Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Rare 12th c. seal found at Lincoln Cathedral

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

A rare silver seal matrix from the 12th century has been found in the stores of Lincoln Cathedral. Collections and engagement officer Fern Dawson discovered the artifact in an uncatalogued box during an audit of the cathedral’s holdings. The box was full of seals, but they were all replicas. At first the 12th century piece was believed to be one of them, a Victorian-era reproduction, but experts examined it and identified it as the original matrix used by the medieval Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral to create the wax seals affixed to official documents.

The obverse of the seal depicts the Virgin Mary, crowned and enthroned, holding the Christ child in her lap. The reverse features the enthroned adult Christ. Mary is the patron saint of Lincoln Cathedral, aka Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln. The seal matrix was made in the early years of the cathedral’s long life. The first wood church was completed in 1092. It was rebuilt in the second quarter of the 12th century and then again after a massive earthquake in 1185.

Lloyd de Beer, Ferguson Curator of Medieval Europe at the British Museum, said: “Institutional seal matrices like this are extremely rare, especially in silver and from such an early date. The Lincoln seal is a joy to behold. It is a masterpiece of micro sculpture made by a truly skilled goldsmith. What’s more, the reverse contains beautiful swirls of niello surrounding an enthroned Christ.”

Its prior existence was known of, and “the Great Seal of the Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral” had a world-wide reputation as a rare piece of 12th century craftsmanship, but until recently no one in living memory had seen or handled the real object.

“Since 1893, important Cathedral documents have been sealed using an electrotyped copy while the true matrix has lain hidden and unrecognised within the Cathedral store,” explained expert in medieval ecclesiastical treasures, Dr Lesley Milner FSA.

“It was a hugely exciting moment for us all when this forgotten art work was rediscovered and put into the hands of Professor Sandy Heslop, an authority on 12th century metalwork. For a moment there was silence and then he said ‘Wow!’, realising that Lincoln had re-acquired a supreme piece of Norman art.”

Two other original medieval seal matrices were found next to the 12th century one in the box full of replicas. There was also a 13th century one of the Vicars Choral and a 14th century Sacrist’s Seal, a personal seal matrix for a cleric named John. The three seals went on display in the Lincoln Cathedral treasury on September 15th. They will remain on public view in the treasury until they are moved to the new visitor center when it opens in 2020.


Gold treasure illuminates 6th c. darkness

Monday, September 17th, 2018

A treasure of gold artifacts from the German Iron Age has been discovered on the island of Hjarnø in the Horsens Fjord area off the eastern coast of Jutland. The first pieces of gold, small pendants were found by dental assistant and metal detectorist Terese Frydensberg Refsgaard and her fellow amateur archaeologist Brian Kristensen in 2017. They brought their finds to the museum in nearby Vejle where the experts told her to keep her discovery and its location under wraps to prevent treasure hunters from despoiling the place. Archaeologists followed up with a full excavation.

They were not disappointed. Between Refsgaard’s initial find and the professional dig, 32 different precious objects were unearthed. They include gold beads, pendants, a needle, and a number small gold fragments, clippings from larger pieces, usually coins, that were used as a currency. All of the artifacts are tiny, some of them more detailed than expected with designs the archaeologists have not seen before. They had to have been the product of highly advanced goldsmithing.

Mads Ravn, head of research at Vejle Museums, said the gold was thought to date from just before the Viking period and was likely buried around 500 CE.

The find suggests that people from Hjarnø had contact with the Roman empire, Ravn said.

“They probably took part in raids there, so our find is a small legacy from a turbulent time in world history in which gold speaks its own clear language” Ravn told DR.

The newly-found designs and craftsman skills will shed new light on a chaotic period when even the break-down of the Roman Empire paled in comparison to natural cataclysms that wracked the continent and beyond after a massive volcanic eruption in Llopango, El Salvador. The ash cloud spread from Central America to Europe, Turkey, Mongolia, China and Africa, blocking the sun and creating a mini ice age a decade long. Widespread famine and loss of human and animal life was the result.

