Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

14th c. painted burial vault raised

Monday, January 17th, 2022

One of the 14th century painted burial vaults discovered last year under the street in front of the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, has been lifted whole and moved to a new location for conservation and eventual display. Similar vaults found before in Bruges were filled with lightweight clay aggregates to preserve the interior wall paintings and reburied for their own protection, but the most recent discoveries have to be moved due to the planned construction of a new pumping station on the street where they were found.

Raising a 700-year-old masonry vault presents numerous  logistical challenges. They were built to order, as it were, hastily constructed so that a body could be buried within 24 hours of death. The lime plaster coating the interior was painted when still wet and quickly sealed. Past attempts to raise burial vaults have failed and damaged the priceless paintings, so the City of Bruges created a multi-disciplinary committee of scientists, archaeologists and specialist conservators to coordinate the removal of the best-preserved vault first.

The wall paintings were fixed using Japanese rice paper to prevent plaster loss. While conservators were working on the interior, the exterior base was reinforced with a new poured concrete slab to make it possible to lift the entire vault even in cold, wet and windy weather without the bottom falling out of it.

The vault is now inside the Church of Our Lady where it will be meticulously conserved. The restoration process begins with a controlled drying period. It is a Goldilocks situation. The temperature and humidity levels must be strictly maintained to ensure the tomb doesn’t dry too quickly (because the paint will flake off the contracting walls) or too slowly (because mold will form).

It will be conserved in public view, pandemic permitting, in the church museum where it will go on permanent display when the restoration is complete.

Here’s a time-lapse video of conservators working on the vault before it was raised.


Stick with Norse and Latin runes found in Oslo

Thursday, January 6th, 2022

The excavation of the Medieval Park in Oslo where the falconer figurine was discovered last month has unearthed two more rare artifacts: a large bone inscribed with Norse runes, and a stick with runic text in Norse on one side and Latin on the other.

The bone is from a large domesticated mammal (probably a cow or a horse) and is believed to be rib. It is carved on one side with 13 clearly visible runes. The other side is also carved with runes, but they are worn and difficult to read. It has not been radiocarbon dated yet. Comparable rune bones date to between 1100 and 1350.

The rune stick is flat and has writing on both long sides and one edge. It is broken at both ends so is likely missing some of the text. The grain and damage to the wood makes the runes that have survived challenging to interpret.

The legible text of both pieces has been interpreted by Runologist Kristel Zilmer from the Cultural History Museum, University of Oslo. The bone’s runes read “basmarþærbæin,” which could be a name or nickname. It could also be a self-reference, as “bæin” means bone in Old Scandinavian, so the word may be describing the object, much like the runes found on a comb in Denmark which spelled out “comb.”

The rune stick features both a prayer and a personal name.

On one of the broad sides, there are two latin words: manus and Domine or Domini.

Manus means hand, and Dominus means lord, or God. The words are found in a known latin prayer: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum”, meaning “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. These are words traditionally attributed to Jesus as he was crucified.

The short side of the stick may be a continuation of the prayer, Zilmer explains. The first rune is difficult to pin down without a microscope. So far it can be read in different ways. […]

It is possible that it says “it is true”. If so, then the prayer is similar to one found in the Urnes stave church: “Hold thy sacred Lord hand over Brynjolvs spirit. This be true”.

The female name Bryngjerd is also inscribed.

After her name is a damaged section that appears to include the verb “fela” which means both to hide and to surrender. The latter interpretation could suggest that Bryngjerd surrendered her life in the service of God.

The combination of Latin and Norse on the stick is a fine example of the complexity of runic script even among the general population. Latin literacy was not solely the province of the clergy in medieval Norway.

The stick was found in a waste layer while the bone was on the southern end of the site, one of the oldest sections. Dates are difficult to derive from the archaeological context, but comparable finds, the carving style and the use of certain characters point to a date of between 1100 and 1350.


