Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Medieval painting saved by Reformation recycling

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.

The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.

The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.

When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.

It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.

It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.


12th c. “archaeological ruin” icon restored

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The 12th century Bogolyubskaya Icon of Theotokos (Greek for the Mother of God), once deemed an unfixable “archaeological ruin,” has been restored not quite to its original splendor but to its original colors. This is a great achievement for a revered artwork that is one of only about 30 icons from the 12th century that still survive. An exhibition at the Grabar Art Conservation Centre in Moscow tells the tale of its checkered life, from miraculous conception to this latest restoration.

The story begins in 1155 with Grand Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (“Andrew the God-Loving”). He was traveling to the city of Vladimir, the new capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality which arose from the demise of the Kievan Rus, a demise Andrei vigorously and successfully fought to accelerate. With him he carried a precious icon now known as the Miracle-Working Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The icon was Byzantine, made in Constantinople in 1131, but was believed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist. It was also believed to have miraculous powers of protection, particularly in battle, which is why Andrei carried it with him.

Seven miles outside of the city near the banks of the Klyazma River, Andrei’s horses suddenly refused to take another step. The prince prayed before the icon the whole night and received a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a scroll in her right hand. She commanded him to take the icon to Vladimir and build a church and cloister on the place where she had appeared to him. Andrei did what she told him to and more besides, commissioning a new icon commemorating his holy vision.

The icon depicted Mary holding a scroll in her right hand, just as Andrei has seen, her left hand raised in prayer to Jesus shown as an adult in the upper right hand corner. As promised, Prince Andrei built his own palace and a church, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, on the site of his vision. The icon was installed in the Convent of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (later known as the Bogolyubsky Convent). When another church in Vladimir, the Dormition or Holy Assumption Cathedral, was completed, the icon was translated to it.

Under Andrey Bogolyubsky, Vladimir grew into the dominant cultural, economic and political center of the region and remained so until 1237 when it was besieged by the Mongol Golden Horde commanded by its founder Batu Khan. It fell on February 8th, 1238, and never again regained the prosperity and power it had once enjoyed. Dozens of Vladimir’s characteristic white limestone churches and public buildings were burned, but the icon survived the Mongol onslaught.

It nonetheless suffered many slings and arrows over the centuries. In 1722 the church building collapsed and the Bogolyubskaya Icon was trapped under the rubble for days. In 1771, Vladimir was struck by plague. The icon was paraded through the city and the epidemic miraculously ended. Every year after that the icon was brought to the city from May 21st until July 16th during which the miraculous procession was repeated in towns and villages all over the region.

The annual parades almost destroyed the icon. Exposed to the elements, the centuries-old paint weakened and the wood panel deteriorated. After the revolution church art was nationalized by the Bolshevik government. A restoration commission headed by artist, art historian and founder of the conservation center that bears his name, Igor Grabar examined the icon. When they removed the metal casing, they were horrified to find the icon blackened, the paint crumbling, the gesso rotting, the panel bored with holes from wood worm and the surface crawling with live larvae. Dismayed restorer Alexander Anisimov called it an “archaeological ruin.” Thanks to Grabar’s judicious reluctance to interfere with what was left of the icon, a prescient approach that was not common then, the team documented it photographically, killed the pests and strengthened the board as best they could.

Later restorers were not so circumspect. In a 1946 attempt to restore the icon, or at least prevent further deterioration, Vladimir museum restorer and artist F.A. Modorov came up with the idea of covering the surface with hot paraffin wax. He thought this would strengthen and protect the flaking paint layer. Who could have predicted that pouring hot wax on a delicate, wood worm-tunneled, flaking, 700-year-old painting would be hugely destructive? (Anyone. Anyone could have predicted that.) Subsequent attempts at restoration were able to better reveal Mary’s face and some of her clothes. They could not repair the decay of the gesso layer and the paint, but the icon was stable and under the constant supervision of conservators.

With the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral of the Holy Assumption Convent in Vladimir claimed the icon. It was transferred to the convent in 1993 where it was put on display in a climate-controlled, hermetically sealed encasement made by the same outfit that made Lenin’s glass coffin. Lenin still looks great, but his encasement is constantly monitored and repaired. The icon received no such attention. Of the four batteries that powered the microclimate, only two of them worked and one of them had been sold by the nuns to raise money for the church, so really it was just a clear box with a lock. Meanwhile pilgrims left fresh flowers in vases of water at the feet of the icon, releasing humidity right into the box. On top of that, the original white limestone floor was replaced when a sponsor offered to install a new granite floor. Enter groundwater penetration, drainage problems, and perpetual damp. When one of the tiles was lifted later, mushrooms were growing underneath it.

