Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Together again at last, Master Mateo at the Prado

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

In 814 A.D., a hermit named Pelagius saw a single star of great brilliance and a shower of stars around it over the Libredón forest near Iria Flavia (modern-day Padrón), seat of the main bishopric in Galicia. Pelagius, other brother hermits and some shepherds approached the site and heard a choir of heavenly hosts singing. Bishop Theodomirus in Iria was told of this portent. He had the underbrush cleared to reveal an arch over an altar with a sarcophagus at its feet. Either from divine revelation or from a papyrus found in the sarcophagus, Theodomirus realized this was the tomb of St. James, son of Zebedee, brother of John and one of the Twelve Apostles. According to local legend, James, who was decapitated by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, had preached in what is now Spain and after his death his body was miraculously transported in a rudderless boat from Jaffa to Iria Flavia and thence inland for burial.

When the miraculous find was reported to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia, he ordered a chapel built on the site, a modest structure of stone and mud. He added a baptistery, another church and a small monastery and built a defensive wall around the small settlement called Compostela (ostensibly a corruption of the Latin “campus stellae” or field of stars in reference to the miracle Pelagius had witnessed). The legend of St. James’ burial in Spain had spread widely in the 8th century, a cultural rallying cry against the Umayyad conquest of the Iberian peninsula, so the discovery of his relics made a huge splash. It was considered a divine sign that Iberia would be Christian again, that retaking it was a holy crusade. Alfonso notified Pope Leo III and Charlemagne of the find, and they spread the world all over Christendom. Pope Leo had lost Corsica and Sardinia to Muslim raiders from Al-Andalus in 809-810, so he was very much on board with the St. James messaging.

Soon the pilgrims were flocking in thousands to Santiago de Compostela, first from the peninsula and then from all over Europe. The Way of Saint James became the most important pilgrim destination after Rome and Jerusalem. Alfonso II’s humble chapel was replaced in 899 by a stone basilica ordered by King Alfonso III. Built in the Asturian style with three naves and a rectangular head, this church was razed to the ground a century later by Al-Mansur, defacto ruler of Al-Andalus when the Caliph Hisham was but a boy, although he made a point not to damage the holy tomb of St. James.

In 1075, Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon, began constructing a new church. This one was to be a grand Romanesque cathedral that could accommodate the huge numbers of pilgrims following the Way of St. James without disrupting the quotidian services of the church. The new church would have a round head for traffic flow, a gallery above the aisles for crowd management and side doors to allow pilgrims access to the crypt underneath the altar without having the stomp through the nave during regular worship.

Construction stopped and started over the next century and in 1168, Master Mateo, an architect and sculptor of French origin, was engaged by King Ferdinand II of León to create a new main façade worthy of one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The old façade was demolished and in its place rose a massive two-story portico with three arches matching the three naves. Wide piers supported the arches and Mateo decorated them with an incredibly rich density of high relief sculptures. Around the base were fantastical animals. The middle of the piers featured pilasters with sculptures of the apostles and prophets. The sculptures at the top of the piers are symbols from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. St. James gets central placement on the mullion of the central column, and at its foot facing in towards the altar instead of out at the pilgrims is Master Mateo himself, holding a sign identifying himself as the Architectus.

The overall theme was the salvation granted by God after the Final Judgment. Each of the three entrance arches represent different aspects of the theme. The left entrance focused on the Old Testament prophets, the right on punishments of the damned, the center of Christ the savior.
In the central tympanum Christ displays his wounds surrounded by the four Evangelists and their symbols. Angels carry the instruments of the passion — the cross, crown of thorns, nails and spear — while above them are a great throng of the blessed.

The 3D carving and individual detail of the more than 200 figures were great innovations in Romanesque art, and Master Mateo worked on his magnum opus, known as the Portico of Glory, until 1211. He and his workshop also created a sculpted stone choir which was replaced by a wooden one in the 17th century.

In the 16th century, the western façade of the Portico of Glory was taken down and the figures removed. Some were installed in other locations in the cathedral. Others went to museums or private collections. Because people are crazy, some of these precious sculptures were even treated like trash, used as fill in various construction projects at the cathedral. Thankfully the crazy abated and in the 18th century the Portico of Glory was encased by a new Baroque façade for its own protection. Exposure to the elements for 500 years had damaged the sculptures. They still managed to retain some of their polychrome painted elements, although most of the surviving color is from later restorations rather than the original.

