Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

15th c. Theodelinda Chapel fresco restored

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

The Duomo of Monza has antecedants dating to the 6th century when the Lombards ruled swaths of Italy. Monza, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was the summer residence of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628). In 595 she had a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist built next to her royal palace in Monza. In the 13th century a new church was built on the remains of Theodelinda’s chapel. It was rebuilt again in the early 14th century and expanded significantly at the end of the century. Two chapels were added in the expansion, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another across from it on the north side of the cathedral transept dedicated to Queen Theodelinda. She got such high billing because she converted her first husband King Authari to Catholic Christianity and after his death, she converted her second husband King Agilulf first to Christianity and then to Catholicism. Arianism was predominant among Lombards at the time, so Theodelinda was instrumental in establishing a foundation of Nicene Christianity among the Lombards.

The vault of the Theodelinda Chapel was painted with figures of saints and evangelists in the 1430s. In 1441, the Zavattari family of Milan were commissioned to decorate the chapel walls with a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Lombard queen. Pater familias Franceschino, who worked for decades on the stained glass windows of the Duomo of Milan, and his sons Giovanni and Gregorio painted 45 scenes on five levels from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. They used a variety of media — egg tempera, oil tempera, dry painting, fresco, stucco relief, gilding — showcasing the Zavattari’s workshop experience in diverse art forms.

The result was a massive masterpiece covering 5,400 square feet of wall space. It is considered by many to be the greatest example of the International Gothic style espoused by artists like Carlo Crivelli. Also like Crivelli, the Zavattari used gesso decorative elements to create dimension and relief and then gilded them. In fact there is gold everywhere. The skies aren’t blue; they’re gold. The crowns, the jewels, the hair, the helmets, the clothes, the musical instruments, the tables, the goblets, the spurs, the scepters, the reliquaries, the crosses, the candelabra, the candles, the horses’ manes, architectural elements are all gilded. Little wonder that it’s been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the North.”

The scenes of Theodelinda’s life story were taken from 8th century monk Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (the parts about Theodelinda start here) and from 13th century historian Bonincontro Morigia’s Chronicle of Monza. The first 23 cover the meeting and marriage of Theodelinda and Authari. Scenes 24 to 30 depict her second marriage to Agilulf. In scenes 31 to 41 are the founding of the church, the death of Agilulf and of Theodelinda. The last scenes depict Byzantine Emperor Constans II’s failed attack on the Lombards of southern Italy and his return to Byzantium with his tail between his legs.

In keeping with the standard practice of the time, the style of dress is typical of the courts of 15th century northern Italy. The frescoes are replete with scenes of courtly life — hunts, banquets, balls, parties — and provide a uniquely rich window into the attire, hairstyles, weapons and armour of the 15th century Milanese court. There are no fewer than 28 scenes dedicated to weddings or preparation for weddings. This is thought to be a symbolic reference to the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, legitimized natural daughter and sole heir of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza. Theodelinda had chosen her second husband thereby making him king. Bianca’s marriage to Francesco ultimately transferred the dukedom of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza family after her father’s death. They were married in 1441, the same year the Zavattari were commissioned to paint the chapel, probably by Filippo Maria Visconti.

The chapel frescoes were repeatedly restored between the 17th and 19th centuries. During World War II, the walls were protected from bomb damage using sandbags, which had the unfortunate unintended consequence of increasing the moisture and salt levels inside the chapel. Those earlier restorations became increasingly unstable and the paint and stucco cracked and flaked. By 2007, the condition of the masterpiece was dire. Paint was lifting off and significant areas had suffered permanent losses.

The World Monuments Fund, the Region of Lombardy, the Fondazione Gaiani (the organization in charge of preserving the Duomo of Milan) and other private foundations, began a three million euro restoration project in 2008. The latest technology — lasers, nanotech, imaging — combined with traditional arts to revive details lost for centuries, like a delicate damask pattern that had morphed into a dark block and reflections of red wine on the inside of a gold chalice. Areas of loss were filled in using organic paints without acrylic that can easily be removed with a wet sponge. “A favor for future restorers,” as project leader Anna Lucchini put it. A new lighting system was also installed to make the frescoes more easily seen by visitors on the ground. The restoration took seven years.

The newly refreshed frescoes were officially reopened to the public in a ceremony on October 16th, 2015.

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Infernal Landscape drawn by Hieronymus Bosch

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

A drawing previously thought to have been made by an assistant in the workshop of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch has been authenticated as a piece by the master himself. Infernal Landscape is a little-known drawing first emerged in 2003 when the anonymous owner sold it auction to an equally anonymous buyer. It has been squirreled away in a private collection since the sale. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international art history study that has been researching, analyzing and documenting the oeuvre of the medieval master since 2010 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death this year, were able to examine the drawing before its first public exhibition this year in honor of the anniversary.

