Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Farmer plows up a runestone

Monday, September 21st, 2020

A few years ago, Lennart Larsson was plowing a field on his farm in Hellerö, near Loftahammar, southeastern Sweden, when his tractor collided into a stone. It was large — six and a half feet long, more than three feet wide — and flat, so Larsson figured he’d set it aside as it might prove useful in the future. He move it to the edge of the field and there it remained until days ago. He was building a new staircase for an outbuilding and thought that large flat stone was just the thing for the job. When he raised it with an excavator, for the first time he noticed there were runes carved on the underside.

The Larssons contacted experts at the Västervik Museum who viewed the piece and confirmed it was a rare runestone. Runologist Magnus Källström then examined and translated the carving. The runes read: “Gärdar erected this stone for Sigdjärv, his father, husband of Ögärd.” In the center of the stone is a cross, which coupled with the inscription indicates this was a funerary stone, a memorial monument placed on the family’s property a few kilometers from the village burial ground. Around the text is a zoomorphic figure biting its own tail. The rounded style of the animal carving suggests a date of the first half of the 11th century.

The stone is believed to have fallen where it was originally placed. It is in very good condition, despite centuries of active agricultural use of the land above and around it. This stone is of national significance, and is a particularly important find for the region as the inscription names three individuals from different generations of a prominent family who lived at the site during the Late Iron Age. Previous finds of silver coins and a silver armband made in Gotland in the 11th century are evidence of the family’s wealth. The female name Ögärd has never been seen before, making it of notable interest for linguistic research.

The stone will now be cleaned and conserved. Authorities hope to put it on display in its original location in Hellerö, but it has a crack that threatens its stability which must be secured first. The county administrative board will then decide on its ultimate disposition based on the advice of conservators.

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Silver seal of medieval woman found

Saturday, September 12th, 2020

The seal matrix of a woman from an important medieval family discovered in the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, has been declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That was the expected verdict as it fits the criteria of the Treasure Act of 1996 on two grounds — it is made exclusively of precious metal (silver) and is more than 300 years old — but as a historical artifact, it is a treasure beyond price.

Discovered by a metal detectorist in April 2019 on the grounds of the Henley Business School, the seal matrix dates to the late 13th or early 14th century but is in pristine condition. It is a pointed oval shape 1.3 inches long with a loop on the back. Around the edge of the front of the matrix is an inscription that reads “SIGILLUM.MAR.GERIE.PEVREL” meaning the “Seal of Margerie Pevrel.” In the center is the Peverel (variously spelled Pevrel, Peverell, Peveril) family crest of three garbs (a bundle of grain bound around the stalks) embedded in an urn with scrolls and florals on the sides and top.

Seal matrixes are not uncommon finds, but ones inscribed with specific names on them are more rare. Ones that name a woman are vanishingly rare. Ones found in a context directly connected to the woman who owned them can be counted on the finger of one finger. What is today the Henley Business School was the estate of Yewden Manor in the 14th century. The Peverel family owned Yewden Manor from 1248 until the mid-14th century.

There are two likeliest candidates for the Margerie Peverel who owned this seal. One is Margaret of Cornwall, wife of James Peverel and mother of Sir Hugh Peverel IV. She died in 1349. The other is Hugh IV’s daughter Margaret who was born in 1321. Both lived at Yewden Manor and one of them lost her seal while out and about on her estate.

Now that it has been declared treasure, it will be assessed for fair market value and offered to a local museum in exchange for a fee in that amount offered to the finder. The River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames is hoping to add it to its collection.

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15th c. axes from largest medieval battle found in Poland

Monday, August 31st, 2020

Two 15th century battle axes have been discovered at the site of the Battle of Grunwald in northern Poland. The axes are similar but not identical. One has a longer shaft of a closed type, meaning there’s a dedicated compartment for the handle. The other has a shorter open shaft.