Work at the cathedral over the years has unearthed some of those discarded Master Mateo works. Now the Museo Nacional del Prado is exhibiting 14 sculptures from the Portico of Glory and the dismantled choir, some of them together again for the first time 500 years.

The present exhibition includes fourteen works, opening with the document in which Ferdinand II grants a lifetime pension to [Master] Mateo, a text that constitutes the first reference to his activities at the cathedral.

Horses from the Retinue of the Three Kings – reused as infill material for the Obradoiro staircase and recovered in 1978 still with traces of its original polychromy – and Saint Matthew came from the retro-choir and exterior façades, respectively, of the granite choir constructed by Mateo and his workshop around the year 1200.

The other works on display are from the lost west façade, including the sculptures of David and Solomon which, following the dismantling of that façade, were reinstalled on the parapet of the Obradoiro loggia where they remained until they were recently restored on site prior to their inclusion in this exhibition; and the Statue-column of a male figure with a cartouche, a damaged figure that was rediscovered this October inside the cathedral’s bell tower where it had been used as infill material and is now being presented to the public for the first time. Also on display are other architectural elements that were part of the façade such as the large Rose window which crowned the central doorway and was reconstructed from fragments found in 1961; and two Keystones with the punishment of Lust, possibly from the arch on the south side, which had the same iconographic theme as the corresponding arch of the Portico of Glory, devoted to the Last Judgment.

A custom app created for the exhibit will allow visitors to virtually tour the Portico of Glory and the stone choir as Master Mateo designed them. The exhibition opened on November 28th and will run through March 26th, 2017.

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Temple to wind god found under Mexico City supermarket

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a 14th century temple to the wind god under a supermarket in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. The supermarket was demolished in 2014, and archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) excavated the site. That first excavation dug down three meters (just under 10 feet), revealing the top of a circular platform, pottery fragments and 20 burials of adults, children and animals.

The second excavation season began in March of 2016. It unearthed the full platform 11 meters (36 feet) in diameter and 1.2 meters (four feet) high. It’s more than 650 years old, but the original stucco still covers most of it. At the eastern entrance of the temple, a cist burial and another seven human burials were discovered. In total, archaeologists found eight complete skeletons (six infants, two adult women and one adult man) and the incomplete remains of seven individuals identified from disarticulated skulls, femurs and other long bones.

In the cist burial archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a newborn infant, bird bones, a mound of obsidian shards and arrowheads, agave thorns, copal resin and green stone. Other artifacts found at the site include incense burners, ceramic figures of monkeys and duck beaks. These figures are associated with the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, creator of precious rain-bringing wind after long droughts.

The shape of the temple also supports a link to the wind god. It is circular on the north, south and west sides. The entrance on the east side has a rectangular conversion which matches in design and orientation a temple dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl that was discovered at the entrance of the archaeological site of Tlatelolco. Also, the fronts of temples dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl always face east.

There is evidence the temple was built in the three phases. The first dates to the years right after the founding of the city in 1337 and is characterized by inclined walls, the only ones of their kind among the archaeological remains of the area. The second stage of construction went on between 1376 and 1417. The bulk of the platform as it stands today was built during the second phase. The third phase (around 1427) is compacted earth around the building. It’s possible this is not a 15th century feature, but rather was caused by the construction of the supermarket in the mid-20th century.

The two seasons of excavations discovered around 43,000 artifacts, 1000 of which were recovered and fully documented. They are currently being studied. Even as a shopping center goes up behind it, the temple will be preserved and covered with protective glass so visitors to the archaeological site of Tlatelolco can view the platform without damaging it.

Tlatelolco was an independent city-state before the Spanish conquest. It was a regional center of commerce with a major market. Its larger neighbor Tenochtitlan was the political and administrative center and depended on Tlatelolco market. Both cities were built on an island in Lake Texcoco, Tlatelolco on the northern part of the island, Tenochtitlan on the south. Tensions and rivalries between the two cities exploded into war several times in the 14th and 15th centuries, until in 1473 Tenochtitlan conquered Tlatelolco. When conquistador Hernán Cortés and his indigenous allies besieged Tenochtitlan from May to August of 1521, the starving and diseased survivors moved to Tlatelolco where they made their last stand against the Spanish conquest.

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Rare Viking coins found in Belfast

Monday, November 28th, 2016

A metal detectorist has discovered two 11th century Viking silver coins near Newcastle in Co Down, Northern Ireland. Brian Morton was scanning a field last May when he found the silver pennies half an inch apart under four inches of mud. He didn’t know he’d found an extremely rare historical treasure. That was formally confirmed last week when a coroner’s inquest in Belfast declared the coins official treasure trove.

