Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

400 Viking, Iron Age artifacts stolen from Bergen museum

Monday, August 21st, 2017

At least 400 Viking and Iron Age artifacts were stolen from the University Museum in Bergen, Norway, during the weekend of August 11-1. The burglars climbed scaffolding on the exterior of the museum’s building (currently undergoing renovation) and broke in through a 7th floor window. They ransacked the rooms where the objects were being kept in cabinets and on shelves, making off with hundreds of pieces.

Two alarms rang on the evening of Saturday, August 12th. Security guards investigated the building, but reported nothing untoward, which does not speak highly of their competence given the 7th floor was left in a total shambles by the burglars. The theft was discovered on Monday by museum staff.

The museum acknowledges that the artifacts were insufficiently secured. In a painful irony, they were scheduled to be moved to a more secure location on August 14th, that same Monday when the theft was discovered.

Conservators are still tallying up the stolen artifacts. Most of the more than 400 that have been identified so far date to the Iron Age (500 B.C.-1030 A.D.) and the Viking period (800-1030 A.D.). They are small, portable objects, primarily jewelry of negligible monetary value, nor is there any particular value in the metals they’re composed of. It’s their historical value that matters, and the thieves are unlikely to be able to cash in on that.

To the museum, however, the loss is devastating.

“For us as a museum it is to take care of the cultural heritage our most important task. We have not met our requirements. It is incomprehensible and no explanations are good enough. The items that are gone do not have so much economic value, but very high historical value. We can now only hope that the lost is coming back and we can work purposefully to prevent the like from happening again. But I feel heavy,” says the museum director [Henrik von Achen].

All safety systems have been reviewed, the scaffolding and building secured, but closing the barn door after the horses have fled is little consolation to the museum staff. Many of the objects were going to be on display in an upcoming Viking exhibition scheduled for later this year. Unless the artifacts are recovered quickly, the exhibition will probably have to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Norwegian police are actively investigating the theft, working with their counterparts in other countries in the hope of catching the thieves in the attempt to smuggle or sell the artifacts. The University Museum staff aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the police to solve the crime. They are enlisting the power of social media to get the word out. As conservators work to inventory the stolen objects, images of the artifacts are being uploaded to a dedicated Facebook page. The museum asks that the photo album be shared as widely as possible and that people keep their eyes peeled for any pieces that might crop up on auction and sale sites that don’t monitor whether sellers have legitimate title to the items being sold. The more widely seen the artifacts are, the harder it will be for the thieves to unload them under the radar.


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Tudor palace remains found under Old Royal Naval College

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

The remains of the Tudor-era palace have been discovered under the floor of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. The crew was working on an ambitious project to restore the King William Undercroft of the hall and reveal English Baroque architecture designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that was covered up more than a hundred years ago when they found the remains of two rooms from Greenwich Palace. One has a rare surviving stretch of lead-glazed tile flooring.

Being set back from the river, these are likely to be from the service range, possibly where the kitchens, bakehouse, brewhouse and laundry were.

One of the rooms was clearly subterranean and contains a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when the bee colonies are hibernating. Bee boles have occasionally been found in historic garden walls, but it is very rare to find them internally, making this find even more significant. The niches were probably used for keeping food and drink cool in the summer months when the skeps were outside.

The first palatial structure on the site was built by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV, brother of Henry V and uncle of Henry VI. Appointed Lord Protector upon his brother’s death, he largely ruled the country while his nephew was a small child and was even Regent, albeit a contested one, after the death of his elder brother. In 1433 he had a palace he named Bella Court built on the south bank of the Thames just downstream from London.

When he was accused of treason by his enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and died in jail in 1447, she took Bella Court and renamed it the Palace of Placentia (from the Latin for pleasantness). From then on, it was the monarch’s playground and a highly popular one at that. Nestled in the bucolic splendor of Greenwich Park, it was a quick boat ride from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace, the primary London palaces of the Tudor monarchs. It offered all the clean air and verdant beauties of the country with all the advantages of easy proximity to the metropolitan heartbeat of London.

King Henry VII rebuilt and expanded the palace, and Henry VIII, never one to be outdone when it came to lavish spending on his personal luxuries, turned into one of the most glamorous palaces in the country, on a par with Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII was born in the Palace of Placentia, so he had a particular affection for it. The future Queen Mary I was also born there. So was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Her mother Anne Boleyn was arrested there before being taken by barge to the Tower of London. Henry’s much longed-for but ultimately sickly and ineffectual male heir Edward VI died there.

Elizabeth I spent many a summer at Greenwich Palace and several events of momentous import in her reign took place there, including the parade of booty captured from the Spanish Armada, a performance by William Shakespeare, her knighting of Sir Francis Drake and, according to an almost certainly apocryphal tale, Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalric act of covering a puddle with his cape so the Queen would not soil her dainty regal feet.

