Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Crusader-era grenade in group of artifacts turned in to authorities

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

A group of artifacts recently turned in to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) include a striking embossed hand grenade from the Crusader era. The objects were collected by the late Marcel Mazliah who worked at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Israel since it was built in 1973. Over the years, he found a broad assortment of archaeological treasures in the sea, probably lost in shipwrecks or simply overboard.

The Mazliah family contacted the IAA after Marcel died and they inherited his less-than-legal collection. An expert went to their home to examine the artifacts and was surprised to find such significant pieces.

According to Mrs. Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The finds include a toggle pin and the head of a knife from the Middle Bronze Age (from more than 3,500 years ago). The other items, among them, two mortars and two pestles, fragments of candlesticks, etc. date to the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE). The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel. The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period”.

The hand grenade is a handsome example of a weapon in common use by Islamic forces during the Crusader (1099-1187), Ayyubid (1187-1250) and Mamluk (1260-1516) periods. It is made of unglazed ceramic and embossed with grooves and tear drop-shaped designs. It has a domed top over a spherical body that tapers to a point. They were filled with incendiary material – petroleum, naphtha, Greek fire — and thrown or catapulted into the enemy camp where they exploded fire that water could not put out on their targets. There’s a small hole in the top into which flammable liquid could be poured and a wick added once the grenade was loaded.

Some scholars believe these vessels were not weapons, but rather perfume bottles. They’re certainly pretty enough for it and it seems counterintuitive that someone would bother to decorate an explosive projectile whose sole function is to destroy itself and take people down with it. On the other hand, their shape makes them markedly unsuited for placement on a dresser, requiring a rack or holder to keep them vertical, and the decorations also have the practical function of making the devices easier to grip in the hand or set snugly in the sling of a catapult. A smooth clay grenade would be dangerously easy to drop.

There is historical and archaeological evidence of this type of vessel being used in war. For one thing, clusters of them have been found in fortresses, castles and moats. The 12th century historian Mardi ibn Ali al-Tarsusi mentioned in the military manual he wrote for Saladin in 1187 that terracotta vessels with incendiary contents were launched from catapults or thrown from ramparts. Other sources from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries describe the clay gourds in more detail, explaining how they were used in battle and the various launching methods. Chemical analysis of residue inside several similar pieces discovered traces of rock salt, pine resin and other flammable materials. One gourd on display in the National Museum of Damascus has an inscription that leaves no question as to its bellicose purpose: “This kind of projectile is useful for targeting the enemy.”

The IAA is grateful that the family has voluntarily come forward and handed the artifacts over to the state. Officials plan to give the Mazliah family with a certificate of appreciation and, which is way cooler, have invited the family to visit the IAA laboratories where the artifacts will be studied and conserved.

6th c. walls unearthed at Tintagel Castle

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, have unearthed the remains of massive walls built in the 6th century. The excavation is the first in a new five year archaeological exploration commissioned by English Heritage, the first major research project at Tintagel in 20 years. A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit did geophysical surveys of unexcavated terrace areas on the vertiginous headland where structures from the earliest iteration of the castle (5th-6th century) were believed to have existed. The survey confirmed there were walls and other elements of varied size from post-Roman structures underground.

Excavations began on July 18th and continued through August 2nd. Four trenches were dug on the terraces and as the geophysical survey indicated, the remains of ancient walls three feet thick emerged. The formed two rooms about 11 meters (36 feet) and four meters (13 feet) wide. This was a massive, imposing structure, at the very least a high-status building, and possibly even a royal palace complex. No similar structures from ancient Cornwall, then known as Dumnonia, have ever been found, so if these large walls can be confirmed as royal, it suggests this may have been a central, static court, as opposed to a mobile one that moved from stronghold to stronghold without a Camelot-like headquarters.

Other finds include more than 150 fragments of pottery and glass, including pieces of imported late-Roman amphorae, glass, probably imported from Merovingian France, and a rim from a bowl or serving dish made of expensive Phocaean red-slip ware made in western Turkey. They date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Tintagel was a bustling settlement in the centuries after the Roman retreat from Britain. Surveys have found evidence of almost 100 buildings, plus gardens and pathways, on the headland alone. Thousands of pottery fragments, most of them imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th to 7th centuries, attest to Tintagel’s importance as a trade center and as the home of regional rulers during the post-Roman period. Many luxury items have been identified at the side: wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Aegean, glassware made in Merovingian France, dishware from North Africa.

