Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

Friday, August 28th, 2015

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.

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Settlement Era longhouse found in Reykjavík

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

The ruins of an early Viking longhouse have been discovered under an empty lot on Lækjargata, a street in downtown Reykjavík. The lot was excavated in advance of construction of a four-star hotel because it was known to have been the site of a turf farm built in 1799. Archaeologists did find the remains of the farm as expected soon after excavations began in April, and then completely unexpectedly found the remains of the longhouse in June. All of the Settelement Era (874-930 A.D.) remains found in Reykjavík before this one were further to the west. The discovery of the Lækjargata longhouse indicates that early Viking-era Reykjavík was either larger or more spread out than scholars realized.

The longhouse was at least 20 meters (66 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18 feet) wide — the remains extend into the neighboring property so the full perimeter has not been established — and had a central fire pit 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, one of the longest ever discovered in Iceland. A separate cooking pit was unearthed with the remains of animal bones inside and stones that were heated and used to keep water hot or to cook food over. An area of red earth and blackened material is likely evidence of an uncontrolled, destructive fire. Archaeologists believe the fire occurred just after the abandonment of the home or, more likely, was the impetus for said abandonment.

Early settlement archaeology in Reykjavík relies on layers of volcanic tephra ash deposited around 871 A.D. by an eruption in the Torfajökull volcano complex 250 miles southeast of Reykjavík to help date sites. Based on the ash found in the remains of the turf walls of the longhouse, Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir believes it was built around a century after the 871 tephra fall. Spindle whorls found in the longhouse bracket its age on the other end; they disappear from the Icelandic archaeological record after 1150 A.D.

The discovery generated much excitement among archaeologists and the general public. The excavation drew crowds who peppered the archaeologists with questions about the longhouse and the fate of the site. The original plan was to salvage whatever archaeological material was found, removing it from the site to a museum, but that was before they knew there were so significant and ancient remains there. The hotel developers suggested there might be some way to integrate the archaeological site into the hotel, something that has been done successfully before elsewhere.

This week Reykjavík’s environment and planning committee took an important step in ensuring the preservation of the longhouse. It called for the prompt establishment of an advisory committee on how to handle the longhouse site and other recently excavated remains near the harbor.

The resolution from the planning committee says that the new advisory committee should formulate proposals on how best to preserve the sites in question for the future and how best to display them openly to the public.

The committee should set to work quickly and include the city culture, tourism, environment and planning committees in its work; as well as the city council cabinet. It is very important to preserve these sites, the resolution states.

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15th c. monster raised from Baltic Sea

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Sweden sees your 17th century gun carriage, England, and raises you a 15th century sea monster. On Tuesday before a crowd of fascinated thousands, divers lifted the wooden figurehead of a late 15th century Danish warship from the Baltic Sea off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden. The figurehead weighs 300 kilos (661 pounds) and is carved out of the last meter of a 3.4-meter-long beam. The design is a fierce toothy monster of indeterminate nature.

“Last time it looked at the world, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus were still living,” Johan Ronnby, professor of marine archaeology at Sodertorn University, said as the ferocious-looking figurehead, which was intended to scare the enemy, was brought to the surface.

“It’s a monster. It’s a sea monster and we have to discuss what kind of animal it is. I think it’s some kind of fantasy animal – a dragon with lion ears and crocodile-like mouth,” Ronnby said.

“I’m amazed, We knew that it should be a fantastic figure, but it was over our expectations when we saw it now. It’s a fantastic figure, unique in the world.”

There’s something in his mouth, too, something or someone being devoured by this fearsome beast. It reminds me of the biscione on the Visconti family coat of arms.