The drawing shows a chaotic, scary, monstrous hell where the souls of the damned are caught in a large fishing net rigged up to a water wheel in the maw of a hellbeast. Some are condemned to act as clappers for giant bells, others cluster in groups while fantastical creatures devour, torture and abuse them. Naked people are made to straddle the blade of a huge knife in the mouth of a giant in a basket. It’s the kind of scene Bosch is best known for, reminiscent of the Hell panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

In fact, it was its very Boschishness which initially led scholars to think it was the work of an assistant. They thought it was a pastiche, a copy of several Bosch figures made by a student. The BRCP used state-of-the-art technology to analyze the drawing. They examined it with infrared reflectography, ultra high-resolution macrophotography in both infrared and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy. They tested the paper, handwriting and inks, comparing them to known Bosch drawings from major European collections. The team found that some of the figures in the Infernal Landscape match underdrawings in paintings. There is a similar fellow in a basket underneath The Garden of Earthly Delights, even though Bosch chose not to include him in the final painting.

“It’s not just a ‘successful pastiche’, as some have called it. I’ve seen quite a few of these, and 99% of the time, they are not very inspiring,” [BRCP project coordinator Matthijs] Ilsink says. “This one is very, very good.” He says the argument that the work is “too Bosch to be by Bosch” does not hold water, given the fact that other, equally “Boschian” drawings — including Tree Man (around 1505) in Vienna’s Albertina — are considered to be authentic works. “You can’t blame Bosch for being too Bosch,” he says. [...]

Ilsink says that Bosch often changed his mind as he worked, so his paintings have a lot of overpaint and underdrawings. “Someone creating a pastiche of his works wouldn’t have access to these earlier versions,” Ilsink says. He admits that some might argue that Infernal Landscape was made in the artist’s workshop, but he does not believe this to be the case.

The drawing is an important addition to Hieronymus Bosch’s body of work. It’s large in size and so richly chaotic that it gives art historians a glimpse of Bosch’s additive, free-association approach to composition.

The BRCP’s research has also gone the other way. The team discovered that two paintings attributed to Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Seven Deadly Sins are likely the work of followers, not the artist. Macrophotography, x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed that Christ Carrying the Cross that it was produced after 1525, nine years after Bosch’s death, and the painting style is dissimilar enough to make it unlikely that it was even made in his workshop. The Seven Deadly Sins was exposed by its underdrawings and overall quality as definitely not the work of Bosch himself, although it’s possible that it was made in the family workshop.

The Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, commonly referred to as Den Bosch, birthplace, home and workplace of Hieronymus Bosch, is celebrating the anniversary year with a great many parades, concerts, games, theatricals, art shows, lectures and, for the December finale, “the lighting of the Bosch beast” in the city center which I haven’t been able to find a precise description of but sounds like the greatest Burning Man ever. The Noordbrabants Museum will hold a major exhibition of Bosch’s work. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius brings together masterpieces from top institutions in Europe and America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. For the first time, a majority of Bosch’s works will be together on public display in the city where they were painted. Artworks include world-famous pieces like the Haywain Triptych and the Ship of Fools, as well as virtually unknown works like the newly authenticated Infernal Landscape drawing and 12 panels recently restored by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative which have never been on view to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 13th through May 8th, 2016.

Den Bosch was founded in the 12th century a fortress city and much of the historic center has survived intact, including the complete medieval ramparts that encircle the old town. It was spared from destruction in World War II and spared from even worse destruction by well-meaning modernizers after the war thanks to the city council’s quickly declaring the entire old city a protected historical townscape before the first rampart could be felled or the first canal filled. That means if you take one of the special Bosch Experience tours available from March to November of this year, you will be seeing things he actually saw, walking the same winding roads he walked, visit the same places he worked and lived.

All of the research and analysis the BRCP has done over the past six years will be published in a two-volume monograph later this month. There will also be a website, funded by the Getty Foundation, where all the BRCP’s research and images will be available for our rapt perusal. It’s set to launch before the opening of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibition but there’s no url yet. I’ll update when the site goes live.

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Remains of Settlement Era Reykjavík longhouse to be preserved

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

The remains of the Icelandic Settlement Era (874-930 A.D.) Viking longhouse discovered by surprise last summer in downtown Reykjavík will be preserved and integrated into the hotel that will be built on the lot. The longhouse was an unexpected find because archaeologists thought Settlement Era Reykjavík started and ended significantly west of modern-day Lækjargata street. The discovery of the remains has dramatically altered our understanding of the size and breadth of the early city. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the largest longhouses ever found in Iceland — the central fire pit was 17 feet long — and the incentive to preserve this groundbreaking find was strong.

