Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented sword with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

Tournai was then part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.

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Lost chapel found in Mike and Mary Hudd’s yard

Monday, June 29th, 2015

In June of 2014, Mike and Mary Hudd of Bincknoll Cottage, Bincknoll, Wiltshire, were doing some landscaping in their garden, employing a machine to pull out the roots of a fallen tree, when they unearthed stonework remains. Mary, an avid amateur archaeologist, stopped the landscaping and started excavating, carefully exposing enough of the upper layer of chalk block walls to indicate there might be the remains of a larger structure under the Hudd’s yard. They called in the Wiltshire County Archaeologist to determine how to proceed.

They had good reason to believe the stonework might be of archaeological significance. Bincknoll is a tiny hamlet with a few houses and a farm that is part of the civil parish of Broad Town today, but it first appears in the Domesday Book as Bechenhalle, a manor of Norman lord Gilbert de Breteuil. Just south of the garden is an escarpment overlooking Bincknoll Cottage where the remains of an early motte and bailey castle stand as an earthwork ridge. Other archaeological features in the hamlet include enclosure boundaries, ridge and furrow plough patterns visible in earthworks when surviving and in the path of lanes and hedgerows when not and a ridge thought to be the remnant of a medieval fish pond. There has been very little in the way of archaeological exploration of these features, so all that’s known is what’s visible to the naked eye from the ground and air.

The Wiltshire County Archaeologist and the Hudds decided on a plan to excavate the yard further with the goal of determining the full measurements of the structure, finding datable artifacts and architectural remains that would help them identify what kind of building it was. The planned called for four trenches (later increased to six to further investigate features found during the excavation), to be dug across the stonework Mary Hudd had partially exposed. Because the chalk block walls were visible at ground level, all the trenches would have to be dug by hand.

Events kicked off in late July with a geophysical survey of the front and back yards of Bincknoll Cottage. The front yard was found to have underground features that were likely to be more buried walls. In August the excavation began in earnest, and what a glorious team was there, my friends. Because the trenches had to be dug by hand, many hands were needed. Broad Town Archaeology, a non-profit organization dedicated to community archaeology in the Broad Town area, got involved and ultimately more than 60 volunteers worked the site supervised by professional archaeologists from, among others, the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, English Heritage, the Wiltshire Museum and Wessex Archaeology. Volunteers ranged from organized amateurs like the North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club to members of the community who were excited to get their hands dirty in the history of their town.

Excavations ran from through August through September 2014 and were remarkably productive. They revealed three sides of a chalk block and rubble structure 20 feet wide with walls three feet thick. The walls were in generally good condition except for the very tops which have been exposed to the elements for a very long time. The building is aligned perfectly along the east-west axis.

Artifacts found include roof tiles, mortar, nails, carved chalk from the 14th century and a range of pottery types dating from the 11th century through the 17th. The team found chunks of whitewashed plaster, some decorated with red lines painted across them, some plain white, some small pieces with residue of other colors that could be green and black. The excavation of the south wall in trench four unearthed ten voussoirs, a wedge-shaped stone used in arches, that were probably part of a doorway or window.

Excavations also revealed some organic remains, oyster shells and animal bones. The articulated skeletal remains of a large animal were found in trench four. In order to excavate the skeleton fully, the team opened a new trench, trench six, and found a cattle burial. The beast was interred in a pit with some difficulty as the head is bent back and the left foreleg twisted up above its body. The burial postdates the ruin of the medieval structure. A clay pipe unearthed in the same layer was identified as the work of John Greenland of Marlborough which dates it and the burial to the late 17th, early 18th century at the earliest.

Four more trenches were dug during this season’s excavations from April through June, exploring the east side of the structure. While conclusive dates are still elusive, archeologists believe they’ve found the remains of a chapel that documents attest once stood in Bincknoll from at least the early 13th century. A 1209 record notes that the Prior of Goldcliff had a holding Bincknoll that paid a yearly tithe of £1. A 1291 document refers to a chapel at Bincknoll Manor whose tithes were granted to the Priory of St. Denis in Southampton. The chapel comes up a couple of more times in church records from the 13th and 14th century. The last record of it is in a Bond from 1609 which describes it as “that decayed Chapell with appurtainment situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll within the parish of Brodehinton in the above said County
of Wilts and all that rectory parsonage and manor house called the parsonage house of Bincknoll alias Bynoll situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll aforesaid.”

