Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Cat people vampire burials found in Poland

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Archaeologists excavating the site of future road construction near the town of Gliwice in Silesia, southern Poland, discovered four skeletons buried with their heads between their knees. Stones were placed on the skulls. Further digging unearthed another nine skeletons buried with their heads out of place. Eleven were found with the skull between the legs, one with skull between the hands, two with the skull perched directly on the shoulders. Most of the skeletons found buried this way appear to be female.

Putting the head anywhere but on top of the neck was a common folk practice in Slavic countries for ensuring that the dead would not rise from the grave to harry the living. The idea was that if the dead person attempted to rise, without her head in place she wouldn’t be able to see his victims or even coordinate the climb out of the grave. Other practices — binding feet and hands, pressing with a heavy boulder, pinning the body to the ground by embedding an object in the chest — were also used to ensure the undead would not be able to budge.

Fear of vampirism is not the only possible explanation for the burials, however. There was a gallows near the site of the graveyard. In the Middle Ages, the executed were sometimes left to hang until their corpses rotted and the head disconnected from the body. The decomposed body would then be buried with the head deliberately not placed atop the neck because convicts didn’t deserve a decent burial. That’s not mutually exclusive with the vampirism hypothesis. Locals would have good reason to ensure those executed and left to rot didn’t come back to seek revenge. The deceased might also have been victims of a mass killing — a battle or slaughtered civilians — during the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages, or of a cholera epidemic.

There were no grave goods, not even the remains of clothing like buttons, in the initial discoveries that could give an idea of when they were buried. The ritual was in regular use in Poland from the arrival of Christianity in the 10th century until the First World War (the last known vampire burial in Poland took place in the east-central village of Old Mierzwice in 1914), so that doesn’t help narrow it down. Finally on Thursday, July 18th, archaeologists found a female skeleton buried with two small artifacts. They may be the key to dating these burials. Her bones were also charred, indicating deliberating burning.

Researchers are analyzing the remains now which will hopefully pinpoint a burial date and possible causes of death. Osteological examination has already returned extraordinary results: the eye sockets are much larger than average while the nasomaxillary area (the part between the nose and the upper jaw) is narrower than average. This would have given them a cat-like appearance, a genetic mutation that suggests the deceased are related and that might explain why this group of people were seen as dangerous by their community.


Leicester Cathedral plans grand tomb for Richard III

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Even as a legal challenge contesting the University of Leicester’s license to determine where the remains of King Richard III are to be buried winds its way through the courts, Leicester Cathedral is moving forward with its plans for the monarch’s tomb. The church originally proposed a modest floor-level slab tomb, but when they opened it to public consultation the response was less than positive. The Richard III Society declared themselves “appalled” by the design. The cathedral went back to the drawing board and came up with a far more ambitious plan.

The Dean of Leicester, The Very Revd David Monteith, said the plans were influenced by feedback from a variety of sources, including members of the public who had been visiting the Cathedral and commenting in the media.

“We are committed to reinter King Richard with honour and we have listened carefully to the different views that were expressed. We want to create a really wonderful space in the Cathedral for him and the many thousands of people we know will want to come to visit and pay their respects.

With input from the Richard III Society, the University of Leicester and the City Council, the firm of van Heyningen and Haward Architects is working on several designs for an elaborate tomb that is both king-worthy and that will accommodate the large number of visitors expected to flock to Richard’s new home. The architects have been working on renovations of Leicester Cathedral since 2009. When the remains of Richard III were discovered, the cathedral asked them to integrate the tomb into the reordering.

Instead of being flush with the floor, Richard’s tomb will be raised in the center of dedicated space with new floors, lighting and a new stained glass window. The precise design has yet to be finalized, but here’s an artist’s rendering of the prospective tomb:

The inlaid marble white rose of York under the raised sarcophagus is a particularly nice touch, I think.

It won’t come cheap. The estimated cost to construct the tomb is £1 million ($1,525,000), moneys which the cathedral is going to have to raise before construction begins. Final approval is slated for November and then they’re going to have to get a move on, because when the Ministry of Justice granted the University the license to remove the remains, they stipulated that the remains would have to be reinterred by August 31st, 2014. Any delays from fundraising, the legal challenge or construction could run afoul of the deadline.

Meanwhile, the University of Leicester is back at the Greyfriars site. This time they’ve been able to open a far larger trench to accompany their far wider brief. The goals are to unearth more details about Richard’s final resting place, discover more about the layout of the church, unearth other burials in the church, most notably the stone coffin thought to contain the body of a local dignitary (perhaps the founder of the friary Peter Swynsfeld, perhaps a knight named Sir William Moton) and the remains of three friars who were hanged and beheaded by Henry IV for treason in 1402 after they were found to be spreading rumors that Richard II was still alive thereby undermining Henry’s legitimacy.

The archaeological team has already found the outlines of the church walls and many medieval floor tiles, some reused in Robert Herrick’s 17th century garden, some still in situ in the choir floor. They’ve also re-excavated the stone coffin and Richard’s grave. The latter they scanned using laser and digital photogrammetric technologies to get the most detailed 3D map possible. Once the grave is covered up again so people can park their cars on it, archaeologists will have an interactive reconstruction to study and to use for comparison in any future excavations. It will also be part of the display at the new Richard III Visitor Centre being build adjacent to the former Greyfriars church.

They’ve erected a public viewing platform at the north end of the parking lot which will be open every day between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM until the end of July.


Navy finds stone boat effigy on San Clemente Island

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Navy archaeologist have discovered a rare Native American boat effigy on San Clemente Island (SCI). SCI, one of Southern California’s Channel Islands 90 miles west of San Diego, is owned by the US Navy which uses it as ship-to-shore live firing range. The island also has thousands of archaeological sites dotting its 57 square miles. As part of its legally mandated stewardship of the land, the Navy employs archaeologists to survey and excavate these sites. They’ve already identified 4,000 archaeological sites on the 55% of the island that has already been surveyed; experts estimate there are at least that many again yet to be found. Artifacts like hooks carved from shellfish, stone knives, carved animal, drills and bone needles have been discovered that are up to 10,000 years old.

This exceptional archaeological wealth is due to its lack of permanent residents for many centuries and an ecological quirk: the island is completely devoid of burrowing rodents or worms. Archaeologists don’t even have to dig to find artifacts from the pre-Columbian inhabitants. They sit on the surface, where they’ve sat undisturbed for thousands of years. That’s where archaeologists found the boat effigy, in fact, on the surface of a site they were surveying.

The stone boat is nine inches long, weighs about three and a half pounds and was carved from submarine volcanic rock. This is a difficult material to sculpt because submarine lava has smaller vesicles than lava on land. All those little pores make the rock as brittle as it is hard. The artist who carved the boat was a highly skilled craftsman paying homage to the canoes that were an essential part of their culture as ocean-dependent people. These canoes were crafted from redwood logs carried by floods down the coast. They were cut into planks which were then sewn together with plant ropes. The gaps were caulked with natural tar.

As important as the canoes were for transportation to the mainland, trading and fishing, boat effigies are not at all common finds amidst the plethora of artifacts on the island.

“In 30 years, it’s the first time I’ve found one. Even for a reasonably jaded archeologist, this was a reasonably rare find,” Andy Yatsko, the Navy’s archaeologist for San Clemente Island, said during an outing on the island this week. [...]

Yatsko said it likely dates back 500 to 1,000 years — a relatively recent artifact for the island, which was inhabited for at least nine millennia.

Dr. Yatsko has seen references to boat carvings in old records, but has never seen one in person. Archaeologists from the San Diego Museum of Man excavated the island before the Navy purchased it in 1934 and they never found anything like a boat effigy either. Plenty of carved volcanic rock animals, but no boats.

Researchers aren’t sure which Native American tribes populated the island. The prime candidates are the Tongva people who are known to have inhabited nearby Santa Catalina Island. The Chumash were in the northern Channel Islands and may have interacted with the people on San Clemente, positively or negatively. Skeletons have been found piled on top of each other on SCI which suggests hostile encounters, even wars, took place on the island.


All 4 surviving Magna Cartas to come together for the first time

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the British Library is bringing together all four of the surviving original copies of the iconic charter limiting monarchical authority. This is the first time in history the parchments will all be together in one place. The exact dates haven’t been released yet, but this once-in-800-years occasion will happen in early 2015 for only three days.

The unification will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and the public to see the documents side-by-side. 1215 adults and children will be able to enter a ballot to win free tickets to see the unified manuscripts, and the manuscripts will be examined in the British Library’s Conservation Centre by some of the world’s leading experts on the documents who are currently undertaking a major research project on Magna Carta and the charters of King John, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This unique opportunity will allow the historians involved to study faded or obscured parts of the text more closely and to look for new clues about the identity of the writers of the texts, which is hitherto unknown.

The writers were unnamed scribes working in the royal chancery. When the barons rebelling against King John forced him to concede to their terms at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215, he affixed the Great Seal to a document known as the Articles of the Barons which listed their stipulations. (This document and its Great Seal are on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta room.) Negotiations on the terms and wording continued for the next few days. Once the details were finalized, the barons swore new oaths of fealty to King John and, a month after Runnymede, the royal scribes wrote up the final terms in multiple copies known as exemplifications. Each exemplification bearing the Great Seal was distributed to signatories, bishops, sheriffs and various other officials throughout the country.

We don’t know how many copies went out, but only four of the originals survive today, two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral. Other Magna Cartas were issued after the first round. Between 1215 and the final edition of Magna Carta in 1297, every time a new king came to the throne or amendments were added to the original agreement new exemplifications were drawn up and distributed. There are a grand total of 17 surviving exemplifications from all the editions, most of them in England, one of them at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The charter has come to symbolize freedoms guaranteed by law, but most of its 63 clauses aren’t statements of general legal principle but rather specific points about the administration of justice and the feudal rights of the nobility. Those questions were the core of the beef between King and barons, after all, and thus are the focus of the agreement between the factions. The vast majority of the terms were rendered obsolete over time. Only three of the clauses are still valid in English law today: one guaranteeing the freedoms of the English Church, one conferring privileges to London and other cities, and one that looms the largest:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This little clause, granted no particular emphasis or importance in the original document, has been interpreted by the courts, politicans and philosophers over the centuries as the foundation of such fundamental rights as trial by jury, due process, speedy trial and freedom from governmental caprice and excess.

Magna Carta was written in medieval Latin using copious abbreviations, as was standard practice for scribes at that time. If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s an annotated translation of the original text.


Medieval leather horse harness found in Cork castle

Friday, July 12th, 2013

In October of 2011, an archaeological survey of a site slated for future road construction near Doneraile, County Cork, Ireland, uncovered the foundations of Caherduggan Castle and its moat. This was a medieval stone castle built by Anglo-Normans next to an early medieval ringfort occupied between 400 and 1169 A.D. by local chieftains of the Duggan family (hence Caherduggan which means “the fort of the Duggans”). The castle was built in tower house style, a stone tower on 40 x 80-foot base with walls more than six feet thick. It was demolished somewhere around the middle of the 19th century and much of the stone was taken away to be reused in new construction leaving behind only the foundations.

The defensive moat around it was deep and had been filled with soil, discarded pottery and animal bones by the 17th century, but the archaeological team from Rubicon Heritage Services were delighted to find that the lower levels were waterlogged, creating an anaerobic environment ideal for the preservation of organic materials like wood and leather. Indeed, within a week the moat turned up its first leather artifact: a 600-year-old woman’s shoe.

Behind the moat they found another blessedly waterlogged area. Archaeologists found it was a deep well, dug down below the water table. The lower levels were still extremely wet and the team immediately encountered large numbers of wood fragments and some fragments of leather preserved by the low oxygen environment.

Then they hit paydirt. On November 30th, 2011, archaeologists discovered a leather belt complete with buckles on both ends and covered with metal studs. Such an elaborate leather piece is a very rare survival. In short order the belt was followed by a pair of leather shoes for indoor use and a bone gaming die in pristine condition. Unlike modern dice, the numbers on the faces (represented by concentric circles) are sequential, one and two are on opposite sides, then three and four, then five and six. The die, shoes and belt all date to approximately the same era, the 13th or 14th century.

After months of conservation, the leather studded belt revealed itself to be something even more precious than anyone realized. Almost three feet long, the belt was not for human waists but for horse chests. It’s a peytrel, also known as a breast-collar, the part of a harness that connects the saddle to the breast plate. The studs aren’t studs, they’re a group of 36 gilt copper-alloy heraldic shields decorated with lions counter-rampant (meaning they face to the viewer’s right). Each pendant is connected by a hinge to a fixed mount that also bears the counter-rampant lions. The hinges ensured the pendants would move prettily when the horse was in motion.

At each end of the strap are gilt copper-alloy buckles. They were recycled, cut off another piece and attached to the ends of the peytrel so that it could be attached to harness fittings on the saddle and breast plate. They were too valuable to discard once whatever they were previously attached to wore out, and the peytrel with all its pendants was of course even more valuable. However it ended up down that well, it’s unlikely to have been deliberately thrown away.

The counter-rampant lions may help answer some questions. It’s an extremely rare design. The Office of the Chief Herald in Ireland is looking into possible associations, but they may have simply been a decorative choice rather than a nobleman’s arms.

Even if it turns out to be impossible to establish the owner or affirmatively connect the piece to a specific noble house, it is still an exceptional discovery. Archaeologist Damian Shields:

“Post-excavation analysis has revealed it is the only intact example ever found in Britain or Ireland and it may have belonged to a medieval knight or one of his retainers or retinue. It was certainly belong to [sic] someone important in the medieval period. This is a hugely significant find in Ireland.”

Not just in Ireland. Thousands of medieval heraldic pendants from harnesses have been found in Britain in Ireland, but they were the only part to survive. This is the only peytrel we know of that has survived with every part, including the leather, intact. That makes this a discovery of international significance, a museum quality piece that is one of the greatest secular medieval leather objects ever discovered in Ireland.


Artifacts point to Viking trading center from sagas

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

An archaeological excavation on the site of a highway expansion in the central Norwegian municipality of Steinkjer discovered two ship burials with grave goods that suggest the area may have been an important center of trade in the Viking era. Even though the artifacts are small clues, they are disproportionately important because they are direct evidence supporting the Norse sagas which describe Steinkjer as a major trading capital.

Steinkjer is ideally located for trade, at the head of the Beitstadfjorden fjord with the Atlantic on the west side, the Steinkjerelva river on the east and rich farmland all around. The village of Maere within the modern municipality was a religious center where people would assemble for seasonal celebrations and to perform ceremonial sacrifices to the Norse gods. Trondheim (Nidaros in Viking times), the capital of Norway from the 10th century to the 13th, is 75 miles to the south.

It’s a large area, however, and the coast line has changed a great deal since the saga heroes roamed the land. Add to that the difficulty of finding archaeological remains of organic trade goods and of deliberately impermanent structures, and archaeologists have had to rely on meager material like coins and other objects that were clearly imported to try to sort out where the trading center may have been. They plot the find sites of various traded artifacts on a map and then mark the areas with the highest concentration of goods as the likely trading spots. The distribution of amber and glass beads, Viking H swords and imported jewelry is heavily weighted towards Steinkjer.

What the two recently discovered ship burials added to the picture were two artifacts of particular relevance.

One, a silver button made of braided silver threads that appears to have originated in the British Isles, suggests that the person in the grave had a high status.

The second is a set of balance scales found in another boat grave. The balance scales were constructed in a way that led the archaeologists to believe it came from the west – not from Norway.

Scales themselves naturally suggest trade, and when the researchers looked at all the scales found in Nord-Trøndelag, they again found a clear concentration in the Steinkjer area.

So if Steinkjer was the center of trade described in the Norse sagas, where exactly was the tradepost? The working hypothesis right now is that it was under the current church. It’s the high point and sea levels were 15 or so feet higher on this coastline in 1000 A.D. than they are today, so it makes sense that the church site is where Norse traders did their trading. That’s going to stay a hypothesis for the time being since nobody’s going to be digging under that church anytime soon.

At some point in the Middle Ages, Steinkjer’s influence waned, probably because competing rulers moved their business elsewhere. Trondheim and other cities took over and Steinkjer became a sleepy fishing and agricultural area. It didn’t even get official town status until 1857.


Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

Friday, July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.


Update: three treasures go home

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”


1,200-year-old lost city found in Cambodia

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

A team from the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Asian Art and Archaeology has discovered a previously unknown city from the early Khmer Empire on Phnom Kulen mountain, 25 miles of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Archaeologists knew that there were a few scattered temples on the site because the ruins are still visible through the jungle growth, but when they attached Lidar to a helicopter and then flew over the area for seven days, the remote sensing technology revealed much more than a handful of isolated temples.

Lidar, a portmanteau of laser and radar, points a laser beam at a target and then determined distances by analyzing the reflected light. It’s a highly effective (and highly expensive) tool for mapping architectural features hidden underneath thick jungle canopies. What the Lidar found was more than two dozen new temples, plus canals, roads and dykes indicating the site was a major city complex. Many of the temples are invisible to the naked eye and show no sign of having been interfered with by looters, a rare boon to archaeologists.

In effect the Lidar technology peeled away the jungle canopy using billions of laser pulses, allowing archaeologists to see for the first time structures that were in perfect squares, completing a map of the city which years of painstaking ground research had been unable to achieve.

The archaeologists were amazed to see that 36 previously recorded ruins scattered across the mountain were linked by an intricate network of gridded roads, dykes, ponds and temples divided into regular city blocks.

The team believes these structures belong to the ancient city of Mahendraparvata, the capital built by the founder of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II. Scriptures describe a great ceremony held by Jayavarman II on Phnom Kulen mountain in 802 A.D. to celebrate Cambodia’s freedom from Javanese control. He was proclaimed God King at this ceremony and built a city on the sacred mountain and ushered in the glories of the new Angkor era. Angkor Wat was built more than 300 years later in the 12th century.

Like Angkor Wat, the Mahendraparvata city grid is oriented east-west and north-south, but Angkor Wat was built on a flat plain while Mahendraparvata was built on a mountain side. Clearing the area of vegetation and building in neat geometries was an exceptional feat of engineering for the newborn empire. That deforestation may have been an important contributing factor to the demise of the city because stripped of its natural ecology, the city became dependent on water management systems which could not support its population as it grew.

Much more investigation much be done before the question of what happened to Mahendraparvata is answered. Archaeologists believe the Lidar only covered the tip of the iceberg over those seven days. They think the city is far vaster and they want to return with a more extensive Lidar exploration. It’s an expensive proposition so they’ll need to raise funds before they come back with more Lidar, but in the meantime they have a rich new archaeological site to explore the old-fashioned way.

Here’s a video of them tramping the jungle, looking for the structures revealed in the Lidar data. Watch the whole thing because it’s amazing to see just how little of the archaeology can be seen with the naked eye. One of the temples is under a rice field and there is exactly one partial brick on the surface testifying to what’s underneath.


Lost medieval inscribed stone found in Wales stream

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Archaeologists on a walk stumbled on a long-lost inscribed stone dating to the 9th or 10th century in the Nant Tawelan river in the village of Silian, County Ceredigion, mid-west Wales. Nikki Vousden, staff member of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and University of Wales archaeologist Dr. Roderick Bale were taking a stroll along the stream one bank holiday when they noticed one of the wet stones had an inscription. The water glinting off the surface highlighted the unusual pattern: a linear Latin cross with a lozenge shaped ring at the upper end.

There are only three stones known with a cross and lozenge pattern. One of them is at St. David’s Church in Llanllawer, the other at St. Tecwyn’s Church, Llandecwyn, and the third has been missing for longer than anyone knows. Its existence was documented by Dr. Victor Erle Nash-Williams in his 1950 reference The Early Christian Monuments of Wales, but his sources were a cast of the surface and a photograph of the stone kept at the National Museum of Wales. A label on the picture identified the stone as coming from Silian, but there was no record of who took the photograph, who made the cast or the context of the original find.

So at some point somebody knew it was historically significant enough to make a cast of the inscription. How the stone went from museum cast-worthy to sitting in a stream 40 miles south of St. Sulien’s Church, Silian, is a mystery. The stone is being kept at St. Sulien’s right now, which has two other inscribed stones. The earliest, inscribed “Silbandus lies” with a linear Latin cross superimposed over the words, dates to the 7th-9th century and is now built into the church’s external south wall. The second dates to the 9th or 10th century and has a pattern of linked knots on one side and square frets on the other. It was discovered in the churchyard in 1808 and was moved to the interior south wall of the church in 1960.

The newly rediscovered stone is called Silian 3 because it’s the third of St. Sulien’s three stones. Silian 3′s inscription is made of punch marks clustered close together. The design wasn’t carved into the surface with a chisel; it was punched out in divots with a metal tool. According to Professor Nancy Edwards of Bangor University, author of the three-volume A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, the Silian 3 inscription is unique. Although they share the cross and lozenge imagery, the other two stones are different in overall pattern.

There are 534 documented early medieval inscribed stones and sculptures in Wales. Find sites cluster around churches and burial grounds. Some of the inscriptions indicate they were used as grave markers, and indeed there are extant stones that bear clear marks of having been embedded vertically into the ground. However, not a single inscribed stone has ever been discovered in context attached to a grave. Nancy Edwards believes (pdf), and inscriptions back her up, they were also used as boundary markers of church property, to record a donation of land to the church, or in the case of the larger works, as unmistakable signs of sacred ground. They may also have been placed along roadsides to serve as prayer stations, much like statues of saints and whatnot are still used in Italy to this day.