This disaster was discovered in 2009 when nuns reported there was some sort of fungus growing on the surface of the icon. The failure to properly care for one of the first icons ever painted in Russia and one of very few religious artifacts to survive the Mongol invasion caused a scandal. The Bogolyubskaya Icon was moved to the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum in Vladimir and a new program of restoration under Aleksandr Gormatyuk of the Grabar Art Conservation Centre began. Aided by the latest restoration technology — 3D scanning, CT scanning, scanning electron microscope examination, X-rays — Gormatyuk assessed the condition of the piece and traced the history writ on its paint. He identified no fewer than 20 interventions on the piece in its 858 years. The average for icons is 3 to 4 interventions.

For six years Gormatyuk and his team worked to remove wax and resin layers and overpainting to reveal the original 12th century paint which by some miracle still survived. The Bogolyubskaya Icon now lives in a specially equipped restoration room with FUNCTIONING climate control systems. Only 12 people are allowed inside the room to eliminate human emissions and effluvia from the conservation equation as much as possible. The icon will be kept in the room and monitored for two more years at least.

Since the icon is still far too fragile to travel, the Moscow exhibition uses life-sized photographs, orginal documents, weapons from the 12th century, white stone carvings from Vladimir to give visitors an understanding of the history of the Bogolyubskaya icon and its restoration. Friday, February 26th, is the last day of the exhibition, so if you’re in Moscow there is no time to waste.


Medieval ship raised from Dutch river

Friday, February 12th, 2016

An early 15th century merchant ship was raised from the river IJssel near the Dutch city of Kampen, about 60 miles northeast of Amsterdam, on Wednesday. The wooden ship is 20 meters (66 feet) long, weighs 50 tons and is a type of vessel known as a cog, a single mast flat-bottom ship that was the workhorse of the Hanseatic League’s Baltic maritime trade. It is the best preserved medieval cargo ship ever discovered in the Netherlands. The cog was discovered buried in the sand and silt during dredging operations in the summer of 2011. Two smaller vessels, a barge and a punt, found at the same time were recovered last October, but the cog is the largest, the heaviest, the most intact and the most historically significant, so raising it required a months of advanced planning.

Divers ran straps underneath the hull of the ship and attached them to a steel cage structure that would keep the entire vessel in one piece. Sensors inside the ship reported on the pressure inflicted on various parts of the ship while forty motors lifted the cage and the 50 tons of oak ship within. The raising was expected to take all day, but the cog was in even better structural condition than experts realized, so they were able to lift it out of the water in a few hours. Crowds on the shore cheered when it emerged from the river for the first time in 600 years.

When the cog was first discovered, archaeologists thought it was deliberately sunk as a means of waterway management. On the night of November 18th-19th, 1421, a tidal surge from the North Sea broke through the dikes of a large part of what is now the Netherlands. The 1421 St. Elizabeth’s flood (November 19th is St. Elizabeth of Hungary day) claimed thousands of lives and redrew the map of Zeeland and Holland. The Rhine river, which before the flood had flowed into the IJssel, changed course and flowed over the Waal to the North Sea. The IJssel’s water level dropped, severely hampering its commercial value. The heavy cog and smaller ships could have been dropped onto the riverbed in an attempt to narrow the width of the fairway and raise the water level to make the channel suitable for cargo shipping again.

Going by that theory, archaeologists didn’t expect there to be anything inside the vessel, assuming anything of value would have been stripped before the sinking, but much to their surprise divers discovered the ship’s galley with brick dome oven and glazed tiles.This is the first full galley ever discovered on a medieval ship. They also found a water pump, a willow twig fish trap and two pilgrim badges. They’re not the kind of thing that would be discarded without a thought, so it may be that the cog went down by accident rather than on purpose.