Medieval Pomerian elite burial with bronze bowl, amber rings found in Poland

Sunday, January 2nd, 2022

A high-status burial from the late 11th/early 12th century containing an intact bronze bowl and rare matched pair of amber rings has been discovered in Ostrowite in Poland’s Pomeranian Voivodeship.

Two burials with bronze bowls had been found at the site before, one by the farmer during agricultural work in 2007 (precise location unknown) and the other in 2010 by archaeologists. Fragments of bronze bowls have been found throughout the site, however, and in 2020 and 2021, the team worked with volunteer metal detectorists  to pinpoint the likely location of a bowl and therefore a grave.

They hit paydirt in 2020 when a trench dug in an area with a concentration of detected bowl fragments unearthed an east-west orientated grave with a bronze bowl at the legs of the deceased (Tomb 80), then they hit it again in 2021 with an even more richly furnished bowl tomb (Tomb 81). While the organic structure of the tomb has not survived, the shape and size indicates it was a wooden chamber grave, a type used by the early medieval elites of Pomerania. Tomb 81 is larger than most at 9.7 feet long and five feet wide. (The average dimensions of the bowl tombs are 8 x 3 feet, and that’s larger than the average size of a non-bowl grave.)

Bronze bowls from the early Middle Ages in Poland are exclusively found in the graves of men. Inside the bowl were two pieces of wood. They were resting on top of the complete bowl, and archaeologists believe they were not left inside of it for funerary purposes, but rather are surviving fragments of the tomb’s wooden roof. Other organic materials have been found on the bowl’s surface  (fragments of textiles and their imprints) and underside (small fragments of leather, probably remnants of the deceased’s shoes preserved by the copper oxides in the bowl). The knife sheath has similar textile traces preserved on the surface as well.

Archaeologists also found an iron knife in a leather sheath with bronze fittings, two coin fragments and two amber finger rings buried in thegrave. The first ring was found where the bones of the right hand would have been (the small hand bones have not survived). The second ring was on a finger of the left hand on other side of the body. Amber rings are extremely uncommon grave goods, and finding two in one grave is unique.

“The deceased was most likely a representative of the local Pomeranian elite” – Dr. hab. Jerzy Sikora from the Institute of Archeology of the University of Lodz, who has been leading research in Ostrowit for several years. The deceased was placed in a wooden structure of the burial chamber, resembling a very large chest or a small house. Archaeologists call this type of burial, associated with the early medieval elites, chambered. The fact that the buried person was a Christian is evidenced by the fact that he was not incinerated after his death. In addition, the body was placed on the east-west axis, which was also a practice for Christians.

Tomb 81 is located near two other burials that likely belonged to the elite. They too have the dimensions and shape of a wooden chamber burial, but no clearly identifiable remains of the structures have been found.


Decapitated horse found in Merovingian grave

Thursday, December 30th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed a Merovingian-era cemetery in Knittlingen, southwestern Germany, that includes a beheaded horse laid to rest alongside his warrior rider. The excavation revealed more than 110 graves containing the remains of the local elite.

Today’s Knittlingen was founded in the Merovingian period (the first written record of it is Carolingian, dating to 843), but there is archaeological evidence of settlement going back to the Neolithic era. Graves from the Merovingian burial ground were first discovered in 1920 during construction of a narrow-gauge railway that was never completed. When real estate development was planned at the site in the 1980s, an archaeological survey encountered a few more graves, but the development did not move forward and the site was not thoroughly excavated until this summer.

The  Baden-Württemberg State Office for Monument Preservation (LAD) employed contractors ArchaeoBW to explore the area. As expected, the team encountered prehistoric findings, post holes, pits and trenches from Neolithic structures and fragments of ceramics dating to around 5000 B.C.

The main focus of the excavation, however, was the Merovingian cemetery. The goal was to uncover all of the inhumation burials at the site, and even though excavations will continue through the spring of 2022, archaeologists believe the cemetery has been fully revealed.