Archaeologists hope their analyses will discover where the gold was originally mined, how the objects were made, where they made and how and why they wound up on Hjarnø facing the sea to south. It’s possible the objects were deliberately laid as a sacrifice to petition the gods for survival during the long, cold darkness.

The artifacts will be going on temporary display at Vejle’s Museum of Cultural History in an exhibition dedicated to the upheaval of the post-volcanic 6th century, after which it will go to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for further study.

This Dutch-language video is worth viewing even if you can’t understand a word they’re saying because you get an idea of the minuscule size of some of the pieces that the photographs can’t convey. If any of our Dutch speaking readers would care to post a summary or highlights of the discussion, I would be ever so grateful. :thanks:


Likely home where Henry VII was born found

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a house on the grounds of Pembroke Castle that is probably the house when the future King Henry VII was born. Previous aerial photography and a geophysical survey had found evidence of a possible building on the site and this two-week excavation was an exploratory dig to see if there really was something there worth pursuing. That question has been answered loud and clear.

Just days into an initial dig, archaeologists have uncovered up to half a metre of the building’s walls – and they are yet to reach the main floor levels. One wall is a metre thick.

They have also unearthed so many slates and tiles that they are concluding it had a slate roof. Green-glazed ridge tiles have also been found, which suggest a particularly imposing building, while other finds include a curving stair from a spiral staircase.

James Meek, who is heading the excavation for the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, said such finds are already suggesting “a fairly showy building” inside of the outer walls of the castle.

It is about the size of two tennis courts, while the scale of the walls suggests a structure of a considerable height.

The thick walls also map out a floor plan characteristic of a late medieval hall house you’d find in the later 15th century. That’s when the castle was granted to Jasper Tudor, Henry’s uncle. According to legend, little Henry Tudor was born in the 13th century tower of the 11th century castle, but then again, the arch-rival for the throne he would defeat so soundly, Richard III, was said the have been born with a full set of teeth and a tail, so yeah, there’s a lot of tall-taleism to sift through in accounts of rulers’ lives. Documentary evidence confirms that he was born at Pembroke Castle, but it’s far more likely he was born in a large, comfortable mansion on the grounds of his uncle Jasper’s castle than in the guard tower.

Expressing surprise over how much of this structure has survived, Meek said: “It tells a very different story for how we think outer walls of castles were used in that later medieval period … it was always the thought that they [castles] were full of smaller timber buildings of lesser status than the rest of the court rooms and the administrative functions of the castle itself. Whereas here, you’ve got one high-status residential structure.”


Study the Book of Kells in free online course

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

The Book of Kells, the 9th century illuminated Gospel manuscript that is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval calligraphy and illumination (if not the greatest), is on display at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, but you can’t check it out or leaf through it, for obvious reasons. As Ireland’s best known and beloved cultural treasure, it is kept in a secure, climate-controlled display case.

The Book of Kells exhibition is artfully curated with large blow-ups of key pages of the manuscript so people can get a good look at some of the book’s contents in replica form. Visitors get an information leaflet and can rent audio tours. There are no guided tours and no photography is allowed.

Trinity College Dublin has created an online course for the many, many people around the world thirsty to see more of and learn more about the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece is a four-week course offered through FutureLearn free of charge to all comers.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has been designed by academics from the School of Histories and Humanities, the School of Religion and staff from the Library. Using the Book of Kells as a window the course will explore the landscape, history, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland and explore how that past is understood in modern Ireland. Rachel Moss, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture, and one of the course designers, commented: “Every year the campus of Trinity fills with expectant visitors, keen to see the world famous Book of Kells for themselves. There are few experiences to beat the experience of gazing on these precious pages, and imagining who else has shared that privilege over the past 1,200 years. The longer you dwell, the more detail reveals itself, and the more intriguing the manuscript becomes.”