The settlement was abandoned in the late 6th or early 7th century, possibly due to a catastrophic occurrence like plague. Tintagel lived in memory, however, as the home of Cornwall’s early kings, which is probably what inspired its literary connection to King Arthur. The 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, tried to keep his beautiful wife Igerna from the lustful depredations of Uther Pendagron by hiding her at Tintagel. Uther’s advisor Ulfin noted that only magic could get Uther past its impregnable defenses.

“[N]o force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel[.] For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom. Notwithstanding, if the prophet Merlin would in earnest set about this attempt, I am of opinion, you might with his advice obtain your wishes.”

As the story goes, Merlin magically disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, he and the lady Igerna made sweet, fraudulent love and nine months later, with Gorlois safely dead and Uther and Igerna now married, Arthur was born.

Geoffrey made no distinction between history and legend, and his version of the Arthur story was embellished even more than it already was in his sources. There was already a tradition in Cornish and Breton folklore at the time Geoffrey was writing that associated Tintagel with the famous love story of Tristan and Iseult. That was later woven into Arthurian legend, with Tristan becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table, but in the late 12th-century it was its own tale. Tintagel was the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband.

The Arthur legend as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cornish legends of Tristan are the reason the ruins of the Tintagel Castle that still stand today exist. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, was as erudite as he was rich. He traded three manor houses for the site, which had no defensive value whatsoever, and the only castle that could be built on that rocky outcropping was rather small and inelegant for a man of Richard’s refined tastes and financial wherewithal. It was purely its association with the great ancient kings of yore that inspired Richard to build a castle there. By the 14th century it was already in decay.

Using the information and materials discovered in this year’s dig, the team will make plans for more extensive excavations next year. They’ll have a clearer picture of the footprint of the medieval structures and they’ll be able to analyze samples that may fill in more blanks about how buildings were built, when and for what purposes.

Tiny Viking chair-amulet found on Lolland

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

A very rare and very tiny chair-amulet from the Viking era has been discovered on the Danish island of Lolland. Metal detectorist Torben Christjansen, whom you might recall from the killer Thor’s Hammer amulet he discovered in 2014, found it in a field near Nybølle on the west side of the island. He had scanned the field before, lured by its black soil which is sometimes and indication of ancient activity, and found 65 objects, but he’d never seen anything like this little piece. Christjansen brought the artifact to Anders Rasmussen, curator at Museum Lolland-Falster, who identified it as a Viking chair-amulet.

No larger than a fingernail, the amulet depicts a wide chair with an abstract figure seated on it. On either side of the back of the chair are two smaller figures meant to represent ravens. The figure may be Odin, who according to an Icelandic saga from the 13th century, sat on a great chair named Hlidskjalf and observed our mortal goings-on from there. He would send his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, to explore the world and report back on what they’d seen during their voyage.

Only 15 or 20 chair-amulets have been found in Scandinavia, and just two of them in Denmark. One was found in Hedeby, an important Viking trade center now just over the Danish border in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The other at Lejre in Zealand in 2009. They have differences in design but all date from the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The amulets from Hedeby, Lejre and Nybølle are also quite different, but they share one thing in common. Two things, actually: the clearly identifiable ravens on the back of the chair.

The ravens strongly suggest that the shape in the chair represents Odin and the Lejre amulet, which is larger with more detailed carving, certainly features Odin. So it’s a reasonable assumption that Odin is sitting in this chair too, but it’s so amorphous a shape it could represent another character from the Norse mythology, an animal or perhaps another deity naughty enough to keep Odin’s seat warm for him.

The area where the amulet was found has proven to be rich with Iron Age and Viking artifacts; jewelry, coins, rune stones and silver hoards have all been found near where the amulet was discovered. Archaeologists believe that Lolland, while not the large trade center that Hedeby and Lejre were in their medieval heyday, must have been very wealthy and prosperous for centuries.