Volunteers have come from all over Europe to survey the battlefield site every year for the past seven years. This year 70 volunteer metal detectorists explored the fields and marshes under the supervision of archaeologists. One of them, Aleksander Miedwiedew, discovered the axe heads in marshy ground about 30 inches below the surface. The waterlogged soil helped protect the axes from corrosion, leaving them in exceptional condition, complete with the original rivets that fastened the axes to their wooden handles.

According to Dr. Szymon Dreja, director of the Museum of the Battle of Grunwald, the discovery of the battle axes are an archaeological sensation.

“In seven years of our archaeological research we have never had such an exciting, important and well-preserved find,” he stressed.

The Battle of Grunwald took place on July 15th, 1410, during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Allied Polish and Lithuanian forces squared off against the German Teutonic Knights in massive forces, more than 50,000 fighters all told, making it one of the biggest battles in medieval Europe, if not the biggest. The Polish-Lithuanian side was victorious and delivered so sound a spanking that almost all of the Teutonic leadership either died on the field or was taken as prisoner of war. This was the turning point not just for the war, but for the Teutonic Order itself which never recovered militarily from the defeat and whose economic power over its monastic state was obliterated by reparations after the war.

This year’s archaeological survey of the battlefield also unearthed several dozen other weapon parts, most of them spear heads.

The museum is not revealing the precise location of the find because they believe that other artefacts are still lying in the ground. For this reason, they are planning more archaeological excavations later this year.

The mystery still waiting to be discovered is the location of the mass grave of knights who died in one of the greatest battles of medieval Europe.

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Lefty Viking sword found in grave in Norway

Thursday, August 27th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a Viking grave in Vinjeøra, Norway, containing a full complement of weaponry: an axe, a spearhead, a shield and a sword. It dates to the 9th or 10th century. The farm being excavated was known to have a burial mound and other Viking graves, so an archaeological team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum surveyed it in connection with the expansion of the E39 highway.

The discovery of the warrior’s grave was not entirely unexpected, therefore. He was buried in a ring ditch surrounding one of the burial mounds, a location of honor due it its proximity to the important person, likely an ancestor, interred in the mound. The graves of another three warriors were also found in the ring ditch, but this one had an unusual feature: the sword was buried on the deceased’s left side.

The sword was normally placed on the right side of the body in weapon graves like this. This custom is actually a little strange, because as a warrior you want to fasten your sword on your left side to be able to pull it out with your right hand.

“Why the swords are almost always placed on the right side is a bit mysterious. One theory is that the underworlds you go to after death are the mirror image of the upper world,” says [NTNU archaeologist Raymond] Sauvage.

But what does it mean when the sword is on the left side – which you would initially think was the logical side?

“Maybe he was left-handed, and they took that into account for the afterlife? It’s hard to say,” says Sauvage

One more grave discovered in the same ring ditch contained an intriguing surprise. The deceased was cremated, but the nature of the grave goods — a brooch, beads, a pair of scissors — indicate she was a woman. What was unusual about this burial is the weight of the bone ash. It totals about two kilos (4.4 pounds), which is the average amount generated by a cremated human body. Most Viking graves contain far fewer cinerary remains, about 250 grams (half a pound). All of her was buried, or at least most of her as there were a few bird bones in the mix.

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14th c. gold and silver coin hoard found in Bohemia

Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

A hoard of 435 gold and silver coins from the 14th century was discovered by a couple on a walk in the woods near Kladruby Monastery in  western Bohemia, Czech Republic. Well, technically, the hoard was discovered by a wild pig who started the excavation. The couple came across a two gold coins and one silver in the brush next to a large flat stone. When they lifted the stone, they saw there were many more coins underneath it. They reported the find to the Museum of West Bohemia in Plzeň and archaeologists unearthed the whole hoard.

There are 92 gold coins weighing a total of 326 grams and 343 silver coins in the hoard. The silver coins are of the groschen type which were common in Bohemia and central Europe in the 14th century. Most of the ones in the hoard were minted in Bohemia during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. They are very worn so must have been in wide circulation. The gold coins, on the other hand, are in excellent condition. They are ducats of Charles I of Hungary, of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, of Albert III, Duke of Austria, and Rupert I, Elector Palatine and gold florins from Louis I of Hungary.