“In this course we look forward to being able to share the manuscript with those who have yet to see it for themselves, and share it again with those that have. The course will bring the learner beyond that initial encounter to explore its minute and intricate art, how it was made and what it might have meant to its makers. The course will not just dwell in the past. The manuscript is extraordinary in the way in which it has managed to grip the public imagination up to the present day. Despite centuries of scholarship, new research continues to disentangle some of the enigmas that it presents.”

A different aspect of the book will be the focus of each week, exploring how it relates to the wider context of Irish art. The course will cover the illumination and calligraphy as well as the substance of the Latin Gospel text and the physical object of the book itself. I hope some of the new research addressed in the course is the study of parchment that was able to extract DNA from Staedtler Mars eraser crumbs. Trinity College Dublin was part of the research team.

At the end of the course learners will be able to explain the function and meanings of medieval Irish art; understand how medieval manuscripts were made and engage critically with methodologies and scholarly debates which have shaped interpretations of the period. The course will also equip learners with knowledge of the distinctive features of the Irish Church in this era and an understanding of the visual, theological and historical characteristics of medieval material culture.

The course starts on my birthday, October 8th. Is that not the best present a history nerd could ask for? Downright auspicious, I call it. Register for The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece here.


Medieval game board brick found in Vybord

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Archaeologists excavation the Vyborg Castle in Russia’s Leningrad Oblast near the border with Finland have unearthed a brick that was used as a game board in the Middle Ages. It appears that the game grid was engraved on the brick before it was fired. The brick was discovered in an underground passage in the northern section of the castle that connected the storehouse to the moat, and may even have extended all the way in to the city of Vybord.

The game board is for a game named tablei, which translates to “mill,” was similar to a Nine Men’s Morris. Two players with nine pieces each, one side black, one white, faced off over a simple grid.

In the game, each player aims to claim the other’s men, much like the pieces in chess. When a player builds a “mill” — a row of three men—on the grid-like board, they are rewarded with an opponent’s game piece. Once a player is down to just two men, they are unable to form mills and their opponent claims victory.

Located on the Finnish border with Russia, Vyborg Castle was built in the 13th century and extensively renovated in the 16th. It began to fall into disrepair in the 17th century and switched hands between Russia and Finland several times before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Neither the USSR nor the Russian Federation did much in the way of upkeep of the once-vital strategic stronghold and its city. This is the first time a thorough, dedicated archaeological excavation has been done at Vyborg. Before then there were only small-scale surveys accompanying basic construction and repair work.

The dig has been exceptionally fruitful. Last month archaeologists found a bag full of 38 two-kopeck coins dating to the reign of Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) under a parapet wall. They have also laser scanned the underground passage and made a 3D model of it.


14th c. Venetian gold ducat found in Sweden

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Archaeologists have a most unexpected discovery in an excavation of the medieval port town of Elleholm in southern Sweden: a 14th century Venetian gold ducat. It is the first coin from medieval Venice ever found in Sweden.

It was minted during the rule of Doge Andrea Dandalo, the the 54th doge of Venice who reigned from 1343 to 1354. On the obverse is a depiction of Jesus Christ surrounded by a pointed oval of light known as a mandorla (almond). The reverse features Saint Mark giving a standard to the Doge.

Elleholm is an island in the Mörrumsån river so small the town occupied pretty much the entire surface area. It was founded around the castle of Sjöborg and there is tree-ring evidence from the remains of a bridge that it was an active port already in 1343 even though it was only given official municipal rights in 1450. The castle is first mentioned in historical sources in 1424. There was excellent salmon fishing in the river and while the island was small, there was enough river around it to make viable shipping lanes.

The Blekinge region was Danish territory then. The Archbishop of Lund (Lund was a Danish diocese) inhabited the castle and owned the city until the Reformation kicked out the Catholic bishop in 1536 and Elleholm was transferred to the Swedish crown. It saw a lot of action in its short life. The city was raised in 1436 by the forces of Swedish nobleman Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson during his rebellion against the Kalmar Union (the union of Sweden, Denmark and Norway under one king, Eric of Pomerania). It was destroyed again in 1524 during the Scanian rebellion of Søren Norby in support of Christian II of Denmark who had been forced to abdicate the year before.