Once it was raised, the ship was moved onto a pontoon where it will stay until Tuesday while a special frame is built to transport the cog, barge and punt to Lelystad where the State Service for Cultural Heritage (RCE) has a custom-built conservation station where the ships will be kept wet and gradually dried over at least three years to ensure the wood is preserved without shrinking, warping or cracking. Conservators will also attempt to reattach parts of the cog that were recovered separately. The public will be able to view the ship during conservation in Lelystad.

After it is conserved and in stable condition, the vessel will need a permanent home. The city of Kampen is keen to have it back. It already has a replica of a 14th century cog, but this is the real thing, an icon of Kampen’s independent trade and Hanseatic League history. Kampen’s location between the Zuiderzee bay and the Rhine made it a bustling center of trade starting in the 13th century. At its peak in the 14th and early 15th centuries, Kampen was a major city eclipsing even Amsterdam. With the St. Elizabeth flood and silting of the IJssel, the city’s fortunes began to decline. The cog, therefore, is an example of Kampen’s great prosperity in its many years of service as a merchant cargo ship as well as being an example of Kampen’s loss of prosperity in the means of its demise.


15th c. Theodelinda Chapel fresco restored

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

The Duomo of Monza has antecedants dating to the 6th century when the Lombards ruled swaths of Italy. Monza, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was the summer residence of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628). In 595 she had a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist built next to her royal palace in Monza. In the 13th century a new church was built on the remains of Theodelinda’s chapel. It was rebuilt again in the early 14th century and expanded significantly at the end of the century. Two chapels were added in the expansion, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another across from it on the north side of the cathedral transept dedicated to Queen Theodelinda. She got such high billing because she converted her first husband King Authari to Catholic Christianity and after his death, she converted her second husband King Agilulf first to Christianity and then to Catholicism. Arianism was predominant among Lombards at the time, so Theodelinda was instrumental in establishing a foundation of Nicene Christianity among the Lombards.

The vault of the Theodelinda Chapel was painted with figures of saints and evangelists in the 1430s. In 1441, the Zavattari family of Milan were commissioned to decorate the chapel walls with a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Lombard queen. Pater familias Franceschino, who worked for decades on the stained glass windows of the Duomo of Milan, and his sons Giovanni and Gregorio painted 45 scenes on five levels from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. They used a variety of media — egg tempera, oil tempera, dry painting, fresco, stucco relief, gilding — showcasing the Zavattari’s workshop experience in diverse art forms.

The result was a massive masterpiece covering 5,400 square feet of wall space. It is considered by many to be the greatest example of the International Gothic style espoused by artists like Carlo Crivelli. Also like Crivelli, the Zavattari used gesso decorative elements to create dimension and relief and then gilded them. In fact there is gold everywhere. The skies aren’t blue; they’re gold. The crowns, the jewels, the hair, the helmets, the clothes, the musical instruments, the tables, the goblets, the spurs, the scepters, the reliquaries, the crosses, the candelabra, the candles, the horses’ manes, architectural elements are all gilded. Little wonder that it’s been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the North.”

The scenes of Theodelinda’s life story were taken from 8th century monk Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (the parts about Theodelinda start here) and from 13th century historian Bonincontro Morigia’s Chronicle of Monza. The first 23 cover the meeting and marriage of Theodelinda and Authari. Scenes 24 to 30 depict her second marriage to Agilulf. In scenes 31 to 41 are the founding of the church, the death of Agilulf and of Theodelinda. The last scenes depict Byzantine Emperor Constans II’s failed attack on the Lombards of southern Italy and his return to Byzantium with his tail between his legs.

In keeping with the standard practice of the time, the style of dress is typical of the courts of 15th century northern Italy. The frescoes are replete with scenes of courtly life — hunts, banquets, balls, parties — and provide a uniquely rich window into the attire, hairstyles, weapons and armour of the 15th century Milanese court. There are no fewer than 28 scenes dedicated to weddings or preparation for weddings. This is thought to be a symbolic reference to the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, legitimized natural daughter and sole heir of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza. Theodelinda had chosen her second husband thereby making him king. Bianca’s marriage to Francesco ultimately transferred the dukedom of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza family after her father’s death. They were married in 1441, the same year the Zavattari were commissioned to paint the chapel, probably by Filippo Maria Visconti.

The chapel frescoes were repeatedly restored between the 17th and 19th centuries. During World War II, the walls were protected from bomb damage using sandbags, which had the unfortunate unintended consequence of increasing the moisture and salt levels inside the chapel. Those earlier restorations became increasingly unstable and the paint and stucco cracked and flaked. By 2007, the condition of the masterpiece was dire. Paint was lifting off and significant areas had suffered permanent losses.

