Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

He died with his thigh-highs on

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

The skeleton of a man wearing high boots have been found lying face-down deep in the mud of the Thames. The remains were unearthed by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Headland Infrastructure archaeologists at the at Tideway’s Chambers Wharf site in Bermondsey, part of a construction project building a new “super sewer” for the city of London. The new Thames Tideway tunnel will be the first major update of London’s sewer system since the Victorian era and the first to conduct the excretions, filth and fatbergs of a city of nine million away from the river that runs through it instead of directly into it.

Digging on the Thames foreshore means going through layers of dense waterlogged mud, the kind of medium adept at preserving organic material that would otherwise decay. The soft tissues of the man decomposed, but his leather boots are still going strong. They date to the late 15th or early 16th century. The tops of the boots are folded down to the knees, but would have reached thigh height when pulled all the way up.

They aren’t the sexy pirate thigh-highs. These were practical garments, not fashion statements. Made of leather quarters stitched together with flax thread, the boots had no heels and the one flat sole was strengthened with “clump soles,” at the front and back. They were also stuffed with a plant material that hasn’t been identified yet (perhaps moss) to insulate and customize the fit.

So much leather was expensive and was often reused. That kind of investment clothing wasn’t likely to be deliberately included in a burial. The position of the body — face-down, with one arm above his head with the other bent back on itself to the side — suggests an accidental death. Osteological examination found no evidence of perimortem injuries or any cause of death. His bones did reveal that while he was a young man by our standards, less than 35 years old, he had worked hard during his short life.

“We know he was very powerfully built,” says Niamh Carty, an osteologist, or skeletal specialist, at MOLA. “The muscle attachments on his chest and shoulders are very noticeable. The muscles were built by doing a lot of heavy, repetitive work over a long period of time.”

It was work that took a physical toll. Although only in his early thirties, the booted man suffered from osteoarthritis, and vertebrae in his back had already begun to fuse as the result of years of bending and lifting. Injuries to his left hip suggest he walked with a limp, and his nose had been broken at least once. There’s eviden[ce] of blunt force trauma on his forehead that had healed before he died.

“He didn’t have an easy life,” says Carty. “Early thirties was middle age back then, but even so, his biological age was older.”

He also had deep grooves in his teeth caused by repeatedly holding something or pulling something over the biting surface of the teeth. Fishermen and sailors were known to have passed rope between their teeth. If he had a river-based job like fishing, sailing, dock work or mudlarking, that would explain the boots. They would have been waders, an important tool very much worth the expense for a worker who had to wade in the deep, sticky muck of the Thames day in and day out.


London Medieval Murder Map goes live

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Coroners’ inquests in Britain have made frequent appearances on this here blog, but only in their role in determining whether archaeological material is official treasure according to the criteria of the Treasure Act. Commenters have occasionally remarked on how incongruous it is that coroners are tasked with investigating ancient hoards and medieval brooches and Bronze Age hand axes as well as suspicious deaths. Thanks to the efforts of the University of Cambridge, Institute of Criminology, Violence Research Centre, we can now give the profession’s original purpose all due attention.

UC researchers have created an interactive online map of 142 murders that took place in London in the first half of the 14th century. The London Medieval Murder Map documents the location of the crimes, the years they took place, the means of murder, the identity of the victims and, if known, the killer. You can hover over each pin on the map to get a preview of the information about the homicide that occurred there; click on them to read the whole story. Filters on the top right allow you to group the crimes by categories — victim gender, weapon used, whether the location was public or private, the ward the crime scene was in — and you can explore the vicious underbelly of London on two different maps. One is an Elizabethan-era map, so drawn two centuries after the murders, but it offers a birds-eye view of a London before the explosion of urban development made it diverge radically from the city in the 14th century. The other was created in 1270. To switch between the two, click on the icons in the upper left half of the map.