Archaeologists believe the coins were buried in the ground in the late 1370s. While the reason why someone hid the treasure is likely to remain unknown, it was most likely linked to the nearby Monastery in Kladruby.

“The monastery was located on a strategic medieval trade route between Prague and Nürnberg. And since the discovery was made not far from there and close to the royal town of Stříbro, it is very likely that it is somehow connected to it.”

The Kladruby Monastery, a Benedictine abbey established by Vladislaus I, Duke of Bohemia, in 1115, was rich from the beginning, endowed with numerous properties and titles. Its wealth and power increased geometrically, peaking in the 14th century when the monastery’s income and territory were at royal levels. It had its own network of defensive castles on its feudal estates and was often mired in conflict with the nobility of the area.

Because of the vast sums that flowed into the abbey’s coffers and its military power, the question of who would be appointed abbot was of enormous political import. This came to blows in 1396 when John of Nepomuk, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Prague, appointed the candidate supported by his boss the archbishop and the Pope instead of the one selected by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia. The king had John tortured, thrown off a bridge and drowned. He was immediately revered as a martyr and canonized a saint.

The coins are now being conserved and catalogued. They will go on display at the Museum of West Bohemia in Plzeň at the end of this year or the beginning of 2021.

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Yarm Helmet is only Viking helmet found in Britain

Saturday, August 8th, 2020

An iron helmet that was discovered in Yarm, North Yorkshire, during sewer work in the 1950s has been confirmed to be an extremely rare Viking-era helmet, only the second nearly complete Viking helmet in the world and the first and only one found in Britain.

It was referred to as the Viking helmet from the beginning, but its real age has been an open discussion since its find. It has design elements found in earlier forms from the Anglo-Saxon and Vendel era, and because the only other helmet in the world confirmed to date to the Viking era, the Gjermundbu Helmet found in Haugsbygd, Norway, in 1943, was not a direct comparison, it was difficult to conclusively identify the Yarm Helmet as an Anglo-Scandinavian piece. A new study by Durham University researchers has used recent archaeological finds and analysis of the iron and corrosion products to narrow down its age of manufacture. It is indeed an Anglo-Scandinavian helmet made in northern England in the 10th century.

With all the traveling and combat during the Viking era from Lindisfarne (793 A.D.) to the last raids by Magnus Barefoot in 1103, you’d think the archaeological record would be replete with Viking helmets, or at least that there would be a few out there. Instead, the early medieval helmets that have been found pre-date the Viking era. They are highly decorative ceremonial pieces discovered in graves. By the 10th century, most Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Scandinavians were Christian, ergo no more grave goods, ergo extremely rare survivals of helmets. The Gjermundbu Helmet was part of an elaborate funerary furnishing complete with chain mail shirt and weapons, but the Yarm Helmet seems to have been hidden in the watery bank of the River Tees rather than being a burial good.

[University of Durham researcher] Dr Caple commented: “We were initially alerted to the object by our colleagues at Preston Park Museum. It was a challenging project, as the thin iron sheet is now very susceptible to corrosion (it has to be kept in very dry conditions), so it was not simply a question of only showing the date at which it was created, but working out how it had survived until it was unearthed in the 1950s. Our analysis showed that it was initially preserved in waterlogged conditions, only later becoming damaged and starting to corrode. Fortunately it was discovered before it corroded away completely

“Although there are half a dozen early medieval helmets from Britain, the Sutton Hoo and Coppergate helmets being the most famous, this is the first Anglo-Scandinavian (Viking) helmet from Britain.

“Whilst the Saxon helmets were often highly decorated and were worn by warrior leaders, as much symbols of authority as helmets, by the 10th century we can now envisage that most professional warriors had helmets like the Yarm Helmet. They were simply manufactured, well designed to protect the wearer (rivets flush with the surface so they did not catch bladed weapons) but no longer decorated. Together with a mail hauberk (shirt of chain mail), a helmet was essential personal protective equipment for a warrior. We see almost all the combatants in the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry wearing helmets and hauberks.”

