Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Gilded horse bridle fittings found in Viking grave

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered the grave of a Viking man containing gilded bronze and silver-plated mounts from a horse bridle in the town of Hørning near Skanderborg in Jutland, Denmark. The large grave complex consisting of multiple contiguous chambers was discovered in 2012, but only a very small section of it has been excavated. The site was cleared and a small test pit dug in one of the chambers revealed the bridle fittings. The bridle area was raised in a soil block and excavated in the laboratory. Archaeologists have dubbed the grave’s occupant the Fregerslev Viking, the name of the spot where the burial was found.

“The artefacts that we’ve already found are exquisite gilded fittings from a horse bridle. This type of bridle would only be available to the most powerful of people in the Viking Age, and we believe it might have been a gift of alliance from the king,” said Merethe Schifter Bagge, a project manager and archaeologist at the Museum of Skanderborg

“The fittings date to circa 950 AD, which means that the Fregerslev Viking could have been the confidant of the king, Gorm the Old – or alternatively a rival.”

The bridle artifacts are such a rare find and indicate such high status that the find is being compared to two of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Danish history, the impossibly life-like bog body Tollund Man and the fantastically stylish immigrant teenager Egtved Girl.

The discovery has been announced now, more than four years after it was made, because the team led by Museum of Skanderborg archaeologists has finally secured funding for a full excavation of the site. The grave complex is unusually large for the period, so there may be as many as three chambers. Archaeologists hope the excavation will reveal more about the Fregerslev Viking, perhaps additional grave goods, maybe even a horse sacrifice. There’s also the chance there are other people buried in the complex, possibly family members or servants. The wider goal of the project is to gain new insight into the power elite, trade and commerce of 10th century Viking society.

The excavation begins on April 18th, and best of all, the site is open to the public. There will be daily tours guided by a team member so visitors can get the full picture of the site while they watch the archaeologists at work. Meanwhile, the fittings that have already been excavated will be on display at the Museum of Skanderborg.

The museum has created a website dedicated to the Fregerslev Viking excavation. (It’s on Danish only, so you may have to deploy an online translator.) Follow it to keep updated on new developments.

This very brief teaser video from the museum show aerial shots of the find spot and X-ray of the fittings in the soil block.

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Viking woman buried in Denmark was Norwegian

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Last year, the grave of a wealthy 10th century woman was discovered in Enghøj on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Archaeologists from the Museum East Jutland were excited to find a gilt bronze buckle of Irish or Scottish manufacture in the grave. The woman wore it to pin the ends of her petticoat together, but it wasn’t originally a brooch. Made in the 9th century, the 2.4-inch disk once adorned a Christian reliquary or other container of sacred objects before it was pillaged by Viking raiders. Less than a hundred years later, it was the highly prized treasure of a rich Norsewoman, so highly prized that it was buried with her.

This was an unexpected and significant discovery, because while precious objects from the British Isles have been found before in Viking graves, they are very rare and all but unheard of in Denmark. None of the experts who examined the buckle knew of anything like it in the Danish archaeological record. The Irish/Scottish origin and style of ornamentation make it a unique find in Denmark. The artifacts most comparable to the Enghøj buckle were found in Norway, like this Celtic brooch unearthed from a 9th-10th century barrow in Lilleberge, this crozier fragment found in Romsdal. Swedish Vikings tended to go east for their raids, while the Norwegians roamed the North Atlantic islands, Scotland, Ireland and northern England, so it makes sense that the few surviving Celtic artifacts pillaged in those areas are concentrated in Norway.

Museum East Jutland archaeologist Ernst Stidsing, who led the excavation the site, hypothesized that the woman in the Enghøj burial might have some kind of link to Norway. Strontium isotope analysis on her teeth could pinpoint where she was born and spent her childhood.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

Archaeologist Jens Ulriksen of the Museum Southeast Denmark was also intrigued by the prospect of the lady’s possible Norwegian origin.

“It’ll be exciting if we find some indication that she was raised, married, and settled over greater distances. We know that Danish kings married Slavic princesses from 900 AD,” he says.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that there was an exchange, but it’s worth gold to have it confirmed. And you might see some dynastic connections across the Nordic region,” says Ulriksen.

Well, the strontium isotope analysis results are in and the woman buried in Enghøj was indeed born and raised in Norway, southern Norway, to be precise.