The Stuart monarchs weren’t as fond of Greenwich Palace as the Tudors had been, but it was still one of the most frequented palaces thanks to its prime location. Placentia was eclipsed when the Queen’s House was built nearby on the Greenwich Park grounds. Commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, Queen’s House was built between 1616 and 1635 by architect Inigo Jones, his first big royal job and the first palace built entirely in the classical style Jones would become famous for.

As with so many buildings associated with the British monarchy, aristocracy and church, the Palace of Placentia declined precipitously during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Cromwell tried to sell it at first, as he had sold off so many royal possessions. In 1652 the House of Commons authorized its sale to defray the Navy’s expenses. They ordered the palace, park and all associated lands be surveyed and their value assessed, but while the survey did take place, there is no record of the sale attempt going any further. Always practical minded, Cromwell converted the palace into a biscuit factory. Later he used it as a prisoner of war camp.

Come the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II decided to call time on the one glorious Palace of Placentia, by now so dilapidated it was beyond repair. He ordered it demolished and a new even grander palace built in its place. The expansive luxury compound he envisioned was never finished. His successors William and Mary had no interest in picking up where he left off. In 1685 they gave Charles’ unfinished nub of palace, a chunk of the grounds and other structures to Sir John Sommers with the intent that he use the estate to build the new Royal Hospital for Seamen, which he did.

And so Greenwich Palace became the Naval Hospital and then the Old Royal Naval College. When the restoration of the undercroft and elaborately painted ceiling after which the Painted Hall is named is complete in 2019, the hall will be the new visitor center for the Old Royal Naval College. The ORNC is hoping to include the newly discovered Tudor remains in the new visitor center, but that will require more money, and they’re still £2 million short of the total they need to complete the Painted Hall Project as it is. I’m sure they’ll find a way. How many more kings and queens had to have been born and died there before they can scrounge up the cash to preserve some of the only surviving remains of Greenwich Palace?

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Staedtler erasers extract DNA from medieval parchment

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Two years ago, University of York bioarchaeologists used Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers’ characteristic soft, pure white crumbs to collect samples of ultra-thin uterine vellum from 13th century pocket Bibles without damaging the incredibly delicate pages. The microscopic samples collected on the eraser crumbs were then analyzed to determine the animal source of the vellum/parchment and the ages of the animals at time of death. It was a great breakthrough which answered a centuries-old question about the composition of so-called uterine vellum, namely, that it’s neither uterine (made from the skin of aborted or miscarried animals) nor necessarily vellum (made from cow skin) but the product of various young animals whose skin was treated with an unknown technique to create the paper-thin pages.

Now the Staedtler Mars eraser has enabled another great leap forward in the study of medieval manuscripts. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Trinity College Dublin and the University of York team who did the uterine vellum study have successfully performed DNA and protein analysis on samples from the pages of the York Gospels, an pre-Norman Conquest 11th century codex held at York Minster that is one of very few Anglo-Saxon gospels to have survived the Reformation’s orgy of destruction, and a 12th century Gospel of Luke in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This isn’t the first time DNA has been retrieved from medieval parchment, but as with the extraction of DNA from archaeological remains, the process requires the destruction of some of the material. The Staedtler Mars eraser-based system, which has been dubbed the triboelectric sampling technique, is entirely non-invasive. They don’t even have to deal with the time and expense and making a special trip to take samples from the manuscript. Conservators already use the erasers to keep the pages clean without risking damage, so all they have to do is keep the crumbs instead of brushing them off and then send them in for analysis. It’s cheap, easy, risk-free and the sky’s the limit when it comes to the information that can be derived from the samples.

The proteins helped identify the animals used to make the book’s pages – mostly cattle in the case of the York Gospels, with some pages made from sheepskin. The DNA also revealed the sex of the animals that provided some of the parchments – most were female. Knowing information like this could, in future, help the researchers understand which livestock populations contributed to parchment making. Or it might even show how bookmakers periodically changed their materials following an outbreak of disease among specific kinds of livestock.

Perhaps more useful, as far as conservators are concerned, is the detection of DNA from bacteria including Saccharopolyspora. This genus is associated with unsightly spots that can develop on old parchment manuscripts. Finding it could alert conservators to the likelihood of the spots appearing on the manuscripts.

Just knowing the type of animal used is useful, says book and paper conservator Emma Nichols at Cambridge University Library. This is because, in their work, conservators often try to match replacement materials with those originally used so that the conservation work is as sympathetic to the document as possible.

The DNA reveals other secrets too. For instance, pages containing oaths for clergy that would have been touched and kissed regularly were associated with higher levels of human DNA.

North Carolina State University. English professor Timothy Stinson, who has been building a database of DNA from medieval manuscripts for the past eight years, calls this novel approach ground-breaking because it gives scholars access to a thousand years’ worth of information about European animal husbandry trapped in manuscripts without sacrificing even a tiny fraction of the precious pages themselves.