The east-west alignment and dimensions suggest this structure is the chapel rather than the parsonage house which probably was more of a wooden affair than one made out of large blocks of chalk stone.

[Archaeologist and president of the town historical society Bob] Clarke said: “There may have been an early cell around which a larger structure was built later. We found fragments of painted plaster from the building’s interior, painted red lines depicting borders, pinks and green and black possibly from wall paintings. The excavation and post-ex work has taken about 18 months so far and we are now pretty convinced this was the lost chapel of Bincknoll, of which the last recorded mention was in the early 17th century.”

The remains of a small inner wall is thought to be of late Saxon origin, which is surrounded by a later massive Norman structure. The clearly defined site, with the remains of substantial walls almost a metre wide with foundations over a metre deep, internally the building measures 4.4 metres by 13 metres and would have been an impressive sight when still standing. Nearer to the surface of the site the team discovered the remains of two cows and a pig, buried in later years over the ruined building.

You can read the preliminary report written after the first season of excavation here (pdf). The final report is expected to be published at the end of the year. Broad Town Archaeology has tons of pictures of both seasons of excavations on their Facebook page. The North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) put together a great online dig diary documenting their work over two weekends this season. It’s amazing how much they accomplished in just four days. Community archaeology is the best.

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Artifacts found on 700-year-old Swiss battle site

Friday, June 26th, 2015

November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.

The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.

Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.

One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.

As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.

The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.

These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.

That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.

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Plunderer of Swedish Churches arrested, plunder returned

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Spanish police have arrested an infamous cultural heritage thief known as “el expoliador de iglesias suecas,” or “the plunderer of Swedish churches.” The 63-year-old Spanish man was arrested last month at his home in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where police found 46 artifacts stolen from Swedish churches and museums. Twelve of those pieces — 11 carved wooden statuettes and one wood chest — have now officially been returned to the Swedish embassy in Madrid.

The bust was a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Swedish police, German police and Danish authorities. The Spaniard was a target of the Swedish police first who suspected him of being responsible for a rash of thefts from churches and small museums in Sweden over the past two years. He had already been convicted of similar property crimes in Sweden and served a five-year prison sentence, so when stuff started to go missing again, the police zeroed in on him. Swedish authorities alerted the Spanish police and they investigated the case together.

In May, the Spanish National Police searched the suspect’s Tenerife home and found 43 objects including candlesticks, metal and wood vessels, four carved wooden figures from the 15th century, a 15th century wood chest, an 18th century bible and an oil painting of canvas of unknown age but significant cultural interest. Another four carved figures part of a matched set with the four found in the home were recovered after being sold at auction in Madrid.

Then the investigation found that the suspect had a storage unit or warehouse in Denmark. The Swedish police and judicial authorities contacted the Danish authorities to discover the location of the warehouse and any records they might have of it. Danish police found two storage units connected to the suspected. Searches of both locations and found more carvings and religious objects stolen from Sweden. Based on information from the material recovered in Denmark, the Spanish police returned to the man’s Tenerife home and searched it again, finding three more carved wooden figures of the Holy Family that were part of a 15th century altarpiece.

The 12 objects returned were the eight 15th century wooden statuettes, the three carvings from the 15th century altarpiece and the 15th century wooden chest. Presumably the rest of the plunder will be returned as well, perhaps after they’re used in court against the plunderer. Meanwhile, Sweden is delighted to have halted the remorseless advance of the Plunderer of Swedish Churches and to have gotten their religious treasures back. They may look a little rough-hewn, but they’re historically and culturally significant. Sweden’s ambassador to Spain, Cecilia Julin:

“I think people will be celebrating in some parts of central Sweden. It is a fantastic story. Sometimes justice is done,” she said.

“It is not possible to put a price on the items.”

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Magna Carta copied by church, not royal, scribes

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

The peace treaty that has gone down in history as Magna Carta was negotiated over 10 days at Runnymede in June of 1215. The rebel barons and King John came to an agreement on terms on June 15th, 1215, which is why yesterday we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter even though the formal copies were issued on June 19th. Only four of those original 1215 copies, called exemplifications, are known to have survived. Two of them are in the collection of the British Library; one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and the last to Lincoln Cathedral.

