Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Medieval horse skull found at Colosseum

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

The Colosseum is in the middle of an extensive 25-million-euro restoration project financed by Tod’s shoe and bag empire. The first phase of the restoration, a thorough cleaning of the exterior, took three years and was completed last summer. The next phases will focus on shoring up the underground vaults, passages and drainage system and constructing a new visitor’s center.

But you don’t have to be in the Colosseum proper to stumble on centuries-old remains. While cleaning the area around the steps around the amphitheater’s foundation, workers with the Archeology Superintendency discovered the skull of a horse buried just a few centimeters under the surface. An archaeozoologist dated the skull to the 12th or 13th century.

In the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was something of a mixed-used development. Until around 1180, the ground level vaults underneath the seating tiers were rented out as apartments and workshops by the church of Santa Maria Nova in the Roman Forum. But by then the state of constant warfare between the Roman nobility had made the Colosseum a strategic prize. Whoever controlled the Colosseum controlled the west and north access to the Pope’s residence in the Lateran Palace. The Frangipani family took over everything but ground floor interior, fortifying the structure by 1130.

This was a direct threat to the papacy, which had very recent reason to be concerned. In 1119, Cencio Frangipani broke into the Lateran Palace, seized the newly elected pope Gelasius II, beat him and threw him in prison. The rioni of Rome revolted, and Frangipani was forced to free the venerable old pontiff. He forgave Cencio, but his successor Pope Callistus II did not. He had the Frangipani castle destroyed in 1121, thus making the Colosseum even more strategically important for them.

Other Roman families were keen to get a piece of that action. In 1216, the Annibaldi family tried to build a tower near the Colosseum but the Frangipani blocked it. The Annibaldi changed course and took it the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The Frangipani were partisans of the Pope, so Frederick, who would be excommunicated no less than four times during his reign, was more than glad to fight the papacy by proxy through the petty conflicts of Roman nobles. In 1230, he compelled the Frangipani to give half the amphitheater, the half closest to the Lateran Palace, no less, to the Annibaldi. The pope at the time, Gregory IX, who would go on to call Frederick the Antichrist, was still smarting from the very sound spanking the Emperor’s forces had given to the army he sent to invade Frederick’s Sicilian kingdom in 1229 (while Frederick was on Crusade, no less). The enemies were temporarily at truce, so Gregory was in no position to fight battles over the Colosseum.

The skull will be subjected to additional testing, and the excavations around the foundation will continue. I’m secretly hoping they can identify it as a noble steed that may have figured in the endless intramural skirmishes of medieval Rome. Rome Archeology Superintendent Francesco Prosperetti said of the horse skull that it is “evidence, as if it were needed, that the square of the Colosseum is a place waiting to be investigated from an archaeological point of view, and that it holds surprises at every level.”

Here’s a look at phase one of the restoration with some great shots of the painstaking cleaning process and of the newly brightened façade:

Share

Rare medieval Madonna that survived Reformation, Revolution goes home

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

One of very few English-made statues of Catholic iconography to survive the Reformation has been acquired by the British Museum and will return to its homeland after centuries abroad. The alabaster figure of Virgin and Child was made in England, likely in the Midlands area, by an unknown artist in around 1350-75. Alabaster was highly prized by carvers in the 14th century because of its translucent glow, ivory tones and a surface that welcomed painting and gilding. Cheaper and easier to carve than marble, gypsum alabaster was extensively quarried in the Midlands during the 14th and 15th centuries. During this period, Nottingham had an active and lucrative trade in small devotional statues and reliefs, buoyed by the rich supply of local raw materials.

How this statue survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction of icons of the Protestant Reformation is unknown.

Early religious royal injunctions issued by Henry VIII had merely called for objects of religious “idolatry” to be taken down, citing the words of the second commandment: “Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth.”

But a more severe injunction followed after the succession of his son, Edward VI, in 1547. It called for the clergy “to take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindles or rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition: so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows or elsewhere within their churches or houses. And they shall exhort their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.”

In the following months religious statues were smashed, while a few were hidden behind walls and under floorboards. Some had their eyes deliberately damaged or their heads lopped off.

All we know is that at some point after it was created, the Madonna and Child made its way to Saint Truiden Abbey, in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium. Founded in the 7th century by Saint Trudo, aka Saint Truiden, the monastery was an important site of pilgrimage for centuries during the Middle Ages. A deep-pocketed pilgrim could have bought the statue in England and gifted it to the abbey shortly after it was created. Or it could have been saved from destruction in the 16th century and smuggled out of the country.

It then survived another orgy of destruction: the French Revolution. French Revolutionary forces arrived at Saint Truiden in 1794. They looted and pillaged the abbey and church, setting the latter on fire. Everything of value was stripped and sold for cash, from the artworks to the building materials. Perhaps the statue survived by being sold.