When the archaeological survey of the parking lot on Lækjargata began in advance of construction of a new hotel, the team led by Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir expected to find the remains of a 1799 turf farm known to have been on the site. They had a plan in place to remove all archaeological remains and artifacts to a local museum. They did find the turf farm, but when they then unearthed the history-changing longhouse, the removal plan had to be revisited.

The hotel developers were amenable to the idea that the remains stay in situ and be somehow incorporated into the hotel. The city quickly formed an advisory committee to explore their options. Last week the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland announced that the remains would stay put and the hotel would have to work around them. They did compromise, however.

Archaeologist Lísbet Guðmundsdóttir, who oversaw the dig which discovered the ruins, told RÚV that all un-organic remains will be preserved on location. Turf from the walls will not be reserved because completely intact because of cost. “Moreover, their preservation adds very little to people’s understanding of the remains we have here,” she adds.

I don’t know about that. The longhouse was dated by analysing the volcanic ash captured in the turf, so it seems to add a great deal to everyone’s understanding of the remains. Also, Iceland has a great tradition of turf houses dating back to the first settlement days and continuing well into the 20th century. The turf walls of the longhouse are an important part of that history. By the same token I understand that it would have been a logistical nightmare for the hotel trying to keep the turf from drying out and crumbling to dust.

Based on the location of the fireplace, which was always at the center of a longhouse, archaeologists believe the structure extended well into the center of what is now Skólabrú street. There will be no excavation into the busy city street (archaeologists believe the construction of the road in the early 20th century destroyed any surviving longhouse remains) but already excavated sections of the longhouse that abut the street, including the central fireplace and trough, but are outside of the hotel’s boundary line will be part of the larger exhibition. The perimeter outline of the longhouse will be marked inside the hotel and on the sidewalk.

The architecture of the hotel will have to be changed to accommodate the remains. That’s going to take more expertise, time and money, of course, but once it opens the hotel is sure to profit from being on top of so important an archaeological site. Besides, if the plans for the soon-to-be-completed Antakya Hilton Museum Hotel on the site of a 2,000-year-old, 9,000-square-foot mosaic in the ancient city of Antioch are anything to go by, the new hotel is going to be about a million times cooler than whatever the original design was.

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Run those medieval fingerprints through AFIS

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

A new study will apply modern forensic crime solving techniques to the Middle Ages by examining the hand and fingerprints left on wax seals from the 12th to 14th centuries. The three-year research project will collect the prints left on seals attached to a variety of documents in the collections of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and the National Library of Wales. Project leaders Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln and Dr. Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University will explore what the prints call tell us about authority, bureaucracy, authentication and the law in medieval England and Wales.

The prints will also literally be run through AFIS, comparing fingerprints that are at least 700 years old to modern ones. Researchers are looking for any close or approximate matches even over centuries. Any such discoveries will contribute significantly the study of print identification, which isn’t as well-established, scientifically speaking, as some TV programs would have you believe. Having said that, I really hope someone films Professor Hoskin or Dr. New looking at a fingerprint on a wax seal and saying “Let’s run it through AFIS.”

Because many of the seals are found on financial documents — property sales, business contracts, assorted transactions — there’s even a chance the study will veer from CSI into Cold Case as the fingerprint comparisons might detect 900-year-old fraud or forgery.

Wax seals were ubiquitous by the 12th century, used as a secure mark of the owner’s agreement the way a valid signature is
today on any legal document. Administrative documents of any kind required seals to be validated. Despite their legal significance when the seals were first pressed into wax, the seals themselves have rarely been studied. Historians tend to focus on the documents, not the dangly bits, except insofar as they hold identifying information regarding the parties to the documents. The Imprint study is breaking new ground.

Dr Elizabeth New, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, comments that: “Hand prints on wax seals bring us close to medieval people in a very tangible way. It is important to remember that seals were not just the preserve of kings and great nobles: men and women from all levels of society also set their seals on documents.

“Medieval seals contained a variety of images and words, providing strong statements of identity and very valuable sources of information about people, culture and society. The images can tell us what things actually looked like, and provide glimpses of humour, piety and family pride. They also enabled otherwise illiterate men and women the means to ‘write’ their name.

“These small objects have always had great significance, and are rich time-capsules that can open exciting windows into past lives. Examining the hand prints left – both accidentally and deliberately – in the wax along with impressions of seal matrices provides further important opportunities to deepen our understanding of our medieval ancestors.”

All the prints collected will be entered into an online database along with information about the documents and the seals the prints were taken from. That archive will be made accessible to researchers and the general public.

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Ivan the Terrible-era weapons cache found

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of future highway construction near Zvenigorod, a medieval town in the Moscow Oblast about 40 miles west of the capital, have unearthed a cache of weapons from the era of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584). The arsenal was discovered alongside the remains of the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe. The team unearthed about 60 buildings from the village. One of them had burned down in the mid-16th century but its basement survived remarkably unscathed. It’s in the underground timber-lined storage room that archaeologists discovered what they believe was the private arsenal of one of Ivan the Terrible’s elite cadre of knights.