Made of 93% silver, the coins are of a rare type known as Hiberno-Manx coins. The rulers of Mann in the first half of the 11th century were Vikings from Scandinavia and from Dublin. Olaf Sigtryggsson, King of Mann in the early 1030s, was the son of Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, and his wife Sláine, daughter of Irish king and national hero Brian Boru. Viking Dublin had its own mint and issued coins which copied English designs. The Hiberno-Manx coins were very rough versions of the Dublin designs.

Despite the political and familial connections between Mann and Dublin and the numismatic mimicry, more than 90% of all known Hiberno-Manx coins have been found on the Isle of Man, which strongly suggests they circulated exclusively as currency on the island itself. The rest were found in Scandinavia. The two discovered by Brian Morton are the first to have been found in Ireland. (There are some in Irish private collections, but they were unearthed elsewhere or their find sites cannot be authenticated.)

How the coins made their way to the Co Down hinterland remains uncertain, but one possibility is that they were taken during a Viking raid on a nearby monastery at Maghera, the court was told. The discovery may also reflect more peaceful trading or strategic links between the Isle of Man and south-east Ulster.

Robert Heslip, a former curator of coins at the Ulster Museum, said they were probably dropped by someone passing rather than deliberately hidden.

He explained: “I would think that it is more likely to be a loss given that they were separated. Also, two is an odd number. You generally find one or a hoard of these coins.” [...]

Dr Greer Ramsey, of National Museums Northern Ireland, said: “We take coinage totally for granted but, prior to the Viking period in Ireland, there wasn’t coinage, and silver was the main form of currency. … The significance is that these coins are really the first that we can say were found in Ireland. It is a measure of contact – that people from the Isle of Man were travelling over.”

Next up for the coins is a valuation by independent experts at the British Museum. They’ll determine the fair market value which will be ponied up by whichever museum wants the coin as a finder’s fee to be split between Morton and the landowner. Local museums are given the opportunity to secure the treasure first, and given the oversized historical significance of these small pennies, I have little doubt the National Museums Northern Ireland, likely the Ulster Museum, will snap them up.

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Was a 14th c. queen the first to survive a caesarean?

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Caesarean sections have the reputation of being named after Julius Caesar because he was delivered surgically from his mother Aurelia. That is a myth that grew from a misunderstanding of the ancient sources in the 10th century. Pliny states in Natural History (Book VII, Chapter 7) that the dictator’s branch of the Julius family acquired the cognomen of Caesar because the first to bear the name was excised from his mother’s womb (from the Latin “caedo,” meaning “to cut”). In other words, the Caesars were named after the section, not the other way around, and Julius just inherited the moniker. Anyway Aurelia lived for many years after her son’s birth, and c-sections were only performed on dead or dying women because an abdominal incision was considered impossible to survive at that time.

It was impossible for a very long time after Caesar, as a matter of fact. Without anesthesia, the pain from abdominal surgery would cause massive traumatic shock. If that didn’t kill you on the spot, the blood loss would. If by some miracle the mother managed to survive the immediate dangers, infection would surely finish the job. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the advances in surgical procedure — Listerism to combat infection, anesthetics like ether, nitrous oxide and chloroform to keep shock at bay — made caesarean sections a consistently survivable option for emergency delivery.

There are a few reports of women managing to survive c-sections from before modern surgery. The earliest dates to 1500 and was first included as a case history almost a century later in a 1581 obstetrics monograph, L’hysterotomotokie ou enfantement césarien, by Parisian physician Francois Rousset who named the procedure after Caesar. The mother was the wife of a swine-gelder named Jacob Nufer from Turgau, Switzerland. After days of labour and with both his wife and baby in mortal danger, Nufer appealed to the town council to let him try to operate on his wife since none of the local surgeons were willing to take the risk. Assisted by a midwife and a cutter of bladder stones, Nufer cut into his wife and delivered a living child abdominally. Mrs. Nufer not only survived, but went on to have four more children. There are some records backing up the story, but there is no specific reference to the uterus being cut, so some scholars believe it was a laparotomy for sudden, acute abdominal pain rather than a caesarean.