She probably wasn’t a princess, but she was buried with expensive grave goods beyond the Celtic brooch. There were several bronze buckles, silver jewelry and a strand of glass and metal beads. She would certainly have been one of the richest people in town, perhaps the wife of a local chief or regional leader. As with the Slavic princesses mentioned by Ulriksen, marriage could well have been the reason for the woman’s move to Denmark. Her pillaged petticoat pin heirloom indicates she came from a wealthy family, the kind of family that might arrange a marriage with a distant Danish potentate.

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Medieval silver coin hoard found in Cheshire

Monday, March 13th, 2017

A medieval coin hoard was discovered January, 28th 2016, by metal detectorist Malcolm Shepherd in a field in the Beeston parish of Cheshire. He reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Finds Liaison Officer Carl Savage examined the find and estimated based on the dates and types of coins that the hoard was deposited around 1498-1504.

The hoard is composed of a select group of 26 coins: 9 silver groats of Edward IV, 14 silver groats of Henry VII, one Edward IV penny, one Edward II farthing and one double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Silver groats were made of .925 fine silver, meaning they had a silver content of 92.5%, the sterling standard. This was a comparatively large denomination at the time of deposition. The owner deliberately picked silver-rich groats for hoarding, eschewing the smaller denominations that were in wide circulation.

One of the Edward IV groats, minted in 1480-83, held additional meaning to someone beyond its value as currency. It is perforated to the right of the crown at 2 o’clock on the coin face. That indicates the coin was worn as a pendant, as jewelry or maybe a good luck charm.

One penny and one farthing snuck in past the 24 higher denomination coins, and the Edward II farthing was worth collecting anyway because it was at least 190 years old when the hoard was buried. Those farthings turn up in hoards deposited as late as the early 1500s and are known to have remained in use in England until 1544 when all the silver coinage was taken out of circulation as part of King Henry VIII’s Great Debasement of the currency. Henry’s new debased coins were only 25% silver, meager indeed compared to the old groats.

One side-effect of the Great Debasement was that British coins were no longer accepted as currency in other countries because their precious metal content was so low. This had once been established policy, as evidenced by the double patard of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the hoard. Edward IV and Charles the Bold signed a monetary alliance in 1469 which allowed English groats to circulate in the Burgundian Netherlands and Burgundian double patards (.878 silver content) to circulate in England. Double patards crop up fairly often in late Medieval English hoards, and three individual ones found in Cheshire are recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. They disappear from the English archaeological record after the 1530s, victims of the Great Debasement.

Last month, a coroner’s inquest determined that the Beeston Hoard qualified as treasure. Coins more than 300 years old with more than 10% precious metal content are classed as treasure, so assistant coroner Dr. Janet Napier’s decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. As usual, per the terms of the Treasure Act, the next step is to assess the value of the coins which will be a kind of finder’s fee split between the finder and the landowner, to be raised by whichever institution wishes to acquire the hoard.

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The Colosseum after antiquity

Monday, March 6th, 2017

The Colosseum is the most visited monument in the world today. The great amphitheater built in Rome during the reigns of the Flavian dynasty emperors Vespasian and Titus (72-80 A.D.) is an icon of ancient Roman engineering and bloodlust, but it has outlived the empire that created it by 1,500 years. The Colosseum saw many changes in its long post-antiquity lifespan, its architecture altered by activity both human and seismic, dedicated to a wide variety of uses from cemetery to shopping mall to fortress. That rich later history is overshadowed by its ancient resume, and the millions of tourists who flock to the Colosseum every year hear a lot more about the gladiatorial combat of the 1st century than about the butchers’ stalls of the 11th.

A new exhibition seeks to correct that oversight. Colosseum. An Icon is the first exhibition to tell the full story of the Flavian Amphitheater, from the gladiators to the butchers and beyond. It covers the numerous attempts at repair and restoration, how the space was repurposed over the centuries, the construction of brick buttresses in the 19th century to keep the outer walls from collapse, how it became a favorite subject of artists from the Renaissance through the Grand Tour era, launching it as the iconic representation of the city of Rome and ancient Roman grandeur. That image spread even wider when moneyed travelers brought back fine marble miniatures and micromosaics of the Colosseum as souvenirs in the 19th century.

The exhibition also illustrates the profound shift in attitude towards the amphitheater from Christians in general and the Papacy in particular. The last recorded games were held in 523 A.D., an animal hunt celebrating the consulship of Anicius Maximus, and already then the Colosseum was very much reduced. The top gallery had collapsed, entrances were impassable, the hypogeum flooded. Neglect, earthquakes and the failure of the unmaintained drainage system took an enormous toll on the building. Travel writers in the Middle Ages thought it was some sort of pagan temple and associated it with nefarious demonic goings-on.