The World Monuments Fund, the Region of Lombardy, the Fondazione Gaiani (the organization in charge of preserving the Duomo of Milan) and other private foundations, began a three million euro restoration project in 2008. The latest technology — lasers, nanotech, imaging — combined with traditional arts to revive details lost for centuries, like a delicate damask pattern that had morphed into a dark block and reflections of red wine on the inside of a gold chalice. Areas of loss were filled in using organic paints without acrylic that can easily be removed with a wet sponge. “A favor for future restorers,” as project leader Anna Lucchini put it. A new lighting system was also installed to make the frescoes more easily seen by visitors on the ground. The restoration took seven years.

The newly refreshed frescoes were officially reopened to the public in a ceremony on October 16th, 2015.


Infernal Landscape drawn by Hieronymus Bosch

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

A drawing previously thought to have been made by an assistant in the workshop of medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch has been authenticated as a piece by the master himself. Infernal Landscape is a little-known drawing first emerged in 2003 when the anonymous owner sold it auction to an equally anonymous buyer. It has been squirreled away in a private collection since the sale. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international art history study that has been researching, analyzing and documenting the oeuvre of the medieval master since 2010 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death this year, were able to examine the drawing before its first public exhibition this year in honor of the anniversary.

The drawing shows a chaotic, scary, monstrous hell where the souls of the damned are caught in a large fishing net rigged up to a water wheel in the maw of a hellbeast. Some are condemned to act as clappers for giant bells, others cluster in groups while fantastical creatures devour, torture and abuse them. Naked people are made to straddle the blade of a huge knife in the mouth of a giant in a basket. It’s the kind of scene Bosch is best known for, reminiscent of the Hell panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych.

In fact, it was its very Boschishness which initially led scholars to think it was the work of an assistant. They thought it was a pastiche, a copy of several Bosch figures made by a student. The BRCP used state-of-the-art technology to analyze the drawing. They examined it with infrared reflectography, ultra high-resolution macrophotography in both infrared and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy. They tested the paper, handwriting and inks, comparing them to known Bosch drawings from major European collections. The team found that some of the figures in the Infernal Landscape match underdrawings in paintings. There is a similar fellow in a basket underneath The Garden of Earthly Delights, even though Bosch chose not to include him in the final painting.

“It’s not just a ‘successful pastiche’, as some have called it. I’ve seen quite a few of these, and 99% of the time, they are not very inspiring,” [BRCP project coordinator Matthijs] Ilsink says. “This one is very, very good.” He says the argument that the work is “too Bosch to be by Bosch” does not hold water, given the fact that other, equally “Boschian” drawings — including Tree Man (around 1505) in Vienna’s Albertina — are considered to be authentic works. “You can’t blame Bosch for being too Bosch,” he says. […]

Ilsink says that Bosch often changed his mind as he worked, so his paintings have a lot of overpaint and underdrawings. “Someone creating a pastiche of his works wouldn’t have access to these earlier versions,” Ilsink says. He admits that some might argue that Infernal Landscape was made in the artist’s workshop, but he does not believe this to be the case.

The drawing is an important addition to Hieronymus Bosch’s body of work. It’s large in size and so richly chaotic that it gives art historians a glimpse of Bosch’s additive, free-association approach to composition.

The BRCP’s research has also gone the other way. The team discovered that two paintings attributed to Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross and The Seven Deadly Sins are likely the work of followers, not the artist. Macrophotography, x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed that Christ Carrying the Cross that it was produced after 1525, nine years after Bosch’s death, and the painting style is dissimilar enough to make it unlikely that it was even made in his workshop. The Seven Deadly Sins was exposed by its underdrawings and overall quality as definitely not the work of Bosch himself, although it’s possible that it was made in the family workshop.

The Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, commonly referred to as Den Bosch, birthplace, home and workplace of Hieronymus Bosch, is celebrating the anniversary year with a great many parades, concerts, games, theatricals, art shows, lectures and, for the December finale, “the lighting of the Bosch beast” in the city center which I haven’t been able to find a precise description of but sounds like the greatest Burning Man ever. The Noordbrabants Museum will hold a major exhibition of Bosch’s work. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius brings together masterpieces from top institutions in Europe and America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. For the first time, a majority of Bosch’s works will be together on public display in the city where they were painted. Artworks include world-famous pieces like the Haywain Triptych and the Ship of Fools, as well as virtually unknown works like the newly authenticated Infernal Landscape drawing and 12 panels recently restored by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative which have never been on view to the public before. The exhibition runs from February 13th through May 8th, 2016.