The amulet is heading to the National Museum where it will be examined by experts to determine whether it should be declared treasure trove (it will be). The finder will be compensated based on the valuation of the piece and then the local museum, in this case the Museum Lolland-Falster, will be given the amulet for study and display.

NYU student finds 12th c. brooch on Irish beach

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

An American film student at New York University discovered a rare 12th century brooch during a field trip in Ireland earlier this month. McKenna McFadden was on a walking tour of Omey Island in Connemara, western Ireland, led by archaeologist Michael Gibbons when she spotted the back of a metal brooch while exploring rabbit burrows on the shore.

“When I first looked at it, I really thought nothing of it! It was really pretty and I thought someone had possibly dropped it,” [McFadden] recalled, not thinking that whoever dropped it did so centuries ago.

“I kept it with me until I caught up with Michael and he was very intrigued. He had me take him back to the site at which I found it. I didn’t fully realize how important the find was at the time. Now, I’m amazed and surprised and I’m very happy that I was able to place it in the hands of people who would appreciate it.”

A local radio personality took umbrage at an American making such a discovery in between stops on her bus tour of tourist traps. They worked it out with Ms. McFadden later after their listeners took them to task for being mean, but she didn’t get a chance to explain on the air that while it is her first time in Ireland, she’s gone quite a bit beyond the cheesy leprechaun-logo tour. McFadden is enrolled in NYU’s Summer in Dublin, a six-week program based at Trinity College, Dublin, in which students study Irish culture through multi-disciplinary classes in sociology, history, literature, Irish language, creative writing and faculty-led educational and cultural excursions like the one she was on when she stumbled on a 12th century kite brooch poking out of the sand.

The radio people went off on a goofy fantasy ramble about the great diplomatic incident that would ensue should McFadden have kept the brooch, but there was never any question of that. According to Ireland’s National Monuments Act, all archaeological objects found in Ireland belong to the Irish state. Anyone who makes an archaeological discovery must report it to the government or face a fine of up to 60,000 euros and five years in prison. Of course Connemara-born Michael Gibbons, a professional archaeologist with 30 years experience, was well aware of the legal requirements, and McFadden was just delighted to have found so beautiful and significant an archaeological treasure on her archaeology field trip to Omey Island.

They reported the piece to Galway city heritage officer Jim Higgins who identified it as a kite brooch from the 12th century. These types of pins were used to fasten cloaks and shawls 900 years ago. Only a handful of them have ever been found in Ireland. The brooch is now at the National Museum of Ireland where it will be studied and conserved.

Largest Anglo-Saxon building in Scotland found

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

Archaeologists and community volunteers excavating the site of Glebe Field in Aberlady, East Lothian, have discovered the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon building that is the largest Anglo-Saxon structure found on Scotland. In April and May of this year, AOC Archaeology Group collaborated with the Aberlady Conservation and History Society to investigate some features of Glebe Field believed to date from the Anglo-Saxon period (7th-10th century). They were hoping to find evidence of a timber building — postholes, imprints left by decayed material — but instead found a large stone feature with a paved area on the south end.

At first they thought it might be roadway between the local church and the coast, but additional excavation revealed it to be the foundation of a large rectangular building. The feature is 20 meters (66 feet) long and four meters (13 feet) wide. The whole building appears to have been 20 by 40 meters (131 feet). The bones of a large mammal found immediately underneath the stones were radiocarbon dated to between the 7th and 9th centuries.

Ian Malcolm, from Aberlady Conservation and History Society, described the first date evidence from the site as “very, very exciting”.

He said: “It is evidence that it was an important and a wealthy site.” [...]

Mr Malcolm said the structure would have to be significant because of the work that would have been undertaken to build it.

He said: “It may have been monastic, or a feast hall or a royal site. There have been other excavations but no evidence of a structure on this scale has been discovered.”