They found helmets stored in leather boxes, kolchugs (a kind of cuirass), sections of military sabres, belts, and arrows and more. It seems possible that this was a cache of weapons for a military expedition, stored in special boxes, including even sections of camp tents and billy cans. This warlike inventory, along with the status of its owner, probably indicated the existence of a standing army of troops in readiness, who were armed, billeted and fed at the cost of members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

The spherical helmets with the pointed spikes decorated with gold and silver fittings are particularly splendid examples. There are similar ones in major Russian museums today, but these are the only ones ever found still inside their leather storage boxes with their fabric linings and ear-pieces intact.

The identity of the cache’s owner is unknown, but Ignatievskoe which was the home of the Dobrynins, an important boyar family who had at least one son among the oprichniki, a personal guard hand-picked by Ivan to police an area that was under his exclusive control. Ivan had demanded the creation of this new region as a condition of his return to Moscow after his sudden December 1564 departure. Distrustful of many nobles and clergy who he was certain were a pack of treasonous thieves, Ivan had left Moscow and sent a letter announcing his abdication. The boyar court was terrified that Moscow would fall into violence and chaos without Ivan’s leadership, so they agreed to all of his terms. Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina, a territory that he thought was rife with rebellious nobles (and, coincidentally of course, valuable industry), over which he had absolute power, including the power to execute anyone he wanted no matter how aristocratic without having to justify himself to the boyar council. Even family wasn’t exempt. Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa, the grandson and nephew of Tsars, was one of the nobles who was executed and had his property confiscated under the oprichnina.

His army of a thousand men swore loyalty to him alone. Famed for their black horses and ruthless application of Ivan’s notion of justice, the oprichniki killed thousands, noble and peasant. Their unchecked violence culminated in the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod when more than 1500 nobles and uncounted numbers of commoners were tortured, killed or kicked out of the city to die from exposure and starvation. The massacre turned the tide against the oprichniki so decisively that Ivan was compelled to disband it in 1572.

Ignatievskoe was in the middle of several towns in the Moscow Oblast added to the oprichnina. It’s possible the arsenal was intended to arm Ivan’s terrible black-horsed guard in the performance of their brutal duties. It’s also possible that it was meant for other campaigns as the late 16th century was plagued by incursions from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as internal conflict.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness. This excavation enables us to ‘see’ for the first time the preparations made by the noblemen who made up the officer corps elite of the Russian army at the time of the flowering of Muscovy as a Russian state,” Mr. Alexeyev remarked.

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Alfred the Great-era hoard found in Oxfordshire

Friday, December 11th, 2015

A mixed hoard of Viking jewelry and Anglo-Saxon coins has been unearthed in a farmer’s field near Watlington, Oxfordshire. It was discovered in October by metal detectorist and retired advertising executive James Mather. He was about to close up shop for the day when he found a cigar-shaped object that looked a lot like the Viking silver ingots he remembered seeing at the British Museum. He dug nine inches down and saw a group of coins. Instead of continuing to root around, he wisely called the local finds officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) who told him to rebury the objects until they could be formally excavated.

An anxious weekend passed with Mather repeatedly returning to the field to make sure nobody was messing with the treasure. When PAS archaeologists arrived Tuesday, they excavated the find with Mather’s help. It was his 60th birthday. (I pity his loved ones because it’s going to be virtually impossible to top that gift for the rest of his life.) The archaeologists removed the hoard in a block of thick clay soil so it could be fully excavated in laboratory conditions. They had the landowner get high quality plastic wrap to encase the block and placed it on a baking sheet also borrowed from the farmer.

Finds officer David Williams brought the wrapped hoard to London in a suitcase, causing some consternation at the British Museum where suitcases aren’t welcomed to roll down the halls, hoard or no hoard. Safe in the museum lab, the treasures were cautiously excavated from the clay by conservator Pippa Pearce. Her work quickly confirmed the wisdom of the excavation method because some of the coins were so thin they couldn’t even be held by the edges lest they warp.

The finally tally of the hoard was 186 coins, some of them fragments, three silver bangles, probably arm rings, four pieces of broken jewelry and 15 silver ingots. The coins are all Anglo-Saxon; the silver and jewelry Viking. There is also a little twisted off scrap of gold which is the first found in a Viking hoard in Britain. The coins were issued by King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-99) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874-79). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried in the late 870s, around the time of Alfred’s final defeat of the Viking Great Heathen Army in the Battle of Edington in 878.

The coins may rewrite the history of the collaboration between Wessex and Mercia during this time. Ceolwulf II was the last independent king of Mercia. Very little is known about him. He is included in the Worcester regnal list of Mercian kings which puts his rule at a mere five years, from 874 to 879. The Vikings had conquered eastern Mercia by that point, leaving Ceolwulf control of western Mercia which consisted mainly of the Diocese of Worcester (today’s Worcestershire minus its northwestern tip). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned by Alfred the Great, is disdainful of Ceolwulf, accusing him of being a Viking lickspittle.