The wreck was first found by sport divers in the 1970s, but archaeologists only learned about it in 2001 when artifacts from the ship surfaced. They took a wood sample from one of the ship’s exposed timbers and dendrochronological analysis revealed the oak tree that made that timber was chopped down in northeastern France during the winter of 1482-83. That means the ship was likely constructed in Flanders or the Netherlands. In collaboration with local divers, archaeologists explored the wreck, retrieving a number of artifacts including nine carriages for iron breech-loading guns which are now on display at the Blekinge Museum. They found that the ship was constructed using carvel planking, with hull planks laid flush next to each other rather than with the slight overlap of earlier clinker-built vessels,

Researchers have identified the ship as the Gribshunden, the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which sank while anchored off Ronneby in 1495. Historical sources report that the ship was on its way to Kalmar, Sweden, where King Hans would meet with the Swedish regent Sten Sture the Elder to discuss Sweden’s increasing withdrawal from the Kalmar Union. For unknown reasons, the ship caught fire and sank, killing many men but not the king, who witnessed the horrific demise of his flagship and its crew from a nearby boat. He cancelled his trip to Kalmar in the wake of the disaster. (Two years later King Hans defeated Sten Sture in battle and secured the Swedish throne.)

The location of the wreck, off the coast of Ronneby near the island of Stora Ekön, matches the historical accounts of the Gribshunden‘s sinking. The ship’s large size (at least 35 meters or 115 feet long), the tree ring dating, the carvel construction all support the identification. Also archaeologists were able to recover some mortar from the hold of the ship and found that the lime came from the Danish island of Saltholmen near Copenhagen.

The Gribshunden is the oldest armed warship ever found in Nordic waters, and while most of the wreck is still buried in the seabed, archaeologists believe it may be the world’s best preserved 15th century ship. The study of the unique wreck is of international significance because it dates to such an important period in the history of navigation and may reveal new information about the construction of Age of Discovery ships.

The figurehead is now at the Blekinge Museum where it will spend the next few months in a bath of sugar water. That will leach the corrosive sea salt out of the wood in preparation for long-term conservation. The water-saturated wood will have to be dried very gradually to ensure it does not crack and warp. Conservators will decide which method to use once the desalination is complete. Freeze-drying is a prime candidate.

People can see the figurehead inside its water bath at the Blekinge Museum when the artifacts laboratory is opened to visitors every Thursday afternoon. On August 30th, Archaeology Day, experts will be on hand to answer questions about the figurehead and the wreck.

For an in depth explanation of the wreck’s history and archaeology, read this exceptional post by Rolf Warming of Combat Archaeology who participated in the salvage operation.

Here’s video of the wreck in situ filmed this June:

This news story shows the raising of the figurehead:

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Can you decipher the inscription on this sword?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

I’m asking for a friend. (The British Library is my friend, right?) On display at the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition is a medieval double-edged sword made of steel with an inlaid gold wire inscription on one side. The inscription appears to read:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Experts haven’t been able to decipher this mysterious assortment of letters, so the British Library’s phenomenal Medieval Manuscripts blog is opening up the floor to the Internet. Some think it was a religious dedication of some kind using the first initials of words. There are inscribed crosses on the other side and an inlaid crescent near the point on both sides which may be the maker’s mark.

The sword was discovered in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July of 1825 by workers widening and deepening the river just below the lock to make room for larger vessels. The Bishop of Lincoln gave the sword to the Royal Archaeological Institute which in 1858 donated it to the British Museum. It dates to around 1250-1330 and has a straight cross guard with a wheel-shaped pommel atop the grip. Weighing 2 lb 10 oz and measuring 38 inches long, the sword was a killer, capable of cleaving a man’s skull in two.

This kind of sword was a classic knightly weapon of the 13th century and is depicted in many an effigy and illustration. Here’s an example from the British Library’s 14th century illuminated manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France in which French knights besiege Rouen in 1203/1204 during King Philip Augustus’ invasion of Normandy.

In fact, the sword was believed to have a very close connection to French knights from that turbulent period. When the sword was first discovered, workers found other armature — swords, daggers, chain mail — in the muck of the riverbed leading to speculation that these were the remains of French knights who had drowned in the river after the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. When the First Barons’ War broke out between King John and his nobles in 1215 after John refused to abide by the terms of Magna Carta, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the throne of England. He accepted and turned up with an army in May of 1216. Louis waltzed into London unopposed and was proclaimed king in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He doesn’t make the official king list because he was never crowned, but for a while in 1216-1217 the Dauphin of France actively occupied half of England.

