Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Richard III reburied today

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

More than 35,000 people lined the cortege route on Sunday, and more than 20,000 visitors have queued up to pay their respects to the mortal remains of Richard III in the three days the coffin has been on view at Leicester Cathedral. The culmination of this week of events is today’s reburial service.

A few tidbits about the service:

  • The current royal family will be represented by the Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, and the Duke of Gloucester who shares a title Richard held before he was king, but Queen Elizabeth II has written a tribute to Richard that will be printed in the service program.
  • After the service the coffin will be lowered into a tomb built of Yorkshire Swaledale stone. This is the first time the public will witness the actual lowering of a monarch’s coffin into the grave.
  • Descendents of people who fought at the Battle of Bosworth will be present.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, who is playing Richard III in an upcoming BBC series based on Shakespeare’s relevant histories, will read a poem called Richard written for the occasion by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Also University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer found Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard III are second cousins 16 times removed, see abridged genealogy here (pdf).
  • After the service the Cathedral will be closed to the public until Friday when the new memorial will be in place.

If you missed the transfer of the remains from the University of Leicester to the Cathedral and the Compline service that followed, Channel 4 has their entire coverage of the event available on their website. They will again be the only television channel broadcasting the reinterment live, but it looks like a sure bet that they’ll have that video available on their website if you miss it live.

Channel 4′s live coverage begins at 10:00 AM GMT (6:00 AM EST). In addition to airing the service itself, it will include discussions with some of the guests and the people involved in the discovery and reburial. The program will last three hours until 1:00 PM GMT. They’ll air a one-hour highlight reel at 8:00 PM GMT.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching live.

6:00 AM EDIT: Or rather I would be, if the Channel 4 viewer weren’t giving me an error. :angry:

7:06 AM: I can’t get it to work, dammit. I’ll have to watch it on demand later. For now, I’m listening to BBC Radio Leicester’s live coverage and following the Twitter RichardReburied hashtag.

The Leicester Mercury is liveblogging the reburial, as is the city’s dedicated King Richard in Leicester website.

7:23 AM: Here’s Queen Elizabeth II’s message:

7:31 AM: Professor Gordon Campbell, the University of Leicester’s public orator (dude, they have a public orator!) opened with a euology that was a brief, dry summary of Richard’s life, the discovery of his remains and the significance of his mitochondrial DNA. They don’t orate like they used to, man.

7:37 AM: The Dean just placed Richard’s personal Book of Hours, found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, on a cushion in front of the coffin.

7:49 AM: Check out this amazing headshake and eyeroll from John Ashdown-Hill of the Richard III Society. That’s Philippa Langley sitting next to him. I’m guessing is has something to do with insufficent recognition of Langley and the Society’s work in making this day come to pass.

7:58 AM: What a poetic sermon from the Bishop of Leicester.

8:02 AM: Here’s a neat story about the artist who made the ceramic vessels to hold the soils of Fotheringhay, Middleham and Fenn Lane that were blessed on Sunday and will be interred with Richard’s remains today. Michael Ibsen made the box, and a handsome one it is.

8:07 AM: Classic ashes to ashes dust to dust reading over the coffin which is now being lowered into the tomb.

8:08 AM: Apparently the soils will be sprinkled over the coffin, not placed in the tomb in the handsome box.

8:14 AM: “Grant me the carving of my name…” Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is beautiful and moving and Benedict Cumberbatch recited it like, well, a pro.

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

8:27 AM: And that’s all, folks. The luminaries are processing out. It was less than an hour long. No long, boring speeches. Beautiful music. Great poem. Epic Ricardian eyeroll. I couldn’t ask for more.

8:35 AM: Channel 4′s coverage continues with interviews of some of the principals — Langley, Ibsen, etc. I wonder if they’ll ask Philippa about the epic eyeroll. If, like me, you’re having trouble viewing the broadcast on Channel 4′s website, you can watch it online here instead. Wish I had remembered that an hour ago. :blankstare:

8:41 AM: They did ask John Ashdown-Hill about his eyeroll and he minced no words. He hoped the service would be peaceful, but “we still seem to be dealing with some lies from Leicester.” Daaaaamn… He wouldn’t specify the lies beyond saying they got Richard’s birthday wrong on the program.