And the same year [874 A.D.] they [the Great Heathen Army] gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king’s thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.

This is likely revisionism courtesy of Alfred’s desire to expunge his connection to Ceolwulf from the historical record. There are surviving charters and land grants witnessed by Mercian nobles and clerics which refer to Ceolwulf as “Rex Merciorum.” This suggests he had some measure of genuine control over his territories and was accepted as king. The Mercian ruling class, ecclesiastical and lay, recognized Ceolwulf II as the legitimate king of Mercia, not an “unwise king’s thane” borrowing the land until such time as his Viking masters decided they wanted it.

The fact that he issued coinage also indicates he held real power, especially since two of the three types of surviving penny were co-issued by Alfred. There are examples of both of those types — the Two Emperors and the Cross and Lozenge — in the Watlington Hoard. These are very rare coins, and the examples in the hoard are of particular historic significance because they were struck in different mints over several years. Previously extant Two Emperors and Cross and Lozenge coins were issued the same year. The newly discovered coins are proof that Alfred and Ceolwulf were allies and worked closely together at least in the arena of currency reform for more than one year.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum said: “This is not just another big shiny hoard.” He said it was evidence about a poorly understood time in the development of England. Even the scrap of gold, chopped up to use as currency by weight, shows the emergence of a gold standard.

The coins, he said, offered insight into a coalition that broke up acrimoniously after a few years, leading to one partner disappearing without trace. “They give a more complex political picture of a period which has been deliberately misrepresented by the victor.” He added, diplomatically, that the relationship of Stalin and Trotsky came to mind.

There is no more information about Ceolwulf II in the historical record after 879 A.D. and certainly by 883 he was no longer in power. His successor was Æthelred, no longer a king but a lord ruling Mercia as a vassal of King Alfred.

This defining period in English history is the subject of a popular BBC series called The Last Kingdom. It’s on BBC Two in the UK and BBC America in the US. I’ve seen the first season and it is outstanding. It’s based on Bernard Cornwell’s series of historical novels The Saxon Stories and while he was not involved in the creation of the series, he’s an avid watcher and has nothing but good things to say about it. As do I. Character development that makes sense. Battle scenes where you can actually see things happening clearly without giving up a sense of dynamic movement. Brilliant cast. Historically accurate sets. It’s as good as it gets, imo, when it comes to televised historical fiction.

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Viking skeleton, wood coffin on display in York

Friday, December 4th, 2015

York was occupied by Vikings from 866 A.D. until the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred defeated Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking ruler of York, in 954 A.D. and united England into a single kingdom. When the Vikings arrived, the Anglo-Saxon port city of Eoforwic was in decay. They renamed it Jorvik and developed it into a thriving center of trade with Viking Scandinavia and Dublin, the Byzantine Empire and the merchant networks of the Silk Road. Despite this rich history, what little evidence of Viking material culture surfaced in York was discovered by accident. The first professional excavation by the newly founded York Archaeological Trust only took place in 1972, and that was just a few small trenches dug under Lloyds Bank on Pavement. The trenches were unexpectedly productive, revealing up to 30 feet of archaeological layers and proving that the waterlogged, peaty soil of York was an excellent preserver of organic remains like timber, textiles, leather, seeds, plants, pollen, human parasite eggs and insects, an invaluable source of information about people’s daily lives in Jorvik.

The York Archaeological Trust (YAT) performed the first planned excavation in 1976 in Coppergate, the city’s ancient center, which was slated to be redeveloped into an open-air shopping center. From 1976 through 1981, the Trust excavated more than 1,000 square metres and 2,000 years of history. The remains of an entire street of Viking York survived thanks to the magic of peat: timber buildings, woven wattle used to make walls and pathways, fences, animal pens, shop fronts, artisan workshops, cesspits and wells. More than 40,000 objects were unearthed in the Coppergate excavation and more than 500,000 people visited the site during the dig.

The excavation was incorporated into the new development. It became part of the Jorvik Viking Centre, visible through the transparent floors of the museum which recreated the Viking city with period-accurate structures, manikins with faces recreated from 9th and 10th century skulls, and my favorite part, the pungent smells of Viking York which came highly recommended by SourceRunner and Duncan Armitage in this comment thread.

The York Archaeological Trust had another archaeological coup between October 1989 and July 1990 when it excavated graveyard of the lost church of Saint Benet in the Swinegate area of York. The church had stood on the site from the 8th century through the 14th, and archaeologists discovered more than 100 burials from the churchyard. A number of burials dated from Viking era — late 9th to the early 11th century — and included the exceptionally preserved remains of wooden coffins and lids.