The graves were laid out in regular rows in largely chronological order, but the graves of some of the more notable members of the societal elite were out of sequence, buried within a circular ditch. Some of the graves were simple cut holes, but some individuals were buried in wooden coffins, and there were also more elaborate wooden chambers built to contain the remains of people of highest status.

While the cemetery was extensively looted in the Middle Ages, archaeologists were able to recover a wide range of funerary artifacts, including pearl necklaces, fibulae, earrings, arm rings, disc brooches, belt fittings and utilitarian objects like knives and combs. Weapons — swords, spears, shields, arrowheads — were found in male burials. Pottery containing the remnants of food were interred as funerary offerings.

“Despite their fragmentation due to the ancient robbery, the finds give indications of the social status of the dead,” said [LAD officer Dr. Folke] Damminger. The comparatively rich burials from the second half of the sixth century are remarkable in Knittlingen. One woman was buried with almost complete fibula outfits typical of the time. A gold disc brooch worn individually from a somewhat younger grave, on the other hand, heralds the fashion of the seventh century. Some of the men’s graves identified the deceased as cavalrymen. A decapitated horse was buried in the vicinity of one of these burials. Bronze bowls testify to table manners based on the courtly model.

The accessory ensembles of the late seventh century, on the other hand, looked somewhat more modest. It is not known whether this is due to a decline in prosperity or to a change in the staging of the funerals of the local elites.


Viking brooches go on display at Manx Museum

Saturday, December 18th, 2021

Two Viking-era oval brooches that have shed new light on the Viking settlement of the Isle of Man have gone on display for the first time.

The brooches were discovered in December of 2018 by metal detectorists John Crowe and Craig Evans, along with bronze fittings from a belt and a decorated glass bead. The brooches were full of soil when first unearthed. Specialist conservators at the York Archaeological Trust x-rayed, cleaned and waxed them to reveal their intricately interwoven designs in bronze with silver wire decoration. They date to around 900 A.D.

Large, highly-ornamented domed oval brooches like these were worn in pairs by Viking women to fasten the long back straps of their dresses to the two short front straps. The pins were fastened in the front at the shoulders and were sometimes connected with decorated strands of beads. Most of the ones that have been found (primarily in a funerary context) are made of bronze, although a handful of ones made of silver and gold have been found in extremely rich graves.

They were created using a technique derived from late Roman chip-carving in which the complex design was carved into a master model in a soft material — wax, lead, wood — and then cast in bronze. The technique was first used for Roman military belt buckles. It was picked up in the border regions to make fibulae which evolved into the large fastener brooches sported by Viking women.

While men also used brooches to fasten their garments, usually cloaks, the ones found in men’s graves are stylistically very different from the women’s and are individual pieces, not pairs. Pairs of oval concave brooches were exclusively the province of Viking women and have been found in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) as well as further afield in Britain, Ireland, Russia and Iceland. This is the first pair found on the Isle of Man.

Allison Fox, Curator for Archaeology at MNH said:

“The Isle of Man has a rich Viking heritage and the Manx National Collections reflect this.  This type of brooch, worn by Scandinavian women in the Viking Age and usually found in graves, has been missing so far.  In addition to the brooches, there was also one decorated glass bead made in Ireland and a belt with bronze fittings, most likely made in the Irish Sea area. Although proud of her Scandinavian roots, this particular pagan lady also wore local fashions”.

Because the brooches have so often been discovered in graves, archaeologists did a follow-up targeted excavation of the find site, hoping to find evidence of this fashionable pagan lady’s burial. They came up empty-handed, alas, and no grave was found where the pair of brooches were found.

The brooches, belt fittings and bead are now on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas.