Now obstetrician and medical historian Dr. Antonin Parizek of Charles University believes he may have found an earlier case: Beatrice of Bourbon, wife of the King of Bohemia John of Luxembourg who gave birth to their son in Prague in 1337. Beatrice was very young when she married the widowed king, just 14 years old, and it was not the happiest of matches. She had no interest in learning Czech of even German and was really only able to communicate with Blanche of Valois, the wife of her stepson (and future Holy Roman Emperor) Charles. King John spent all of two months at his court in Prague with his new bride in 1336, which was long enough to impregnate her. On February 25, 1337, Wenceslaus was born.

The only contemporary records of his birth that have survived are two letters from Beatrice announcing the birth in Latin. They do not mention a c-section. In fact, she goes out of her way to say that her son was born “salva incolumitate nostri corporis,” an unusual phrasing which directly translates to “without breaching our body.” The health of the mother is almost never mentioned in comparable announcements from 14th century from members of the Luxembourg and Bourbon dynasties. The focus is on the child. It’s odd that she even went there. Parizek believes her insistence that her body was intact was a response to rumors of surgical intervention in a difficult birth. Beatrice had to yet to be crowned Queen of Bohemia, and there was a strong association of the bodies of rulers, chosen by God, as physical manifestations of their souls and as symbols of the church. A large slice across the gut through which the king’s son had had to be fished out did not fit the mold of sacred and inviolate royal bodies.

It’s later sources that declare outright that Wenceslaus was born by c-section. The earliest is an early 15th century Flemish rhyming chronicle, Brabantsche Yeesten, by an anonymous author. There are verses in the chronicle that state that the boy was “taken from his mother’s body” and her wound healed. The author is amazed by this, because he had only ever heard of such an operation being performed on Julius Caesar. In 1549, Richard de Wassebourg, archdeacon of the Verdun Cathedral, reported the event in his book Antiquitez de la Gaule Belgique. At Wenceslaus birth, he said, “his mother Beatrice was opened up without dying.” Another reference is found in Mars Moravicus, written by Thomas Pesina of Čechorod, Vicar General and the Chapter Dean St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, in 1677. Pesina states: “John had a son named Wenceslaus, taken from the queen Beatrice of Bourbon, or rather from the maternal womb, without endangering the mother, rarely such a lucky example of recovery [or healthy fertility].”

If Beatrice really did survive a caesarean in 1337, it was a perfect storm of very good luck for her and the future Duke of Luxembourg, her son.

Prague was a center of education, but also of the medical care of the royal family. In light of the health of John of Bohemia [-- he suffered from ophthalmia and was basically blind by the time he married Beatrice --] a number of the most educated physicians of the time were present around the king. It can be presumed that they had the skills for the procedure, that is, cutting out a fetus from a dead or dying pregnant woman. Considering what we know, it can be rejected a priori that it was a case of deliberately saving the mother. In fact, the abdominal removal of the child from an apparently dead mother could partly explain the event described.

If that is indeed what happened, then with likelihood bordering on certainty Beatrice of Bourbon was considered to be dead when the procedure occurred. One explanation could be seizures as a complication of eclampsia. The cut would have had to be made immediately after the onset of such a state. The pain from the operation may have been the reason for a change in consciousness or awakening, and the stress reaction of the mother could also hypothetically explain why she did not bleed to death.

Suturing of wounds, especially of the abdominal wall, was a completely unknown procedure at that time. And that later complications did not arise from the non-sterile environment the operation was performed in push this hypothesis to the edge of reality. On the other hand, there is written evidence that using similar methods, with no anesthesia, surgical hemostasis or antiseptic conditions, the first experiments removing children through the abdomen after labor lasting several days were performed in the 17th to 19th centuries, and almost always in a home setting. It was very rare, but some women survived these operations.

Beatrice never had another child, which is another tick in the caesarean column, but she ended up outliving her first husband, who died in a famous charge against the English at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, by almost 40 years. Blind and 50 years old but still keen to fight, John tied his horse to his knights’ and rode fearlessly against the enemy. His was the only charge to break through the English lines, and the English killed them all. Beatrice also outlived all of her stepsons and even her son Wenceslaus, albeit only by 16 days.

You can read the whole fascinating paper published in the journal Ceska Gynekologie in English here. It touches on the history of c-sections, surgery, sutures, anesthetics and antiseptics, as well as on the specific case of Beatrice of Bourbon.

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Church, altar of Viking saint king found in Norway

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have discovered the foundations of the church where the Viking king Olaf II is believed to have been buried after he was canonised. King Olaf II Haraldsson, credited with introducing Christian law to Norway, was killed in nebulous circumstances in 1030. The earliest chroniclers reported that he was assassinated either by his own men or in an ambush, but later accounts give him a more glorious death at the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29th, 1030.