As part of a project of extensive study of Magna Carta in anticipation of the 800th anniversary, scholars from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London compared the handwriting of the original copies. They have identified the scribe who wrote the Lincoln charter and probably the one who wrote the Salisbury charter as well. They were not scribes of the royal chancery, as long thought.

The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

It makes sense that Magna Carta would be copied by cathedral scribes rather than the royal ones because the bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, were in favor of the charter which guaranteed their rights as well as the barons’, while John had to be forced into it and had no real intention of living up to the agreement. If it had been up to John, Magna Carta would never have gotten nation-wide distribution.

A recent study of one of the British Library’s two copies, Cotton Charter XIII 31A, which was damaged in a 1731 fire and then damaged even harder by a botched restoration attempt a century later, has found that it too had an ecclesiastical origin. Multispectral imaging has made it possible to view text invisible to the naked eye and comparison of the charter text with transcriptions in a cartulary (a manuscript of transcribed documents relating to the foundation and rights of the church) from Canterbury Cathedral found that this exemplification was the one sent to the cathedral for its records in 1215. Since Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton played a pivotal role in the Runnymede negotiations, the discovery of a Canterbury Magna Carta that may well have passed through his hands is of major historical import.

King’s College London professor of medieval history David Carpenter:

“We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.

“This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.

“The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.”

We know later reissues of Magna Carta were sent to cities and counties as well as churches, even more extensively than first realized, as the recent discovery of the Kent copy indicates, but by then the reissuing of Magna Carta was almost a given. Every king for 75 years did it whenever he got into disputes over taxes and forests and whatnot. It’s those original 1215 iterations that appear to have been primarily supported and preserved by church authorities. Church officials wrote them, distributed them, kept them safe in their archives.

Because nothing is ever simple, the Church in the person of the Pope was no fan of Magna Carta. After clashes over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication, King John had submitted to Pope Innocent III in 1213 and become his vassal. This secured him the pope’s consistent political support against enemies foreign (France) and domestic (the barons, the bishops) and, just 10 weeks after Runnymede, garnered him a Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” The result was the First Baron’s War.

There are piles of events and resources out there right now because of the anniversary. The British Library has put together an excellent website dedicated to Magna Carta. There are articles, a zoomable image and translation of one of the original 1215 exemplifications and more than 150 other artifacts related to Magna Carta and King John in the library’s collection. If you can get to the library in person, they have a rich exhibition on the history of the charter and its evolution in meaning from a treaty between warring factions whose terms were regularly ignored by all parties to the foundations of democratic principles like trial by jury and due process.

One of the more unusual objects on display is entirely modern, an artwork by Cornelia Parker called Magna Carta (An Embroidery). It is a 13 meter-long embroidery of the Magna Carta Wikipedia page as it was last year on June 15th. More than 200 people were involved in this project, from lawyers to barons to 40 prisoners who embroidered the word “freedom.” Every color, image, table, bullet point, reference and footnote is duplicated in embroidery.

For a cool look at the history of Magna Carta scholarship, check out the English Historical Review‘s special online Magna Carta issue which is available for free on its website. It’s a selection of articles about the charter published in the EHR over its 130 history, which makes it as interesting from a historiographical perspective as it is a study of Magna Carta.

This video is a nice overview of the history and significance of Magna Carta featuring experts from King’s College London.

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Medieval ships found in Tallinn construction site

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Construction workers building a new apartment complex in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have discovered the remains of two medieval ships. Workers were digging the foundations on May 22nd when the bucket of the excavator encountered large pieces of very old wood. The construction company stopped work and alerted the National Heritage Board (NHB) who sent experts to examine the find. On May 26th the crew unearthed another shipwreck at the other end of the construction site. The area was then scanned with ground-penetrating radar and a third likely shipwreck was located.

Construction has been suspended and this week NHB archaeologists began excavating the first shipwreck. The bones of the ship are now clearly visible and can be seen by members of the public who care to glance down. It’s 15 meters (50 feet) long, four meters (13 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (five feet) deep at the deepest point. Archaeologists tentatively date it to between the 14th to 17th century.

It was found close to four meters below modern ground level, in the sediments of what was once the seabed. Although the site is 200 meters (ca. 220 yards) from the water today, for centuries it was a port. In the late 1930s the area was infilled with ash and household refuse. It’s not clear if the ships sank there are were gradually buried over time by siltification, or if they were deliberately sunk after reaching the end of their natural lives. They were certainly stripped of all usable parts — metal fittings, rigging and masts — before being abandoned.