Galloway Hoard rock crystal and gold jar bears bishop’s name

Friday, December 17th, 2021

An extraordinary carved rock crystal jar from the Galloway Hoard has been cleaned and conserved by experts at the National Museums Scotland (NMS), revealing it to be a Roman crystal jar wrapped in elaborate layers of gold thread from the late 8th or early 9th century. The base is inscribed with the name of an Anglo-Saxon bishop, strong evidence that some of the treasures in the hoard were taken from a church in the early medieval Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

The richest Viking assemblage of high-status objects ever found in Britain or Ireland, the Galloway Hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland in September 2014. After a major fundraising campaign, National Museums Scotland was able to acquire the hoard for an ex gratia payment of £1.98 million ($2,550,000) in 2017. Years of complex examination, conservation and cleaning ensued, revealing an astonishing wealth of rare objects including a silver pectoral cross with niello enamel decoration that is unique on the archaeological record, a gold bird-shaped pin, also unique, and a silver-gilt pot of a type known to have been produced in the Carolingian Empire which is one of only three known from Britain and the only one of them found complete with its original lid.

The pot was wrapped in woven textiles. To preserve them and excavate the interior as cautiously as possible, conservators had the pot CT scanned, revealing the treasures packed inside, including a 9th century Anglo-Saxon brooch, an Irish penannular brooch, a gold reliquary pendant and a hinged silver strap. Each object was wrapped in a precious textile like silk samite or fine leather.

While much of the Galloway Hoard outside of the pot has toured Scotland and is currently on display at  Kirkcudbright Galleries in the hoard’s home region of  Dumfries and Galloway, the vessel and its contents are undergoing a three-year project of meticulous conservation and research.

The project has already born extraordinary results. A 3D model created from X-ray imaging that captured the surface of the pot obscured beneath the fabric wrapping revealed it is not of Carolingian origin at all. The iconography of leopards, tigers and Zoroastrian symbols is typical of Sasanian Empire (224-651 A.D.) art, which means this vessel came from Persia, not continental Europe. Radiocarbon dating of textile samples from the three layers wrapped around the vessel found it was produced between 680 and 780 A.D., so it was 100-200 years old by the time the hoard was buried.

One of the objects inside the vessel was the rock crystal jar. When it was first removed, it was bundled in a textile wrapping that proved to be a silk-lined leather pouch. 3D X-ray imagining saw through the wrapping to the object within and revealed the Latin inscription on the base which read: “Bishop Hyguald had me made.”

Conservators painstakingly removed the pouch and cleaned the rock crystal. They found from the surface of the jar that it started out as the capital of Corinthian column made of rock crystal in the late Roman Empire. At some point over the next 500 years, the capital of the crystal column was converted into a jar and wrapped in gold thread.

There is the possibility that this jar still bears trace elements of the potion it once held and that its precise chemicals can be revealed.

[Dr. Martin Goldberg, NMS’s principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections] said: “The type of liquid that we would expect would be something very exotic, perhaps a perfume from the Orient, something’s that’s travelled in the same way that the silk has. There were certain types of exotic oil that were used in anointing kings and ecclesiastical ceremonies.”

Below are the 3D models of the rock crystal jar before and after conservation.


Runes on cross reveal unknown Anglo-Saxon name

Tuesday, December 14th, 2021

A gold cross pendant discovered near Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, England, is inscribed with the previously unknown Anglo-Saxon name “Eadruf.” The solid gold cross is of a simple Latin form with the longest arm at the top. It is an inch long and .6 inches wide on the crossbar. Runes were incised down the length of the arm to just past crossbar. The foot of the cross and the horizontal arms are inscribed with equal-armed crosses. It is perforated at the apex and the crude hole filed to smooth some of its rough edges, but this was done after the runes were carved, likely after its original top-mounted loop was lost so it was modified to be suspended from a hole instead. It dates to between 700 and 900 A.D.

The pendant was found last year by a metal detectorist on the banks of the River Tweed. There are very few comparable examples. Most early Anglo-Saxon crosses are equal armed, and none have been found before with runic inscriptions.

When the finder reported it the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they consulted several specialists were enlisted to examine the cross and translate the inscription.