That demon-haunted reputation clung to the Colosseum well into the Renaissance. Renown goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had a raucously occult experience at the amphitheater in the 1530s which he recounts in his memoirs.

We went together to the Coliseum; and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer’s robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined. I must say that he had made us bring precious perfumes and fire, and also drugs of fetid odour. When the preliminaries were completed, he made the entrance into the circle; and taking us by the hand, introduced us one by one inside it. Then he assigned our several functions; to the necromancer, his comrade, he gave the pentacle to hold; the other two of us had to look after the fire and the perfumes; and then he began his incantations. This lasted more than an hour and a half; when several legions appeared, and the Coliseum was all full of devils.

As late as 1594, the Popes were still renting the Colosseum out to glue makers and contemplating converting the whole structure into a factory with residences for the workers in the top galleries. That changed in the Jubilee year of 1675, when Pope Clement X declared the Colosseum a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians said to have been condemned to death in the arena. (There is little evidence that Christians were martyred at the Colosseum, btw, and the stories of martyrdom in the amphitheater only began circulating in the Renaissance.) Clement had ambitious plans to dedicate a church to the martyrs inside the Colosseum, asking the great polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini to design it. It was too expensive, though, so Clement just had a cross installed in the arena instead.

The idea didn’t die with him. Twenty years later, architect Carlo Fontana was enlisted to design a prospective Church of the Holy Martyrs inside the Colosseum. Again, the church never happened, but he studied the amphitheater in great detail for this project and wrote a book about its architecture, ancient history, current condition and the proposed church that was published posthumously in 1725. (Random History Blog connection: Fontana’s original architectural drawing of the church in the Colosseum is in the collection of the wonderful Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.) The architectural model and several of Fontana’s drawings are on display in the new exhibition.

The major restoration of the Colosseum, which is still ongoing, discovered many objects and remains from its later life which are will be part of the exhibition. An abundance of butchered animal bones and cooking utensils were found, a testament to the butchers, eateries and private residences which rented space in the ground-level vaults through the 12th century. Of course they unearthed ancient sculptures and architectural details galore. They will join one of only two surviving statues of the 160 that adorned the arches of the second and third-floor arcades when the Colosseum was first built.

The restoration also discovered traces of the Colosseum’s life as a fortress for the powerful Roman noble Frangipani family. Restorers found holes bored into travertine blocks on the top tier of the southern wall. The holes held beams that supported a wooden walkway used by Frangipani soldiers as a lookout station. The find was announced Monday at the press conference about the new exhibition.

Colosseum. An Icon opens Wednesday, March 8th and runs almost a full year until January 7th, 2018. It’s at the Colosseum, in case that wasn’t clear.

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1,000-year-old toy boat found in Norway

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a well preserved toy boat carved 1,000 years ago on the peninsula of Ørland about 60 miles northwest of Trondheim, Norway. Ørland today is a peninsula of some girth, but during the Iron Age it was skinny and curved downwards, creating a sheltered bay on the south side. The land has risen up in the centuries since then, and today that bay is on terra firma more than a mile from the coast. That land is slated to be used for an expansion of the Ørland Main Air Base. Before construction could begin, the site had to be extensively explored by archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum in Trondheim.

The NTNU University Museum has been excavating the site every year since 2014. In three seasons of fieldwork, the team has excavated a vast area of almost 120,000 square meters (1,292,000 square feet). It is by far the largest archaeological dig the museum has ever undertaken. So ambitious a scope was necessary because Ørland had been inhabited for thousands of years. Its fertile land and strategic location at the mouth of Trondheim Fjord made it an ideal spot for farmers and traders alike.

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of seven farms having occupied the land over the course of the 1,500 years from 500 B.C. to 1000 A.D., a unique temporal cross-section that will give researchers new insight into how farming communities in the area evolved. Remains found include postholes for houses and fences, the ever-valuable garbage middens, cooking pits and wells.

Two of those wells yielded exceptional organic artifacts. Filled with dirt centuries ago and then waterlogged by the high water table of land that not so long before had been a bay, the wells proved adept at preserving objects that otherwise would have rotted away centuries ago. In one well archaeologists found a wooden toy boat. In a second well they found pieces of leather from shoes and one shoe that was almost intact. At first archaeologists though the leather shoes and boat must date to early modern times at the earliest, but radiocarbon dating revealed that the artifacts dated to the reign of Olav den Hellige, ling of Norway from 1015 to 1028.