Aberlady was a port city in the Middle Ages (the port has long since silted up), and was a stop on the road between the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, about 55 miles to the southeast, and the monastery of Iona in the Inner Hebrides 180 miles to the northwest. Significant Anglo-Saxon remains have been found there before. In 1863 a large fragment of an elaborately carved high cross was discovered in the garden wall of the churchyard. Dating to around the 8th century, the whole cross would have been about 17 feet high. The carving is reminiscent of the bird interlace style of decoration in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In the 1980s, more than 300 Anglo-Saxon coins and the greatest number of stray Anglo-Saxon metallic objects ever discovered in Scotland were found in Aberlady.

The area of the feature with the paving as an open gap left unlined that may indicate something monumental once stood there, perhaps even the base of the Aberlady Cross.

Close to the buildings, archaeologists and volunteers unearthed the remains of small walled structures. A number of large animal bones and shells were found within these walls. The team also discovered a small iron knife blade, of a size that suggests it was used more as a tool than a weapon, perhaps for working leather. Other artifacts found in the cells were an early 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin, an antler carved with the head of an animal or bird, additional antler pieces, a bone comb and a broken piece of bone that appears to have been used to practice decoration techniques for the comb. The style of the comb dates it to the 6th-8th centuries. Because of the nature of the finds inside the small structures, archaeologists believe they may have been workshops.

The group hopes to continue excavations at the site later in the year, but as the site of a scheduled ancient monument, first Historic Environment Scotland must be consulted and give its approval to the intervention.

Volunteer at crowdfunded Lindisfarne dig finds Anglo-Saxon name stone

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The monastery of Lindisfarne, famous for the beautiful illuminated gospel made around 700 AD that bears its name and as the landing place of the first Viking raiders in 793, was founded in 7th century by Irish missionary Saint Aidan. King Oswald of Northumbria had been raised and educated at the monastery on the island of Iona, so when he was crowned in 634, he invited Iona to send one of its monks to convert the people of Northumbria. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the location for a monastery that would become the uncontested epicenter of Christianity in Northumbria for the next 30 years and whose influence would spread throughout northern England.

The Vikings, first from Norway and then Denmark, attacked and plundered Lindisfarne repeatedly in the century after the first lucrative foray. Finally in 875 with the collapse of the kingdom of Northumbria under the pressure of a Danish invasion, the monastic community of Lindisfarne picked up stakes and ran. A second monastery was built on Lindisfarne more than 200 years later by the Normans. It stood until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

Despite its outsized importance to the history of Christianity, the precise location of the first monastery was lost. In 1999-2000, there were a few small-scale archaeological surveys in advance of construction on the island, but nothing concrete was discovered. In 2012, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts carried out a geophysical survey of Lindisfarne funded by National Geographic. The survey discovered several areas of interest with remains that could be related to the first priory.

Funding for a follow-up excavation was not forthcoming, so this year Petts partnered with archaeological crowdsourcing concern DigVentures to raise the money for an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne, the first to specifically target the Anglo-Saxon priory. The project raised £25,000 in less than a week, plus much-needed manpower from donors who were keen to help excavate the site. Excavations began in June.

The team found several artifacts that indicated they were on the right track. There was a fragment of a sculpture carved with lines and crosses. A fragment of a bone comb was the first datable artifact. It’s an Ashby Type 8b comb, which dates it to between 900 and 1000 A.D. Another datable find was even closer to the target period: a sceat, an Anglo-Saxon silver coin with an animal on one side and the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria (r. 737-758) on the other.

Then they unearthed a small semi-circular carved sandstone fragment. This is a very rare piece, an Anglo-Saxon grave marker dating to the period just after the founding of the first Lindisfarne monastery. This type of stone is known as a name stone because, well, there are names carved on them, and this one is no exception.

Gravemarkers, or ‘namestones’ are probably one of the most diagnostically Anglo-Saxon artefacts it’s possible to find, but they’re incredibly rare. Although a handful of squareheaded namestones have been found, only 13 of these roundheaded ones have previously been found, and they all date to the mid-7th to 8th century AD. placing it firmly in the period of Lindisfarne’s first monastery.

Experts are still deciphering the text, but it’s clear that the name of the person commemorated on the stone ended with the letters ‘frith’, which is a common element of Anglo-Saxon names. Also visible are sun motif, and an indent where a metal boss or jewel may have been placed.