The see of Lund was suppressed in 1553 and by 1600 the once-prosperous port town was abandoned. It wasn’t ideally located for a major shipping center. It was upstream and so small that bigger ships couldn’t comfortably reach the island itself. With larger ships, larger cargoes and greater volumes of trade, successful ports had direct access to the sea. The city of Elleholm was never rebuilt and today there aren’t even any remains of it above ground.

It was only excavated once before in 1924 and that was a small exploration of the castle. Blekinge Museum and Kulturen, a folk history museum in Lund, began digging at Sjöborg in 2016 and have continued every season since then. Their discoveries have revealed a whole new picture of the history of this mysterious site.

The gold ducat and another artifact found in the dig — a Flemish lead seal dating to the first half of the 14th century — are evidence that Elleholm did international business from close to its inception, more than a century earlier than scholars previously believed it to be active.

“To find the first coin ever found in Sweden from the medieval Venice here, suggests it was an international trading port,” Marcus Sandekjer, head of Blekinge Museum, told The Local. […]

“Of course when you find coins from Italy in the Archbishop’s city, it’s tempting to think that it has something to do with ties to Italy and to the Pope,” Sandekjer said. “But that is just a hypothesis.”


13th c. tiles found under floor of Bath Abbey

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

The floor of Bath Abbey has long been in a parlous state, and the abbey itself lacks the most basic facilities to accommodate its community and visitors. Basic as in bathrooms. It has none. With the floor on the verge of collapse, Bath Abbey raised funds from donors and secured a major £10.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to repair the floor, install a new heating system, build out the previously unused underground vault space, add all kinds of new facilities from bathrooms to catering kitchens to rehearsal rooms for the choir to a Discovery Center that will showcase the rich history of the church. The total budget for this ambitious project is £19.3 million.

Bath Abbey’s floor is made of 891 memorial stones, more than any other church in England, which made addressing the floor’s rapid deterioration both more pressing and more complex. The stones had to be removed one at a time and carefully conserved. While they were being treated, the unsound surface could be repaired, the new underfloor heating system installed and the memorial stones put back in their original placement. The new heating system, incidentally, will harness the same natural resource that inspired the Romans to build the famous public bath that gave the city its name: geothermal energy from hot springs.

To take full advantage of the unique opportunity to explore the archaeological underpinnings of the church, contractors Wessex Archaeology were brought in to dig through the layers of history underneath the floor. Six and a half feet under the floor, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 13th century floor with brilliantly colored tiles.

The floor is composed of exquisite tiles which are attributed to the Wessex School; a series of designs derived from tiles laid at Clarendon Palace, east of Salisbury. Other examples of these tile designs are known from Bath, Wells, Bristol and Glastonbury.

The three golden lions on a red shield is the coat of arms of the Plantagenet kings. The three red chevrons on a gold shield is the coat of arms of the de Clare family, powerful Norman marcher barons who held the earldoms of Gloucester and Hertford as well as land in both Wales and Ireland. The family line came to an end when Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and cousin of Edward II, died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

The tiles were installed in the largest and most glamorous iteration of the cathedral. The first church on the site was an Anglo-Saxon monastery built in 757 A.D. That was destroyed by the Normans during a rebellion against William II. In 1088, construction began on a new church a much grander scale. The Norman cathedral was so big that the current Gothic abbey could fit in its nave.

By the end of the 15th century that great church was falling to pieces. Oliver King, Bishop of Exeter and Bath and Wells, undertook its restoration in 1500 after being told in a dream “Let an Olive establish the crown, and let a King restore the Church.” He took that to mean that he should restore Bath Abbey and support Henry Tudor’s bid for the throne. The new church was completed in the late 1530s, decades after King’s death and just in time for the next Henry Tudor’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monastery was indeed dissolved, but the cathedral made it through.