8:45 AM: Benedict Cumberbatch was blown away by the poem. He looks stylish wearing a white rose lapel pin.

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Richard III cortege through Leicester on Sunday

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

The week of events leading to the reinterment of King Richard III on Thursday, March 26th, begins this Sunday with a cortege bearing his coffin from the University of Leicester to the Leicester Cathedral. After emerging from the university’s Fielding Johnson Building, the coffin holding Richard III’s remains will depart in a hearse at 11:40 AM and begin a slow procession stopping at historical sites from Richard’s last days.

The first stop is Fenn Lane Farm, the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. There the Reverend Hilary Surridge will lead a private ceremony bringing together soil from three locations of significance in the king’s life: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham (where he spent his early teens learning the knightly arts), and Fenn Lane (where he died).

Further stops include the Sutton Cheney church, the nearby Bosworth Heritage Centre and Bow Bridge, the medieval boundary of Leicester where the City Mayor, Lord Mayor and Gild of Freemen will welcome the remains. The cortege will then follow on foot to St. Nicholas Church where after a brief service the coffin will be transferred to a horse-drawn hearth to process through the city center.

The final stop at 5:45 PM is Leicester Cathedral where the king’s remains will be formally handed over from the University, holder of the Ministry of Justice exhumation license, to the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester. The congregation will hold a service of Compline with a sermon preached by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. On Monday the Cathedral will open to members of the public who wish to view the coffin and pay their respects. It will remain open during the week.

I haven’t been able to find any live video feeds of the entire cortege, but BBC Radio Leicester will be covering it. Listen live here. Channel 4 television will be covering the reinterment live on Thursday but is only scheduled to broadcast the arrival of Richard’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral on Sunday at 5:10 PM GMT.

Leicester has a website dedicated to reinterment week with lots of information and details about the events. The BBC has interactive maps of the cortege’s stops outside and inside the city. I’m hoping the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel, which has been replete with Ricardian goodness in anticipation of the reinternment, will have complete video of all the ceremonies.

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Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015


A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.

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From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, ca. 1420. Image courtesy Sotheby's.The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, side view. Image courtesy Sotheby's.Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Rudaba Makes a Ladder of Her Tresses, Folio 72v from Shahnameh of Shah TahmaspTahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Shah Tahmasp I and Mughal Emperor Humayun meet, fresco on the wall of Chehel Sotoun Palace Isfahan.Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish base, vaqf in the middle. Image courtesy Sotheby's.We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

Inscription of Shah Jehan on the side of the dish's foot. Image courtesy Sotheby's.So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.

 

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25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of 14th c. tower

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

In the Middle Ages, Rye was one of the towns of the Cinque Ports Confederation providing ships to the crown for coastal defense. Located at the tip of an embayment of the English Channel, Rye was an important shipping center for the iron bloomeries (smelting furnaces) of the Weald and other trade goods. Its tactical importance and close links to the monarchy made Rye a target for French attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. One of those attacks in 1339 during the reign of King Edward III saw French troops burn down 52 houses and one mill. In response, the city began to build permanent defenses, among them the Landgate Arch, a fortified entrance into the medieval city center over the only road that connected Rye to the mainland at high tide.

Landgate was a masonry structure with two towers on either side of an arched gateway. One of four fortified entrance gates to the city, it is the only one still standing today. Today it is still the only through-way for light vehicular traffic to reach the medieval city, but the tower itself is not open to the public. The floors and roofs of the towers are long gone leaving them open to the elements. Said elements include the excrement of pigeons and lots of it.

The fact that pigeons were converting the Landgate Arch towers into massive poop silos was noticed last month by members of the Rother District Council. Since guano is acidic and can eat through stone over time, the council contracted CountyClean Environmental Services to clean out the monument. CountyClean used a combination tanker truck that provides a high pressure jet while vacuuming up the sludge.