It first appears on the historical record in Brussels in 1864 where it was exhibited and purchased by Austrian collector, Dr. Albert Figdor. After his death it was acquired by an anonymous European family who put it up for auction. That’s where it was spotted by the British Museum who arranged a sale through art dealers Sam Fogg with funding from the Art Fund and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Whatever traumas it has experienced, the statue is in incredible condition. It still retains some of its polychrome paint and gilding. Quite a signficant amount of red and gold still decorates Mary’s crown. Most of the visible wear is the result of devotion, not violence. The faces of both Mother and Child and foot of the Child are worn from centuries of kisses and caresses from pilgrims.

The statue is now on display in the British Museum’s medieval gallery next to the South Cerney head and foot. The head and one foot of Christ are all that remain of the wooden crucifix of All Hallows Church in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. They were found hidden behind the wall of the church’s nave in 1915. It seems it was secreted whole, a desperate attempt to save it from destruction, and then over the centuries most of the crucifix rotted away leaving only the head and foot. The placement illustrates the shared context of the still-beautiful Madonna and Child and the ruins of the crucifix.

3D model time! I enjoyed zooming in and searching for polychrome paint remnants.

Share

Will of 12th c. Georgian king on display for the 1st time

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, Georgia, has put on display the only surviving fragment of the last will and testament of the 12th century King of Georgia, David the Builder. The Georgia’s Medieval Treasury exhibition “showcases Georgian Christian art that reflected the unity and continuity of cultural traditions and formed the basis of the Georgian statehood and the national identity.” It opened in June but the objects on display are constantly changing and the will only went on display a week ago. It is the first time this priceless relic has been on public display.

David the Builder is Georgia’s greatest national hero. Just 16 years old when his father abdicated in his favor, David fought the Seljuk Turks for more than 20 years, chipping off territories under their control from 1101 until 1123 when he wrested their last stronghold of Dmanisi from them and unified the country. According to Arabic scholars like Badr al-Din al-Ayni, David the Builder respected other faiths, granted legal protection to Muslims and Jews living in the kingdom as well as adherents to minority Christian denominations like the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 1125, King David wrote a will and determined the orderly succession of his kingdom. He died on January 24th of that year. He was just 53 years old but had reigned for 36 years. His son Demetrius succeeded him. The Georgian Orthodox Church canonized him a saint for his dedication to the faith.

Together the reigns of David the Builder and his granddaughter Tamar (r. 1184–1213) are considered the Georgian Golden Age, a military, political and cultural Renaissance in the east hundreds of years before Western Europe got around to it. The Golden Age didn’t long outlive Queen Tamar. First the Mongol invasions of the 1230s and 40s broke Georgian independence, rendering it a vassal state. In the late 14th century Timur (Tamerlane) devastated the country and forced the king to pay tribute. By 1466, the Kingdom of Georgia no longer existed even in name only; it disintegrated into several small kingdoms and principalities. It was carved up some more by neighboring powers — Persia and the Ottoman Empire, then the Russian Empire which absorbed it in 1801.

Even after centuries without a functional Georgian state, Georgian cultural identity still held on strong and David the Builder was widely revered. On display along with the fragment of the will is a glass negative of the whole document made in 1895 by photographer and Georgian nationalist Alexander Roinashvili. He took numerous photographic portraits of prominent Georgian public figures and of important sites and objects of Georgian cultural heritage. So dedicated was he to sharing and promoting Georgian history that he conceived the idea of a mobile museum of Georgian antiquities that would feature both photographs and historical artifacts — weapons, silverware, coins — he’d collected for years. In 1887, Roinashvili finally got his museum off the ground and took it on tour. The museum never did travel as far and wide as Roinashvili had hoped, but it’s thanks to his unwavering committment to documenting Georgian culture that we have a copy of David the Builder’s will.

Share

Celtic harness fitting converted into Viking brooch

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

This summer, a metal detectorist scanning a field at Agdenes farm on Norway’s Trondheim Fjord unearthed a piece of bronze jewelry. The well preserved object is a bird-like figure with intricate designs representing fish or dolphins on each wing. The decoration identifies it as being of Celtic origin, probably Irish, made in the 8th or 9th century. The Irish craftsmen made it as a fitting for a horse harness, but at some point it was converted into a brooch, as attested by a hole at the bottom and rust from where the pin was attached to the back. This second stage was the work of Vikings who often converted loot from their raids into jewelry for their loved ones.

It was almost certainly buried with a woman. Similar pieces have been found before, almost all of them in women’s graves from the first half of the 800s, the early years of the Viking incursions on the British Isles. Unfortunately the grave itself was not found. The object was ploughed up and scattered in the 1200 years since it was buried, and the grave in all likelihood has been destroyed.

Experts at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum analyzed the brooch and found traces of gilding, so the green bronze was once shiny gold, a coveted prize for a raider, and a very fine present for any raider’s lover or family member.

Being part of the early Viking raids brought status and prestige to the individuals who participated, but also to their families. The men who returned alive from the dangerous journeys gave the objects they had stolen as gifts to female family members who waited for them at home. The fittings were then turned into jewellery, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings.

“As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewellery, so it was originally covered in gold. That made it appear more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewellery was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewellery,” [NTNU doctoral student Aina Margrethe] Heen Pettersen says.