Visitors to Bath can see the archaeologists at work on and under the floor in a couple of weeks. The Abbey will be offering behind-the-scenes tours from September 13th through 15th as part of Heritage Open Days. The tours are free but you have to book ahead of time.

This video shows the new floor tiles on the day of their discovery, August 30th. Cai Mason of Wessex Archaeology gives an overview of the find starting around the 35 second mark.


14th c. hoard found in clay pot in Bulgaria

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

An excavation of the Kaliakra Fortress on the coast of the Black Sea in northern Bulgaria has unearthed a small clay pot full of coins, jewelry and other valuables hidden under a floor in the Middle Ages. A team of archaeologists headed by Bonnie Petrunova, director of the National History Museum (NHM) in Sofia, discovered the pot on August 17th, 2018, in a room that was burned in the 14th century, conveniently providing the outside date range for the burial of the hoard.

The pot, filled with soil as well as treasure, was moved to the NHM to be excavated in laboratory conditions. After painstaking removal of the soil, archaeologists found a total of 957 objects: 873 gold and silver coins, 11 fittings and buckles, 28 silver and bronze buttons, 11 gold earrings, one gold ring, a second metal ring and four gold beads studded with gems.

The coins include both Ottoman and Bulgarian silver issues. A majority of them, about 60% of them are Ottoman. Most of that 60% date to the reign of Sultan Bayazid Yildirum (1389-1402). A fraction of them are older, dating to the reign of his predecessor Murad I (1362-1389). Of the Bulgarian coins, 25% were minted under the reign of Ivan Alexander (1331-1371). They are very small, a symptom of the economic crisis in Bulgaria at the time. There are nine coins minted in Vidin by governor John Sratsimir. A few Byzantine silver pieces are also in the mix, including several very rare hyperpyroni.

The gold coins, much fewer in number, include 20 gold hyperpyroni of the Byzantine Empire, one the last gold coins issued of the empire. They are so debased and flimsy that it’s hard to identify them. Experts have been able to spot John V Palaiologos and his mother Anna of Savoy (regent during the minority of her son from 1341 until 1347), John VII Palaiologos, Andronikos II Palaiologos and Andronikos III Palaiologos on the obverse of some of them. There are also eight high quality Venetian gold coins, the classic Zecchino d’Oro, each made of 3.5 grams of 24-carat gold. Most of them were issued by Doges Marco Cornaro (1365-1368) and Andrea Dandolo (1343-1354).

The date range of the coins coincides with the evidence of the torching of the space to confirm the treasure pot was hidden under the floorboards at the end of the 14th century, a turbulent period in the history of the fortress who political fortunes are reflected in the coinage. The area was part of the Despotate of Dobruja, an autonomous principality in the fractured Bulgarian Empire. Under the control of Dobrotitsa, who gave himself the title “Despot,” the principality achieved its greatest power and territorial extent. Dobrotitsa made Kaliakra his capital and deployed his navy on the Black Sea in alliance with Venice against Genoa. He fought Murad I, who by the end of his reign would conquer much of modern-day Bulgaria. Dobrotitsa’s son Ivanko changed his father’s policy as soon as he ascended the throne in 1386, signing a peace agreement with the Ottoman sultan, another with Genoa and moving the capital from Kaliakra to Varna. The changes did not lead to stability and in 1388 Ivanko was killed fighting the Ottomans at Varna. Mircea I of Wallachia stepped into the vacuum of power and Wallachia, former vassal state of Dobruja, ruled the principality off and on until the Byzantine Empire took over in 1413.

To all this political instability and conflict, the Tartar invasions added yet more. A chronicler of the late 14th century records how the Tartars invaded Varna in 1399. Other Black Sea coastal towns also suffered their wroth, Kaliakra among them. It’s possible that the hoard was actually buried by a Tartar, in fact. The objects appear to have been collected from different people in one event rather than accumulated by a single individual over time. The Tartars of Aktav held the fortress in 1401 when they were defeated and dispatched. As the house in which the treasure was buried is a high-end one, it’s conceivable that a Tartar commander sequestered it for himself and was living there when the 1401 attack drove him out and burned down his dwelling.