One of these Viking-era burials from the Swinegate excavation has now gone on display in its wooden coffin at the Jorvik Viking Centre. This is the first time any of the Swinegate skeletons or coffins has gone on public display.

The condition of the wood gives this coffin national significance, as so few similar examples exist – particularly as this coffin would have been fairly fragile when first constructed, which tells archaeologists that it would have only been transported a short distance for burial. The coffin was made for a young woman, estimated at being aged between 26 and 35. Recent analysis of the bones reveals some of her life story– including that she had inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips – but there is no indication of the cause of her death.

Over the last few weeks YAT’s conservation team have undertaken a thorough examination of the coffin to determine its structure and reveal how it was constructed. “The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings, and you can see that during construction, the piece of timber used for the lid of the coffin split and was repaired using a baton fastened inside, with the pegs cut flush on the outer surface to make the repair less obvious,” adds Sarah.

You can read the full reports of the 2015 reinvestigation of the skeletal remains and wood coffins on the York Archaeological Trust website. I particularly enjoyed the Woodworking Technology Report (pdf) and the Osteological Analysis (pdf).

The skeleton and coffin display is the vanguard of the Jorvik Viking Centre’s commemoration of the thousand year anniversary of King Canute’s accession to the throne of England in 1016. The Canute Millennial celebrations will kick off during next year’s 32nd annual Jorvik Viking Festival in February. If you’re in York for the festivities, there will be a lecture event at the Jorvik Viking Center on February 17th, 2016, at 7:00 PM about the skeleton and her coffin. York Archaeological Trust conservator Steve Allen will discuss the coffin, while osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst will talk about the skeleton.


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Sealed chambers found under Templo Mayor

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

The search for the tombs of Aztec emperors inches closer to a possible conclusion with the discovery of two sealed chambers under the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in downtown Mexico City. Archaeologists have discovered a narrow tunnel that leads into the center of a large circular ceremonial platform at the foot of the Great Temple. At the end of the tunnel are two doors sealed with masonry that archaeologists hope may hold the cremated remains of 15th century Aztec rulers.

Elaborate Maya royal burials have been discovered in Mexico, for instance Pakal II’s massive sarcophagus in Palenque, but archaeologists have yet to find any tombs of Aztec rulers. The only historical sources to mention royal Aztec burials extant are accounts written by Spanish chroniclers like Bernardino de Sahagún and Diego Durán after the conquest that record that the remains of Aztec emperor Axayacatl (grandson of Moctezuma I), and his brothers and successors to the throne Tizoc and Ahuitzotl were each cremated on a great circular platform in the Templo Mayor complex called the Cuauhxicalco.

The Cuauhxicalco in question was unearthed in 2011. While at least five are recorded as having existed in the temple complex, this was the only one discovered in the ritually significant area at the foot of the temple. The platform is studded with 14 carved snake heads and is more than 50 feet in diameter. It was built in the 15th century on the south side of the temple which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and patron god of Tenochtitlan.

In 2013, archaeologists excavating the north side of the Cuauhxicalco found a large slab of volcanic andesite embedded in the floor. After lifting the 3-ton slab, they found a hollow space underneath it filled with offerings. Inside an offering box were the stones of a dismantled wall. At the bottom of the offering box were a pair of skulls of young children between five and seven years old at time of death, the first three cervical vertebrae and the skeletal remains of one hand and two feet. This is the first find of child sacrifices with complete skulls including the mandibles and the bones of the neck included. Lead archaeologist Leonardo Lopez Lujan believes the remains of the children were interred right after death, which is why the vertebrae were there and why the feet and hand bones were articulated. The offering box also held gold objects, stone knives used in human sacrifices, the bones of eagles and one spectacular as yet unidentified artifact made of gilded obsidian. Underneath the box was another offering box containing the skull of an adult woman.

The team was just about the rebury the offering boxes when one of the researchers, archaeologist Tomas Cruz, realized the south wall of the hollow space was hiding a narrow corridor just 18 inches wide and five feet high. They dug out the debris filling the hallway and found it led 27 feet to the center of the Cuauhxicalco, culminating in the two entrances, one facing east, one west, that had been walled off by the Aztecs.

But Lopez Lujan is being cautious, saying the presence of graves at the end of the newly found passageway is simply a theory that could be wrong. The blocked-up entrances will be excavated starting in 2016.

“What we are speculating is that behind these sealed-up entrances there could be two small chambers with the incinerated remains of some rulers of Tenochtitlan, like Moctezuma I and his successors, Axayacatl and Tízoc, given the relative dating of the surrounding constructions,” Lopez Lujan said. [...]

Dr. Michael E. Smith, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University who was not involved in the dig, said “Leonardo knows the archaeology and ethno-history better than anybody, and he is not one to grandstand or make fantastic claims to garner publicity. Thus I would think his prediction is reasonable.”