Estonian Maritime Museum archeologist Vello Mässi believes it was a short-haul transport vessel, used to move cargo from the shore to the large ships in the deeper waters of the bay. Archaeologists are excited to have the opportunity to study such old ships in detail. This is the first time multiple historic wrecks have been found so close together. The last time the remains of a wreck were found in Tallinn was 2009 when road construction unearthed a 13th century ship. They are keen to examine these finds to learn about how they were built and when and what wood was used.

Archaeologist Priit Lahi admits the find was an important discovery to shed light on possible shipbuilding methods from centuries before.

“At the time, shipbuilders used their own methods — it wasn’t very scientific. There weren’t project drawings like we have today,” he told the Associated Press.

Excavations are scheduled to continue at least through July 8th. While the developers building the apartment complex have expressed interest in display the find in some way, construction won’t be delayed much longer or halted. It would be too expensive and time-consuming to keep the wrecks in situ, so they will be raised, documented and studied before their ultimate disposition is decided. They may be reburied in sand at another location for their own preservation, which would allow future examination of the wrecks by scholars and make them easy to retrieve for future conservation and display.

For more pictures of the ship and site, check out the photo galleries here and here.

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Merovingian wine jug found in Denmark cemetery

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.

The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.

Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.

Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.

“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.

“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]

“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.

Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.

The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.

The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).

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Murder through the lines of medieval land charters

Friday, May 29th, 2015


In 2014, the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library received a donation of medieval and early modern charters from private collector Eric Robertson who had bought them in an Edinburgh book store decades ago. There are 60 charters in the collection, all from the Fleming family of Biggar in the South Highlands of Scotland dating between the 14th and the 17th centuries.

The Fleming family played an important role in medieval Scottish history. Flemish knights and merchants came to Britain from Flanders as early in the 11th century. The Flemings of Biggar are thought to have descended from a knight who was given lands in Devonshire by William the Conqueror. Some Flemish knights fought for King Stephen during the upheavals of the Anarchy. When Henry II came to the throne, the Flemings who had been on Stephen’s side were banished and found refuge in Scotland under King David I (reigned 1124 – 1153). The first Fleming of this family recorded in Scotland was Baldwin Le Fleming who settled in Biggar and was appointed Sheriff of Lanarkshire by David I. As sheriff he controlled the Upper Clyde Valley which was of great strategic importance as the gateway to Scotland for any number of hostile invaders. Baldwin served under two more kings after David — his grandsons Malcolm IV and King William the Lion.

The Fleming holdings expanded significantly in the 14th century when Robert Fleming was granted the fiefdom of Cumbernauld in Dunbartonshire by Robert the Bruce. It was a reward for Fleming’s involvement in one of the era’s most notorious incidents: when Robert the Bruce stabbed John “Red” Comyn, his main competition for the throne of Scotland, to death in the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries on February 10th, 1306. Fleming reputedly decapitated Red Comyn and presented the head to the Bruce telling him “Let the deid shaw,” meaning “Let the deed show.” That phrase became the Fleming family motto thereafter.

Robert Fleming died shortly thereafter, but his son Malcolm would benefit even more directly from Red Comyn’s death. Robert the Bruce granted him the barony of Kirkintilloch which had belonged to Comyn. The Flemings held Cumbernauld Castle until Cromwell destroyed it in 1650, and along the way gained and lost or sold a number of properties and associated titles. Flemings continued to be closely linked to generations of Scottish monarchs. Much of this history survives in the form of charters, most of them land grants, and the Fleming family collection includes many kings and queens — David II, Robert III, James III, James IV, Charles II, Mary, Queen of Scots — as parties to the charters.

The charters, written in Latin and many still bearing the wax seals of their signers, had not been studied, translated or published before Robertson donated them. The Fisher Library is making up for lost time by digitizing and researching the charters. Once the documents are scanned, the library is sending high resolution images to the University of St Andrews Institute of Scottish Historical Research where researchers can translate and study them.