Buddha statue returned to India 57 years after theft

Friday, August 17th, 2018

A 12th century statue of the Buddha that was stolen from a museum in India 57 years ago has been found in London and is on its way back to India. The bronze statue with silver inlay was stolen from the Nalanda Archaeological Museum in eastern India in 1961, one of 14 important Buddha statues stolen in a single burglary.

Nalanda was the site of a Buddhist monastery that was a center of learning and pilgrimage from the 5th century until the early 13th when it was sacked by Mamluk armies. Monks came from all over Asia, as far east as Korea, to study the rigorous Vedic tradition of learning taught at the Nalanda monastery. After its sacking, the site fell into disuse and was gradually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 19th century by the Archaeological Survey of India and subsequent excavations in the early 1900s revealed multiple monasteries, temples and artifacts, including the 14 sculptures of Buddha that would be stolen from the museum.

What happened to the statue between 1961 and 2018 is unknown. It reemerged from the penumbra this March at an antiquities trade fair in London. Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) and Vijay Kumar from the India Pride Project recognized it as one of the 14 looted Nalanda pieces and called the Metropolitan Police. The Met’s Art and Antique Unit investigated and confirmed its identity. The dealer and owner do not appear to have realized they were fencing stolen goods — the statue has passed through many hands over the six decades since the theft — and they cooperated with the investigation and returned the object willingly so there will be no charges pressed against them.

On Wednesday, August 15th, India’s Independence Day, the statue was returned to Indian High Commissioner YK Sinha in London in an official ceremony.


Octagonal tomb from Mongol era found in China

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed an octagonal tomb from the 14th century with murals in excellent condition in Yangquan, east central China. Seven of the eight walls of the tomb are painted with murals while the eighth is taken up by the entrance. There were no human remains found inside, nor were there any grave goods that might identify who was buried there. One of the murals, however, depicts a husband and wife who are believed to have been the tomb’s occupants.

Some of the murals show scenes of life in Mongol-ruled China. These include a band of musicians playing songs, tea being prepared, and horses and camels transporting people and goods, according to the paper.

Some of the people in the murals are shown wearing Mongol, rather than Chinese, fashion styles, the archaeologists noted. For instance, in one mural, a camel is being led by a man who “is wearing a soft hat with four edges, which was the traditional hat of northern nomadic tribes from ancient times,” the archaeologists wrote in the journal article.

“Mongol rulers issued a dress code in 1314 for racial segregation: Han Chinese officials maintained the round-collar shirts and folded hats, and the Mongolian officials wore clothes like long jackets and soft hats with four edges,” they wrote.

Two of the murals illustrated famous stories of filial piety, an important ethical precept in Confucianism of respect, care and deep empathic feeling for parents, elders and ancestors. These kinds of tales were collected in literary anthologies like The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. One of the murals depicts one of those 24 examples, the story of Guo Ju who decided to bury his own son alive so that their meager food supply would be sufficient to feed his mother. Guo Ju’s son was spared a terrible death when the father discovered a gold treasure in the hole he was digging for the grave.

The other filial piety-themed mural in the tomb takes the opposite approach to the same concept. Yuan Jue is the young son of a poverty-stricken family whose father decides to sacrifice Jue’s grandfather so that the rest of them will have enough food to survive a famine. Jue protests his father’s plan to leave his own father to die in the wilderness, insisting that should he go through with this cruel abandonment, Jue will do the same to him when the time comes. The father backs down and all of the family manages to pull through the famine.

The paintings are in very fine condition, with only architectural interruptions like a massive standing lamp built in to one of the walls. The pyramidal roof, painted with stars in the interior, has also made it from the Mongol era to the present in excellent fettle.

The tomb was first discovered in 2012 and published in Chinese four years later. That 2016 article has now been translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.





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