They weren’t able to excavate of the chambers right away because construction of a new entrance hall to the Templo Mayor made the space inaccessible for two years. That’s almost complete now, so archaeologists will be able to pick up where they left off in January or February of next year. They expect to find two small rooms, no grand vaulted spaces like those created by the Maya.

In seven years of excavation, Lopez Lujan’s team has found 39 offerings containing more than 50,000 objects. Nine offerings were found before this excavation project began in 2007, for a total of 48. It’s the largest concentration of sacrificial deposits found in the temple complex, and they were found at the foot of the double staircase on the south side, not inside the pyramid, nor on any of the other sides. The concentration suggests this spot has greater ritual significance than the rest of the site, which, combined with the massive Cuauhxicalco, gives archaeologists reason to believe that any royal remains that may have been entombed in the temple were entombed in that location.

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Mjölnir rises from mom’s tea spoons

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

I’ve always suspected that there was a disproportionately high percentage of genius among the readers of this blog. This has now been confirmed with the irrefutable finality of Thor’s hammer.

Last year I posted about the discovery of a small Viking amulet on the Danish island of Lolland. The pendant was in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a well-known design from the Viking Era thought to invoke the power of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir to protect the wearer. Because they’re not a literal hammer shape, however, there has been some debate among scholars about whether these amulets really are representations of Thor’s hammer. The amulet found on Lolland last Spring answered the question with a runic inscription that reads “This is a hammer.”

There are more elaborately decorated Thor’s hammer amulets, like this gold-plated one found in Ödeshög, Sweden, or this one found in Skåne, both now in the Swedish History Museum, but the plainer Lolland hammer is the only one ever found with runes inscribed on it. The fancier ones are as popular today as they were in the 10th century. Pages and pages of search results return links to commercial copies from companies specializing in replicas of historical artifacts to Etsy shops. The Lolland hammer, being a much more recent find, is less extensively duplicated, although at least one outfit wasted no time in creating replicas for sale. It also happens to copy my blog entry word for word and picture for picture.

So when regular commenter Lory posted yesterday that he had made his own replica of the Lolland rune hammer, naturally I wanted to see the results of his endeavors. The pictures he sent me so impressed me that I asked if I could post them in a dedicated blog entry. Lorenzo agreed. Here they are on the right next to the original on the left.


The original amulet was cast in bronze and only has traces remaining of silver or tin plating and a tiny smidge of gold plating. Lorenzo, as you see, made his version entirely out of silver.

He agreed to answer a few questions about his work. I first asked if he was a professional jeweler or silversmith or if this was a hobby. The answer astounded me. Not only is he not a professional silversmith, but this was his first attempt at making anything like this. He learned how from YouTube!

I like bricolage like an hobby in my free time. I saw that hammers around the neck of many people during a summer trip in Denmark riding my old motorcycle. They said me that that hammer (mjölner, in danish language) is like an amulet in that place.

And so, when I came back to home in Italy, I’ve decided to buy a mjölner for my neck too, but looking on the net, I saw the Lolland one in Copenaghen Museum and I loved it. I strongly wanted it and so, I decided to make my silver copy.

I’ve learned the mergering system from the net (Youtube is a good teacher). I bought special wax (more hard than normal) for the maquette, and some instruments to model it like the original one.

The size isn’t the same, because I don’t know the real one, and there are some little differences too, because I’m not a professional jeweller. The silver comes from some little tea spoons that I’ve stolen [from] my mother.

Is that not the greatest thing ever? I think we can all agree that his mother’s tea spoons gave their lives for a noble cause.

After the wax model, I’ve made a negative copy of it in a big cuttlefish bone bought in a special shop. If you look on the net, you’ll see that the mergering method is very simple and fast.

I did look on the web and Lorenzo knows whereof he speaks. Cuttlebone is apparently an ideal material for home silver casting because it can withstand great heat and can be carved easily into a detailed mold. From the Wikipedia entry on cuttlebone:

Jewelers prepare cuttlebone for use as a mold by cutting it in half and rubbing the two sides together until they fit flush against one another. Then the casting can be done by carving a design into the cuttlebone, adding the necessary sprue, melting the metal in a separate pouring crucible, and pouring the molten metal into the mold through the sprue. Finally, the sprue is sawed off and the finished piece is polished.

Which is just what Lorenzo did.

After the mergering, with a soldering butane blowpipe and a ceramic melting pot, I’ve used three different paste and a little circular instruments with my little drill to eliminate some mergering imperfections and make it shining like you can see in the last two pics.
That’s all. :)

Here’s the finished pendant, bright and shiny as the original would have been before the plating wore off:

Can you believe that’s his first attempt at casting silver? It’s downright inspiring. (Don’t worry, Mom, your silver collection is safe from me.)