One of the most significant figures in Lindisfarne history had a name ending in “frith.” Eadfrith was Bishop of Lindisfarne at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. According to a 10th century annotation in the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, it was Eadfrith who wrote and illuminated the work. Eadfrith was buried on Lindisfarne, but his remains were exhumed, along with those of St. Cuthbert, when the monks fled the invading Danes. After more than a century of peregrinations, Eadfrith and Cuthbert’s bones found a permanent home at Durham Cathedral.

The team also found fragments of bone near the marker, so it’s possible the spot was a graveyard. The excavation is over for this year, but the finds were so promising, the team hopes to return next year. They plan to crowdfund again. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the wonderful excavation diary on the DigVentures website.

Here’s a 3D model of the name stone:

Here’s a texturized version of the model that enhances the engraving on the surface :

Danish police to study 10th c. arson at Borgring

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the 10th century Viking Borgring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014, are calling the cops to help solve a 1,000-year-old mystery. The fortress was first identified with drone footage, laser scanning and a geomagnetic survey. Test pits were then dug at key positions which confirmed that this was Trelleborg-type fortress, one of a series of defensive ring forts built around 980 A.D. by King of Norway and Denmark Harald Bluetooth.

One of the original test pits was dug where the north gate would have been. Archaeologists found large oak timbers, evidence of the massive gates typical of Trelleborg forts, that were charred from fire. Funds for a full excavation of the site were secured last year. Excavations began in earnest this year. Thus far the team has unearthed more evidence of fire at the east gate. The outer posts of the gate are charred through, and posts from inside the gate bear marks of burning.

The working theory right now is that the fort was attacked by Danish noblemen before it was completed during an uprising against Harald Bluetooth’s rule. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in the mid-980s. According to Saxo Grammaticus, chronicler and author of the Gesta Danorum, Sweyn’s forces defeated Harald and forced him to flee to Jomsborg where he died of his wounds.

Archaeologists also found that the fort was not complete, that construction appeared to have ended halfway through. That suggests it was the last fort Harald built, that it was started at the end of his reign, became a target of rebel forces and was left unfinished after his defeat and death.

In the hopes of getting more information about the fire, archaeologists have reached out to police fire safety investigators. They want forensic arson specialists to study the burned areas of the structure.

“Hopefully, they can say more about how the fire was started. We generally have good experience of cooperation with the police. For instance, we have previously used their sniffing dogs to dig out bones from the earth,” Sanne Jakobsen, communications manager at Southeast Museum Denmark told Danish Radio.

The team will also do dendrochronological analysis of the timbers to narrow down the date of the fort. Excavations will continue for three months every summer through 2018, after which the plan is to close up archaeological shop and let the field return to nature. The clock is ticking, therefore. If you have a chance to see the site in the next couple of years, take it. Visitors can download an app to learn more about the other Trelleborg forts, Borgring and the archaeological finds made at the site.

Here’s a video of the site which is open to the public right now. There are mounds and trenches from the active excavation at the east gate.

You can keep up with the excavation on the Vikingeborgen Borgring Facebook page.

Altenberg Abbey treasures reunited after 200 years

Thursday, June 30th, 2016


More than two centuries after they were scattered, a medieval altarpiece, reliquaries and art works from the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg in central Germany have been reunited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Heaven on Display. The Altenberg Altar and Its Imagery brings together 37 precious devotional objects from the late 13th and early 14th centuries that have been in separate collections since Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe.

The star of the show is the Early Gothic Altenberg Altar, a folding high altar retable with a shrine cabinet, a polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child in the middle niche and painted panels on each side. The wings, some of the earliest surviving examples of German panel painting, are part the Städel’s permanent collection, but the rest is on loan. Other objects include reliquaries the once were kept in the shrine cabinet of the altarpiece, goldsmithery, 13th century altar crosses, figural glass paintings from an early 14th century window and two embroidered linen altar cloths made around 1330.

The altar cloths are large, elaborately decorated pieces that were placed on the altar in front of the retable. No other altar cloths from the Early Gothic period in Germany have survived.

Sometime before 1192, Emperor Barbarossa granted the convent the status of imperial immediacy, which put it under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, exempting it from vassalage to the local lords, essentially a guarantee of independence. The daughters of area nobles joined the convent and endowments from their families over time transformed a small, obscure abbey into one of wealth and power.