The results of the study have been preprinted (meaning not yet peer reviewed) online and can be read free of charge in this pdf.

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St. Cuthbert’s treasure is back and better than ever

Friday, August 4th, 2017

The Treasures of St. Cuthbert, a collection of relics of the saint and his medieval sanctuary, have gone back on display at Durham Cathedral after six years out of public view. The exhibition is part of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure project, an ambitious £11 million redesign that transformed the display spaces in the 11th century masterpiece of Norman architecture to showcase its exceptional collection including Anglo-Saxon carved stones, original copies of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter and illuminated gospels dating as far back as the 7th century. The new exhibition also opens to visitors previously inaccessible areas of the former monastery like the Monk’s Dormitory and the Great Kitchen, grand medieval rooms that managed against all odds to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the organizational, spiritual and iconoclastic upheaval of the Reformation, Cromwell’s suppression of the church and use of the cathedral as a POW camp for Scottish prisoners during the Civil War and a number of destructive architectural mutilations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Open Treasure experience has been delighting visitors since July 2016, but St. Cuthbert’s treasures are so delicate they require stringent conservation conditions. Conservators waited a full year, monitoring climactic conditions in the new permanent home for the saint’s relics to ensure they were ideal for their long-term preservation. On Saturday, July 29th, the Treasures of St. Cuthbert reopened in their new abode: the Cathedral’s extraordinary Great Kitchen, a massive space with an octagonal ceiling glorious enough to make numerologist angels weep. For centuries the kitchen produced food for hundreds of Benedictine monks and for the deans and canons that followed them after the Reformation. It was still in use as a kitchen well into the 1940s. That continuous use saved it for posterity and it is now one of exactly two surviving medieval monastery kitchens in the UK. (Thanks again for reducing all those monasteries to rubble, Henry VIII!)

Henry VIII’s dissolution minions are also responsible for the current condition of one of the most important relics on display. The Commissioners ordered that Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral, one of the richest and most beloved pilgrimage sites in the country, be destroyed. The employed a local goldsmith sledgehammer Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, carved by the monks of the famous Lindisfarne Priory at the end of the 7th century A.D., open because they were sure there were treasures to be looted inside the wood of the coffin. There weren’t. All they got for their brutality was whatever satisfaction they derived from busting the greatest example of Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain to bits.

Saint Cuthbert was Prior of Lindisfarne when he died on March 20, 687. His cause of death is believed to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the priory and slumbered peacefully for 11 years until the monks reopened the coffin and found his body had not decayed. The discovery of the incorrupt body launched the cult of Cuthbert and garnered him a sainthood. Unprepared for an intact body (they likely had planned to transfer his bones into a small ossuary only to find a fully enfleshed corpse instead), they hastily scared up a new coffin made of oak and carved with simple but elegant linear drawings of the Evangelists and their symbols, Christ, saints and angels. The figures are labelled in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes. These are the earliest carvings depicting Christ found outside of Rome.

When the Viking raiders struck the priory in the 9th century, the monks took Cuthbert’s coffin and his relics with them when they fled in 875. The traveled extensively, stopping at major cities along the way so pilgrims could flock to see the saint’s miraculous body. Cuthbert’s posthumous itinerancy came to a close in 995 when his remains were settled in Durham. Just over a century after that, his body, still in the Lindisfarne coffin, was placed into a new coffin and installed in a new shrine in the Norman cathedral.

After Henry’s pillage crew came away empty-handed from the destruction of the shrine, Cuthbert’s remains, still undecayed and still inside the damaged coffin, were placed inside yet another coffin and reburied in the cathedral. The tomb was opened again twice in the 19th century, mainly out of sheer curiosity. It was the first of these reopenings in 1827 that discovered the saint’s gold and garnet pectoral cross deep in the folds of his garments (turns out Henry’s Commissioners sucked at looting, despite their extensive experience in the field), a silver portable altar and Cuthbert’s elephant ivory comb in the coffin.

After the second reopening in 1899, the remains of the Lindisfarne coffin, now in fragments, were removed. Restoration attempts, one as recently as the 1980s, used damaging methods that today’s conservators eschew. Still, the coffin was on display for many years in Durham Cathedral, set high up so the carving was all but impossible to see in any kind of detail. The fragments have been re-conserved now, puzzled together using a non-invasive, reversible approach and put on display in a bespoke, climate-controlled case at eye level so visitors can revel in the unique decoration of the most important surviving wooden artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Also on display in the Great Kitchen is the pectoral cross, one of the greatest and most significant examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork marking the transition from their traditional iconography and decorative style to Christianity and bearing the wear and tear of Cuthbert’s constant use of the piece. The comb, which looks a tad on the grubby side but must have been quite a fancy thing in the saint’s day because it was likely manufactured in North African in the 4th century, and the portable altar.