He was buried in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and very quickly stories sprang up of miraculous occurrences at his grave site. A year after his death, Bishop Grimkell, one of several English missionary bishops reputedly brought to Norway by Olaf, exhumed his body and found it miraculously uncorrupted. Grinkell declared Olaf a saint and his body was translated to a place of honor above the high altar of St. Clement’s church, a wood stave church Olaf had built a few years before his death. The local canonisation was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164 and Olaf became an official Roman Catholic saint.

Olaf’s body was moved again some decades later to Nidaros Cathedral, a larger and more glamorous site that could accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims dedicated to the cult of Saint Olaf. Over time, St. Clement’s was destroyed and its location forgotten.

Now it seems it has been rediscovered during an excavation on Søndre gate street in Trondheim. The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research team discovered the stone foundations of a wooden stave church. Preliminary dating indicates the structure was built in the 11th century.

During its excavation, the archaeologists uncovered a small rectangular stone-built platform at the building’s east end. This is probably the foundation for an altar – probably the very same altar on which St. Olaf’s coffin was placed in 1031! In addition, a small well has been found here which may be a holy well connected with the saint.

In the words of the excavation’s director Anna Petersén:

“This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here it all began!”

NIKU has created a series very cool 3D models illustrating the progress of the excavation.

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/01/2016:

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/19/2016, the choir begins to take shape:

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/29/2016:

The remains of the church:

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Centuries-old dentures found in Lucca family tomb

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In 2010, archaeologists from the University of Pisa excavated the tomb of the powerful Guinigi family in the San Francesco Monastery at Lucca. Scions of the wealthy family of merchants and bankers had ruled the city of Lucca from 1392 until 1430 as capitani del popolo (captains of the people, ie, dictators), and even after the family was overthrown and the Republic reinstated, the Guinigi remained one of the most prominent families in Lucca for centuries.

In 1358, the Guinigi Chapel was built near the convent of San Francesco. The bodies of family members were buried in the private chapel through the first half of the 17th century. Instead of being interred in separate areas, the remains were laid to rest in two large collective tombs. Over the years the bones were shifted around to make room, so when archaeologists excavated the chambers, the remains of more than 200 people were disarticulated and commingled making it impossible to reconstruct the skeletons of individuals.

Mixed in with the jumbled skeletal remains in the lowest stratigraphic layer of the south tomb, the team discovered a unique archaeological treasure: a centuries-old dental prosthesis. It is made of five human teeth — three central incisors and two lateral canines — joined by a gold band running through the root ends of the teeth. The teeth all came from different, let’s just say, donors. (Shoutout to Fantine from Les Miserables.) Examination under a microscope and CT scans found that the roots of the teeth were cut and abraded to relative evenness. Then the a thin cut was made across the bases of the teeth and a thin gold was inserted into the cuts. Two small holes were cut in each tooth and gold pins inserted to fix the tooth to the band. At each end of the device, the gold was bent into s-shapes and pierced with a hole. These ends were attached to the living teeth, likely with ties, as indicated in illustrations of similar dental prosthetics from the 16th and 18th centuries

Because it was found in the earliest layer, it may date to as early as the 14th century, but it would have been very easy for the dentures to fall through successive layers of bones, so stratigraphy is of no help in dating the piece. This was highly advanced dentistry in Early Modern Europe. The gold band technology was mentioned in period sources from Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1300-1368), the French physician who first recognized there were two kinds of plague, Bubonic and Pneumonic, to Pierre Fauchard (1678–1761), the father of modern dentistry.

Archaeologists were not able to match the dentures to any of the mandibles found in the tomb, but the presence of dental calculus covering the holes indicate the prosthetic was used for many years. Indeed, Fauchard’s description of such appliances emphasizes their longevity. From the 1746 edition of his treatise Le Chirurgien dentiste, ou Traité des dents:

“Teeth and artificial dentures, fastened with posts and gold wire, hold better than all others. They sometimes last 15–20 years and even more without displacement. Common thread and silk, used ordinarily to attach all kinds of teeth or artificial pieces, do not last long.”

The dentures found in the Guinigi predate Fauchard by at least a century, but they are notably more complex than the device he describes. The gold band runs inside the roots of the teeth, fastened with pins and the appliance is anchored to in situ teeth with those s-shaped ends. Fauchard just attaches a band to the lingual and buccal surface of the teeth using strings run through holes drilled into the teeth.