For the necklace Lorenzo plans “a strong leather cord with beautiful old style clasps.” I’m sure it will look smashing.

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Staedtler erasers help solve mystery of ultra-thin 13th c. parchment

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

For a short window of about 80 years in the 13th century, small, portable bibles were produced on a large scale to satisfy the needs of the growing mendicant friar community and university students. Both groups needed bibles that were lightweight and easy to transport, a far cry from the large, thick-paged, multi-volume bibles common in scriptoria, libraries, churches and learning institutions. Between around 1220 and 1300, at least 20,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 portable bibles were produced, most of them in Paris, but also elsewhere in France, plus England, Italy and Spain. The university centers of Paris, Bologna and Oxford were the main production centers.

The first pocket bibles were pandects (single-volume bibles) and were consistently organized which made them easy to scan for a particular passage, a handy tool for the student and itinerant preacher. The script was tiny, with each letter a mere two millimeters high, and of course written painstakingly by hand. Each page was made of a tissue-thin parchment known as uterine vellum, the key to the books’ portability. Without pages a fraction of a millimeter thick, the pocket bibles of the 13th century could not have existed.

The economic woes and turmoil of the 14th century ended the pocket bible boom and soon the technology used to make the ultra-thin parchment, which had been kept hush-hush by producers keen to keep their lucrative trade secrets secret, was forgotten. Approximately 2,000 pocket bibles still exist today, the majority of them, about 54%, of French manufacture.

Codicologists, people who study the physical object of the book, have long debated how uterine vellum was made. Some medieval and early modern sources refer to the parchment as abortivum or charta non nata (meaning “unborn sheet”), suggesting that it was made from the skin of miscarried or aborted fetal calves. The sheer numbers of aborted livestock fetuses necessary to produce enough parchment for thousands of pocket Bibles and other manuscripts would have materially damaged the health of any herd, however, so some scholars have proffered alternative animal sources for the parchment, like rabbits or squirrels which unlike cows already have very thin skins. Others theorized that the thicker skins of cows or sheep could have been split to produce the ultra-thin parchment.

A study led by University of York bioarchaeologists sought to unlock the mystery of uterine vellum, to discover whether it was made using animals with exceptionally fine skin or the result of a specialized craft that worked any skins into tissue-thin sheets. The research team studied samples of uterine vellum drawn from 72 pocket Bibles and seven nonpocket Bibles. The sampled parchment ranged in thickness from .03 to .28 mm. The delicate, more than paper-thin pages were sampled using one of the greatest school supplies of all time: the Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser. Remember how the bright white eraser would make little tubular crumbs greyed with pencil graphite that you had to blow or brush off your paper? Those characteristic crumbs were the means by which the samples could be taken without damaging the fragile parchment.

Participating archives and libraries were sent a kit with erasers, acid-free paper, nitrile gloves and 1.5 mL microcentrifuge tubes. Staffers donned gloves and collected the sample by erasing in one direction on an area of the page that had no writing, holes, tears or any other indication of weakness in the structure. The crumbs were caught on a folded page of acid-free paper and tipped into the tubes which were sealed and sent to the University of York laboratory.

The gentle unidirectional rubbing of the eraser on the pages generated an electrostatic charge that extracted protein from the parchment surface. Those protein samples were then studied using zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting and hair follicle pattern analysis, technologies that can determine which species of animals were used to make the parchment and their age at slaughter. The study found that none of the parchment was made from the skin of fetal or neonate animals. The youngest were eight week old calves and adult sheep and goats were also used. Of the 220 folios from 72 pocket bibles sampled, 68% were calfskin, 26% were goat, and 6% were sheep. Most of them were consistent within one bible, but five bibles were found to have parchment from more than one species. Researchers think that those five may be composite bibles rather than a single producer using skins from multiple animals to create one bible.

So since exotic animal hides weren’t behind the production of this practically see-through parchment, it must have been a specialized craft.

In order to make goat, sheep and eight week old calf parchment look as fine as if it had all come from new-born calves, the medieval artisans had to immerse the skins in alkali-rich liquefied lime so as to get rid of the fats in those skins by transforming the lipids into a form of detergent. That natural soap not only helped thin the skins but also helped whiten them by dissolving all the ingrained grime and stains.

The alkali in the lime also served to remove the thousands of tiny hairs in the skin – by weakening the chemical bonds which hold protein molecules together. However, too much exposure to lime would have also turned the skins’ collagen content into gelatine – thus irreversibly swelling and damaging the product. The medieval craftsmen seem to have discovered the precise time required to thin and whiten the skins in the lime, while not destroying them.

As well as immersing the skins in lime, the artisans also stretched them on wooden frames, scraped them with a special bladed tool – then spent many hours rubbing them with volcanic pumice stone to further thin and smooth them.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and can be read in its entirety here (pdf).

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