The helmet predates the founding of the village of Yarm. It was discovered on the east bank of a loop in the River Tees, which may have been a quayside before the town was established. It is made of simple thin iron plates riveted together with iron bands. At the top of the lateral band is a decorative knop. Attached to the brow band is an iron semicircle divided into two by an iron nose band to form a spectacle mask. A mail curtain was likely attached by holes in the brow band. There are hammer marks visible on the surface and the infill iron plates are ragged at the edges. This was a plain, workmanlike piece intended for hard use, not display or ceremony.

The Yarm Helmet is on display at the Preston Park Museum in Stockton. The results of the study have been reported in the journal Medieval Archaeology.

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Met’s iconic unicorn tapestry explored

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

One the greatest and probably the most famous treasure on display at The Met Cloisters is a series of seven tapestries that depict the mystical hunt of the unicorn.  Their early history is unknown and there are enough differences in style, size and composition suggest they made not have been woven as a single set. They were designed in France and woven in the southern Netherlands of wool, silk, silver and gold threads around 1500. The dense florals, rich colors, detailed figures of people and animals have made the Unicorn Tapestries iconic examples of late medieval art.

On each corner of the tapestries and in the center tied to the fountain and foliage with betassled rope are a cipher — A and a backwards E — which are likely a reference to the original owners. The series doesn’t appear on the historical record until 1680 when it was in the Paris mansion of François VI de La Rochefoucauld, the aristocratic writer of maxims. Historians believe the cipher points to the tapestries having been made for Anne of Brittany on the occasion of her wedding to King Louis XII in 1499, her second turn as queen consort of France. The series was acquired from the Counts de La Rochefoucauld by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1923. He loaned it to the Met for exhibitions before donating it to the museum in 1937.

The Met is still closed and will remain so at least until the end of the month. As part of its Insider Insights webseries, the museum has released an in-depth exploration of the Unicorn Tapestries focusing on one piece in particular: The Unicorn Purifies Water, described as “the most lyrical” of the set.

In this tapestry, 12 hunters and their dogs surround a unicorn on his knees, dipping his horn into a stream of water at the base of a fountain. The foreground and brush are inhabited by a diverse bestiary — a pair of goldfinches and pheasants on the fountain, a pair of lions in the bottom left foreground, a spotted hyena in front of them. The would-be hunters do not approach their quarry here. According to lore, a unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. In this case, purifying a poisoned stream, its contamination indicated by the presence of plants used to counter poison in the medieval pharmacopia, and because “unicorn horn” (ie, rhinoceros or narwhal horn) was considered a universal antidote.

The Cloisters research assistant Amelia Roche’ Hyde ties the visual iconography of the tapestry to its historical context and explains the dense layers of symbolism woven in with the gold and silver threads.

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200 arrows from 14th c. battle found in Polish forest

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown medieval battlefield on a forested mountain near Sanok, southeastern Poland. The team unearthed more than 200 arrowheads and crossbow bolts from the mid-1300s, the reign of Casimir the Great of Poland.

The site is on Biała Góra, a peak of the Słonne Mountains. It came to archaeologists’ attention from reports of widespread looting taking place there. It was known to have had a fortified settlement in the late Middle Ages, but it was believed to have been built by the redoubtable Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland and wife of Sigismund I the Old, in the 16th century. The last time the site was archaeologically investigated was 50 years ago and none of the documentation from that survey is extant today. Treasure hunters flocking to the site with metal detectors suggested there was something to be found there and spurred new archaeological fieldwork.

The evidence of extensive looting dotted the hillside — numerous pits on the surface and iron objects of little interest to treasure hunters left behind. The great quantity of arrowheads and bolts were an unexpected discovery because they date to the mid-14th century and there is no specific record of a battle taking place there at that time. There sure was a lot of fighting going on in the area, however.

After Bolesław-Jerzy II, Piast dynasty ruler of the Ruthenian principality of Galicia, was poisoned to death by local nobles in 1340, Casimir III the Great of Poland inherited the kingdom. This was not an undisputed succession, to put it mildly, and Ruthenian noblemen, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland went to war to pursue their claims to the principality. Ultimately Casimir came out on top, and in 1344 he annexed Galicia, adding 20,000 square miles and 200,000 people to the Kingdom of Poland.