This extraordinary record of crime in medieval London comes down to us in its entirety from Coroner’s inquests. After a sudden death, suicide, accident, murder, any death that was not clearly attributable to natural causes, the coroner and sheriff would assemble a jury to investigate the circumstances. Coroners had jurisdiction over the 24 wards — neighborhoods inside and outside the old Roman wall that were largely self-governing — of London. Juries were composed of free men from the ward in which the body had been found and from three adjacent wards. Juries could have as few as 12 members or as many as 50.

The conclusions drawn by the officials and jury at the inquest were documented in the Coroners’ Rolls. In the case of homicides, they included a summary of the location and time of the murder, the parties involved, the weapon used and the types of the wounds. The rolls also included the jury’s answers to questions about witnesses, the fate of the murders and items found at the scene of the crime.

There are nine extant Coroners’ Rolls from London between 1300 and 1340. The years from 1301 through 1314 and 1317 through 1320 have been lost. The 142 homicides pinned on the map are the murders documented in the surviving Coroners’ Rolls.

It’s a fascinating browse. The information encompasses not just the Clue-like summations (“Male in public with a long knife”), but also interesting names, vernacular that can delicately be described as colorful and an overall picture of life and death in the big city that is sometimes rendered in minute detail. There are also statistical data that can be compiled from the rolls, like for instance that by far the most murders, 52.8% of them, took place in public squares and streets. That’s 75 murders. Only six happened in a tavern, the same number that happened in a religious building. Brothels and prisons were comparatively safe places with only two and one murder recorded respectively. The weapon of choice was the long knife, with 51 bodies on its blade. The short knife takes second place with 29, and the bronze goes to the staff. Ten more people were killed with staffs than with swords.


Seal of 14th century woman found in Denmark

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

Seal stamps from the 1300s are rare finds, and ones that belonged to women are as rare as it gets. Finding the seal of a 14th century woman who actually appears by name in historical sources is practically unprecedented. Lasse Rahbek Ottesen, a truly committed amateur archaeologist, has done just that, discovering the bronze seal of Elisabeth Buggesdatter at Hodde in western Jutland.

Elisabeth Buggesdatter was the daughter of Niels Bugge, one of the richest men in Jutland. He was on the council of King Valdemar IV Atterdag and fought with the ambitious monarch against the Margraviate of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Mecklenburg in 1349, but he turned on the king when Valdemar sought to wrest control of Jutland from the nobles. Niels Bugge was one of the leaders of a rebellion against Valdemar in the early 1350s. The rebellion ended with a treaty in 1353, but tensions flared repeatedly over the decade. Bugge was one of three members of Jutland’s ruling nobility who met with Vademar the Christmas of 1358 to discuss detente. The discussions failed and all three men were assassinated on their way home.

One of his most important holdings, the estate of Hald near Viborg, he acquired through his second wife Ingeborg Pedersdatter. Their daughter Elizabeth was born around 1346. After her father’s murder, Elisabeth inherited Hald. She married Gotskalk Skarpenberg, member of a German noble family that had immigrated to Denmark in the 13th century, and established herself as a prominent figure in Danish society. She spoke at the tinge, the legislative and judicial assemblies of medieval Denmark, and is noted in the historical record as a wealthy property owner. She sold the family estate of Hald to Queen Margrete (possibly under less than entirely voluntary conditions) but her will attests that she was still a rich woman when she died around 1402.

Her political prominence, extensive property holdings and wealth would have made a personal seal stamp a necessity for Elizabeth to see to her business. Seals were impressed into wax and the stamped wax affixed to legal documents, property deeds, declarations, anything that needed the official imprimatur of relevant parties. The stamp was like a signature on steroids. If it was lost or stolen, someone of nefarious intent could sign documents under that person’s name, a medieval version of identity theft. When someone died, their seal was usually destroyed to prevent shenanigans. That’s why few of them have survived.

Ottesen had to work hard to find this one. He wasn’t just scanning a field with a metal detector, although he has done that too. He researched the hell out of it, using aerial photography, topographical analysis, studying place names and the historical record. Then he deployed the ol’ shoe leather technique, systematically walking a snowy field in the morning sun looking for glass, flint or anything else of archaeological significance. He found the stamp on the ground, took a picture of it and sent it to the local museum.