Original 12th c. sanctuary knocker. Photo courtesy Durham Cathedral.Then there are the artifacts associated with the shrine that aren’t directly connected to Saint Cuthbert in person, for example an incredibly rare group of embroidered silk and gold vestments donated to the shrine in the 10th century by King Athelstan and a magnificent 12th century knocker from the door of the sanctuary in the shape of the head of a leonine hellbeast complete with a little guy’s legs sticking out of the fearsome creature’s mouth. The legs are each devoured by the mouths of the double-headed snake which form the knocker itself.

There’s even a dragon-slaying sword, the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword that legend has it was used by Sir John Conyers to kill the Sockburn Worm. This is the story that inspired Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on one side of the pommel and that of England on the other, the falchion was for centuries ceremonially presented to the new bishop of Durham when he first crossed the boundary into his diocese. The last bishop to be so fortunate is the current one, Bishop Paul Butler, who crossed the River Tees into his new diocese in 2014. From now on, the dragon-slaying sword is staying put in the Great Kitchen. Future bishops will have to make do with a replica.

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Coptic murals found in Egyptian monastery

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

Medieval Coptic murals have been discovered on the walls of the Monastery of Saint Bishoy at Wadi El Natrun in the Nitrian Desert of northern Egypt. The monastery was damaged by flooding in 2015 and experts from the Ministry of Antiquities have been working since then to restore it. The frescoes were discovered under a layer of modern mortar. They were painted between the 9th and 13th centuries and depict saints and angels. Some of the frescoes have Coptic inscriptions underneath them.

“The most distinguished paintings are those on the western and eastern walls of the church,” [Ministry of Antiquities scientist Ahmed El-Nemr] said, describing the painting on the western wall as showing a woman named as Refka and her five sons, who were martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire.

The painting on the eastern wall depicts three saints and an archangel, and features Coptic writings below.

El-Nemr explained that when restorers removed the modern additions they stumbled upon the ambon, an elevated platform that is a feature of many orthodox churches.

The newly discovered ambon is made of mud-brick covered with a layer of mortar and decorated with a red cross.

Some geometric drawings, crosses and lettering were also found in various parts of the church.

The age of the paintings, inscriptions and the ambon are of particular significance because they date to a period when the monastery church was undergoing extensive alterations. Historical and religious records document extensive changes to the architecture and decoration of Saint Bishoy’s in 840 AD, during the Abbasid era, and in 1069 AD, during the Fatimid caliphate. Archaeologists hope the newly discovered features may elucidate some the church’s original design and fill in some of the blanks in the timeline of its construction phases from antiquity into the modern era.

The monastery was founded in the 4th century by Saint Bishoy (320 – 417 A.D.), a deeply devout monk who, like many of his time, emulated the ascetics and lived in the desert wilderness. His humility, dedication to prayer, hard work and the poor earned him a following of thousands who flocked to live in mountain caves surrounding his cave in what is now Deir el-Surian, about a third of a mile from the Monastery of Saint Bishoy.

According to Coptic hagiographies, Bishoy’s humbleness netted him at least two personal meetings with the risen Christ. The first time he was washing the feet of passing strangers, as was his wont, when he spotted crucifixion scars on the feet of one of them and realized he’d just washed Jesus’ feet. Another time he offered to carry an old ailing monk up the mountain on his back only to find the ailing old man was Jesus in disguise (again). Jesus told him then that because he had kept his body pure through his asceticism and used it only to serve the poor, lowly and God, including carrying God on its back up a mountain, Bishoy’s body would never decay.

Jesus kept his promise. When Bishoy’s body was moved to the Wadi El Natrun monastery in 841 A.D. by order of Saint Joseph I of Alexandria, 52nd Pope of Alexandria, it was indeed found to be incorrupt. The saint’s body lies in the monastery church to this day, and according to witnesses is still incorrupt.

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Longhouse, Anglo-Saxon coin found at destroyed Pictish fort

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Burghead Fort near the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, northeastern Scotland, was a major power center in the early Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. Between 6th and 9th centuries, the promontory fort at the site of the modern town of Burghead dominated the region. It was the largest of its time, three times larger than any other fort in Scotland. It is also the oldest known Pictish fort.

Its true origin and great historical significance wasn’t understood in the early 19th century. The fort was believed to be Roman, “the Ultima Ptoroton of Richard of Cirencester and Alta Castra of Ptolemy,” as Major-General William Roy labelled it in his drawing of the floor plan and sections of what was left of the fort in 1793. You might think that its purported Roman origin and association with the 2nd century writer Ptolemy who was believed to have described it in his Geography would be sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation, but you would be wrong. More than half of the fort’s surviving remains were destroyed when the town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809.