Mike Walker, Managing Director for CountyClean Environmental Services said: “Whilst we’ve removed other massive blockages such as giant fatbergs in sewers, we have never seen such a monumental mass of festering faeces before.”

“The build up of pigeon poo behind the doors was so big we had to force the them open. Once inside, it was like walking on a giant chocolate cake and the smell was awful – even through a facemask.”

“The floors of the towers and the steps leading to the top were swamped with 25 tonnes of pigeon poo. We filled our tanker several times over.”

The bird crap was almost three feet deep.

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Lead coffin inside stone coffin from Richard III dig opened

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

When the skeletal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester parking lot in two magical weeks September of 2012, the excavation team encountered another four graves in Trench 3 (Richard was found in Trench 1, see map here) on the site of what had once been the Grey Friars’ church. One of them stood out thanks to its limestone sarcophagus which was the first complete medieval stone coffin excavated in Leicester using modern archaeological methods. The other bodies had no surviving caskets, although evidence was found of two of them having been buried in long-decayed wooden coffins. Since the University of Leicester excavation team was under extreme time constraints, there was no question of exploring any other graves than the potential Richard’s at that time.

In July of 2013 the team returned to the Grey Friars site to excavate more of the church and, if possible, lift the stone sarcophagus found in the presbytery. The limestone box was cut in a tapered shape from a single block of limestone. The wider end was carved into a curve on the inside to create a niche for the head. The lid, also carved from limestone, didn’t quite fit and the mortar sealing it to the coffin was damaged. Water was able to get inside the coffin and over the centuries the unbalanced but very heavy lid fractured the sarcophagus extensively.

While they had hoped to lift the sarcophagus whole, archaeologists realized once they’d chiseled away the dirt caked on the sides of the coffin that the stone was too cracked to remain intact during the lifting process. They decided instead to lift the lid and remove it separately first. Nine people used lifting straps to manually raise the lid to ground level. Inside the sarcophagus they found a second coffin, this one made from lead. It was intact except for a hole at the feet where the lead had collapsed inwards.

Now the team had to lift the lead coffin before they could remove the fractured sarcophagus. They did this by dismantling one end of the limestone box, taking it apart piece by piece according to the existing fracture pattern. When they made enough space for it, they slid a wooden board underneath the lead coffin and two people lifted the lead coffin out like they were carrying it on a stretcher. The coffin was then transported to an infirmary so the insides could be explored with an endoscope to make sure there were no preserved soft tissues requiring special conservation conditions. There weren’t any; the remains were fully skeletonized.

Armed with the endoscope data, the team’s next step was opening the lead coffin. There were still intact solder joints that researchers did not want to damage because they could contain information about the construction of the coffin, so instead they decided to cut an opening all around the base of the coffin, lift the lid and sides and leave the skeleton on the lead base. In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists found some hair, small fragments of a fragment that looks like linen and a piece of cord. The fabric is probably what’s left of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in while the cord is a piece of the rope used to secure the shroud by tying around the legs.

When the stone sarcophagus was first unearthed, experts thought it might have contained the remains of Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, a knight and former mayor of Leicester who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362. Its location in presbytery of the friary church near the high altar was extremely prestigious, and a stone coffin with a lead coffin inside was an ultra deluxe burial package, a combination only someone with a great deal of wealth and position would be able to secure. Sir William seemed the likeliest candidate at first glance. Documentary research discovered two other possible candidates: leaders of the English Franciscan order Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272) and William of Nottingham (d. 1330).

Well, throw all of that out because surprise, the skeleton inside the lead coffin is female! She was a woman of means, as confirmed by stable isotope analysis of her bones which found that she ate a high-status, protein-rich diet — game, meat and a great deal of sea fish — only just below Richard III’s adult diet in quality. She was over 60 at time of death and radiocarbon dating found she died in the latter half of the 13th century or in the 14th.