The toy boat is carved with care. It has a raised prow and a hole in the middle where a mast with a sail could be inserted.

“This toy boat says something about the people who lived here,” said Ulf Fransson, an archaeologist at the NTNU University Museum and one of two field leaders for the Ørland Main Air Station dig, where the well and the boat were found.

“First of all, it is not so very common that you find something that probably had to do with a child. But it also shows that the children at this farm could play, that they had permission to do something other than work in the fields or help around the farm.”

That may seem a little on the obvious side — that a farmer’s child might have a homemade toy to play with seems more plausible to me than a farm where the children are only allowed to work day and night — but the notion of leisure time varies over time, social class and geography. A toy boat from this period has been found in Trondheim, for instance, but that was more expected because Trondheim was the capital of Norway then and a major center of trade, so it had a concentration of people with disposable income could afford to give their children cool toys and the free time to play with them.

The find from Ørland, however, is very different, says Ingrid Ystgaard, an archaeologist who is head of the entire Ørland Main Air Base project.

“The Middle Age farm here is far from the sea, it is not that strategically located,” she said. “There are other farms in Ørland that were better located.”

Thus, this medieval farm was probably not the richest farm in the area, far from it. Yet life here was good enough so that someone had time to carve the toy boat for a child. And the child had time to play with it.

The shoes and fragments found in the other well also suggest that the inhabitants of the farm trod the line between frugality and some measure of comfort.

“These were more of an ordinary shoe, a work shoe that they wore every day,” Fransson said. One of the shoe pieces that was found was a heel piece from a large sole, with a hole worn through it. The clean-cut front edge of the heel piece shows that “the shoe was worn out and they did repair it,” he said.

But because the researchers found much of a whole shoe, “that tells me that they weren’t that poor either, because they had the means to throw (a whole shoe) out,” he said.

The excavations are now complete, but the research will continue for years. Archaeologists have a great many samples collected from the middens, cooking pits and postholes, plus they have core samples taken from a neighboring wetland. The middens and pits are replete with bones from land animals, fish and shellfish, which will provide more information about the local diet. The posthole soil samples include pollen, seeds, grains so we can found out what kind of crops they raised or ate. The pollen in the core samples will provide a vegetation map of the area over the last 2,500 years.

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Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign launched

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A new campaign has been launched to keep the Galloway Viking Hoard for exhibition in the county where it was found. Buried in the 10th century, the hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists excavated the hoard and found more than 100 silver and gold pieces, from ingots to jewelry to fragments of Byzantine silk to an extremely rare Carolingian pot stuffed with more treasure. The Galloway Viking Hoard is the largest Viking treasure found in Scotland since 1891.

Since then, the Carolingian pot CT has been scanned and painstakingly excavated in the laboratory and the other objects cleaned and stabilized, but there’s still much more to be learned from this unique assemblage of artifacts. Bordered by the Cumbria, with its high Norse population, to the south, and the Viking-dominated Irish Sea to the west, Galloway had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. The person who buried the hoard was almost certain Norse, burying his or her most precious valuables, many of them heirlooms, handed down spoils from long-ago raids on Anglo-Saxon, Irish French and/or German communities. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. The rare survival of textiles, the precision wrapping of each object and careful burial in order of priority makes this hoard a particularly rich source of information about Viking Galloway beyond just the value and significance of the precious objects.

The news of the hoard made headlines all over the world and electrified its home county of Dumfries and Galloway. A pre-existing plan to convert the Kirkcudbright Town Hall into a major art gallery gained whole new steam with the prospect of the Galloway Viking Hoard as the centerpiece of the collection. The budget for the conversion was cranked way up and hefty contributions secured from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Kirkcudbright Common Good Fund and the council itself. The new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery would be a secure, state-of-the-art setting for the display of the hoard near where it was discovered.

But the course of true hoard love never did run smooth, and some David-and-Goliath museum drama has churned in the background of this campaign. The Kirkcudbright Art Gallery doesn’t actually exist yet, while National Museums Scotland (NMS) sure does. NMS wants the Galloway Hoard. The Dumfries and Galloway Council released a statement last month expressing their support for a joint bid with NMS that would give the county and the national museum joint custody of the hoard.