Burghead Bull, British Museum. Photo by Ealdgyth.The orgy of destruction was entirely undeterred by the exceptional discovery of as many as 30 symbol stones engraved with realistic line art of bulls. Now known to be rare Pictish stones, most of them were casually reused as construction materials in the quay wall of the new harbour and are considered lost. Today only six of the Burghead Bulls survive, two in the Burghead visitor centre, the rest in the Elgin Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. All that’s left of the Pictish fort above ground are some lengths of the earth and rubble inner ramparts and a snippet of one of the outer ramparts on the southern side. A subterranean ritual well in a rock-cut chamber discovered during utilities work in 1809 is the most intact remnant of the fort.

Archaeological digs at Burghead began in the late 19th century (less than a hundred years from “who cares?” obliteration to desperately seeking antiquity). They usually focused on the perimeter of the structure — the inner and outer ramparts, the defensive wall — and while the occasional artifact was found, the fort was generally considered to have been gutted beyond recovery by the construction of the town and harbour.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2015 and this season has seen remarkable discoveries: evidence of a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. Pictish architectural remains are rare and there are major lacunae in our understanding of Pictish buildings. The longhouse gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the Picts’ living spaces within a great fort. The coin not only helped establish the dates for the occupation of the longhouse, but it is from a key transitional period when Viking raiders began savaging Pictish territories and would ultimately bring about the demise of Pictish kingdoms.

Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

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New imaging approach reveals hidden text from two eras

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

In the Middle Ages, old manuscripts were recycled for their valuable vellum and parchment pages. The writing was washed or scrubbed off and the leaves filling with new content. Because so many ancient works have been lost, scholars have for centuries attempted to recover the original texts from these medieval palimpsests, often using caustic materials that damaged the pages in the long term. Nowadays researchers have much better options thanks largely to a panoply of imaging technologies that have been a godsend to the study of palimpsests, revealing erased and overwritten text that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Synchrotron imaging is better than Superman because it can see through lead boxes.

Some of the recycled parchments pose greater challenges than others. With the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 15th century, the demand for bookmaking materials soared. Not only were medieval manuscripts cannibalized for their pages, but the bindings were reused to bind newly printed books. This was a common practice well into the 18th century, so there are a lot of old printed books out there with fragments of medieval and ancient texts hidden in the binding. Scholars knew there might be literary treasures in there, but were stumped by the difficulty of accessing and reading binding materials.

Now researchers at Northwestern University have made a breakthrough. It was a book from the university library’s collection that inspired the new approach. It’s an edition of the Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod that was printed in Venice in 1537. Northwestern acquired it in 1870 and out of the 30 known surviving copies of the edition, this is the only one that still has its original slotted parchment binding, a widely used technique in Venice from 1490 to 1670 in which slots were cut into the binding parchment to match the shape of the book spine.

Slotted parchment bindings often used recycled parchments. The ink was usually removed for aesthetic purposes, to make the outside surface of the parchment a uniform color. In this particular book, the ink on the interior parchment surface was not removed. Iron gall ink is acidic and over time, speeds up the oxidation and decay of the parchment.

The Northwestern librarians noticed the slotted parchment binding in the Hesiod and realized its significance. They also saw the faintest hint of text on the book board. Researchers from the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) examined the binding in greater detail and found evidence that the writing on the book board had been removed, likely by the bookbinder, by washing or scraping. His efforts weren’t entirely effective, much to our advantage. Over time the gall ink that wasn’t removed had degraded the parchment and the writing began to re-emerge. NU-ACCESS researchers found two columns of text plus marginalia were very dimly visible through the parchment on the front and back covers of the book.

The writing wasn’t legible with the naked eye, so scientists Marc Walton and Emeline Pouyet turned to imaging, starting with visible light hyperspectral imaging. The writing became a little clearer, but it still couldn’t be read. X-ray fluorescence imaging gave the team new information about the chemical composition of the ink, but again, it wasn’t able to bring the ancient text out of hiding. They were going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Jaws, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) was that boat.

[T]he bright x-ray source and fast detection system allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding. When the researchers sent the more clearly imaged writing to [Northwestern history and religion professor Richard] Kieckhefer, he immediately recognized it as sixth-century Roman Law code [the Institutes Justinian], with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins.

Walton and Pouyet hypothesize that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code.

It was an exciting find, but the NU-ACCESS team had greater ambitions. Synchrotrons aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and most researchers don’t have access to the powerful (and expensive) equipment. Even if they do, rare old books in delicate condition can’t always be shipped to a synchrotron facility. For conservation reasons, they often can’t be shipped anywhere at all. Walton and Pouyet turned to Northwestern’s computer scientists to seek a cheaper, more readily available technology that would be able to read challenging palimpsest texts trapped in bookbindings.

“There is a vast number of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and each wavelength has its advantages and disadvantages,” said [Aggelos] Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of them can penetrate deeper into the specimen, some of them have better resolution, and so on.”