Den Bosch was founded in the 12th century a fortress city and much of the historic center has survived intact, including the complete medieval ramparts that encircle the old town. It was spared from destruction in World War II and spared from even worse destruction by well-meaning modernizers after the war thanks to the city council’s quickly declaring the entire old city a protected historical townscape before the first rampart could be felled or the first canal filled. That means if you take one of the special Bosch Experience tours available from March to November of this year, you will be seeing things he actually saw, walking the same winding roads he walked, visit the same places he worked and lived.


All of the research and analysis the BRCP has done over the past six years will be published in a two-volume monograph later this month. There will also be a website, funded by the Getty Foundation, where all the BRCP’s research and images will be available for our rapt perusal. It’s set to launch before the opening of the Noordbrabants Museum exhibition but there’s no url yet. I’ll update when the site goes live.


Remains of Settlement Era Reykjavík longhouse to be preserved

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

The remains of the Icelandic Settlement Era (874-930 A.D.) Viking longhouse discovered by surprise last summer in downtown Reykjavík will be preserved and integrated into the hotel that will be built on the lot. The longhouse was an unexpected find because archaeologists thought Settlement Era Reykjavík started and ended significantly west of modern-day Lækjargata street. The discovery of the remains has dramatically altered our understanding of the size and breadth of the early city. Add to that the fact that it’s one of the largest longhouses ever found in Iceland — the central fire pit was 17 feet long — and the incentive to preserve this groundbreaking find was strong.

When the archaeological survey of the parking lot on Lækjargata began in advance of construction of a new hotel, the team led by Iceland Institute of Archaeology archaeologist Lisabet Guðmundsdóttir expected to find the remains of a 1799 turf farm known to have been on the site. They had a plan in place to remove all archaeological remains and artifacts to a local museum. They did find the turf farm, but when they then unearthed the history-changing longhouse, the removal plan had to be revisited.

The hotel developers were amenable to the idea that the remains stay in situ and be somehow incorporated into the hotel. The city quickly formed an advisory committee to explore their options. Last week the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland announced that the remains would stay put and the hotel would have to work around them. They did compromise, however.

Archaeologist Lísbet Guðmundsdóttir, who oversaw the dig which discovered the ruins, told RÚV that all un-organic remains will be preserved on location. Turf from the walls will not be reserved because completely intact because of cost. “Moreover, their preservation adds very little to people’s understanding of the remains we have here,” she adds.

I don’t know about that. The longhouse was dated by analysing the volcanic ash captured in the turf, so it seems to add a great deal to everyone’s understanding of the remains. Also, Iceland has a great tradition of turf houses dating back to the first settlement days and continuing well into the 20th century. The turf walls of the longhouse are an important part of that history. By the same token I understand that it would have been a logistical nightmare for the hotel trying to keep the turf from drying out and crumbling to dust.

Based on the location of the fireplace, which was always at the center of a longhouse, archaeologists believe the structure extended well into the center of what is now Skólabrú street. There will be no excavation into the busy city street (archaeologists believe the construction of the road in the early 20th century destroyed any surviving longhouse remains) but already excavated sections of the longhouse that abut the street, including the central fireplace and trough, but are outside of the hotel’s boundary line will be part of the larger exhibition. The perimeter outline of the longhouse will be marked inside the hotel and on the sidewalk.

The architecture of the hotel will have to be changed to accommodate the remains. That’s going to take more expertise, time and money, of course, but once it opens the hotel is sure to profit from being on top of so important an archaeological site. Besides, if the plans for the soon-to-be-completed Antakya Hilton Museum Hotel on the site of a 2,000-year-old, 9,000-square-foot mosaic in the ancient city of Antioch are anything to go by, the new hotel is going to be about a million times cooler than whatever the original design was.


Run those medieval fingerprints through AFIS

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

A new study will apply modern forensic crime solving techniques to the Middle Ages by examining the hand and fingerprints left on wax seals from the 12th to 14th centuries. The three-year research project will collect the prints left on seals attached to a variety of documents in the collections of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and the National Library of Wales. Project leaders Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln and Dr. Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University will explore what the prints call tell us about authority, bureaucracy, authentication and the law in medieval England and Wales.

The prints will also literally be run through AFIS, comparing fingerprints that are at least 700 years old to modern ones. Researchers are looking for any close or approximate matches even over centuries. Any such discoveries will contribute significantly the study of print identification, which isn’t as well-established, scientifically speaking, as some TV programs would have you believe. Having said that, I really hope someone films Professor Hoskin or Dr. New looking at a fingerprint on a wax seal and saying “Let’s run it through AFIS.”

Because many of the seals are found on financial documents — property sales, business contracts, assorted transactions — there’s even a chance the study will veer from CSI into Cold Case as the fingerprint comparisons might detect 900-year-old fraud or forgery.

Wax seals were ubiquitous by the 12th century, used as a secure mark of the owner’s agreement the way a valid signature is
today on any legal document. Administrative documents of any kind required seals to be validated. Despite their legal significance when the seals were first pressed into wax, the seals themselves have rarely been studied. Historians tend to focus on the documents, not the dangly bits, except insofar as they hold identifying information regarding the parties to the documents. The Imprint study is breaking new ground.

Dr Elizabeth New, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, comments that: “Hand prints on wax seals bring us close to medieval people in a very tangible way. It is important to remember that seals were not just the preserve of kings and great nobles: men and women from all levels of society also set their seals on documents.

“Medieval seals contained a variety of images and words, providing strong statements of identity and very valuable sources of information about people, culture and society. The images can tell us what things actually looked like, and provide glimpses of humour, piety and family pride. They also enabled otherwise illiterate men and women the means to ‘write’ their name.

“These small objects have always had great significance, and are rich time-capsules that can open exciting windows into past lives. Examining the hand prints left – both accidentally and deliberately – in the wax along with impressions of seal matrices provides further important opportunities to deepen our understanding of our medieval ancestors.”

All the prints collected will be entered into an online database along with information about the documents and the seals the prints were taken from. That archive will be made accessible to researchers and the general public.


Ivan the Terrible-era weapons cache found

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of future highway construction near Zvenigorod, a medieval town in the Moscow Oblast about 40 miles west of the capital, have unearthed a cache of weapons from the era of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584). The arsenal was discovered alongside the remains of the 16th century village of Ignatievskoe. The team unearthed about 60 buildings from the village. One of them had burned down in the mid-16th century but its basement survived remarkably unscathed. It’s in the underground timber-lined storage room that archaeologists discovered what they believe was the private arsenal of one of Ivan the Terrible’s elite cadre of knights.

They found helmets stored in leather boxes, kolchugs (a kind of cuirass), sections of military sabres, belts, and arrows and more. It seems possible that this was a cache of weapons for a military expedition, stored in special boxes, including even sections of camp tents and billy cans. This warlike inventory, along with the status of its owner, probably indicated the existence of a standing army of troops in readiness, who were armed, billeted and fed at the cost of members of the nobility as part of their responsibility as courtiers.

The spherical helmets with the pointed spikes decorated with gold and silver fittings are particularly splendid examples. There are similar ones in major Russian museums today, but these are the only ones ever found still inside their leather storage boxes with their fabric linings and ear-pieces intact.

The identity of the cache’s owner is unknown, but Ignatievskoe which was the home of the Dobrynins, an important boyar family who had at least one son among the oprichniki, a personal guard hand-picked by Ivan to police an area that was under his exclusive control. Ivan had demanded the creation of this new region as a condition of his return to Moscow after his sudden December 1564 departure. Distrustful of many nobles and clergy who he was certain were a pack of treasonous thieves, Ivan had left Moscow and sent a letter announcing his abdication. The boyar court was terrified that Moscow would fall into violence and chaos without Ivan’s leadership, so they agreed to all of his terms. Ivan decreed the creation of the oprichnina, a territory that he thought was rife with rebellious nobles (and, coincidentally of course, valuable industry), over which he had absolute power, including the power to execute anyone he wanted no matter how aristocratic without having to justify himself to the boyar council. Even family wasn’t exempt. Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa, the grandson and nephew of Tsars, was one of the nobles who was executed and had his property confiscated under the oprichnina.