One member of the team, Dr Simona Minozzi, said: “Although there are descriptions of similar objects in texts from the period, there is no known archaeological evidence. The dentures found in the tomb are the first example of dentures from this historical period, and as such are a valuable addition to the history of dentistry.”

The study of the dental appliance has been published in the journal Clinical Implant Dentistry and Related Research. It is not, alas, freely available for perusal, but if you have an institutional subscription or six bucks to spare, you can enjoy some more detailed images of the holes, gold band and dental plaque.

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Rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery found

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

A rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been discovered in an extraordinary state of preservation in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. Funded by Historic England, Museum of London Archaeology experts excavated the site in advance of the creation of a conservation lake and flood defense system that will leave it fully submerged. The site is already quite soggy, thanks to the high water table of the river valley, which is why the graves in the cemetery have been so incredibly well-preserved. The alkaline water combined with the acidic sand of the area to create a perfect storm for the survival of organic remains.

There are six plank-lined graves, the earliest known examples in Britain, and an unprecedented 81 treetrunk coffins dating to the 7th-9th century A.D. Early Anglo-Saxon coffins and wood-lined graves very rarely survive. Usually all archaeologists have to go on are the stains left in the soil by the long-decayed wood. The plank-lined graves were lined with finely hewn timbers and the body laid within. More planks were then placed on top to create a coffin-like enclosure.

While treetrunk coffins have been discovered before, mainly in the 19th century, this is the first time they have been professionally excavated using modern archaeological methods. The coffins were dug out from oak trees cut in half lengthwise. Bodies were placed in the hollowed out center of one half, then the second half of the oak was placed on top to act as a lid. This was a labour-intensive process that would have taken one man an estimated four days to complete. Treetrunk coffins have been found in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon graves as well, so their presence in this early Christian cemetery may suggest a syncretic combination of old and new religious traditions.

There is considerable evidence pointing to this being a Christian burial ground. The graves each have wooden markers and are aligned from east to west, both Christian traditions that are not seen in pagan burials. They also lack grave goods which were an important part of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon funerary practices. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a timber structure on the site that they think may have been a church or chapel, an extremely rare find from this period.

When the cemetery was in use, the site was on a busy river crossing in the kingdom of East Anglia. There is virtually no documentary evidence from this period of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, so such a rich, well-preserved site is an invaluable source of information to archaeologists and historians.

The discovery is shedding light on a previously unknown religious site and the fascinating lives of this early Christian rural community. Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried and paint a picture of the people who lived here. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

The timber will be subjected to dendrochronological analysis to give us a more precise date range. Once the remains have been studied and conserved, they will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

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Rare Viking toolbox discovered at Borgring

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Excavations of the 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand in 2014 are still in the early stages. A few test pits were dug in 2014 in areas believed to be, based on initial laser and geomagnetic surveys of the site, the fortress gates. Large oak timbers, blackened by fire, confirmed that there had indeed been gates there and that the fort had had a catastrophic fire shortly after its construction. Few artifacts were found. Only a single axe head was reported, that I could find.

That record has changed dramatically thanks to the discovery of a rare Viking toolkit at the east gate. Volunteer metal detectorists Kent and Knuds scanned the area and got a loud signal from their machines. Archaeologists could tell there was something in the soil there, and since the signal indicated the metal wasn’t in the top layer (where it could easily have been a piece of modern farm equipment) but rather deeper down in the layers of archaeological interest, they decided to remove the whole block of soil encasing whatever had set off the metal detectors.

Wrapped in plastic to keep it together, the entire soil block was transported to the Zealand University Hospital in Køge to get a CT scan. The hospital scanner confirmed that there was a group of iron objects inside that looked like they might be tools including spoon drills (used to drill holes in wood) and a drawplate (used to produce thin wire for jewelry). The pieces appeared to be laid out in careful order, suggesting they weren’t dumped or lost. They were likely kept in a toolbox whose wood has now decayed.

Archaeologists spent two days excavating the soil block and found 14 iron objects. There were pieces that were not visible on the scan because they were too corroded or their iron content was too low to register. The more corroded objects cannot be identified at this time; conservation may help make it clear what their original purpose was, and now that they’ve been removed from the soil block, the objects will be individually X-rayed to get a better idea of their design. Archaeologist Nanna Holm suspects one of the spoon drills may actually be a pair of tweezers or pliers, for example.