Using a machine-learning algorithm developed by his team, Katsaggelos discovered that not one imaging technique but a fusion of two would yield the best results. His team combined visible hyperspectral imaging, which includes wavelengths within the visible light spectrum to provide high spatial resolution, with x-ray fluorescence imaging, which provides high intensity resolution. The algorithm informed the researchers of the relative contribution of each modality to produce the best image.

“By combining the two modalities, we had the advantages of each,” Katsaggelos said. “We were able to read successfully what was inside the cover of the book.”

Katsaggelos’ data fusion image was so clear that it rivaled an image of the main text produced by the powerful x-ray beams at CHESS.

Walton and Pouyet plan to take this show on the road. They want to examine books in museums and other institutions using the combination of hyperspectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence to read hidden texts on pages and bindings. You can read the team’s publication of their results in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta here.

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Oldest part of Charlemagne’s canal is even older, dig finds

Monday, July 24th, 2017

The Fossa Carolina (Karlsgraben in modern German) is named after Charlemagne, King of the Franks, future Emperor of the Romans, who according to contemporary Carolingian sources commissioned its construction in 793. About two kilometers (1.2 miles) long, the canal was meant to link the Swabian Rezat river in Treuchtlingen to the Altmühl river in Weissenburg, Bavaria. The Rezat is in the Rhine basin and the Altmühl is a tributary of the Danube, so the ultimate idea behind the canal was creating a navigable water route that would allow easy boat travel between the Rhine and the Danube.

Whether it was a practicable solution in real life was a whole other ball of wax. According to the Revised Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne was “persuaded by self-styled experts that one could travel most conveniently from the Danube into the Rhine if a navigable canal was built between the rivers Rezat and Altmühl.” Reliable canal-linked fluvial transport was immensely important to Charlemagne in 793. He had been forced to end his 791 campaign against the Avars south of the Danube when his cavalry was stricken by the Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus. The deadly mosquito-borne illness killed 90% of Charlemagne’s horses and other equines — war steeds, travel mounts, pack animals — in a matter of days. The few equines that survived a bout of EEE would have been severely disabled, suffering from brain damage and neurological symptoms that made it impossible for them to perform their usual duties of combat and transportation.

This was a logistical headache of brain-shattering proportions. Without horses and mules, the army’s supplies, weapons, armour and assorted gear had to be carried by people, at least some of it by horseless cavalrymen, to the Danube where it was loaded on boats. Charlemagne’s forces were so hobbled by the mass death of its equines that he wasn’t able to go on campaign for two years, and Charlemagne fought every year of his kingship, missing only four in total.

If the canal worked as planned, fluvial transportation — faster, cheaper and not subject to epidemics — would make it possible for Charlemagne to get back to his military campaigns against the Avars and rebellious Saxons, a war on two fronts that would have been enormously facilitated by a canal linking the Rhine and Danube. He would have been able to use large boats, not pack animals, to move equipment and supplies down the Danube in a new campaign against the Avars the next year. In addition, the actual digging of the canal required few horses, a big plus in a time of such equine scarcity.

It was such an important project that Charlemagne took up residence in Weissenburg in the fall of 793 to oversee construction of the canal. He personally saw to the hiring of a large team of builders. Under his direct supervision, the crew dug a moat 2,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. Again according to the Annals, canal constructed ended abortively, defeated by the marshy ground and constant rainfall which caused “what the workmen dug during the day, fell back in at night.” Other chroniclers claim the canal was in fact completed. Either way, Charlemagne’s attention was diverted to more pressing matters: fresh revolts in Saxony and attacks on Narbonne and Carcassonne by Umayyad Emir Hisham I of Córdoba.

Today there is little left of the most important infrastructure projects of the Middle Ages. There’s a water-filled moat about 350 meters (1148 feet) long in Treuchtlingen. Earthen embankments almost 4,000 feet long and more than 30 feet high also survive, created by the soil dug out of ground during the early construction of the canal. Over the past five years or so, archaeologists have discovered the northernmost section of the structure which is not visible above ground.

That section, which was fortunate enough to be forgotten and/or ignored for 1,200 years, has proven archaeologically invaluable. A team of researchers from German universities and the Bavarian State Office for the Protection of Monuments have discovered that the canal is older than the Royal Annals recorded. The question of when construction of the Fossa Carolina began has been a fraught one among historians for a century. The Alemannic Annals claim that canal construction began in 792, which would mean that Charlemagne’s stay in Weissenburg was a visit to an ongoing building site, not a new one he was personally supervising.

In 2013, timber pilings were discovered in the northernmost section that were dendrochronologically dated to the late summer or early fall of 793. A follow-up excavation in 2016 went even further, digging two trenches across two of the northern canal sections. The team unearthed numerous structural elements, including large oak pilings lining the canal walls that were in an excellent state of preservation thanks to the high groundwater level and a deposit of sediments immediately after construction.