The tide turned when King John died in October of 1216. Even though John’s son Henry was only nine years old, barons who had sided with Louis switched sides in droves. William Marshal, “the greatest knight that ever lived,” was Henry’s regent and fought at the head of his army, drawing more knights to abandon Louis for Henry. On May 20th, 1217, forces loyal to the nine-year-old King Henry III of England attacked the city of Lincoln, then held by the French. The English held Lincoln Castle, however, so while Marshall’s army took the north gate of the city, Falkes de Breauté deployed his crack crossbowmen along the castle ramparts to rain a hellfire of bolts into the French occupiers. It was a rout, followed by a very thorough pillaging of the city that has gone down in history as the Lincoln Fair. French knights who weren’t killed or captured fled, some of them sailing down the Witham. Some of the ships, laden with men, arms and armour, sank drowning the flower of French chivalry and, ostensibly, leaving their stuff behind for canal diggers to find 600 years later.

Without identifying marks connected to specific knights, this story is impossible to prove. Still, the design and period of the sword make it relevant as a weapon very much like those used during the battles between the English crown and its unruly barons. It’s neat to think that it may even go a step further and be an actually relict of the First Barons’ War.

If you have any ideas about what the inscription might mean, join the party in the comments on the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry where smart people are saying smart things.

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Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

An extremely rare early 14th century panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini has been purchased by the National Gallery with funds donated by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. The work is an oil and tempera painting on gilded wood depicting Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints by Giovanni da Rimini, an important artist in turn of the 14th century Rimini. It is the left panel of a diptych and is the only work by Giovanni da Rimini in the UK. In fact, there are only two other easel paintings conclusively attributed to Giovanni da Rimini: the right panel from this diptych in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini) and The Virgin and Child with Five Saints in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Faenza.

Giovanni was the leading artist in a group of artists from the northern Italian city of Rimini whose innovative approach combined the devotional intensity and symbolism of Byzantine iconography with the more naturalistic figural depictions that would follow. The works of the Rimini school are therefore important transitional pieces that bridge the gap between late medieval fresco masters like Giotto and the early Renaissance.

This left panel of the diptych is the greatest of the three known works by Giovanni da Rimini. The right panel is more traditional, divided into six squares of equal size which depict scenes from the life of Christ in chronological order. The left panel takes a more creative approach in composition and subject. The top two thirds is divided into two vertical quadrants with the right quadrant divided into two again. That bottom third is divided into two scenes but the border line between them is further to the right than the centered vertical of the top section. This gives the panel a more dynamic design and allows the artist to introduce variety of composition. The double-height section in the upper left depicts the Apotheosis of Saint Augustine. Since there’s so much space, Giovanni was able to create a temple-like empty tomb for Augustine with a heavenly host of angels above and a crowd of astounded onlookers around it. Augustine is in the middle of the angels wearing the mitre.

The two scenes to the right of the Apotheosis are the Crowning of the Virgin up top and a celebratory crowd of saints and angels beneath, a sort of flipped version of Augustine’s scene. Notice the angel with his back to the viewer in the center of holy crowd. Those wings are an early example of foreshortening in medieval art. The left of the bottom third of the panel is dedicated to the Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, when the Emperor Maxentius deployed 50 of the greatest philosophers in Rome to defeat her in debate. She won and a bunch of the philosophers converted. The last scene on the bottom right shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in front of John the Baptist with a seraph above them.

The panel arrived in England from the collection of 19th century Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Considered one of the greatest academic painters in Rome during his lifetime, Camuccini was showered with portrait commissions, appointments and titles during his lifetime. He spent his fortune collecting the 16th and 17th century Italian masters he used to copy when he was a student, accumulating more than 70 highly praised pieces before his death in 1844. In 1853, his heirs sold the entire Camuccini collection to Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland, who installed the artworks in the family seat of Alnwick Castle.

Giovanni da Rimini’s panel remained on the walls of Alnwick Castle adorning the boudoir of the duchess until July of last year when the current Duke put it up for auction at Sotheby’s London. The pre-sale estimate was £2-3 million ($3,428,000 – 5,142,000) and the hammer price including buyer’s premium was £5,682,500 ($9,739,237). When the anonymous buyer asked for an export license, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the work to give UK institutions a chance to raise the purchase price and keep the one-of-a-kind piece in the country.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the [Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] said:

This jewel-like, exquisitely preserved, seven hundred-year old panel is by a good margin the most important example in the UK of the seminal Riminese school of painting. Although this country can boast impressive collections of early Italian art, there is nothing comparable to this in any British public collection.