In order to find a way forward, our Council has conducted a detailed options appraisal. This appraisal highlighted 3 main options that our Council could take. We could apply for sole ownership of the Hoard, we could enter into a joint agreement with NMS, or we could withdraw our interest in homing the Hoard. This appraisal provided many positive and negative reasons why each option should be explored, but mainly highlighted that the Hoard needs to have some connection with Kirkcudbright and the region, and that applying for sole ownership would bring serious financial pressures with it. It was therefore decided by Members at the meeting on 24 January to pursue a joint agreement with NMS, but for adjustments to be made to the current proposal, to give Kirkcudbright Gallery and Dumfries and Galloway as a whole, a more flexible position in terms of a joint ownership of the Galloway Viking Hoard.

NMS totally ghosted them. Requests from the council that National Museums Scotland spell out the details of the partnership and clarify how much time the hoard would spend in Kirkcudbright went unanswered. With deadlines on the horizon and the ominous prospect of a deep-pocketed national museum bidding against the scrappy county underdog, the Galloway Viking Hoard Campaign has taken matters in hand.

[Campaign chair Cathy Agnew] said: “This is a time for Scotland to take the lead. The Galloway Viking Hoard is quite extraordinary and should have pride of place in a specially created exhibition space in the new Kirkcudbright Art Gallery. Remarkable finds have so often been whisked away from the communities where they were discovered only to become a small feature in a large national museum. This is a very old-fashioned approach and in 2017 we should be making sure that regions fully benefit from their cultural riches.

“Having a collection of this kind in Dumfries and Galloway would act as a powerful magnet to bring in visitors from all over the country and overseas, benefiting the local economy by encouraging them to spend time here visiting historic sites.”

The Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP), the body of the Treasure Trove Unit tasked with advising the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer which museum a treasure should be allocated to and how much the ex gratia payment to the finder and landowner should be, is scheduled to meet on March 23rd to determine their recommendation for the Galloway Viking Hoard. The campaign is hoping to make some substantial noise before that meeting in the hopes of boosting Dumfries and Galloway’s bid. The website is still a work a progress — there isn’t even a donation button yet — but for now the campaign is asking for people to send letters to the Dumfries and Galloway Council and SAFAP. They also have an email sign-up if you’d like to receive updates on the campaign.

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Odd animal burials found under Shrewsbury church

Monday, February 13th, 2017

An excavation around a medieval church in Sutton Farm, Shrewsbury, has unearthed the remains of a previous Anglo-Saxon church and a series of unusual animal burials that may be pre-Christian. The Church of the Holy Fathers, as it is now known, was bought from the Church of England by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1994. Built in the late 12th, early 13th century, the church had been abandoned in the late 19th century and was being used as a storage shed. The Greek Orthodox Church restored the nearly derelict Grade II-listed building and a congregation has worshipped there ever since.

The field on the west side of the church is slated for development — it will be a parking lot for a 300-home estate — and a team from Baskerville Archaeological Services was contracted to excavate the site before construction began. By the terms of the planning contract, developers Taylor Wimpey funded an archaeological survey of the parking lot site from late summer until November. The Greek Orthodox Church stepped in to fund an extension of the excavation and developers gave the archaeologists more time to explore the site.

They were able to unearth foundations of the current medieval church extending 20 feet from the modern-day walls, indicating that this small church was once much larger. Next to the medieval foundations and between 15 and 18 inches deeper under the soil, archaeologists found the stone foundations of an earlier building which they believe to be an Anglo-Saxon church. Several artifacts were discovered in a rubble pile: three garnet pins, a carved stone of indeterminate age and two coins, one of them a Charles I half farthing minted between 1624 and 1635.

The very last day of the dig on the west side, the team unearthed a 15-section of a wooden post, likely a door post, in the layer believed to be Anglo-Saxon. This was a key discovery, because wood can be radiocarbon dated to confirm or deny whether the earlier structure does date to the Anglo-Saxon period.

On the south side of the church, archaeologists found more foundations of the medieval church. These indicate the church had a transept, the arms on either side of the nave that form the traditional cross shape. They also discovered the medieval graveyard. The remains of three people were unearthed, including an intact skeleton of a woman buried in shroud, but that’s to be expected in a churchyard. Less expected were the elaborate animal burials: the skeletons of a calf and a pig carefully posed together with yin-yang symmetry, a Stone Age flint found between the ribs of the calf, the skeletal remains of a pig laid to rest in a leather-covered wood coffin, the bones of a large female dog that died during whelping found next to the bones of six chickens, a pregnant goat and what appear to be the bones of one more dog and a large bird. Those last two have yet to be fully excavated.