That was four years ago. The seal has since been studied by experts at the National Museum and now we know who wielded it in life.

That the seal belonged to a woman was confirmed after examination by the National Museum, which found the inscription ‘Elsebe Buggis Dotter’, meaning Elisabeth Buggesdatter, on the stamp.

“It is outstanding to be able to connect this very personal object to a person we know from historical sources,” National Museum curator Marie Laursen said.

“That the owner was a woman who was among the leading figures in society in the 14th century makes this discovery even more spectacular,” she added.


Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery found in Lincolnshire

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

University of Sheffield archaeologists have discovered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Scremby, Lincolnshire. The burials of more than 20 individuals were unearthed at the site in the Lincolnshire Wolds. They date from the late 5th century to the mid-sixth and virtually all of them include rich grave goods.

It was those grave goods that alerted archaeologists to the presence of the cemetery. A local metal detector hobbyist exploring the field discovered a number of Anglo-Saxon pieces of jewelry and weapon fittings and responsibly notified the Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer. Because the objects found — gilded brooches, spear heads, iron shield bosses — are indicators of Anglo-Saxon era burials, archaeologists were brought in to excavate the site.

Dr Hugh Willmott, Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology from the University of Sheffield, said: “Almost without exception, the burials were accompanied by a rich array of objects, in keeping with the funerary rites adopted during the early centuries of the Germanic migrations to eastern England.

“What is particularly interesting is the significant proportion of very lavish burials which belonged to women. These women wore necklaces made from sometimes hundreds of amber, glass and rock crystal beads, used personal items such as tweezers, carried fabric bags held open by elephant ivory rings, and wore exquisitely decorated brooches to fasten their clothing.

“Two women even received silver finger rings and a style of silver buckle commonly associated with Jutish communities in Kent. Furnished burials belonging to males were also identified, including a number buried with weaponry such as spears and shields.”

Individual child burials have not been found so far in the cemetery. The only child unearthed was an infant buried with an adult woman. The baby was cradled in the woman’s left arm.

The skeletal remains discovered in the burial ground are in good condition and will be extensively analyzed to learn more about the early Anglo-Saxon community that inhabited the area. The bones will be given a full osteological examination at the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth will reveal where the deceased grew up based on the kind of food they ate and water they drank as children.

The metal artifacts will also be tested for the elemental composition of alloys and the ivory rings to identify the species of elephant they came from.


Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstructed

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

With more than 4,000 pieces, the hoard of 7th century gold and silver fragments discovered in 2009 near the village of Hammerwich in Staffordshire, England, is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon precious metals ever found. About 1,500 of those pieces were found to come from a single artifact: an extremely rare helmet of highest quality. Like the famous helmet discovered in the 7th century ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, the Staffordshire helmet must have belonged to an individual of high status.The Sutton Hoo helmet’s owner is believed to have been King Rædwald of East Anglia; the helmet is made of iron, tinned bronze sheeting, bronze and a few prominent gilded elements like the upper lip. The Staffordshire helmet was covered in reliefs of silver gilt foil, so has even more precious metal surfacing than the Sutton Hoo helmet.

The main structure of the helmet is lost and the hundreds of surviving relief fragments are so thin and delicate that they cannot all be puzzled back together. Small sections to be carefully jigsawed together during an extensive study project dedicated to identifying the helmet fragments amidst the 4,000-plus pieces in the hoard. The project ran from 2014 through 2017.

In order to get a full picture of what the helmet looked like when it was intact, researchers dedicated another 18 months to creating a painstakingly detailed reconstruction using a combination of the latest technology and traditional crafts. Two copies were made.

It will never be possible to reassemble the original physically. Instead, the project explored how the original may have been made and what it looked like, enabling archaeologists to understand its construction better and test theories about its structure and assembly.