Chroniclers record that Casimir’s army took a number of castles when they invaded in 1340. The hillfort on Biała Góra may have been one of them. If so, its defensive response was weak as very few artillery projectiles were found with the arrowheads and bolts. The fortress was small, encircled by a single earthenware embankment and a dry moat. The highest concentration of bolts and arrows were found within the stronghold and right next to it. The attack came from the south and the remains of the embankment bear evidence of having been burned, so it seems the fort took heavy fire and was unable to dish any out.

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Anglo-Saxon eyesalve cuts swath through bacterial biofilms

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

One of my all-time favorite stories has an update. In 2015, microbiologists at the University of Nottingham collaborated with an Anglo-Saxon expert from the university’s English department to recreate a 10th century recipe for a salve purported to treat eye infections. The combination of onion, garlic, wine and bovine bile steeped together in a bronze or brass vessel was then tested on flourishing cultures of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and found to be a MRSA-killing machine. The individual ingredients did nothing; the control batch minus the vegetable ingredients did nothing. The full salve obliterated 999 Staphylococcus cells in 1,000, both for in vitro cultures and in vivo on infected mice. Even a diluted version of the salve was a powerful weapon. It couldn’t kill MRSA, but it blocked the bacterial cell-cell communication it needs to damage tissue.

The results were exciting but the research was in its infancy five years ago. Now the team has published a new paper on the use of Bald’s eyesalve on a range of pathogens in biofilms, communities of bacteria that form a protective shield that is to all intents and purposes impossible to destroy no matter how many antimicrobials you launch at it. Most pharmacological studies of plant ingredients focus on isolating active compounds and using them against planktonic (free-living) bacteria cells which are easier to kill than biofilms. This study explored the antimicrobial properties of the mixture.

Biofilm infections of wounds (e.g. burns, diabetic foot ulcers), medical implants (e.g. artificial joints, catheters), the lungs (e.g. in cystic fibrosis) and other body sites impose a major health and economic burden and can be effectively untreatable. Non-healing, infected foot ulcers, which can be a complication of diabetes, provide an especially sobering example. Even if the infection is apparently successfully treated, there is a high chance of recurrence and an estimated 50% of those affected die within 5 years of ulcer development. Management of diabetic foot ulcers costs the UK’s NHS £650 M per year. […]

Each of Bald’s eyesalve ingredients has known antimicrobial properties or compounds (onion and garlic, bile, wine). We explored the contribution of all four ingredients to both planktonic and biofilm activity of Bald’s eyesalve to build a picture of their relative contributions. Planktonic activity appeared almost entirely attributable to garlic. However, tests against S. aureus Newman biofilms, grown in a synthetic wound model, showed garlic exhibited no antibacterial activity in this more clinically-relevant setting. In fact, no preparation which omitted any one ingredient possessed full activity in the biofilm assay. This confirms our previously published finding that Bald’s eyesalve anti-biofilm activity is contingent on the presence of all four ingredients.

The Voltron force of Bald’s eyesalve was able to completely eradicate planktonic cultures of a number of bacteria including  P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, E. cloacae, S. maltophilia, S. aureus, S. epidermidis, S. pyogenes and MRSA. It was also able to slaughter cells in biofilms S. aureus Newman, A. baumannii and S. pyogenes. Interestingly, while the salve was effective against planktonic cultures of P. aeruginosa, E. cloacae and S. maltophilia, it was ineffective against their biofilms. This discovery underscores how important it is to include biofilms in any studies of antibacterial compounds because being able to kill planktonic cultures bears no relation to being able to break down biofilm.

Because people asked in the comments five years ago (and are still asking today), here’s the recipe for Bald’s eyesalve used by the research team.