The first two charters sent to the University of St Andrews have already proved intriguing. The earliest of them dates to 1395 and grants to Patrick Fleming, younger son of Sir Malcolm Fleming of Biggar, the lands of Glenrusto and Over Menyean in the Tweed valley. The second is dated November 3rd, 1421, and transfers property from Malcolm Fleming, grandson of the Malcolm party to the 1395 grant, to his cousin James, son of the Patrick who was the other party to the 1395 grant. Gelnrusto and Over Menyean are two of the properties transferred to James.

This may seem like the dry business of a large family with a vast feudal estate, but the 1421 charter is unusual in that it is part of an indenture. The cutouts along the top of the document are the equivalent of an anti-forging watermark today. Both parties to the indenture would have copies with uneven edges, preventing one of the parties from forging a document that gave them some advantage. What makes the mark of indenture noteworthy in this case is that this type of contract was employed when there were disputes, not in simple transfers of property between family members.

Comparing this document to an inventory of charters in the National Library of Scotland reveals the hidden machinations and violence behind this intrafamily land transfer.

At the same time as receiving this grant, James Fleming made a separate formal resignation of the lands referred to in the charter to his cousin. This included a penalty clause: should James, at a later date, quarrel with Malcolm over the latter’s rights to these lands, James was bound to surrender another estate, Monicabo in Aberdeenshire. This clause is a strong pointer to the fact that what was going on in November 1421 was no simple property deal but involved a degree of coercion of the lesser man, James Fleming, by his more powerful cousin.

Direct evidence of the extent of this coercion is provided by a final document. This is a copy of what is described in the inventory as a ‘writ’, a suitably vague term. In this, James Fleming clears Malcolm Fleming of Biggar and his accomplices of any part in the death of his father, Patrick Fleming, and agrees to end any hostility towards Malcolm. This document would obviously repay further examination but even this record makes clear that the land transactions were associated with the killing of their previous holder. It is surely not a huge stretch to suggest that Patrick Fleming had been killed in a dispute over his estates and that, after his death, his son was being forced to surrender the lands in question to a man implicated in the killing.

Malcolm had all the cards in this relationship. He was the head of the family and had supporters in the highest echelons of power. James had to take this land settlement and its confidentiality clause forcing him to keep his mouth shut about the shady circumstances surrounding his father’s demise or he’d wind up empty-handed and very probably as dead as his father.

Researchers hope that as the digitization of the Robertson Collection continues, more of this story and other unexplored facets of Scottish history will be revealed.

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Staffordshire Hoard helmet band, pommel pieced together

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Anyone who has ever done a large jigsaw puzzle knows how essential it is to put like with like. When your puzzle is 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and gem-festooned objects, sorting out which are part of the same artifact is essential. Thus one of the most important and complicated labours in the first phase of conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard was the grouping together of fragments according to their physical and stylistic characteristics. From the grouping exercise, researchers identified more than 1,500 fragments of silver gilt foil they believe were part of an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon helmet.

Only four other examples of Anglo-Saxon helmets have been found, including one unearthed in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, so it’s imperative that the puzzle be pieced together. It’s a painstaking job, figuring out how 1,500 sheets and strips of foil, many of them no larger than 10mm (.4 inches) across, fit together. So far they’ve been able to piece together a zoomorphic frieze and many of the fragments making up the helmet band that runs around the circumference of the object. The helmet band designs are die-stamped warriors armed and kneeling.

Here’s a glimpse of the tiny pieces of a zoomorphic frieze from the helmet conservators are negotiating:

The Sutton Hoo helmet is silver. The Staffordshire Hoard is gilded. That suggests that whoever donned this elaborate and expensive helmet was of extremely high status, perhaps a king or prince.

Another object conservators have pieced back together from fragments is a pommel. There are more than 70 pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, but this one is unique. Reassembled from 26 fragments, the gold, gold filigree, garnet, niello and inlaid glass pommel has a rounded piece on the shoulder called a “sword-ring.” Although only one of the pommel’s sword-rings has been found in the hoard, the construction indicates there were two originally, one on each side. This is the first pommel ever discovered to have two sword-rings, making it an entirely new type. It is also lavishly decorated in a combination of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish motifs. It may even have a combination of early Christian and traditional polytheistic decorative themes — the garnet and glass inlaid disk could be a stylized Christiana cross, while three serpents on the back of the pommel are pagan.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, said “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest 7th century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

The second stage of conservation and research has been funded to the tune of £400,000 by Historic England, but they need to raise another £120,000 to complete the project. This phase will entail the conservation and physical joining of the fragments that have been matched to each other, a comprehensive study of the exquisite cloisonné cellwork seen on so many pieces from the hoard (see the gold and garnet Bible bindings in the video below for an example), a microscopic analysis of materials that are as of yet unidentified, contextual research of the practice of hoarding and the creation of an online database of the complete hoard by 2017.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can make an online payment here. You can also download this donation form (pdf) to contribute by check.