Documentary research found the names of seven women closely associated with the friary. The radiocarbon dating results eliminated three names of women who died in the 16th century. Of the four remaining, the biggest shot was Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who was a dedicated patron of the friary. She died in France, however, and as far as we know was buried there as well. Of the three remaining women on the list, only one is specifically recorded as having been buried in the church: Emma Holt. All we know is her name and that she was buried in the friary church in 1290 because in September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence shaving Purgatory sentences off by 20 days for anyone who would say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester.” There’s no way to confirm is our leaden lady is Emma Holt. There are no known descendants for DNA matching. We don’t know her age at death, her looks or anything else about her that could link her to the skeleton.

Although the identity of the woman who had such significance to the Franciscan order that she was buried in the fanciest casket in the fanciest part of the friary’s church is likely to remain unknown, it is worth noting that she was not the only woman granted the honor of being laid to rest under the feet of praying monks. In the two Grey Friars digs, archaeologists found 10 graves. Five were left undisturbed in place. Five were excavated and the remains examined. One of those five proved to be King Richard III. The other four were all women.

Two of them were inside the choir on the opposite side of it from where Richard was found. They were between 40 and 50 years old at time of death and radiocarbon dating shows indicates they died between 1270 and 1400. One of them had what seems to be a congenital hip dislocation which would have required her to walk with a crutch. The other lived a life of physical labor. Her arms and legs bore the tell-tale sign of regular use in lifting heavy weights. Like the woman in the lead coffin, these ladies also ate a high quality, varied diet rich in proteins.

The fourth female skeleton had been disturbed — note for RM: these were the disarticulated female remains mentioned in the first press conference — so there’s limited information on her, but she too appears to have done hard physical labor in her short life before dying in her early to mid-20s. Since the choir and presbytery would be reserved for important, wealthy people, the fact that two women who did hard labor for years were buried there may suggest the friary’s top donors were not just aristocrats and clerical leaders, but members of the burgeoning middle class of merchants and tradespeople who had money in their pockets but made it by working hard with their hands.

As for the ratio of men to women being so lopsided, as unexpected as that is, it could very well just be a coincidence.

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.

“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.”

Here’s a brief documentary video of the lead coffin’s removal from the stone sarcophagus in situ and its opening in the laboratory. You can see how they took apart the stone coffin, how they cut the lead with what look like pruning shears and the fragments and remains inside in the lead coffin.

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200 bodies found in mass graves under Paris supermarket

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have discovered the skeletal remains of more than 200 individuals buried in eight mass graves under the basement of the Monoprix Réaumur-Sébastopol supermarket in Paris. The team was doing an archaeological survey in advance of construction and expected to encounter human remains because the building was known to have been constructed on the site of Trinity Hospital cemetery. The cemetery was in active use from the 12th century through the 17th and was destroyed at the end of the 18th. Its graves were excavated and bones transferred to the Paris catacombs in the second wave of transfers in 1843, then the Félix Potin grocery store was built on the site in 1860. That building was demolished and reconstructed in 1910. The current Monoprix store occupies the ground and first floor of that 1910 Art Nouveau building by architect Charles Lemaresquier.

So after centuries of disuse, revolution, a dedicated municipal program of bone collection and two buildings erected on the site, archaeologists had little expectation of discovering anything more that a few scattered bones. Instead they found well-organized and carefully laid-out mass graves. Seven of the graves contain between five and twenty bodies laid down in two to five layers. The eighth grave is much larger. So far the remains of more than 150 individuals have been unearthed in this one pit. They were deposited with exacting precision in five or six layers. At least two rows of the dead are placed head to toe. A third row appears to continue beyond the perimeters of the current excavation.

“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archeologist Isabelle Abadie.