This box of tools would have been extremely valuable in the Viking era. Only a few of them have ever been discovered. If a tool was broken or became unusable for any reason, they were melted down and made into something else practical, not thrown out. The discovery of a fully loaded toolbox by the east gate is highly significant within the context of Borgring itself, because it’s the first evidence that people actually lived there.

The craftsmen presumably lived very well, whether he used the east gate as a home or a workshop. It was 30 to 40 square metres of space and had its own fireplace–and of course, the toolbox with the valuable iron tools.

So why did he leave the premises and his toolbox?

Perhaps because at some point, the gate simply collapsed, says Holm.

“We found the tools under the posts, so there’s some evidence that the gate collapsed, and it probably did so because they were rotten, old, and unstable. We only discovered the outline of the posts, suggesting that the rest simply rotted away. Then the tools got buried until we discovered now,” she says.

It seems that the fire that struck the east and north gates did not destroy the fort. It was put out before the gates could collapse and the fire spread to the rest of the fortress. After the fire, two layers of clay were built up inside the gate. There was a fireplace in each layer, and the toolbox was unearthed from the newer of the two clay layers. That means the craftsman who lived or worked at the east gate did so after the fire.

The tools are being studied and conserved now. Next year, conservation should be complete and the toolkit will go on public display.

Timelapse of the excavation of the toolbox:

A journalist joins in the excavation:

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Stolen illuminated manuscript leaf to return to Italy

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

A stolen page from a 14th century illuminated manuscript that has been in the Cleveland Museum of Art since the 1950s is now in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division in preparation for its return to Italy. Codex D is an antiphonary, a book of chants used by liturgical choirs in the Middle Ages, which was once held by the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, a town about halfway between Florence in Pisa, and is now kept in a Castelfiorentino museum. It’s not certain exactly when, but two illuminated leaves were stolen from the manuscript. One of them was bought by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952. It was attributed to a different illuminator at the time and the museum put it on display without realizing there was anything shady about its ownership history.

ICE only got involved recently when the second leaf from Codex D appeared on the art and antiquities Swiss market. That leaf was repatriated to Italy, but the investigation into its theft and recovery led to the leaf in Cleveland.

Working collaboratively with HSI to research the history of the leaf and after evaluating the information provided by the Italian government, the Museum agreed the leaf should be transferred to Italy to be reunited with the Antiphonary.

“Once we were able to substantiate the information provided, we decided that the best place for the leaf was back with the Antiphonary. We feel the leaf has greater significance if it is reunited with the other illuminations in the manuscript. Along with the recovery of a second leaf, the Antiphonary will now be complete” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The antiphonary was illuminated by one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 14th century. His name has yet to be discovered, but he is known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies. He was given his moniker by art historian Richard Offner after his magnum opus, a panel painting in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, entitled Christ and the Virgin Mary Enthroned, Attended by Seventeen Dominican Saints and Beati (beatified or blessed ones). His panel paintings were smaller triptychs and tabernacles characterized by complex narratives rendered on a miniature scale. He was one of a group of Florentine artists in the 14th century classified as painters of the “miniaturist tendency” who sought to capture the dynamism and emotion of life in the details of small scenes.

Many of the miniaturists, the Master of the Dominican Effigies prominent among them, were also manuscript illuminators. Indeed, their illumination skills played an important role in the artists’ approach to panel painting. Panels by the Master of Dominican Effigies, for example, have exquisite freeform decorative details created with a stylus rather than the metal rods with patterns on one end, known as punch tools, that were frequently used by Tuscan painters from the early 14th century to stamp decorations onto the work. He did it by hand with what was basically a pen, just like he did in his manuscripts.

The Master was one of the preeminent illuminators of his age and was commissioned by secular and religious patrons to illuminate antiphonaries, hymnals, even copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Laudario of Sant’Agnese, a hymnal he illuminated together with his friend and the other preeminent illuminator of their time, Pacino di Bonaguida, is widely considered one of the most important illuminated manuscripts made in early 14th century Florence. Its pages are scattered in 16 collections in Europe and the United States, four of them in J. Paul Getty Museum.

Because of their rarity and art historical importance, individual pages from manuscripts illuminated by the Master of Dominican Effigies are highly prized and found in a number of top US museums, including the National Gallery of Art as well as the Getty. Even small fragments of his illuminations are considered museum quality and can be found in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the Getty’s Laudario holdings is a fragment, a cutout of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Pacino di Bonaguida.