If you’re in the Birmingham area today, hustle on over to the museum to meet the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team. You’ll get to ask them questions and you’ll even have the chance to clean a piece of the hoard and examine it under a microscope. The event is free and open between 11:00AM – 1:00PM and 2:00 – 4:00PM.

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Icon of the Madonna restored to former splendor

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

The 13th century icon of the Madonna in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis on the Aventine Hill has been restored to glowing golden splendor. The restoration by experts at the Superior Institute for Conservation and Restoration (ISCR) took three years. The surface was cleaned, pollutants and paint from past retouchings removed.

This isn’t the first time the ISCR has worked on this icon. In 1951 it was restored by Cesare Brandi, ISCR founder and pioneer art restorer. The icon was in dangerously bad condition due to the decay of the wood panel on which it was originally painted. Brandi transferred the work to canvas and filled in areas of missing paint using a thin watercolor cross-hatching technique he had pioneered in the restoration of the frescoes in the church of Saint Mary of the Truth in Viterbo after they were reduced to rubble by an Allied bomb in 1944.

The next time the icon left the church was in 2012 for an exhibition of 14 of Rome’s medieval icons at the Palazzo Venezia. That’s where it became clear that Brandi’s retouchings had become problematic over the six decades. ISCR restorers removed paint from Brandi’s and previous interventions. The small gaps were then filled by being covered with tissue paper and painted with watercolor, the larger gaps by stucco and cross-hatch paintings. The technique Brandi used is still a staple of art restoration today; it’s the materials and analytic technology that have improved by leaps and bounds.

Cesare Brandi also restored other famous icons in Rome, including the Madonna of Ara Coeli, an 11th century tempera on wood panel which replaced a masterpiece by Raphael on the high altar of the church of Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill, and the Madonna of San Sisto, now at the monastery of Santa Maria del Rosario in the Monte Mario neighborhood, which dates to the 7th century and is the oldest icon in the city.

The Madonna di Sant’Alessio icon was painted by an unknown Roman artist in the mid-13th century in the style of the Advocate Madonna, an iconographic type emphasizing Mary’s intercessionary role on behalf of humanity that was very popular in medieval Rome. For a few centuries before and after the first millennium, the Advocate Madonna type, depicted without the Christ child, her right hand raised, her left against her chest, was considered the quintessential Roman Madonna.

The church, originally dedicated to Saint Boniface of Tarsus alone, was expanded to include Saint Alexius in the masthead by Sergius, the Greek metropolitan bishop of Damascus who had fled the advancing Islamic forces and settled in Rome in 977 A.D. According to his legend Alexius was born and raised to a wealthy senatorial family in 4th-5th century Rome, but the cult venerating him started in Syrian where the saint was said to have lived as a beggar after abandoning his youth of privilege and comfort. After a church sexton had a miraculous vision of the Madonna which pointed to him as a holy man, Alexius fled his newfound fame and returned to Rome where his parents, who did not recognize him, let him live in a cubby under the staircase out of Christian charity. It wasn’t until his death 17 years later that his autobiography was found clenched in his hand and he was finally recognized as their long-lost son.

Sergius brought the cult of Saint Alexius to Rome with him where it found fertile ground since Romans love a native son. The site of the church on the Aventine even garnered an apocryphal association with Saint Alexius: it was said to be the location where his father Euphemianus’ home stood, the stairs under which he had lived in humility and poverty incorporated into the walls of the church. While he’s still a saint in the Latin Church, his cult has faded. It’s in the Eastern Church, particularly in Russia, where Alexius is one of the most venerated saints, a frequent subject of poems and stories and the reason Alexei was such a popular name for Tsars.

The newly restored icon plays into the legend of Saint Alexius as well. In the sexton’s vision where Mary identified Alexius as true holy man, she spoke through her icon. According to this tale, Sergius brought the icon from the church in Edessa with him when he went to Rome.

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