The bodies appear to have been buried all at the same time, which she said suggested they might have been the victims of the plagues which struck Paris in 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Whatever mortality crisis struck — plague, other epidemics, famine — it struck wide. There are adults and children of all ages and both sexes buried in the largest mass grave. Initial examination of the bones has found no specific evidence of disease or injury. INRAP archaeologists will attempt to extract DNA samples for the bone which may reveal the presence of fatal pathogens. Other tests on the bones will determine their physical condition at death, if they were malnourished, if they had repetitive strain injuries from hard labor, etc. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to sort out which layers were deposited when.

Researchers hope this excavation and the subsequent study will result in a more thorough understanding of how the living managed bodies in mass-death crises, a clearer picture of the spatial and temporal organization of the cemetery. The team will also study period sources and maps of Paris to find out more about the Trinity Hospital and its cemetery. It’s a rare opportunity to study such a site; fewer than a dozen mass burial sites in France have been subject to a thorough archaeological study, so there isn’t much scholarship on the subject and there is a great deal that remains unknown about funerary practices at cemeteries associated with medieval and early modern hospitals.

Once the study is complete, the state will claim the remains and arrange for reburial.

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Possible joust casualty found at Hereford Cathedral

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

In 2009, Hereford Cathedral began an extensive restoration of the cathedral close. As part of the project, the area around the cathedral including a graveyard was excavated. More than 700 skeletons dating from the Norman Conquest through the 19th century were unearthed between September of 2009 and May 2011, their bones providing a treasure trove of information about the lives and deaths of people from all walks of life over the course of nearly 1,000 years.

One of the skeletons may be a unique discovery: the remains of a man with wounds that strongly suggest he was fatally wounded in a joust. If that is indeed the case, this skeleton is the first of its kind that we know of ever unearthed in the United Kingdom. He was found buried in the churchyard very near the east end of the Cathedral, prime spiritual real estate due to its proximity to the high altar.

The skeleton is of a well-built adult man 5’10″ tall which puts him in the top 5% of men of his era in terms of height. He was at least 45 years old when he died sometime in the late 12th, early 13th century. Stable isotope analysis of his teeth found he was raised in Normandy. He was buried in a grave partially lined with stones, a sort of half-cist burial.

His medical history is writ large on his bones. He had a badly fractured right shoulder blade which had fully healed by the time of his death and a serious break in the lower left leg that had also healed. It’s a twisting fracture, possibly the consequence of a blow to the right side of the body (maybe that shoulder hit?) while on horseback. The twisting may have happened when, in reaction to that blow, the body spun around violently while the left foot remained caught in the stirrup.

Recovery from such serious breaks doubtless took a long time. It suggests that he fought in tourneys for years before his eventual death. There is no fatal blow that osteologists could find, but there are injuries potentially connected to one. He sustained at least nine rib fractures on two different occasions. The second occasion was the bad one as the rib fracture only shows signs of several weeks worth of healing. The blow to the ribs wasn’t fatal per se, but it was delivered along with the injuries that shortly thereafter claimed his life.

Why couldn’t these wounds have been inflicted during actual combat, you ask? Good question. They could have been, but there are no blade or arrow injuries to the bone. No sharp-force trauma of any kind is extant, although of course he could have been stabbed, speared, shot a million times in his soft tissues without that showing up on the bones.

[Regional Manager of Headland Archaeology] Andy Boucher said “obviously we can never be sure how people came about their wounds, but in this case there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting this man was involved in some form of violent activity and the locations of his injuries do match quite closely what might be expected from taking part in mock battles. The fact that he was still doing this after he was 45 suggests he must have been very tough.”

If he did die as a result of tourney combat technically he was not allowed church burial. Jousts and its participants had been sternly condemned in the Second Lateran Council of 1139.

We entirely forbid, moreover, those abominable jousts and tournaments in which knights come together by agreement and rashly engage in showing off their physical prowess and daring, and which often result in human deaths and danger to souls. If any of them dies on these occasions, although penance and viaticum [communion] are not to be denied him when he requests them, he is to be deprived of a church burial.

Perhaps burial just outside the physical structure of the church was the loophole used to see that the Hereford knight got a proper Christian burial in a location near the high altar as would suit a man of status despite his death from abominable jousting. Anyway it’s always easier to ask forgiveness after the transgression than permission before so the church’s prohibition had little effect in practice.