“It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no,” [Janey Green, from Baskerville Archaeological Services,] said. “The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground.”

“The site is a few hundred metres from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected. Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here. Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times.”

Green thinks these are likely pre-Christian burials. The bones will have to be carbon dated before we can know, and it doesn’t look like they have the budget for it at this point. They’re working on it.

The parking lot is still going forward. Taylor Wimpey have agreed to seal the medieval foundations under a geotextile membrane before pouring the asphalt. This will protect them from damage and make them more easily accessible should someone in the future pick the archaeological remains over the parking lot. Meanwhile, the excavations on the south side of the church will continue. The remains, both human and animal, will be reburied at the church in a special funerary service.

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Viking boat burial found on British mainland

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

Mainly found in Scandinavia, Viking boat burials are as rare as they are fascinating. The ones that have been archaeologically excavated in the UK were unearthed on the isles, like Orkney, Shetland and Man. The only boat burials found on mainland Britain were discovered in the 19th century and were excavated, if you can call it that, outside of archaeological protocols. Few artifacts from them have survived and it’s difficult to confirm that they were in fact boat burials. The discovery of an intact Viking boat burial in Swordle Bay on western Scotland’s Ardnamurchan peninsula in 2011, therefore, was a momentous one. The Norse were known to have been in the area when they were still raiding and exploring the British Isles in the 9th and 10th centuries, before they founded any settlements, but this is the first archaeological evidence of their presence.

The grave was first identified in 2006 as part of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project‘s survey of potential archaeological sites in the area dating from the Neolithic through the 19th century. The ATP team dug a test trench across the low turf-covered mound and found stones collected and placed by human hands, as well as a rove, a metal plate or grommet that rivets pass through in boat construction. The dating of the mound wasn’t clear. Possibilities included Bronze Age or medieval origin.

Full excavation of the mound would have to wait until 2011. Just under the topsoil, archaeologists found a spread of stones. Some of them were undisturbed, still placed where human hands had laid them centuries earlier. Others were scattered around the main stone pile and bore plough marks suggesting they’d been dislodged during later agricultural activity.

Once the soil and fill were removed, the stone feature was revealed to be an oval outlined by kerb stones embedded in a cut. A spear head and a shield boss were found on a cairn stone underneath the silt layer that overlays them. That suggests they were deposited around the same time as the stones, like at the time of burial, but that can’t be confirmed because the cairn has shifted significantly over time. Under the stones were layers of decayed organic material and a wealth of artifacts, among them a large iron pan with a handle three feet long, a ladle, the copper-alloy top of a drinking horn, more than 200 rivets and roves, a sword decorated with silver and copper wire with textile fragments wound around the blade, a broad-bladed axe, a copper alloy ring pin likely of Irish origin, a Norwegian schist whetstone, and an iron sickle.

The rivets and roves, the sword style, the whetstone, the pointed oval boat cut and the organic decay likely from wood confirmed this was a rare Viking boat burial, the only one on the British mainland excavated to modern archaeological standards. The boat was about 5.1 meters (17 feet) long, a small rowboat, not a seafaring vessel. It was placed in the boat-shaped cut, the body of the deceased placed in the boat and then surrounded with grave goods. Rocks were piled atop the body, creating a burial mound. Preliminary analysis of the finds dated the burial to the late 9th, early 10th century. The weaponry suggests the deceased was male, but the pan and ladle are more typical of female burials. A small fragment of bone and two teeth are the only human remains discovered in the grave, neither of them sufficient to conclusively gender the burial.

The latest report on the findings has now been published in the journal Antiquity. Strontium, lead and oxygen isotope analysis was done on the teeth to determine the deceased’s diet between the ages of two and 15 and thus a possible national origin.

Results showed that the person ate a land-based diet until he or she was 15, with a boost in seafood consumption when the individual was between three and five years old. Marine proteins were rarely consumed in Britain during the first millennium A.D., even for people who lived on the coast. In Norway, on the other hand, people ate plenty of seafood, although children less than adults. The fact that this person ate so much fish during that brief period as a small child suggests there may have been a food shortage that pushed the locals towards additional marine sources of nourishment. The stable isotope results exclude the deceased coming from the west coast of Britain, from western Britain in general, western Ireland or the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. Other parts of Ireland are still possible candidates, but the likeliest is Scandinavia.