One of those daughters was Gertrude, the child of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died a few months before Gertrude was born. After her beloved husband’s death, Elizabeth dedicated her life to asceticism and charitable works, so much so that she gave up basically everything in the world that she loved, including her children. Little Gertrude was two years old when she was sent to live with the canoness of Aldenberg. She took the veil and became cannoness herself when she was just 21. Her rule lasted until her death 49 years later.

Elizabeth was already dead by the time her daughter dedicated her own life to piety and mortification of the flesh, felled by a fever when she was 24 years old. Only five years later she was canonized. Gertrude collected relics of the mother she had only had childhood memories of, if any, for the abbey. The works on display are examples of Gertrude’s devotion to her literally sainted mother. There’s a tapestry from 1270 woven with scenes from the life of Elizabeth and Louis IV which may have been hung behind the altar on important occasions before the altarpiece was built, an arm reliquary shaped like an arm and containing an arm, Elizabeth’s silver jug and a ring that once belonged to Louis.

The convent managed to retain its imperial status through the Reformation, the decline of imperial power and rise of the princes after the Thirty Years’ War. It came to an end with the Final Recess of 1803 when Napoleon compensated German princes who had lost lands west of the Rhine to France with ecclesiastical territories. Altenberg, monastery, church and extensive agricultural and forested lands, became the personal property of the Princes of Solms-Braunfels who had long coveted it. They turned the convent into a summer residence and distributed its works of art and devotional objects throughout their castles. The altar went to Braunfels Castle, the arm reliquary of St. Elisabeth to the chapel of Sayn Palace.

From there they made their way into museums and collections around the world. The Städel Museum in got the wings of the altar in 1925. Other collections including those of the city of Frankfurt, Munich’s Bayerische Nationalmuseum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City all have bits and pieces of Altenberg. It’s an impressive feat reuniting so many elements of the medieval convent to put the objects in some semblance of their original context.

The exhibition is on right now and runs through September 25th, 2016.

Viking power couple buried in death house

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

In 2012, highway construction in Hårup, southwest Denmark, unearthed an unusual grave. It’s a Viking tomb of a type known as a death house, a palisade structure similar to the simple roofed post-in-ground structures that would evolve into stave churches. This is the first death house found in Denmark. It measures four by thirteen meters (about 13 x 43 feet) and has one large room with two graves, and an addition that was built later to house one more grave. The death house dates to around 950 A.D.

Acidic soil has left no detectable human remains, but archaeologists were able to determine the gender of the people buried in the death house from their grave goods. In the main room are a man and woman, the former identified by a large battle axe that was called the Dane Axe in the 10th century. Its imposing size made it an intimidating and highly destructive weapon when wielded by an able fighter. Its weight and size made it a useful tool break apart enemy shields along their seams. In the 10th century, this would have been extremely expensive, an elite weapon for nobility or the obscenely wealthy.

The second person in the main chamber was buried in a wooden wagon typical of burials of noble women. Buried with her were two keys, one larger one symbolic of her status as the lady of a great household. The second key fits a square box that was found by her feet. Fine accessories buried with her include gold and silver ribbon and fur. The person buried in the addition is also an adult male. He too was buried with an axe in his grave, only his was smaller.

The special markings of the grave indicate that the pair must have had a high social status.

“It could be the gentlemen and the lady of the local area and maybe their successor. They’ve at least been honoured in a special way, so they must have been important,” says [excavation leader Kirsten Nelleman] Nielsen.

And it is not just the tomb that is special.

“It’s very special that the man and woman’s graves are marked by the same tomb or palisade. It’s unusual that we’re able to establish that the man and woman were equals with such certainty,” says Nielsen. [...]

[A]rchaeologist Henriette Lyngstrøm from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark,… has seen examples of shared graves before, but the way that the men and women are laid in this grave does indeed indicate a powerful couple, she says.

Nielsen thinks the design inspiration for the death house may have been foreign. The remains of a clay vessel found in the woman’s grave is of a type produced in the Baltic, and she also had two silver coins from what is now Afghanistan. The couple either acquired goods from traders who ranged far and wide or were perhaps well-travelled themselves. If the death house was inspired by a similar structure from elsewhere, that might explain why not other such tombs have been found in Denmark.