The team was able to date more than two dozen timbers using dendrochronological analysis, an incredible bounty for high precision absolute dating. Tree ring analysis can pinpoint dates down to the year, sometimes even the month, and the youngest of the canal timbers tested date to the late spring or early summer (probably May) of 793. This was freshly cut wood. It hadn’t been stored for a few months before use in the canal.

This shows that the construction work at the Karlsgraben started several months earlier than was previously known. The description in the sources that the command for the construction of the canal has already taken place in 792 is thus significantly more likely. For the first time, the historical and political framework conditions of the decision to build the canal can now be clarified. The new dating also shows that Charlemagne visited a construction site, which had already begun several months earlier in the late summer/autumn of 793, and was by no means the “first spade”. […]

In the coming months, the new dates will be analyzed in detail and combined with numerous other results from the interdisciplinary research group. Due to the precise and different dates the researchers expect for the first time indications for the construction direction of individual channel sections and organizational details of the large construction site. New results are also to be expected regarding the completion or non-completion of individual construction sections.

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Mummy in Buddha statue goes to court

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Two years ago, a 1,000-year-old statue of the Buddha made headlines when a striking CT scan exposed the mummified monk within. The statue was scanned at a hospital in Amsterdam when it was in the country to take part in the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands. The exhibition proffered the Buddha statue as an example of the extreme practice of self-mummification, in which Buddhist monks spent years starving and poisoning themselves before having themselves walled into a constricted space to die. If three years later their bodies were found mummified, they were considered to have attained the rank of Buddha and their remains were venerated.

According to the information on the exhibition’s website and labels, the monk sealed in the statue was believed to be Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, aka Zen Buddhism, who died around 1100 A.D. There was no evidence offered in support of this surprisingly specific identification, nor were there any details about who owned the statue. The press materials alluded to this being the first time the statue was allowed to leave China and that it was the only Chinese Buddhist mummy made available for scientific study in the West.

Well, that may all be a big bunch of lies, or at least misinformation of the “Swiss private collection” variety to act as a smokescreen for some very shady dealings in stolen cultural heritage. A lawsuit currently in the Dutch courts presents an entirely different ownership history and identification of the statue and mummy. The plaintiff is the tea-farming mountain village of Yangchun in southeastern Chinese province of Fujian which claims the statue was stolen from a temple there in 1995. The defendant is a Dutch collector, who bought the statue and the human remains it contains in Hong Kong in 1996.

In March of 2015, one of the villagers saw a photograph of the statue on display at the Mummy World exhibition at Budapest’s Natural History Museum. He immediately recognized it as the Zhanggong Patriarch, a statue containing a mummified monk that he and his fellow villagers have venerated for centuries.

The lawyers will argue that according to Dutch law “a person is not allowed to have a known body in their possession,” Holthuis said.

“We also have enough evidence to prove that the statue is indeed the one that was stolen from the temple,” he added.

“The fact that it was sold a few months after it was stolen, that it contains certain texts referring to the name ‘Zhanggong’ and that its dating more or less corresponds to the period that the monk was alive,” were some of the arguments which will be presented, he said.

There are some pictures of it in the temple in 1989, and the village still has the clothes and crown the statue was wearing before the thieves stripped it. The picture alone isn’t as dispositive as you might think because of those clothes and crown. They obscure some of the identifying detail of the statue which has been displayed without its traditional accessories in the mummies exhibitions.

According to centuries of village tradition, the statue contains the remains of a monk named Zhang who moved to the village with his mother when he was a boy during the Song dynasty (960–1279). He went from cowherd to Buddhist monk to a gilded mummy worshipped by generations of residents. (There is no suggestion of self-mummification. He was mummified after his death as an indication of the great esteem in which he was held, an account that is consistent with the discovery that his organs had been removed and replaced with paper fill.) The villagers prayed to him at all major festivals and seasonal events. Each year the statue was transported through the village stopping at every house, and the monk’s birthday was celebrated every year with a grand festival. The village’s ancestral records seemingly confirm the oral history; they document the presence of the Patriarch as early as the Song Dynasty.

Villagers in Yangchun, China, pray in front of gray replica of the stolen statue. Photo by Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times.The theft of the Zhanggong Patriarch was devastating to the villagers. Some of the older residents had risked their lives to protect him from the iconoclastic marauders of the Cultural Revolution. The statue was kept constantly on the move for its safety, hidden in pits and people’s homes, sometimes moved twice in a night. They put a replica in his place, a rather rough grey version of the elegant gilded original, and the villagers still pray to it.