Only one leaf from of The Laudario of Sant’Agnese is still in Italy, so the return of both stolen leafs from the Codex D antiphonary is a rare and precious thing. ICE and the Italian government are working out the details of the repatriation now.

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St. Anne’s Well rescued from oblivion

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

A medieval holy well in the village Rainhill, in Merseyside, England, used for centuries by pilgrims for its reputed miraculous healing powers, has been recovered after decades of neglect. The location of St. Anne’s Well was known, but after decades of ploughing in the surrounding fields, it had filled up with soil and was marked only by a couple of rocks perched on a patch of half-dead grass. In danger of disappearing from the landscape all together, six years ago it was placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. Earlier this year, Historic England commissioned Oxford Archeology North to excavate the site and find out what was left.

Two days of digging revealed a shallow well 5’9″ square and four feet deep constructed of local ashlar sandstone blocks with a level stone floor and three steps lead down to the water basin. There is a thin layer of water at the bottom of the well even now. A stone conduit on the north side of the well which once carried overflow water from the well to a carved stone basin is no longer extant. Also missing is a medieval carved relief of a woman carrying a pitcher that was last recorded on site in the mid-19th century when the well was still in use.

While there doesn’t seem to be an explicit association of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, with water or wells in Catholic or Orthodox traditions, in England many waters believed to have healing powers were dedicated to her. Veneration of sacred springs, wells and fonts was a common in pre-Christian religions, so it seems likely the powers of earlier divinities or forces were mapped on to Anne in the late Middle Ages when her cult became increasingly popular. The wells were sometimes said to have been visited by an apparition of St. Anne who bathed in the waters rendering them miraculous; other times her image appeared in the water or structure of the well, like Jesus on a potato chip.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Rainhill St. Anne’s Well had a reputation for specializing in the treatment of skin diseases. Pilgrims seeking healing would walk down the steps and dip into the water that naturally filled the basin, seeping in from below the stone floor. The faithful who sought aid from the healing waters would leave offerings, from the simple (crutches, shirts) to the rarefied (gold coins), another practice long predating Christianity. As the holy well became a greater and greater draw, Sutton Priory, the monastery about a mile away which owned the well, had a small three-room house built over the well. Two of the priory monks lived in the house to tend to the well, the pilgrims and their gifts.

Sutton Priory was small in population, having about a dozen monks, but large in income. Besides the well, which by the 16th century was very lucrative, it owned the valuable surrounding farmland which it leased to moneyed members of the gentry. A boundary dispute between the priory and its neighbor Sir Richard Bold would transform the holy well into a cursed one.

The legend of how the holy well became the locus of a curse was recounted in the St. Helens Leader (pdf), the journal of the local YMCA, in 1877. Hugh Darcy, Bold’s steward met Prior Delwaney and traded harsh words with him. Darcy sneered that maybe the prior wouldn’t be a prior a much longer. The year was 1536, and one or two days after that tense exchange, Layton and Leigh, agents of Thomas Cromwell charged with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, notified Delwaney that Sutton Priory was to be no longer. All the monks were given a couple of pounds, a robe and packed off to another monastery (until that one too was dissolved), and the crown claimed all of the priory’s property, including the holy well.

When the prior and the crown’s agents went to the well, they found Dancy there, gloating. Delwaney became enraged at Dancy’s taunts and hissed: “The curse of the serpent be on thee, thou spoiler of the Lord’s inheritance. Thy ill-gotten gains shall not profit thee, and a year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise.” Three hours later, Delwaney was dead. Dancy did fine at first, acquiring the farmland that included the well and demolishing the house over it. But within months his only son was dead, his lost his money in dubious investments and he took to drinking heavily. One night, after an evening of imbibing at the tavern, he failed to come home. He was found dead the next morning, head smashed against the well.

The story of the curse and the loss of the priory didn’t stop people from seeking healing in the waters of St. Anne’s Well. It was in use into the 19th century, adding to its previous reputation one for healing diseases of the eye. It was captured in a sketch by naturalist and fossil-hunter Richard Owen in 1843, and it still had its basin and the relief of the lady with the pitcher. By 1877, however, when the St. Helens Leader article was written, the stones were broken, the water dried up and weeds grew unchecked.

The well is on private property today, but Historic England has struck an agreement with the farmer to keep the well from getting clogged with dirt and disappearing again.

New wooden edging to the perimeter of the excavation will prevent soil falling in, and provide a buffer to protect the well from damage by farm machinery. It can now come off the Heritage at Risk Register.

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