With the clock ticking, Ronald S. Lauder, son of beauty industry mogul Estée Lauder, struck an unusual deal with the National Gallery: he’d donate the £4.919 million necessary to for them to buy the painting as long as the museum agreed to loan him the panel for his lifetime. He would then loan it back to the museum for display, first in 2017, then up to once every three years after that. After Lauder’s death (he’s 71 years old), the painting would physically join the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The NG took the deal with alacrity.

This isn’t the first time one of the Camuccini paintings from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection was saved for the nation after a sale that would have taken it out of the country. In 2003 the National Gallery had to scramble to raise a crazy £34.88 million ($54 million) to acquire Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks after the Duke accepted an exorbitant purchase offer from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A temporary export bar that was extended several times gave the museum a year to raise the huge sale price from grants and private donations. The hard-won masterpiece has been on loan to the Minneapolis of Arts from the National Gallery since March. The exhibition ends on August 16th, so if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis you should hustle to catch the $50 million Raphael before it returns to London.

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Gilded Late Viking sword found in Norway

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo unearthed a unique sword from the late Viking era in a grave in the town of Langeid, southern Norway. The grave was unusually large, the largest of the 20 graves found in the burial ground, with postholes in the corners indicating that it had once had a roof. So prominent a tomb must have belonged to a person of high status who would likely have been interred with valuable objects for the afterlife, but when the coffin was excavated archaeologists found no grave goods except for the remains of two silver coins. When the team dug outside of the coffin, they found two metal objects on either side. One was a sword, the other a large battle-axe.

The sword is just over a three feet (94 centimeters) long, and while the iron blade of the sword is heavily corroded, the hilt is in excellent condition and of exquisite quality. The guard and pommel are silver engraved with swirls, crosses and what appear to be letters, all filled in with gold and edged with copper alloy thread. The grip is tightly wrapped with silver thread in a herringbone pattern. Conservators found fragments of wood and leather on the blade, likely all that remains of the sheath.

The letters are from the Latin alphabet, but they’re not in a legible arrangement and some are backwards or look like two or more letters were combined.

“At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man,” added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in one of the postholes dates the burial to 1030 A.D., a date confirmed by one of the two coins found inside the coffin. It’s an English silver penny minted during the reign of King Ethelred II, aka Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1016), and is the only Anglo-Saxon coin ever found in Langeid.

The battle-axe found next to the coffin also has an association to early 11th century England. The shaft was coated with brass, a very rare find in Norway, but very similar to numerous axes that have been discovered in the Thames in London. The Thames axes date to the same time as the Langeid axe, a period when more than one Scandinavian king — Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, his son Cnut the Great, King Olaf II of Norway — fought to conquer England. London was raided repeatedly. The axes may have been left in the Thames by Norse raiders, lost or sacrificed after a victory.

It’s entirely possible that the man buried with the weapons may have fought under one of those kings. There’s a rune stone in the Setesdal valley just south of Langeid inscribed in Old Norse “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute ‘went after’ England. God is one.” Norway was under Danish sovereignty when Cnut invaded England in 1015. There were Norwegian fighters from noble families in his army who would have been required to arm themselves with the best weapons.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

The sword find is being announced now, four years after it was made, because it’s going on display for the first time. It is part of the Museum of Cultural History’s Take It Personally exhibition which examines the history of adornment, with this sword being an example of how the precious metals and decorative details of women’s jewelry were used on weapons and armour to telegraph the bearer’s wealth and power. The exhibition opened on June 12th and will run until June 1st, 2016.

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Original floor of Coventry Cathedral revealed

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

For the first time since Luftwaffe all but destroyed the medieval city of Coventry in the Second World War, the original floor of the Gothic cathedral of St. Michael’s has been revealed.