Garlic and onions were purchased from supermarkets or greengrocers. As lab work continued throughout all seasons of the year, and was conducted in two locations (Warwick and Nottingham), it is possible that different varieties of garlic and onion, or the same variety grown in different locations, were used in different batches of the eyesalve. The outer skin of the garlic and onion (sourced from local greengrocers) was removed. The garlic and onion were finely chopped, and equal volumes of garlic and onion were crushed together using a mortar and pestle for 2 min. Various sized batches of Bald’s eyesalve were used throughout this paper, ranging from final volumes of 30 ml–400 ml, the average weight used was 14.1 ± 1.5 g of onion and 15.0 ± 1.3 g of garlic per 100 ml of Bald’s eyesalve.

The crushed onion and garlic were then combined with equal volumes of wine (Pennard’s organic dry white, 11% ABV, sourced from Avalon Vineyard, Shepton Mallet) and bovine bile salts (Sigma Aldrich) made up to 89 mg·ml−1 in water and sterilised by exposing to UV radiation for 10 min (Carlton Germicidal Cabinet fitted with a 2537 Å, 8-W UV tube). The mixture was stored in sterilised glass bottles in the dark at 4 °C for 9 days, after which it was strained and centrifuged for 5 min at 1,811 g. The supernatant was then filtered using Whatman 1,001–110 Grade 1 Qualitative Filter Paper, Diameter: 11 cm, Pore Size: 11 μm. Filtered Bald’s eyesalve was stored in sterilised glass vials in the dark at 4 °C.

A little more specific than Oswald Cockayne’s original instructions in the incomparable Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England and not exactly easily reproduced in the home. Still, at least the proportions are there for any adventurous souls.

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Look inside the Gjellestad mound

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

It hasn’t even been a month since the first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in Norway in 100 years began, and fascinating new data is already coming to light thanks to soil analysis and digital technology.

Researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the University of Oslo have analyzed five soil samples from the Gjellestad ship burial seeking clues to how the burial mound was constructed. The samples were taken during last year’s test excavation from the ship burial trench itself and from four different sites in the mound.

The analyses show that the construction and use of the mound is carefully planned and executed. It wasn’t simply placing the ship with the deceased on land and shoveling soil over it, according to NIKU researcher and archaeologist Lars Gustavsen.

“Here, the area of the mound has been carefully prepared by removing topsoil so that the intact subsoil was exposed. It is this subsoil that we see in the GPR data as a distinct black area around the grave itself.”

“Our analysis shows that this is soil that has been formed on-site; and the characteristic dataset signature must therefore be due to the fact that the mound covering the grave has changed the physical properties of the soil – likely due to soil compression from the heavy mound” Gustavsen continues.

The mound itself was made of turf or sod, not topsoil. Researchers were able to determine that it was not local, that all the turf used to form the mound was brought in from the outside. This was a complex, well-planned operation that appears to have followed an established procedure seen in other large ship burial mound.

The IT department at Østfold University College has been able to convert the findings from the geophysical surveys and excavations into a remarkable digital representation of the  Gjellestad ship site. The site is far more complex than just the one burial mound and with the exploration of the site still in its early stages, archaeologists have been working continuously with the IT team to update them with the latest information, correcting details and revising errors to ensure the 3D model is as accurate as humanly possible.

All their efforts have paid off with an interactive rendering of the site’s history. After a pretty cool intro of Viking ships braving the cold dark ocean waters, the Gjellestad site appears. You arrow through an overview of the site’s use from the Bronze Age onward, showing the cycle of construction and destruction of longhouses and how the mounds proliferated on the landscape.

If you click “open map” in the lower left corner, you can navigate to select spots to find out more about them.  If you click on the ship, you get a fly-in tour of how it was built, including an illuminating cross-section showing how the turf was layered to protect the ship and keep it vertical while the mound was built up around it. There are links to videos about the 2019 excavation, the discovery of the ship’s keel and nifty 3D ship viewer. You can manipulate the ship to see it from all directions.

The quality of the rendering is top-notch. They didn’t ruin it by trying to create believable humans puttering around, but there are some awesome sheep. Fine details include hearth fires and their smoke, tree leaves moving in the wind, the variety of grasses and the quality fencing.

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