From the report by Professor John Hines of Cardiff University:

It seems likely from the width and shape of the cuts that the three incised crosses at the ‘head’ end of the shaft and in either arm were cut at the same time as the runes. Six runes can be identified, reading left to right from the ‘foot’ of the shaft, with the first two drilled through by the wide perforation. […]

Artefacts such as this are quite often inscribed with the personal name of a person with whom the object had been associated (usually to be assumed as the possessor, if nothing else is indicated). Old English personal names beginning Ead- (‘happiness’, ‘fortune’) are common, but the only two known with a second element beginning r- are Eadred and Eadric. No personal-name element ruf can be identified in any Germanic language, and Eadruf would therefore be a hitherto unknown and etymologically mysterious name.

The findspot is also mysterious, in that there are no archaeological remains of an early medieval settlement in the area. At the time the pendant was made, the Tweedmouth area was part of a group of holdings belonging to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, but while there are records indicating a church or abbey may have been in the vicinity, there is zero archaeological evidence of any structure from the early Middle Ages. Artifacts have been thin on the ground too. Other than this cross, the only other object from Anglo-Saxon period found here is a late 10th century copper-alloy strap fitting.


Ireland’s oldest ink pen found in medieval fort

Monday, December 13th, 2021

The oldest ink pen ever found in Ireland has been discovered at Caherconnell Cashel, a medieval drystone ring fort in in the Burren, County Clare. The shaft of the dip pen is made from hollow bird bone, the nib from bronze. It dates to the 11th century, a time when literacy was rare and even among the literate elite feather quills were the more common implement.

Bigger than most stone ringforts, Caherconnell was in continuous use from when it was built in the late 10th century until the beginning of the 17th, and excavations have recovered thousands of objects and remains. That it was built for a high-status family, local rulers, certainly, perhaps even royal, is attested to by the density, quality and diversity of the artifacts unearthed there. Among the 1800+ objects unearthed at the site are fragments from musical instruments, game pieces, coins and items of personal adornment like bone combs, bronze dress pins and amber beads. The large amount of land mammal, bird and fish bones, grains, marine shells and nut shells confirm that the residents of Caherconnell had a plentiful and varied diet.

The pen was found last year in the 11th century occupation phase of the ringfort. The layer also contained other high-status artifacts, including a decorated gold strip. Because ink dip pens are unheard of from this time in Ireland and pens in general were far more the province of the clergy than the laity, elite though they may have been, archaeologists needed to test the object’s function.

Those reasons urged caution and lead to the creation of a replica implement to test whether it functioned as a pen. Adam Parsons of Blueaxe Reproductions manufactured the replica, a replica that testing confirmed does work perfectly as a dip pen. So, it seems that this does indeed represent the earliest known ink pen in Ireland.

Feather quills were the more common writing implement at the time, but a pen like the one from Caherconnell would have been ideally suited to fine work – maybe even the drawing of fine lines, as suggested by expert calligrapher and historian Tim O’Neill: “A metal pen from such an early date is still hard to credit! But the fact that it functions with ink is there to see. It would have worked well for ruling straight lines to form, for instance, a frame for a page.”

While Church scribes copied and created all manner of ecclesiastical texts, it seems likely that a secular scribe might have used a pen like this to record family lineages and/or trade exchanges.

There is evidence of international trade (foreign coins, imported objects) at the fort, and given the huge quantities of animal bones and waste from metalworking and textile production, Caherconnell’s owners had plenty of things to keep track of and inventory.


13th c. falconry figurine found in Oslo

Sunday, December 12th, 2021

A small statuette of a crowned figure with a peregrine falcon has been found in an excavation of the historic downtown of Oslo. The design of the hair and clothing dates the figurine to the 13th century, which makes it one of the earliest representations of falconry in Scandinavia, and one of only a handful of falconry-related art from the period found in all of Northern Europe.