Coventry, an important industrial center that manufactured everything from bicycles to munitions, was the target of many bombing raids during the Battle of Britain, the most damaging of which struck on November 14th, 1940. German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive devices, intended to destroy infrastructure like water mains and roads, and 36,000 incendiary bombs, intended to burn down industrial targets (and pretty much everything else) in the city center.

St. Michael’s suffered multiple direct hits from incendiary bombs. Volunteer Firefighters were only able to put out the first of the fires before finding themselves overwhelmed by the inferno raging all over the Coventry’s historic center. The Cathedral was soon engulfed in flame. When the dust settled the next morning, St. Michael’s was a smoldering ruin, only the tower, spire and outer wall still standing on the scorched pavement. Thankfully the precious Gothic stained glass windows had been removed in 1939 to spare them from just this fate and have survived to this day.

After the war, a new cathedral was built next to what was left of the old one. Because the ruins of the medieval cathedral were exposed to the elements, the original floor was covered with rubble and concrete and topped with flagstones. Because it had been so pitted and scarred by the bombing and fire, the new pavement varied in depth from 50 centimeters (20 inches) to a meter (3’3″). In 1955 the ruins were added to England’s National Heritage List with a Grade I designation.

Listed structures cannot be altered without special permission, permission that was granted to the ruins of St. Michael’s because the floor is in danger from water damage. A new watertight membrane and drainage system will ensure the original floor doesn’t crumble underneath the mid-century concrete and pavers. The first step in the process was to lift the post-World War II flooring to expose the floor as it was before the bombs fell.

Although the church was built in the 14th century, much of the floor that has been uncovered consists of memorial stones laid down in the 18th century and later. The wooden base of the choir stalls were also found, carbonized by the fires.

Also uncovered is a wall of the 13th century Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the cemetery. While archaeologists expected to find parts of it, they can now confirm that it was a two storey building – the top floor of which was removed as the cathedral was expanded over it.

The cathedral team had hoped to discover a third concealed crypt similar to the Wyley Chapel. Although no crypt was discovered, there was a small space containing rubble from the interior of the ruined cathedral. Most of it was broken down after World War Two and the carved masonry is seen as a ‘time capsule’ of stonework from the time.

If you’d like to see the parts of Coventry Cathedral that have been hidden for 60 years or so, the project’s lead archaeologist will give two half-hour talks in the ruins, the first on Wednesday, July 15th, the second on Friday, July 17th, both from 1:00-1:30 PM. If there’s enough interest from visitors, the Cathedral will host more such events.

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The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered, Tournai was part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.

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Lost chapel found in Mike and Mary Hudd’s yard

Monday, June 29th, 2015

In June of 2014, Mike and Mary Hudd of Bincknoll Cottage, Bincknoll, Wiltshire, were doing some landscaping in their garden, employing a machine to pull out the roots of a fallen tree, when they unearthed stonework remains. Mary, an avid amateur archaeologist, stopped the landscaping and started excavating, carefully exposing enough of the upper layer of chalk block walls to indicate there might be the remains of a larger structure under the Hudd’s yard. They called in the Wiltshire County Archaeologist to determine how to proceed.

They had good reason to believe the stonework might be of archaeological significance. Bincknoll is a tiny hamlet with a few houses and a farm that is part of the civil parish of Broad Town today, but it first appears in the Domesday Book as Bechenhalle, a manor of Norman lord Gilbert de Breteuil. Just south of the garden is an escarpment overlooking Bincknoll Cottage where the remains of an early motte and bailey castle stand as an earthwork ridge. Other archaeological features in the hamlet include enclosure boundaries, ridge and furrow plough patterns visible in earthworks when surviving and in the path of lanes and hedgerows when not and a ridge thought to be the remnant of a medieval fish pond. There has been very little in the way of archaeological exploration of these features, so all that’s known is what’s visible to the naked eye from the ground and air.

The Wiltshire County Archaeologist and the Hudds decided on a plan to excavate the yard further with the goal of determining the full measurements of the structure, finding datable artifacts and architectural remains that would help them identify what kind of building it was. The planned called for four trenches (later increased to six to further investigate features found during the excavation), to be dug across the stonework Mary Hudd had partially exposed. Because the chalk block walls were visible at ground level, all the trenches would have to be dug by hand.