Jewellery of this kind has typically been found in women’s graves with relatively few other burial gifts. This suggests that many of the Vikings who took part in raids far away did not represent the top layer of the social hierarchy. Instead, they were “nouveau riche” farmers and fishermen who got the opportunity to climb the social ladder by taking part in Viking raids.

The area where the brooch was found is mentioned in some of the sagas as a rallying point for ships and raiders setting out from the south end of the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord for the British Isles. The remains of a 12th century harbour built by King Øystein have been found next to Agdenes farm, so the location was of signficant strategic importance by then. The discovery of the brooch confirms that the site was populated and benefitted from raiding wealth centuries before Øystein’s harbour was built in the dawn of Viking engagement with the British Isles.

Share

Ancient necropolis found in Bordeaux city center

Sunday, December 11th, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptionally large and diverse ancient necropolis in the center of Bordeaux. The site, known as Castéja, hosted the first school for deaf girls in France (the main building built in 1862 is a historic monument). More recently it was the city’s central police station. The police station was closed in 2003 and in 2014 the property was sold to developers for an ambitious mixed incoming housing project. An archaeological survey was commissioned in advance of new construction.

So far around 40 graves containing the skeletal remains of about 300 people have been unearthed. Archaeologist and excavation director Xavier Perrot thinks the number of burials will increase as the excavation proceeds, perhaps even doubling. The burials begin in late antiquity (the 4th century) and continue through the early Middle Ages. There are a variety of tombs: ancient tile graves, amphora burials for babies, inhumations with traces of wooden coffins, brick-lined burial pits. Archaeologists also found two Merovingian-era sarcophagi and some very rare medieval coins.

The contents of the graves are unusually diverse for the period. Some are individual burials, while others contain multiple bodies piled on top of each other in a haphazard fashion. They appear to have been tossed in the grave hastily, which suggests they have been victims of mass violence, or more likely, of an epidemic. The Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that swept through the Byzantine Empire before spreading to the Mediterranean port cities and the rest of Europe in the mid-6th century, is a possible culprit. The remains will be subjected to a battery of laboratory tests to determine the dates of those burials and identify the epidemic, should there be one to identify.

Very few burial grounds this densely packed with remains are extant from antiquity. There are maybe three or four comparable sites in France and one in Bavaria, and none of those are as large as the Bordeaux find.

“This is an important operation. We see the evolution of the urban fabric and changes in burial arrangements with inhumations in the ground, in coffins, sarcophagi, a funerary space that evolves with a pit, multiple burials”, said Nathalie Fourment, regional curator of archeology at the regional Direction of Cultural Affairs (DRAC).

Excavations began early last month and were originally scheduled to end on January 20th, but because of the importance of the find, DRAC is negotiating an extension with property owner Gironde Habitat.

Share

Is this Robert the Bruce which you see before you?

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Robert the Bruce, hero of Bannockburn and King of Scots (r. 1306-1329) He died comparatively young, a month before 55th birthday, of an unknown ailment. His body was buried in Dunfermline Abbey where a passel of Scottish kings and queens were laid to rest. The abbey was sacked in 1560 during the Scottish Reformation. The parts of it that survived the sacking fell into ruin. The nave was repaired and used as a parish church until the early 19th century when a new church was built on the site of the Benedictine abbey. Construction workers building the new parish church in 1818 unearthed the bones of Robert the Bruce in a vault underneath what was once the high altar. His remains were sealed in pitch and reburied with great pomp and circumstance, but a cast was made of the skull before the reburial.

There are no reliable contemporary written or artistic depictions of Robert the Bruce’s appearance. He had suffered multiple bouts of serious illness during his lifetime, and some English chroniclers intimated he was afflicted with leprosy. No Scottish reports mention any such affliction. Modern technology could answer many questions about Bruce if his bones were available for research, but they are not. All we have is the cast of the skull of which there are several copies.

University of Glasgow professor of Scottish history Dr. Martin MacGregor had a brainwave when he saw a documentary featuring the facial reconstruction of Richard III. He realized the technology was advanced enough now that it might work on the cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull in the University’s Hunterian Museum. He reached out to Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)’s Face Lab, an expert in craniofacial identification who created the facial reconstruction of Richard III.

A careful examination of the cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull does show signs of what could be leprosy. There are osteological changes to his upper jaw and nose consistent with Hansen’s Disease, but the evidence is not conclusive. Dr. Wilkinson therefore took a two-pronged approach to the reconstruction: a younger man in full health, and an older one with scarring from leprosy.


Professor Wilkinson said: “Using the skull cast, we could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face. But what the reconstruction cannot show is the colour of his eyes, his skin tones and the colour of his hair. We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy. He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face, as this is not documented.” [...]

Professor Wilkinson added: “In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation of the probability of certain hair and eye colours, conducted by Dr MacGregor and his team, to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes.”

“There have also been a number of advances in facial reconstruction techniques since previous depictions of this Scottish hero, including better facial feature prediction and more advanced CGI.”

“This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.”

This video walks through the facial reconstruction:

This one reconstructs his long-lost tomb, destroyed during the reformation.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

January 2017
S M T W T F S
« Dec    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication