Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Skeletons holding hands found in lost chapel cemetery

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) has unearthed the skeletal remains of an adult male and female who are still holding hands 700 years after they were buried side by side. The lovers were found along with nine other individual burials at the site of a cemetery on the north side of the Chapel of St Morrell in Hallaton, Leicestershire. They human remains have been radiocarbon dated to the 14th century.

Built on the side of a hill that appears to have had sacred structures on it at least since the Romans, the chapel was a site of pilgrimage in Middle Ages, in use from the 12th century to the 16th. The last documentary evidence of the chapel as an active pilgrimage site is the 1532 will of Frances Butler, a Hallaton priest. He left all his worldly goods to another priest, Edmund Oliver, with the stipulation that he travel to four shrines to ensure the ideal disposition of Butler’s soul. “St Mawrell of Hallaton” was one of the four.

Sometime after that it fell into disuse. Eventually the chapel crumbled and its location was lost to memory. The hillside became the locus of an annual Easter custom called the Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking in which hardy men from Hallaton and the neighboring village Medbourne chase a wooden canteen down the hill and over a stream. The event begins on Hare Pie Bank, so named because that’s where the hare pie gets eaten before the bottle kicking begins.

A decade or so ago, local historian John Morison found a reference in a 1606 Glebe Terrier (a survey of parish lands that were income-generating parts of a clergyman’s benefice) that the “Chapel of St Morrill” was on or around Hare Pie Bank. The Hallaton Fieldwork Group (HFWG) did a geophysical survey of the site which found a square perimeter about 120 feet across with various architectural features inside. Together with ULAS and some local volunteers, they began excavating Hare Pie Bank.

This is the fourth year of excavations on the site. The tiled floor of the chapel has been unearthed, along with the remains of walls and lead from the windows. Coins were found dating to between the 12th and 16th centuries, confirming the documented period of activity. Underneath the chapel remains archaeologists found Roman remains, among them a square ditch that may be evidence there was a temple on the site. Given that the vast Hallaton Treasure of more than 5,500 Roman and British coins, a silver bowl, ingots, jewelry, the complete skeletons of three dogs, the bones of more than 300 pigs consumed in a feast and an exceptional Roman cavalry parade helmet were discovered just a few hundred yards from Hare Pie Bank, it seems likely that this area has held ritual significance since before the Roman conquest.

So it makes sense, considering the hill’s long sacred history, that there would be a chapel built on the site. It’s not clear, however, why the small chapel had its own cemetery.

Vicki Score, ULAS project manager, said: “We have seen similar skeletons before from Leicester where a couple has been buried together in a single grave. The main question we find ourselves asking is why were they buried up there? There is a perfectly good church in Hallaton. This leads us to wonder if the chapel could have served as some sort of special place of burial at the time.”

The team believe the chapel may have been an area of pilgrimage. Alternatively, the bodies might have been refused burial in the main church, perhaps because they were criminals, foreigners or sick.

Further study of the skeletal remains might help explain their burial. So far, in addition to the lovers, one older male has been found with a wound from a sharp weapon like a pole axe on his skull that was probably what killed him. The teeth of a young man who was buried with his legs raised to his chest indicate that he experienced trauma as a little boy. He’s likely to have been felled by illness, and in fact there is a reference by a 17th century historian to Hallaton having been a holy place visited by flocks of sick people.

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19th c. vibrator: sold! 11th c. Viking sword: no takers

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

The Christie’s Out of the Ordinary auction held in London on September 3rd offered an eclectic array of objects, to say the least. A pair of Victorian taxidermy red squirrels playing cards rubbed shoulders with an Enigma machine and a framed 1746 map of London 12’7″ wide.

The lead item in the sale was a late medieval broadsword with an illustrious history. The blade is of Viking manufacture. It was captured by the English at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066, three weeks before the Battle of Hastings. It’s not certain what road it took after that, but by the 13th century it was in the hands of the de Bohun family. Since the first Humphrey de Bohun in England was a Norman nobleman who fought by William the Conqueror’s side at the Battle of Hastings, it’s possible he acquired the Viking sword on the field at Hastings.

What’s certain is that a few centuries later, the Viking blade had been remounted with the de Bohum coat of arms in gold and enamel on the pommel. Sir Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex, fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, this time on the losing side. His nephew was killed by King Robert’s own hand and Sir Humphrey was taken captive. He would be exchanged for King Robert’s wife. daughter and a handful of other important Scots. The sword probably wasn’t used on the field at Bannockburn as it wasn’t au courant for mounted combat, but it could have been with Sir Humphrey as a side arm in camp. The broadsword is mentioned in his will just five years later.

Expectations for this sword were high, with a pre-sale estimate of £80,000 – 120,000 ($129,584 – 194,376). Expectations were dashed when this historically significant weapon failed to sell.

A 19th century vibrator, on the other hand, exceeded expectations. Only slightly used — the condition report describes the exterior as having “some light wear, scuffing and scratches, consistent with age” — it sold above estimate at £1,625 ($2,675). It’s actually quite ingenious, made out of celluloid and white metal by Dr. Benjamin Y. Boyd who patented it in 1893 under the suitably vague title of “electrical instrument for medical purposes.”

He minces no words at all in the body of the patent application, however. The device is an “improved electrical, urethral, vaginal, and rectal vitalizer” and check out how it’s powered:

It is composed of alternate cylinders of zinc and celluloid or other insulating substance, and silver, copper or other metal, so connected with a fluid, either acid, alkaline or neutral, on the inside of the combined cylinder, and moisture or secretions from the mucous membranes from the body, on the outside of said cylinder, as to form a series of electric batteries, when introduced into a mucous cavity, thus forming or producing a voltaic current of electricity at each cell. Each of these cells consists of three cylinders, a negative and positive element A O, separated by an insulator B. The current passes from a cylinder of one element through the affected part, to the cylinder of the opposite element.

That’s a lot of progress since Dr. George Taylor invented his steam-powered Manipulator 24 years earlier. Dr. Boyd kept the improvements coming, to coin a phrase, receiving another patent in 1895 for two versions of the “electrical instrument for medical purposes,” one a version of the 1893 device, the other with a dedicated rectal function.

In 1909 he gave male genitalia their chance at an electrotherapeutic apparatus. It consists of two cups, one shaped to fit the scrotum and the other the penis, that were filled with plain or medicated water (God knows what kind of medication he had in mind) and had a current sent through them. This would treat varicoceles and “diminished vigor” by “contracting the varicose veins and dilating the dorsa and other veins of the penis, thus curing the varicocele and restoring the natural vigor simultaneously.”

I wasn’t able to discover much of anything about the dedicated Dr. Boyd, but there is this juicy tidbit in a 1909 issue of the Illinois Medical Journal:

It is reported that Mrs. Leopoldine Boyd has filed a bill for divorce against her husband, Dr. Benjamin Y. Boyd, a Chicago physician, alleging that he had deserted the complainant and was living with another woman.

Why Dr. Boyd, you dirty dog, you.

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First Viking fortress in 60 years found in Denmark

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from Aarhus University and the Danish Castle Centre have discovered the remains of a huge circular Viking fortress on the Vallø Estate, about 30 miles south of Copenhagen on the Danish island of Zealand. Only seven of these ringed fortresses have ever been discovered, all of them in Denmark or the southern tip of Sweden, and the last one was found 60 years ago. It’s design is in keeping with the Trelleborg-type fortresses built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D.

Much of this discovery was done in the research phase. Archaeologists suspected there was another fortress on Zealand. The Vallø site was a likely candidate because it was in a place where old Viking roads met close to the Køge river valley which in Viking times was a navigable fjord with one of the island’s best natural harbors. This made it an ideal setting for large military installation.

The team did a detailed laser survey of the site, measuring the minute features of the landscape. They found that a mound that was barely visible to the naked eye had a distinct circular outline. To investigate further before attempting excavation, they called in Helen Goodchild, an archaeological geophysics expert from the University of York, to do a magnetic survey of the site. Geomagnetic data derived from measuring variations in the magnetic field of the soil identified the archaeological features of a circular fortress.

The image from the geomagnetic survey revealed a massive structure 475 feet in diameter, which makes it the third largest of the Trelleborg-type fortresses after Aggersborg (787 feet in diameter), in Limfjorden, Denmark, and Borgeby (492 feet in diameter) near Lund in Scania, Sweden. The inner ramparts are 35 feet wide and circular, surrounded by a spiked palisade. Four gates are placed at the cardinal points of the compass. This is the same plan as the other Trelleborg-type fortresses.

Armed with this key information, archaeologists chose to dig in the areas most likely to produce information about the fortress as quickly as possible. The first trenches were dug at the site of two of the four gates. Both of them were burned down at some point. Large charred oak timbers were found at the north gate, a precious find both because the sturdy timber gate is another feature of the Trelleborg fortresses and because they’ll give us a precise date for the fortress.

Nanna Holm underlines that the fortress was a genuine military facility, and probably the scene of fighting as well. She’s in no doubt that it dates back to the Viking Age.

“Fortresses built like this one were only built in the Viking Age, and the burnt timber in the gates enables us to fix the date using radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. We’ve sent off samples for analysis, and the result should be available in a few weeks’ time. The date will be vital. If we can establish exactly when the fortress was built, it will help us to understand the historical events with which it was connected.” [...]

“We can’t wait to find out whether the fortress dates back to the time of Harald Bluetooth, or whether it was built by a previous king. A military fortification from the Viking Age may shed more light on the links between Zealand, ancient Denmark and the Jelling dynasty – as well as teaching us more about the period during which Denmark became Denmark,” says Holm.

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Conserving St. Ambrose’s 4th-century silk tunics

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

University of Bonn researchers are working with textile conservators to study and preserve delicate silk tunics attributed to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century Archbishop and patron saint of Milan whose skeletal remains are on display in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. The silks are also kept at the Milan basilica and are venerated as relics of the saint. The textiles have not been conclusively dated to the 4th century, but they are certainly from late antiquity which makes them very rare survivals that can lend unique insight into the period.

“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple. [...]

In the course of many centuries,time took its toll on these famous textiles. “If these fragile silk threads are to be preserved for a long time to come, it is critical to remove harmful layers of dust,” says Cologne textile restorer Ulrike Reichert, who has headed her own restoration workshop in the Dellbrück neighborhood for many years, specializing in preserving early silk textiles. The cloth is painstakingly cleaned with a tiny vacuum cleaner and delicate brushes. “For this we have had to carefully free the material from the protective glass that had been laid over it,” says Professor Schrenk’s colleague Katharina Neuser.

Since the textiles are far too delicate to travel, conservators have brought their mobile restoration lab to Milan to do the work on site. In addition to stabilizing and repairing the damage of centuries of display under heavy glass or sandwiched between other fabrics in a chest, the restorers hope their analysis will illuminate the evolution of relic worship in Early Christian Italy. Saint Ambrose himself, along with other doctors of the Church like Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was an early advocate of veneration of relics.

The tunics were revered as relics of Saint Ambrose at least by the 11th century, and probably earlier. A red cross was woven onto one of the textiles in late antiquity or early Middle Ages, an indication that they were held to be of religious significance. A woven band kept with the tunics dates to the 11th century. The inscription describes the silks as Saint Ambrose’s vestments to be held in great reverence.

Restorers believe the band was the work by Archbishop Aribert of Milan (1018-1045) who had political reasons as well as religious ones to emphasize the significance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Ambrose had famously stood up to Roman emperors on a number of issues, refusing two orders from Western emperor Valentinian II that he surrender two churches in Milan for Arian worship and excommunicating Eastern emperor Theodosius I for the Massacre of Thessalonica. Aribert wanted a strong Ambrosian archbishopric that held virtually independent temporal power over northern Italy. He created a princely court in Milan, as luxurious as a royal court only under ecclesiastical rather than princely control. He even called his bishops cardinals, as if he were Pope in the North.

At first he was a strong supporter of the German emperors, an alliance that strengthened his political position in the region. However, when he allied with the great lords of northern Italy against the lesser vassals, arbitrarily confiscating lands and denying them feudal rights of inheritance, the resulting conflict that would pit him against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry III. Aribert refused to restore fiefdoms he had taken from the minor nobility and refused even to defend his actions before the emperor, insisting that as Archbishop of Milan, he was equal in authority to the emperor and if the emperor wanted those lands back from the see of Milan, he could just try and take them. Indeed, in a presage of the Investiture Controvery that would poison relations between the papacy and imperial throne for decades staring in the reign of Henry III’s son Henry IV, Aribert had personally crowned Conrad II with the Iron Crown of Lombardy making him King of Italy.

Conrad’s attempt to besiege Milan failed thanks to Aribert’s enhanced defenses and a militia he had created from every class of Milanese citizen. Conrad died in 1039 and the conflict between the archbishop and Henry II was finally resolved by diplomacy in 1040. Even though Pope Benedict IX had sided with Conrad and excommunicated Aribert in 1038, in the end the archbishop maintained control over his territory with his political and military strength, a lesson that future popes less in harmony with the Holy Roman Emperors would take to heart.

So the study of these silk tunics really covers centuries of religious, political and social history. Researchers hope it will shed light on economic history of late antiquity as well. There is a widely held belief among historians that in the 4th century silk thread was all imported from China and then woven in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly Syria. Professor Schrenk suspects there may well have been a silk weaving industry in Milan, however, because it was a center of imperial power as the capital of the Western Empire from 286 to 402 A.D.

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Grave of fearsome 11th c. warrior found in Siberia

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound near Omsk in southwestern Siberia have discovered the intact burial of an impressively large warrior slain in battle around the 11th century A.D. He was powerfully built and 180 centimeters (5’11″) tall. A member of the Ust-Ishim culture, ancestors to the Khanty and Mansi tribes that still inhabit the area today, he was far taller than his comrades; the average height for a male was 160 centimeters (5’3″), so he would have towered over them.

He was around 40 years old when he died, and the cause of death is clear: his left arm was cut off and buried with him. His shoulder was also freshly broken. These were perimortem battle wounds. He was buried with copious grave goods and careful attention to ritual indicating he was a person of high status in his community. The most remarkable indication of the respect accorded to him was the large bear fang embedded in his nose, a fearsome symbol of strength and power. He also wore a death mask, now mostly decayed because it was made of fabric. Part of the mask were caskets of birch bark over his eye sockets and mouth. Inside the caskets were metal fish figurines whose heads were deliberately snapped off before burial.

Other grave goods include a round mirror of bronze decorated with abstract swirls that was placed on his chest inside a birch bark cover and a bronze cauldron with the remains of food still inside that was placed at his feet. These served a ritual purpose. Archaeologists believe the mirror was a worn as an amulet and served as a tool used to communicate with the gods, while the cauldron and food were meant to feed the warrior in the afterlife.

Close by were remains of leather and fur, perhaps part of his costume or from the quiver decorations on his arrows.

“We found 25 arrowheads – armour-piercing and diamond shaped, made from metal and bone,” said [archeologist Mikhail Korusenko], a candidate of historical sciences, from the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Some of them were clearly of military purpose. Behind his skull we found a ringed bridle” – a sign that the warrior was an accomplished horseman.

The arrows are still sharp today.

Mikhail Korusenko on the significance of the find:

“The first studies we made allow us to date the burial to approximately 11th-12th centuries AD. It is a truly unique find which would allow us to fill pages about not only the cultural, but the military history of this part of the region, as we know very little about this particular period of time.”

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First Black Death mass grave found in Spain

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

A mass grave of victims of the Black Death, the pandemic that killed half the population of Europe when it struck in the mid-14th century, has been discovered under the sacristy of the Basilica of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs in Barcelona. Even though the plague hit the Mediterranean countries the hardest, this is the first Black Death mass grave ever found in Spain. The fact that it was found in a church may suggest an explanation: in Spain the dead were buried in pre-existing churches and cemeteries, unlike in England and France where they often broke new ground for plague burials.

The church of Saints Justo and Pastor Martyrs is in the historic center of Barcelona, within the walls of the ancient city of Barcino, founded as a castrum (a Roman army camp) in 15 B.C. during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In 2011, the Institute of Culture of Barcelona and the Basilica signed an agreement to excavate the church as part of a city-wide plan to rediscover the remains of Roman Barcelona.

Excavation of the sacristy began in 2012. Archaeologists found a section of a baptismal font from the Visigothic era, the remains of two Roman walls following the ancient city grid, and the 14th century mass grave with the skeletal remains of men, women and children. At first count, there appeared to be 104 people buried in the pit, but upon further investigation the body count increased to around 120. The current Gothic church was built between 1342 and 1574. They got to the sacristy area in the mid-15th century and construction impinged on the mass grave. Most of the bodies were removed at that time and the remainder were hemmed in by the Gothic walls. Calculating from the density of the remains and the size of the original grave (13 feet long, 11 and a half feet wide, five feet deep), archaeologists believe 400 plague victims were buried in the space.

They were identified as plague victims almost immediately. The demographic variety, well-preserved bones with no signs of fatal injuries and the fact that they were all buried around the same time strongly suggested they were felled by a widespread contagion. Despite the pressures of the epidemic, they were buried with respect. The bodies were laid out face up with their arms by their sides or crossed. They were placed close together, but arranged carefully rather than dumped in haste or crammed in head-to-foot to maximize space.

The corpses were unclothed, and wrapped only in linen shrouds, lined up in rows, 11 bodies deep, and were then covered with quicklime dissolved in water to attempt to stop the disease spreading and mask the smell of the rotting bodies.

Laboratory analysis confirmed the contextual indications.

DNA tests on the teeth of several of those buried in the mass grave carried out by the University of Tübingen show the presence of Yersinia pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and other rodents that was transmitted by the parasites they carried, particularly fleas, which injected it into humans when they bit them.

The bodies are being kept at the church while research is ongoing. They will be reburied in the church when the study is complete.

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Ancient instrument found in 7th c. Kazakhstan burial

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Archaeologists have found an artifact they believe to be an ancient musical instrument in the burial of a Turkic warrior in the region of East Kazakhstan. The burial in the Altai mountains was found intact, with the remains of an adult male in his 40s at the time of death and those of a horse buried next to him. The grave goods identify the deceased as a warrior of some status, and their design allowed archaeologists to provisionally date the burial to the 7th century.

The scientists found weapons belonging to this epoch next to the warrior: a helmet, a quiver, an arrow, a sword, sabers, as well as a horse with a golden harness and a bridle. The most important discovery of the excavation was a musical instrument, similar to (Kazakh) kobyz….

The kobyz is an ancient Kazakh instrument that has two strings made of horsehair. It was believed to be a sacred instruments that could drive away evil spirits. It was often used by spiritual medics and shamans.

There has been a dedicated effort by the Kazakh government and institutions of higher learning to expand historical and archaeological explorations of the nation’s past. The Altai mountains have been the site some of the most important archaeological finds relating to the nomadic peoples who inhabited the region from the 1st millennium B.C. on.

This most recent find was made as part of a Turkic Academy project investigating the statehood system of Western Turkic Khaganate, a state ruled by a Khagan (or Khan) of the Ashina clan after the founder’s kingdom, the Göktürk Khaganate, was split into east and west by his sons in the early 7th century. At its peak, the Khaganate’s sphere of influence stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, from modern-day Kazakhstan all the way to the other side of Russia. Its founder, Bumin Khagan, was crowned in the Altai mountains, so this was an important center of power.

The Khaganate united a great many nomadic tribes under one (or after the splintering, two) rulers. In the second half of the 7th century, the ten tribes of the Western Turkic Khaganate began to fight amongst themselves which left the state vulnerable to Chinese invasion. In 659 A.D., it was absorbed into Tang Dynasty China. They didn’t get to keep it for long. The tribes revolted and in 682 A.D., the Second Turkic Khaganate was established. It was the first Central Asian state that used Old Turkic as its official language, as evidenced by its appearance on stele known as the Orkhon inscriptions that tell the history of the Khaganate and its liberation from Chinese rule.

The remains of the Altai warrior will be removed for further investigation by the Turkic Academy. The bones will be directly dated and the surviving organic elements like the wooden musical instrument conserved and studied.

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Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Friday, August 8th, 2014

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

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Faces of medieval Scotland

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


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Intact Merovingian necropolis found in Normandy

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Archaeologists have unearthed 300 intact Merovingian-era graves at Saint-Aubin-des-Champs in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy. The presence of a necropolis on the site was first recognized during a preliminary survey last year in anticipation of construction of a housing development. Excavations began this March. They found the cemetery was complete — the enclosure delineating the full perimeter of the grounds was identified — and undisturbed with 300 burials of men, women and children from the 5th through the 7th centuries.

The burials were found at different depths up to five feet below the surface. The deceased were buried in wooden coffins (all of them now decayed into nothingness leaving only the shape behind) and almost all of the graves contain the remains of clothing and some artifacts. A third of the burials contain a particularly rich array of grave goods. These date to the 5th century, as identified by the artifacts.

One burial stands out for its fabulous accouterments. The skeleton of adult male was found buried with 20 objects, among them ceramic vessels, glassware, a bronze bowl, an intact wooden bucket with bronze strapping, an axe, a spear, a dagger at his waist, shoes on his feet and a silver coin in his mouth. The later the tombs the fewer the artifacts (a side effect of the growth of Christianity) and the 7th century tombs have no grave goods at all, solely bronze or iron belt buckles.

Initial osteological analysis confirmed that the burials include people of all ages and genders, with the exception of very young children. This could be the result of smaller, shallower graves having been disturbed over the centuries, or it could be a cultural practice. Infants and small children in antiquity and the early Middle Ages were sometimes buried within the boundaries of the home property rather than in the town cemetery.

Archaeologists believe the necropolis was the cemetery of a small village. Burials ceased at the end of the 7th century and the cemetery was abandoned, probably in favor of new Christian cemeteries. In the 7th century a monastery was built on the site of the current church of Saint-Pierre Évrecy. It is likely to have had an associated cemetery that may have supplanted the former community burial ground.

The necropolis is a very important find. There are no historical sources that refer to it and looters were blessedly unaware of its existence as well, leaving the grave goods in stellar condition and giving archaeologists the rare opportunity to study three centuries of undisturbed burials in context. This is a very thinly documented period of history, so the discovery is an invaluable resource.

Archaeologists plan a comprehensive study the cemetery in the hope that it will illuminate the life of the community as well as the burial practices of the region during the transitional period between traditional Roman religion and Christian dominance.

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