Events kicked off in late July with a geophysical survey of the front and back yards of Bincknoll Cottage. The front yard was found to have underground features that were likely to be more buried walls. In August the excavation began in earnest, and what a glorious team was there, my friends. Because the trenches had to be dug by hand, many hands were needed. Broad Town Archaeology, a non-profit organization dedicated to community archaeology in the Broad Town area, got involved and ultimately more than 60 volunteers worked the site supervised by professional archaeologists from, among others, the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, English Heritage, the Wiltshire Museum and Wessex Archaeology. Volunteers ranged from organized amateurs like the North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club to members of the community who were excited to get their hands dirty in the history of their town.

Excavations ran from through August through September 2014 and were remarkably productive. They revealed three sides of a chalk block and rubble structure 20 feet wide with walls three feet thick. The walls were in generally good condition except for the very tops which have been exposed to the elements for a very long time. The building is aligned perfectly along the east-west axis.

Artifacts found include roof tiles, mortar, nails, carved chalk from the 14th century and a range of pottery types dating from the 11th century through the 17th. The team found chunks of whitewashed plaster, some decorated with red lines painted across them, some plain white, some small pieces with residue of other colors that could be green and black. The excavation of the south wall in trench four unearthed ten voussoirs, a wedge-shaped stone used in arches, that were probably part of a doorway or window.

Excavations also revealed some organic remains, oyster shells and animal bones. The articulated skeletal remains of a large animal were found in trench four. In order to excavate the skeleton fully, the team opened a new trench, trench six, and found a cattle burial. The beast was interred in a pit with some difficulty as the head is bent back and the left foreleg twisted up above its body. The burial postdates the ruin of the medieval structure. A clay pipe unearthed in the same layer was identified as the work of John Greenland of Marlborough which dates it and the burial to the late 17th, early 18th century at the earliest.

Four more trenches were dug during this season’s excavations from April through June, exploring the east side of the structure. While conclusive dates are still elusive, archeologists believe they’ve found the remains of a chapel that documents attest once stood in Bincknoll from at least the early 13th century. A 1209 record notes that the Prior of Goldcliff had a holding Bincknoll that paid a yearly tithe of £1. A 1291 document refers to a chapel at Bincknoll Manor whose tithes were granted to the Priory of St. Denis in Southampton. The chapel comes up a couple of more times in church records from the 13th and 14th century. The last record of it is in a Bond from 1609 which describes it as “that decayed Chapell with appurtainment situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll within the parish of Brodehinton in the above said County
of Wilts and all that rectory parsonage and manor house called the parsonage house of Bincknoll alias Bynoll situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll aforesaid.”

The east-west alignment and dimensions suggest this structure is the chapel rather than the parsonage house which probably was more of a wooden affair than one made out of large blocks of chalk stone.

[Archaeologist and president of the town historical society Bob] Clarke said: “There may have been an early cell around which a larger structure was built later. We found fragments of painted plaster from the building’s interior, painted red lines depicting borders, pinks and green and black possibly from wall paintings. The excavation and post-ex work has taken about 18 months so far and we are now pretty convinced this was the lost chapel of Bincknoll, of which the last recorded mention was in the early 17th century.”

The remains of a small inner wall is thought to be of late Saxon origin, which is surrounded by a later massive Norman structure. The clearly defined site, with the remains of substantial walls almost a metre wide with foundations over a metre deep, internally the building measures 4.4 metres by 13 metres and would have been an impressive sight when still standing. Nearer to the surface of the site the team discovered the remains of two cows and a pig, buried in later years over the ruined building.

You can read the preliminary report written after the first season of excavation here (pdf). The final report is expected to be published at the end of the year. Broad Town Archaeology has tons of pictures of both seasons of excavations on their Facebook page. The North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) put together a great online dig diary documenting their work over two weekends this season. It’s amazing how much they accomplished in just four days. Community archaeology is the best.

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Artifacts found on 700-year-old Swiss battle site

Friday, June 26th, 2015

November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.

The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.

Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.

One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.

As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.

The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.

These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.

That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.

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