The reconstructions were created by a team of specialist makers. The School of Jewellery at Birmingham City University (BCU) led on the fabrication of the precious metal elements of the helmet. Laser scanning of the original objects was used to ensure the replica pieces are as close to the surviving original parts as possible.

Other specialists, including Royal Oak Armoury, Gallybagger Leather, Drakon Heritage and Conservation and metalsmith Samantha Chilton, worked collaboratively to bring the helmet to life, advised by the archaeologists.

Steel, leather and horsehair elements were created, as well as the wood and paste, that scientific analysis of the original has revealed were used in its construction.

The reconstructions went on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery Friday, November 23rd.


7th c. textile before and after

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Excavations in the historic center of Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark and the hub of maritime trade network that operated in the North and Baltic seas starting in the 7th century, unearthed a section of textile on July 25th of this year. It was preserved in water-logged soil and even folded up and coated in dirt the finely woven fabric was clearly identifiable as diamond twill.

This kind of high quality woolen cloth played an important role in the growth of trade in the area. In the early Middle Ages, cloth production was centered primarily in coastal areas where the sheep farms were. Southern Jutland, where Ribe was located, had a significant population of Frisians who specialized in creating wool fabric with an international reputation as the best in the business. Charlemagne gifted colorfully dyed Frisian wool cloaks to the Caliph of Baghdad and star of several One Thousand and One Nights Harun al-Rashid when he sent emissaries in 799 to offer friendship and alliance.

It’s a testament to how important the cloth was to the economy that early medieval codes imposed greater fines on people who harmed Frisian wool weavers. Only goldsmiths and harpers were granted the same distinction. The latter two professions were exclusively male. The weavers were largely women, so this law afforded them additional protections that other women did not enjoy.

Experts have been cleaning, conserving and studying the piece since it was discovered. They dated it to the first half of the 8th century, just a century after Ribe was settled. It is a z/z diamond twill woven on an A-frame loom with a thread count of 21 x 15 per centimeter. Researchers believe it’s a weave known as the Spong Hill type after the Anglo-Saxon cemetery type site where textile remains were found attached to brooches and other accessories. More research needs to be done to confirm the identification, to determine if it was dyed and find out other details about the piece.

But really it’s all about the before and after pictures.


Last looted apostle mosaic returned to Cyprus

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

A 6th century mosaic of St. Mark torn from the walls of Panagia Kanakaria church in northern Cyprus in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion has been repatriated. The monastery church, originally built in the 5th century, was renown for its early Byzantine mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and the apostles. They were extremely rare, stylistically unique and some of the most important early Christian art in the world by virtue of having survived the Iconoclastic orgy of destruction during the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the late 1970s, they were plundered and sold in pieces to unscrupulous dealers who sold them all over the world to equally unscrupulous buyers. With a great deal of work by heritage organizations, police and committed individuals, almost all of the mosaics have been found in the decades since the brutalization of Panagia Kanakaria. Most recently, the medallion of the apostle St. Andrew was repatriated this April after four years of negotiation with a recalcitrant owner. It was the 11th of the 12 stolen apostle mosaics to be located and returned to Cyprus, leaving only St. Mark still on the lam.

Arthur Brand, who runs a firm that specializes in the recovery of looted artworks and stars in a Dutch TV program called The Art Detective which follows his cases, joined the hunt for the Mark mosaic three years ago. With the support of the Church of Cyprus and the Cypriot government, he was able to follow the trail thanks to tips from informants and his own detecting skill. Finally Brand found St. Mark in Monaco.

“It was in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago,” Mr Brand said.

“They were horrified when they found out that it was in fact a priceless art treasure,” Mr Brand said.[…]

The family agreed to return it “to the people of Cyprus” in return for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs, he added.

Arthur Brand recovered the mosaic from Monaco last week. On Friday, November 16th, he formally returned it to the Embassy of Cyprus in The Hague, The Netherlands. On Sunday, November 18th, St. Mark was home. That leaves only one piece of the Panagia Kanakaria mosaics still missing: the feet of Christ. Brand is on it.