The authors of the study conclude from the evidence of the boat burial that the individual was someone of high rank and status:

When we consider this burial, what can we say about identity? At least three terms could potentially be used to describe the deceased: ‘Norse’, ‘warrior’ and ‘high status’. Evidence for the first of these comes from the boat and related connotations of travel and voyaging; from the material culture from Scandinavia and Ireland; and from the surviving teeth. Even though a definitive place of origin cannot be proven from the isotope evidence alone, when combined with the material from the grave itself a Scandinavian homeland is suggested; Ireland cannot, however, be ruled out. The evidence for a warrior identity lies, of course, in the weapons, although this imposes a traditional assumption that grave goods belong to the deceased and directly disclose their identity. Finally, the whole assemblage–the artefacts and their elaborate interment–suggests a notion of high status.

The fact that a person of such high status deserving of a boat burial with rich grave goods was interred on the peninsula may be a significant marker of the transition between the Vikings as raiders of Britain and the Vikings as settlers.

The warrior’s final resting place could indicate the first settlement of the area by the Vikings–indicated by Swordle Bay originating as a Norse name meaning ‘grassy valley’.

“I don’t think they are just sailing up and down the coast, someone has died, and they have just rowed into the nearest harbour and buried someone there,” Harris said. “There is a kind of connection to this landscape that is more substantial than that.

“It is perfectly possible [the burial] is linked with the process of settling in this bay.”

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Ashmolean secures Alfred the Great hoard

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The Ashmolean Museum has raised the £1.35 million ($1.7 million) needed to acquire the Watlington Hoard. Discovered on October 7th, 2015, by retired advertising executive and metal detector hobbyist James Mather in Watlington, Oxfordshire, the mixed hoard of Saxon coins and Viking jewelry and ingots is modest in size but grand in historical significance.

James Mather’s cautious, archaeology-focused approach to metal detecting played a large part in preserving the hoard’s integrity. He first found an oval silver bar that he recognized as a Viking ingot similar to ones he’d seen in museums. Digging a few inches under the surface he found a small group of silver pennies. He realized he had a hoard on his hands, but instead of digging it all up, he reburied what he’d already exposed and alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme. PAS archaeologist David Williams raised the hoard in a soil block so it could be excavated in laboratory conditions.

First the block was X-rayed to provide a roadmap of the artifacts within and where they were located in the thick clay soil. Conservator Pippa Pearce painstakingly excavated the contents of the hoard. The final count was almost 200 coins, some of them fragments, seven pieces of jewelry — three silver bangles, probably arm rings, and four broken silver — and 15 silver ingots. A tiny scrap of twisted gold is the first gold ever discovered in a Viking hoard in Britain.

But the wee bit of gold is overshadowed by the significance of the coins. The hoard contains 13 examples of an extremely rare coin type known as the ‘Two Emperors’ penny which show King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871–899) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874–ca.879) enthroned next to each other under a winged Victory or an angel. Only two examples of these pennies were known before the discovery of the hoard, and both of those were struck in the same year. The coins in the Watlington Hoard were struck in different mints over several years. This is huge news because it proves that Alfred and Ceolwulf II were allies who worked closely together, at least on issuing currency, for years.

It’s a revelation compared to the very little information that has come down to us about Ceolwulf. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history commissioned by Alfred the Great, dismisses the King of Mercia as “an unwise king’s thane,” who was placed on the throne of Mercia by the Vikings as a puppet. The evidence of the coins suggests Alfred erased their alliance from the history books.

In February of 2016, the Oxfordshire coroner declared the hoard Treasure after which the Treasure Valuation Committee assessed its value a £1.35 million. Since local museums are given first crack at purchasing archaeological treasures found in the area, the Ashmolean began a campaign to raise the money before the January 31st deadline. They went a long way towards achieving their goal last October when the received a grant of £1.05 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The Art Fund contributed another £150,000 and more than 700 private individuals contributed the rest. The museum reached its £1.35 million target just days before the deadline.

The Watlington Hoard will now go on display in the Ashmolean’s England Gallery along with another Alfred the Great treasure, the Alfred Jewel, a teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal (likely recycled Roman jewelry) encasing an allegorical or saintly figure in multi-colored cloisonné enamel. On the side of the gold filigree frame is inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN,” meaning “Alfred ordered me to be made.” It’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular, exhibits in the museum, and it’s one of the only surviving objects directly associated with King Alfred. It will make an ideal companion for the hoard which has rewritten the history of Alfred’s reign.