There’s one big problem. Nobody knows where the statue is right now. Apparently the collector, Dutch architect Oscar van Overeem, traded it with somebody in 2015 and he’s not saying who. The timing of this swap is curious, especially in the light of van Overeem’s strenuous denial that his mummy was the Zhanggong Patriarch. He insisted that he had easily disproven the village’s claim to the Chinese representative who contacted him to negotiate repatriation, but worked out a deal anyway to donate the statue to an unnamed Buddhist temple near Yangchun. He had struck this bargain, he said in May of 2015, “because he believed it deserved to return to its homeland ‘to be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings’ and worshiped ‘by those who love and appreciate him.'”

So in May of 2015, the collector believed that the mummy deserved to be home among those who love and pray to him, but I guess that belief wasn’t all that strongly held because the statue and mummy are not in any Buddhist temple near Yangchun. It’s nowhere to be found. Whoever the third party is has little incentive to come forward, so even if the village wins in court — which would be a landmark decision for Chinese cultural patrimony repatriation because it would be the first time a heritage object is returned due to the courts rather than through diplomatic channels — it could still be left bereft of its beloved Zhanggong Patriarch.

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Breakthrough on the dating of Borgring

Friday, July 7th, 2017

The ring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014 seemed from the first geophysical surveys of the site to fit a very rare and important type of fort built by King Harald Bluetooth (r. 958 — ca. 986). The circular design, the imposing size (475 feet in diameter), the four gates placed at the cardinal compass points, thick inner ramparts encircled by a spiked wooden palisade are all characteristics of Trelleborg-type fortresses, a network of powerful ring forts built by Harald in around 980 A.D. to form a defensive line against Germanic incursions. Only eight Trelleborg-type forts have been found in what is now Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden.

The 2014 excavation was limited in scope. Only a few trenches were dug revealing small sections of what archaeologists believed to be the north and south gates and some of the ramparts. The geophysical data was significant, but open to interpretation. Scholars were reluctant to accept that the Zealand structure, dubbed Borgring, was a fortress of the Trelleborg type based solely on these initial discoveries.

In order to conclusively identify it as one of Harald’s Trelleborg-type forts, archaeologists needed to narrow down the date of its construction as accurately as possible. These forts were built during a short window of a few years at the end of his reign, so pinpointing its age was essential. In the initial excavation, large oak timbers were unearthed at the north gate, charred in a fire that had engulfed the gate after its construction. Preserved by the flames, the wood could be radiocarbon dated, and because the timbers were so large, archaeologists were optimistic that they could be tree-ring dated as well. Carbon-14 testing can only return a date range, but dendrochronological analysis can, in the best case scenario, pinpoint the precise year in which a tree was felled.

Two samples taken from the north gate timbers were radiocarbon dated and produced pleasingly consistent dates. The oak logs dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D. Those dates fit squarely within the hoped-for range, but there was still too much wiggle room to prove that Borgring was a Trelleborg fortress. Archaeologists hoped the timbers could be dated dendrochronologically as well, but the charring impeded the analysis.

That was three years ago, and while excavations have been ongoing, the radiocarbon dating results from the north gate timbers have remained the only absolute dates on the table. That changed on June 26th, 2017, when the archaeological team from the Museum of South East Denmark and Aarhus University dug new trenches in the field next to the fortress. Just over eight feet below the surface, the team unearthed a piece of wood about three feet long. The carved oak plank was drilled with holes, some of which contained wooden pegs still in place. There is evidence of wear, but it’s unclear what exactly the plank was used for before it wound up discarded just outside the south gate.

Getting discarded was the best thing that could have happened to it, archaeologically speaking, because that field is composed of layer of peat, that blessed substance, preserver of organic remains large and small. The peat kept the wood from rotting and kept its rings in counting order.

Leading specialist in dendrochronological dating, Associate Professor Aoife Daly from the University of Copenhagen and the owner of dendro.dk, has just completed his study of the piece of wood and says: “The plank is oak and the conserved part of the tree trunk has grown in the years 829-950 In the Danish area. A comparison with the material from the Trelleborg fortress in Sjælland shows a high statistical correlation that confirms the dating. Since no splints have been preserved, it means that the tree has fallen at some point after year 966 “.

Research leader Jens Ulriksen says: “The wood piece was found on top of a peat layer, and is fully preserved as it is completely water-logged. We now have a date of wood in the valley of Borgring, which corresponds to the dating from the other ring fortresses from Harold Bluetooth’s reign. With the dendrochronological dating, in conjunction with the traces of wear the piece has, it is likely that the piece ended as waste in the late 900s, possibly in the early 1000’s. ” […]

Søren M. Sindbæk, professor in Archaeology at Aarhus University and part of the excavation team says: “This find is the major break-through, which we have been searching for. We finally have the dating evidence at hand to prove that this is a late tenth century fortress. We lack the exact year, but since the find also shows us where the river flowed in the Viking Age, we also know where to look for more timbers from the fortress.”

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