More than 100 funerary bundles found in Bolivia

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

The remains of more than 100 individuals and grave goods have been discovered in a quarry near the modern-day town of Viacha, Bolivia, 18 miles southwest of La Paz. Archaeological material was first found at the site by miners three months ago. They reported it to the authorities and Bolivian government archaeologists began official excavations.

They first encountered two tombs in an underground necropolis carved into the limestone. One chamber contained about 108 funerary bundles. It had been looted and the human remains had suffered significant deterioration, but many grave goods still remained. A small circular hole just 27.5 inches in diameter opened to a chimney nine feet deep. When archaeologists lowered themselves down, they discovered another two tombs, these intact and unlooted.

There were wood and pottery artifacts in the tombs, and more than 150 pieces of bronze jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, brooches, women’s hair ornaments and two rare u-shaped headbands worn by nobility. Also in the tomb with the bundles were 30 intact pottery vessels of a type used by the Inca for burial rites. Some of the skulls are elongated, evidence of intentional cranial deformation, a common practice in the Americas (and world-wide) that was often a signifier of high social status. The skulls and diverse artifacts indicate people on different rungs of the social ladder were all buried together in the communal graves.

The burials date to around 1100-1200 A.D. in the period after the decline of the Tiwanaku Empire which had been the dominant polity in western Bolivia between 600 and 1000. They belonged to the Pacajes people, part of the Aymara kingdom which spread over the Andean highlands of western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile from at least 1200. The area was conquered by the Inca during the reign of Huayna Capac (1493–1524) who expanded the empire to its greatest extent before dying of the smallpox the Spanish brought to America.

Little is known about when the Inca conquered the Aymara and exactly what the power dynamics were. It’s believed the Aymara had some level of autonomy. The discovery of Inca pottery in the Pacajes tombs is therefore of major historical significance as it is a unique find that attests to the blending of cultural practices after the Inca take-over in the 15th century.

The remains, especially the soft tissues, quickly began to deteriorate further when exposed to microorganisms, humidity and saline air, so archaeologist have removed the contents of the tombs to an archaeological center where they will be studied and conserved in controlled conditions. At this point, the remains and artifacts have not yet been declared national patrimony which means the local municipality of Viacha bears the responsibility of finding a permanent place for them that will provide the conditions for their preservation.


9th century coin hoard found in bog

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptional group of more than 250 9th century coins in a bog near Ribe, Denmark. A metal detector hobbyist found the first coin earlier this year, an extremely rare piece known as a face/deer coin after the stylized face design on the obverse and the deer going nose-to-nose with a snake on the reverse. Only 11 face/deer coins were known to exist before this summer. The Museum of Southwest Jutland got wind of it on August 14th and contacted the finder the next day. That’s when they discovered there wasn’t just one more face/deer coin, but a whole bunch more, likely deposited in the wetland as a ritual sacrifice.

Obverse of the face/deer coin with a stylized face in the center. Photo courtesy Southwest Jutland Museums.With the help of the finder, museum archaeologists surveyed the site using metal detectors and precision GPS to document every discovery. Over two days, they found 174 coins, 172 of them face/deer coins, the last two with Viking ships adorned with shields on the obverse and deer on the reverse. The coins were spread over an elongated oval about 165 by 50 feet in area, a distribution typical of coin deposits that have been scattered by repeated passes with plows. The way they were spread out suggests they were not buried in the bog, but rather placed on the ground in a single deposit, likely in a bag that was torn apart and destroyed over the centuries.

The team returned to the site in late October to excavate it. This time they found another 78 coins, 77 face/deer, 1 ship/deer. The condition of all of the coins is excellent. They were in such great shape that many of them shone like new through the clods of peat when they were recovered by the archaeologists.

“This is an exceptional find that means a quantum leap in our understanding of minting. They are Danish coins and clearly minted for the purpose of being implemented in Ribe,” [Museum of Southwest Jutland’s Claus] Feveile told DR Nyheder.

“This completely shifts our understanding of how we used to mint and the process of coin production.”