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Is this 1,000-year-old tomb a famous Viking chief’s?

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

Danish archaeologist Bjarne Henning Nielsen, curator at the Vesthimmerlands Museum in North Jutland, has an entirely speculative but rather nifty idea that a tomb he has been exploring since 2009 may have belonged to the Viking chief Ulv Galiciefarer. A Danish jarl (earl) of high rank with close connections to the royal family, Ulv earned his moniker with a successful series of raids on Galicia, Spain, in the first half of the 11th century. His exploits are recounted in the Knytlinga Saga, an Icelandic saga of the kings of Denmark written around 1250, and his issue would rule Denmark. His granddaughter Boedil was queen consort to King Eric I of Denmark (r. 1095–1103). Their son and heir Canute Lavard was murdered by his cousin in a classic Game of Thrones intrigue. Only days after the assassination, Canute’s son Valdemar was born. He would go on to rule Denmark as Valdemar the Great (r. 1157-1182).

The tomb was discovered near Naesby in Jutland in 1951 during highway construction. An excavation unearthed a broken sword engraved on the blade near the handle. The inscription is worn and hard to read, but may have been INNOMED, meaning “In the name of” or “In His name”. The grave also contained equestrian fittings and a beautiful, rare pair of silver-plated stirrups made in Central Europe. The excavation of the tomb, dubbed the rider’s grave due to the horse-related artifacts, was a rushed affair. The grave was reburied and neglected until the Vesthimmerlands Museum began to re-excavate the site in 2009.

Excavating the grave and the wider site, the museum’s archaeological team discovered a 10 cm fragment of the broken sword found in 1951, plus 24 more graves from the Viking era. The rider’s grave was just the most opulent and prominent of the compound. A small semicircle of stones, the remains of a larger Viking-era rock formation, still marked what had once been a grave mound. The stone circle area is surrounded by dark lines in the soil, traces of long-decayed wood that once bounded the grave. At first Nielsen thought these lines were what was left of a palisade or paddock, like the 10th century death house built over the grave of a Danish noble couple. A survey of the lines revealed that the structure over the rider’s grave would have been more than 100 square meters (1076 square feet). That’s way, way bigger than your usual death house.

Nielsen remembered seeing a similar structure years earlier when he was working on a the grave of a Viking noblewoman outside the city of Randers in eastern Jutland. South of that site, in Horning, another noblewoman’s grave had been found in the early 1960s which had first been a traditional burial mound, only for the mound to be demolished at a later date a wooden church built over the grave. Long after her death and burial, somebody wanted a more elaborate memorial to the deceased constructed on the site.

It suddenly occurred to Bjarne Henning Nielsen like the proverbial eureka in the bathtub that the rider’s grave could have received the same treatment. The mound is gone, only the stone semicircle testifying to its existence. Nielsen thinks the mound was deliberately demolished to make way for a chapel. Death houses were reserved for nobles of very high rank, but architecturally speaking they were fairly rudimentary. A full chapel would indicate an extremely important personage was buried on the spot.

The reason Ulv Galiciefarer popped into Nielsen’s head as a candidate is that the Naesby area is believed to have been part Valdemar the Great’s ancestral heritage, ie, his personal freehold, not Crown property. Contemporary sources note Valdemar donated a large parcel of land in his freehold less than a mile from Naesby to Cistercian monks. He could certainly have ordered the construction of a chapel over the tomb of his famous great-great-grandfather. It would be a display of piety as well as a way to underscore a nationally important figure in his lineage.

“It is private property he inherited from his father’s side, and Galiciefarer is part of the lineage,” said Nielsen.

“There is of course not a note in the grave saying ‘Here lies Ulv’, but the time and place fit and the burial is consistent with that of someone the king would want to honour.”

Nielsen conceded that his theory may be nothing more than a hopeful guess.

“All we can do today is speculate, but someone wanted to honour the great hero who lies there, whose name we unfortunately may never know,” he said.

There’s very little to go on here. The Galiciefarer hypothesis If the grave was the final resting place of a jarl, Ulv or anyone else, it would be the first jarl’s tomb known. Archaeologists haven’t had a template of a jarl’s tomb to use for identification, so the possibility, however remote, that this grave could have been Ulv Galiciefarer’s dangles the tempting prospect of figuring out yarl-specific funerary traditions that could then illuminate future excavations.

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