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have been surveying the Middelalderparken (Medieval Park) site in Oslo’s Old Town since August, unearthing remains of the city’s medieval streets, buildings and infrastructure. Their heroic efforts continued into the Norwegian winter,

The figure is 7.5 cm (3″) high and made of either bone or antler. It is a long, flattish oval carved on both sides. The figure has a peaceful smile and neck-length hair. Its not clear if the individual is male or female, as the braided hair and long robe could have been worn by either a king or a queen. The crown is short and crenellated with holes in the center of the high sections.

The falcon is perched on the monarch’s right arm which is protected by a hawking glove. The bird’s feathers are carved in a grid pattern. Both human and bird have drilled holes for eyes. There is also a hole through the bottom of the figure, indicating that it may have been the haft of a knife.

It was discovered in a waste layer a stone’s throw from the Kongsgården, the royal estate in Oslo, which in the mid-13th century was expanded into a fortified castle by Haakon IV Haakonsson (r.  1217-1263). Haakon IV was literate and cultured. He consolidated the power of the Norwegian monarchy after years of civil wars and sought to pattern Norway’s court along European lines. Literate and well-educated from a young age, he commissioned the first Norse translations of the chansons de geste. His royal estates were modeled after the monumental palaces of Europe and his foreign policy was focused on building friendly trade relations with the rulers of neighboring countries in northern Europe, Haneatic towns and the Mediterranean.

As part of alliance building, he gifted falcons far beyond the European continent. Alliances were entered into and maintained through marriages and gifts. The most precious gift a Norwegian king could give was a falcon.

Since falconry was a common royal and noble practice throughout the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain that the figure portrays King Håkon. However, dating and context indicates that it is a strong possibility.


11th c. earring is first of its kind found in Scandinavia

Saturday, December 11th, 2021

A piece of gold art jewelry found by a metal detectorist in a field near Bøvling, West Jutland, is an extremely rare 11th century cloisonné enamel earring. Only 10 or 12 examples of them are known worldwide, and this is the first one ever discovered in Scandinavia.

The crescent-shaped earring is backed with a crescent-shaped gold plate framed with a gold beaded edge decorated with gold loops. The piece is made of cloisonné enamel in shades of purple, green and blue is divided by gold threads to form a stylized design of two birds on either side of a tree. This symbolizes the tree of life motif. This type of earring design has been found in Egypt, Syria, Byzantium and Russia. This example is likely of Egyptian origin.

The only other gold and cloisonné enamel object from the 11th or 12th century Denmark that can compare with this piece in craftsmanship is the exceptional Dagmar Cross which was found in a royal tomb under St. Bendt’s Church in Ringsted. The Dagmar Cross is much more elaborate, a reliquary of Byzantine origin, but like the earring, it would have been inaccessible to anybody in Viking Denmark as a trade good, even if they had been able to afford the astronomical expense. These had to have been gifts from extremely wealthy foreign dignitaries, perhaps even the Byzantine emperor.

That makes the earring’s presence in a Bøvling field even more mysterious. It was not found in a royal tomb. There aren’t even any known Viking settlements anywhere around Bøvling, let alone royal graves.

An entertaining speculative romp on the topic from National Museum of Denmark curator Peter Pentz:

“One explanation may be that many Vikings went into war service for the Byzantine emperor, who had a bodyguard consisting of warriors from Scandinavia. We know from the Icelandic sagas that the mercenaries came home from the East with silk and weapons, and it is also said that the emperor occasionally donated fine gifts to his bodyguard. So it is conceivable that the earring was given personally by the emperor to a trusted Viking in the bodyguard. And then it must have been lost under unknown circumstances in Denmark,” says Peter Pentz.

One possibility is also that a pilgrim has brought home the jewelry. It could, for example, be King Erik Ejegod, who traveled to Jerusalem with his wife Bodil. The king himself died on the journey.

The earring went on display Monday at the National Museum’s The Raid exhibition which combines precious objects from the Viking Age with a cinematic recreation of the raids that secured so much of that treasure.





January 2022


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