With no loops, perforations or clippings, it’s clear the coins were part of a money economy before their ritual deposition. The question of how much of a real monetary economy early Viking cities employed as opposed to a precious metal weight economy is a fraught one in the scholarship, and finding so many coins deposited in one place and preserved in perfect condition will give numismatic experts the unique opportunity to determine how many of these coins were minted and circulated. Initial examinations have already revealed that many different stamps were used to strike the coins, indicating a significant output that was in no way imaginable based solely on the two handfuls of coins known before this summer.

When these coins were struck in the first half of the 9th century, Gudfred and later his sons ruled as kings of the Danes. Gudfred is the first Danish king we have decently reliable evidence of in contemporary chronicles. He fought against Charlemagne and the Franks. His son Horik I (the only son whose name is recorded but not the only one to rule) carried on his father’s legacy by raiding the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. We know little about Gudfred and his sons’ monetary policies or really much of anything about their reigns beyond their interactions with the Franks. The hoard may shed a whole new light on an obscure historical period.

The coins unearthed thus far were briefly on display at the Museum of Southwest Jutland for a week until November 4th before being removed for further study. The excavation at the find site continued through October 25th. Between August and now, a total of 252 coins have been recovered. Archaeologists don’t think there are many, or even any, left to find.


I can’t believe I missed this

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

A famous medieval icon of the Madonna and Child traditionally held to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist has been conclusively identified as the work of late 13th century artist Filippo Rusuti, creator of the grand upper facade of St. Mary Major. That mosaic depicting Christ enthroned among angels, saints and the symbols of the Evangelists actually bears the artist’s signature in mosaic tiles. The facade is today mostly hidden by the 18th century loggia built over it, but the verisimilitude of the signature made it possible for experts to confirm the one on the icon.

Art historians had previously attributed it to the Master of San Saba due to some stylistic similarities to frescoes in the nave of the Church of San Saba. A restoration that began in 2017 used the latest technology to analyze the panel painting (canvas mounted on walnut). That’s how the previously invisible signature of the artist was discovered. Like the mosaic, the icon is Byzantine in style with rigid figures imbued with symbolism rather than naturalistic postures and affect.

The icon’s permanent home is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to which it has deep ties extending back to the 13th century. The church’s founding and early history is hazy — many church records were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome — but it does appear on a list of Roman churches from the late 1220s, early 1230s. The physical structure as it exists today is largely Baroque, an expansion and reconstruction designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century that drastically altered its 15th century predecessor. The greatest international claim to fame and tourist attraction of Santa Maria del Popolo today, the Cerasi Chapel with its two Caravaggio masterpieces, Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus, dates to the Baroque reconstruction.

Long before the Caravaggio pilgrims lined up on the church steps waiting for it to open, however, pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Madonna traveled to Santa Maria del Popolo to venerate the icon. Legend dates its miraculous reputation back to the earliest records of the church. The story goes that the icon of Virgin and Child was painted by the very hand of St. Luke the Evangelist and kept with the rest of the most important relics in Christendom in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, the Pope’s residence. In 1230, the Tiber overflowed its banks, as it was wont to do, and with the flood came plague. To cure the city of this pestilence, the Pope led the city in a procession carrying aloft the icon to Santa Maria del Popolo. The plague ended and the Madonna of San Luca became one the most venerated icons in Rome.

Several Popes and cardinals were passionately devoted to the icon. The high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo was commissioned, likely by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, in 1473 to showcase it. One of those popes, Sixtus V, put Santa Maria del Popolo on the list of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome in 1586, replacing the church of Saint Sebastian on the Appia outside the walls, solely because of the importance of icon.

I came so close to seeing the restored icon last week, darn it. It is currently on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo through November 18th. I didn’t even realize it was there and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if I had known because I’ve seen the icon at Santa Maria, albeit not within such close view. I did have the Castel Sant’Angelo’s exhibition of arms and armature on the short list, however, and saw the other half of that show at the Palazzo Venezia. Time got away with me is all, what with all the questing and wall walking.





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