The Normans had introduced tourneys to England after the Conquest as bona fide war games. The use of heavy cavalry armed with lances to charge in formation developed in the second half of the 11th century, and those formation charges required a great deal of practice to work in a combat situation. These early tourneys were mock battles, not one horseback lancer against another Ivanhoe-style, staged on large fields and fought by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men at arms. They were dangerous, sometimes fatal, and inflicted more injuries on knights than actual battlefield combat did.

There were prizes to be won, however — ransom money, weapons, armour, horses — and there was always a steady supply of younger sons of nobility with skill at arms but no prospect of inheritance willing to fight their way to wealth and status. Richard the Lionheart attempted to regulate tourneys by issuing a charter on August 22nd, 1194, authorizing them in only five locations and requiring participants to pay hefty fees according to their titles (an earl had to pay 20 marks of silver, a baron 10, a landed knight four marks, a landless knight two) before receiving a license to fight in the tournament. This served the king’s purpose in several ways. It dangled the prospect of profit to the knights, keeping them in the country and available to defend the realm while at the same time keeping them from constantly injuring each other in tourney after tourney. It also made the assembly of large numbers of heavy cavalry subject to monarchical approval, a mechanism that would only grow in importance after Richard’s death and the subsequent clashes between crown and barons that famously resulted in Magna Carta. Last but certainly not least, it put significant coin in the king’s pocket.

The charter could not quench the thirst for tournaments which were still held outside of the crown’s rules. One famous joust was held at Chepstow Castle on the Welsh side of the border 35 miles south of Hereford in 1227. The castle (called Striguil Castle by the Normans) had been home to William Marshal, dubbed “the greatest knight that ever lived” by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his eulogy for William after his death in 1219. His son, also named William, succeeded his father as Earl of Pembroke and Lord Marshal of England to King Henry III. It was the younger William who hosted the 1227 tourney without permission from the king. Knights attached to eight earls, including the Earl of Hereford, fought in the tournament, and at least one of them, Reimund de Burgh, relative of Hubert de Burgh, Henry’s regent during his minority who the king had just that year made the 1st Earl of Kent, was heavily fined for his participation. Thus the king profited financially even from the illicit tourneys.

Given its proximity to Hereford and the date range of the cathedral’s knight, it’s conceivable that he could have fought in that very tournament. It could even have been the one to fell him, for that matter. I doubt we’ll ever know.

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CT scan reveals mummy inside Buddha statue

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

A 11th or 12th century statue of a meditating Buddha with a perfectly posed mummy inside received a revelatory CT scan last September at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, central Netherlands.

The statue arrived in the country as part of the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, northeastern Netherlands. This was the first time the reliquary was allowed to leave China and it’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has ever been made available for scientific research in the West.

The exhibition ran from May to August, after which the statue was taken to the medical center for CT scanning by Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin. Under the careful supervision of Brujin, radiologist Ben Heggelman ran the statue on its back through the CT scanner and took samples of bone tissue for DNA analysis. Gastrointestinal and liver disease specialist Raynald Vermeijden used an endoscope to sample material of an unknown nature from the mummy’s thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Several news stories have incorrectly described the mummy as a shocking discovery, but it was known to be inside the statue all along. Not to state the obvious, but that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition. The research team did make one surprise find: the cavities where the organs once resided are stuffed with pieces of paper that have ancient Chinese characters written on them.

The mummy is believed to be that of the Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, or Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan) Buddhism. He died around 1100 A.D., which is the source of the date for the statue. The Drents Museum exhibited the statue as an example of self-mummification, a grueling, torturous, years-long process in which Buddhist monks gradually starved, dehydrated and poisoned themselves in the hope of attaining enlightenment and leaving an incorruptible corpse. It required an almost inconceivable degree of self-abnegation. For the first 1,000 days they ate only nuts and seeds gleaned from the area around the temple. The next 1,000 days the diet was whittled down to small portions of pine bark and roots until the end of the period when they began to drink a tea made from the sap of urushi tree. This sap is what lacquer is made of; it is toxic to humans. The tea induced the release of fluids and made the body unappetizing to insects and microorganisms that would otherwise be inclined feast on the corpse.

