting them to the Finds Liaison officer as required by the 1996 Treasure Act.

They did have the clever idea to post photos of some of the coins in situ to a metal detecting forum, however, and those photos ultimately resulted in their capture and conviction for theft and concealment in 2019. Powell was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Layton to eight-and-a-half. A coin-seller who had fenced the extremely rare coins was convicted of conspiracy to conceal criminal property and conspiracy to convert criminal property and sentenced to five years. A fourth accomplice was also convicted of concealment and sentenced to a year in prison.

Unfortunately, only 29 of the coins could be found of the original 300 or so in the hoard, (an estimate based on pictures taken at the find site by the thieves). Authorities also believe many more ingots were originally part of the hoard before they were illegally sold. The coins that remain are of enormous archaeological significance, even re-writing the history of England and upending what we thought we knew about West Mercia in the 9th century.

There are a number of exceedingly rare “Two-Emperor” pennies minted by both Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia, likely to commemorate an alliance. Only three examples of this type of coin were known before the Herefordshire Hoard, and because of the tiny sample size historians didn’t know if this was a substantial coinage or just a scattershot few. The only references to Ceolwulf on the historical record were written by Alfred’s chroniclers. The Mercian king is dismissed as a weak Viking puppet.

The hoard proves the coins were produced in large quantities and identify Ceolwulf II as a far more important ruler than previous realized, on an equal footing with Alfred the Great in their time. Before this find, all historians had to go on was Alfred’s presentation of Ceolwulf II who had their alliance erased from history after he took Ceolwulf’s kingdom. The hoard is also the first evidence of likely activity of the Viking Great Army in Western Mercia in 877-9.

The Herefordshire Hoard is still in the British Museum while non-profit groups work to raise the valuation sum to bring the hoard home pernamently. Meanwhile, the hoard will travel to the Hereford Museum Resource and Learning Centre (MRLC) where it will be on display from May 28th through July 9th. The museum has until the end of July to raise the funds to acquire it. To donate to the fundraiser, click here.

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Dog finds bracteate hoard in Poland

Friday, April 22nd, 2022

A very good boy has unearthed a large hoard of medieval bracteate coins near Wałbrzych in southwestern Poland that is the largest hoard found in Poland in a 100 years. Kajtuś was out on a walk earlier this month when his canine senses prompted him to dig and dig he did, until he hit a pot filled with coins.

His owner reported Kajtuś’ find to the Lower Silesia Heritage Protection Office who dispatched a team of archaeologists to survey the site. They excavated the coins and the pieces of the earthenware pot containing them. Archaeologists identified the coins as bracteates minted in Bandenburg, Saxony or Silesia in the first half of the 13th century. They are in excellent condition, well-stamped with clear, sharp images of griffins, mermaids, angels and architectural features.

Bracteates were made from thin sheet metal, so thin that they were only stamped on the obverse with just a negative of the impression appearing on the reverse of the coin. They quickly got threadbare with use and were regularly taken out of circulation to be melted down and restamped, so bracteate hoards are relatively uncommon, and large hoards like this one even rarer.

“The idea of stamping coins from a thin plate was caused by the low availability of ore – silver or, more rarely, gold, and the reserves of the mint. Kings, dukes, and bishops could mint coins,” the heritage protection office explains.

Only with the discovery of silver deposits near Prague did the “euro of medieval Europe”, the Prague groschen, begin to be minted, which gradually took over from bracteates.

The coins are archaeological heritage and will therefore eventually make their way into a museum rather than onto the numismatic market. First, however, they need to be properly studied and conserved – which will require time as well as academic grants.

Before this find, the largest bracteate hoards in Poland were found in the  Warsaw and Kraków areas. The discovery of a large hoard in Lower Silesia will stimulate new interest in the medieval history of the area. Officials are keeping the exact number of coins and find site secret for now to make it hard on any loot-minded tourists who might want to try their luck with surreptitious metal detecting.

Kajtuś does not appear to be letting the fame go to his head.

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