Lyngstrøm believes there are more death houses in Denmark; they haven’t been found yet. Nobody was really looking for them. Perhaps this first discovery of its kind will stimulate archaeologists to make associations they haven’t previously made when excavating at tomb. For example a necropolis in Hornbæk, a coastal resort town in northeast Denmark, has the remains of structures at the entrances that may have been death houses, or at least a version of them.

The Silkeborg Museum is hosting an exhibition running through October 23rd that presents an overview of the discoveries made during the highway construction project. It includes the reconstruction of the woman’s grave, the grave goods and some of the other finds from the Stone Age to the 19th century.

12th c. fortified town found under Illinois cornfield

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Under a cornfield in Cass County, Illinois, near where the Sangamon River flows into the Illinois, are the remains of a bustling Native American town that thrived from the 12th century through the 15th. The town had a central plaza, surrounded by three platform mounds, houses and defensive walls 10 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long in each direction. Known as the Lawrenz Gun Club Site after a shooting club built on one of the mounds in the mid-20th century, the site has been studied by archaeologists and students from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) every summer for six years.

It was the remains of the mounds that first indicated a community of the Mississippian culture had once inhabited the site, but the town ranges far beyond that, covering over 26 acres. IUPUI’s archaeology field school used remote sensing technology to establish the perimeter of the site and, since they can’t dig up the whole cornfield, to identify areas likely to contain artifacts. This excavation season alone they’ve unearthed 97 bags of archaeological material including projectile points, pottery of many different kinds from cookware to storage vessels to dishes, stone tools, plant and animal remains. Only once in the six years have they encountered a human burial. Officials were notified in compliance with federal law, the grave was reburied and the remains left undisturbed.

“The last couple of years, we have focused inside the city’s walls. This year, we are looking at earlier structures, built before the walls were put up,”” [graduate student John] Flood said. “We are looking at an early house, about 5-by-5 meters in size, and how the city started to develop, trying to understand how the very early Mississippian community arranged their structures.”

For Flood, the most fascinating part of the multi-year investigation has been the huge, elaborate defensive walls built to protect the city.
“You have several portions of walls that were constructed at different points in time. Bastions and archers’ towers, you see a change in shape as they go from more circular to more rectangular in design. It shows they are really taking their time and thinking about their defensive fortifications,” Flood said. “We see that throughout all sorts of archaeology all over the world. Usually about the time you see agriculture, things like corn or maize, all of a sudden when you have food in one location, you find you have a need to protect that food.”

“You also need to make your presence known,” Flood said. “If you’re coming down the river and see a big, fortified city with 10-foot walls and archers’ towers, that’s a big mark of presence. It says ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay.’”

Based on the artifacts unearthed so far as, the walls and the dwellings, researchers estimate that the village had a population of 400 to 600 people from around 1100 through 1450 A.D., making it probably the largest village in the area. The inhabitants grew crops, primarily maize, and also foraged wild resources from their environment, including seeds, grasses, nuts and marshelder, a ragweed relation with edible seeds that was cultivated by the earlier Kansas City Hopewell culture of Kansas and Missouri before maize displaced it. The surrounding area also provided abundant hunting and fishing. The IUPUI team has found a great many bones of fish, waterfowl and land mammals.

A large community with impressive fortifications in a fertile location with plentiful plant and animal resources, the village likely traded with the great city of Cahokia, now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, to the north. Like Cahokia and other known Mississippian communities, the Lawrenz Site met an abrupt end in the mid-15th century. Archaeologists believe a combination of the Little Ice Age and severe drought may have brought on repeated crop failures which drove the population to abandon their settlements and seek greener pastures. With no food left to protect, fortifications that once defended the stores become prison walls enclosing only the prospect of mass starvation.

This season’s excavation will conclude at the end of the month. The 97 bags of artifacts and remains will be sorted, cleaned and analyzed in laboratory conditions back the university in Indianapolis. Every fragment is of interest as a potential source of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants of the prehistoric town.

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