With no body fat or fluids left and poison in his tissues, the monk would then be walled alive in a room that gave him just enough space to sit lotus style. A tube let air into the tight space and the monk would ring a bell to let people know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the space sealed for another three years. When the 1,000 days were up, the tomb would be opened to see if the body was in fact mummified. If it wasn’t, and most of them weren’t, it was buried with due respect for the unbelievable toughness and devotion of the priest who made the attempt. If it was, the deceased would no longer be considered dead but in a state of eternal meditation, removed from the cycle of Samsara. He was elevated to the rank of Buddha, his mummy dressed and decorated and placed on an altar.

The practice as described above was codified by Kuukai of Mount Koya, Japan, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He is thought to have learned it while studying esoteric Buddhist practices in the T’ang region of China. Most examples of self-mummification have been found in the Yamagata Prefecture in Japan, but there are instances in China and India as well. The thing is, there is no removal of organs in this procedure. If the mummy in the Buddha statue did indeed self-mummify, his organs must have been removed after death, and I can’t see how it could have been done three years later. There’s a different process at work in the Buddha statue mummy.

I hope the scan and tests will get some answers about how he died and was mummified. The results of the research will be published in a monograph at an unscheduled future date. The exhibition is now in the Hungarian Natural History Museum where it will remain until May. After that it will travel to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden concluding in Wales in 2018.

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Objects from 1,500-year-old settlement found in Poland

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Skomack Wielki in northeastern Poland have unearthed numerous bronze, iron and pottery artifacts from a settlement dating to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Artifacts from this period in this area are rare, and most of the ones that have been found were discovered in cemeteries.

Among the most valuable finds are ornaments, brooches and buckles made of bronze, as well as toiletries (tongs) and knives. In one place, archaeologists discovered cluster of entirely preserved 7 ceramic vessels. They differ in size, finish (some carefully smoothed, some rugged), decoration in the form of plastic strips, ornaments made with fingers or engraved. “The whole deposit gives the impression of a specially selected set, although at this stage of research it is difficult to say what was the purpose of selection and of the pit, in which the vessels had been placed” – commented Dr. [Anna] Bitner-Wróblewska.

Although the population of the area in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages is generally associated with the Sudovian/Yotvingian tribe, archaeologists believe the community in this settlement was a West Baltic tribe called the Galindians who had established connections with peoples to the north, south, west and east of them going back as far as the 2nd century A.D. when Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, poet and geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned them in his Geographia. The range of the ancient tribe was whittled down to a central core in the wake of the upheavals of the late Imperial period. By the 6th/7th century Ptolemy’s Galindians survived as the Old Prussian clan of the Galindis. These artifacts, therefore, are from a significant transitional period in the history of the region.

The pottery vessels, still filled with soil, have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Warsaw where the contents will be examined under laboratory conditions. The museum is a partner in the Polish-Norwegian Modern Archaeological Conservation Initiative “Archaeology of the Yatvings” which seeks to explore the mutli-period settlements of Baltic tribes (the Yatvings of the title) in the early medieval centers of Szurpiły and Skomack Wielki in Poland’s Warmińsko-Mazurskie region. This is the first archaeological initiative in Poland to prioritize non-invasive methods of investigation like aerial exploration and geophysical surveys to locate and identify archaeological remains and determine how well preserved they are.

The project began last year with non-invasive analysis of the sites followed by targeted excavations. It is scheduled to continue through 2016. The ultimate objective, in addition to learning more about the little-known settlement structures of ancient and early medieval Yatvings, is to develop a usable model of heritage protection coupled with archaeology that will give local communities a fuller understanding of their rich history and a preservation-based approach to cultural tourism.

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