His army of a thousand men swore loyalty to him alone. Famed for their black horses and ruthless application of Ivan’s notion of justice, the oprichniki killed thousands, noble and peasant. Their unchecked violence culminated in the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod when more than 1500 nobles and uncounted numbers of commoners were tortured, killed or kicked out of the city to die from exposure and starvation. The massacre turned the tide against the oprichniki so decisively that Ivan was compelled to disband it in 1572.

Ignatievskoe was in the middle of several towns in the Moscow Oblast added to the oprichnina. It’s possible the arsenal was intended to arm Ivan’s terrible black-horsed guard in the performance of their brutal duties. It’s also possible that it was meant for other campaigns as the late 16th century was plagued by incursions from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as internal conflict.

“This gives us a much better idea how a Russian noble would have prepared for setting out on a military campaign—each nobleman would have had his own arsenal in readiness. This excavation enables us to ‘see’ for the first time the preparations made by the noblemen who made up the officer corps elite of the Russian army at the time of the flowering of Muscovy as a Russian state,” Mr. Alexeyev remarked.


Alfred the Great-era hoard found in Oxfordshire

Friday, December 11th, 2015

A mixed hoard of Viking jewelry and Anglo-Saxon coins has been unearthed in a farmer’s field near Watlington, Oxfordshire. It was discovered in October by metal detectorist and retired advertising executive James Mather. He was about to close up shop for the day when he found a cigar-shaped object that looked a lot like the Viking silver ingots he remembered seeing at the British Museum. He dug nine inches down and saw a group of coins. Instead of continuing to root around, he wisely called the local finds officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) who told him to rebury the objects until they could be formally excavated.

An anxious weekend passed with Mather repeatedly returning to the field to make sure nobody was messing with the treasure. When PAS archaeologists arrived Tuesday, they excavated the find with Mather’s help. It was his 60th birthday. (I pity his loved ones because it’s going to be virtually impossible to top that gift for the rest of his life.) The archaeologists removed the hoard in a block of thick clay soil so it could be fully excavated in laboratory conditions. They had the landowner get high quality plastic wrap to encase the block and placed it on a baking sheet also borrowed from the farmer.

Finds officer David Williams brought the wrapped hoard to London in a suitcase, causing some consternation at the British Museum where suitcases aren’t welcomed to roll down the halls, hoard or no hoard. Safe in the museum lab, the treasures were cautiously excavated from the clay by conservator Pippa Pearce. Her work quickly confirmed the wisdom of the excavation method because some of the coins were so thin they couldn’t even be held by the edges lest they warp.

The finally tally of the hoard was 186 coins, some of them fragments, three silver bangles, probably arm rings, four pieces of broken jewelry and 15 silver ingots. The coins are all Anglo-Saxon; the silver and jewelry Viking. There is also a little twisted off scrap of gold which is the first found in a Viking hoard in Britain. The coins were issued by King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-99) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874-79). Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried in the late 870s, around the time of Alfred’s final defeat of the Viking Great Heathen Army in the Battle of Edington in 878.

The coins may rewrite the history of the collaboration between Wessex and Mercia during this time. Ceolwulf II was the last independent king of Mercia. Very little is known about him. He is included in the Worcester regnal list of Mercian kings which puts his rule at a mere five years, from 874 to 879. The Vikings had conquered eastern Mercia by that point, leaving Ceolwulf control of western Mercia which consisted mainly of the Diocese of Worcester (today’s Worcestershire minus its northwestern tip). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned by Alfred the Great, is disdainful of Ceolwulf, accusing him of being a Viking lickspittle.

And the same year [874 A.D.] they [the Great Heathen Army] gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king’s thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.

This is likely revisionism courtesy of Alfred’s desire to expunge his connection to Ceolwulf from the historical record. There are surviving charters and land grants witnessed by Mercian nobles and clerics which refer to Ceolwulf as “Rex Merciorum.” This suggests he had some measure of genuine control over his territories and was accepted as king. The Mercian ruling class, ecclesiastical and lay, recognized Ceolwulf II as the legitimate king of Mercia, not an “unwise king’s thane” borrowing the land until such time as his Viking masters decided they wanted it.

The fact that he issued coinage also indicates he held real power, especially since two of the three types of surviving penny were co-issued by Alfred. There are examples of both of those types — the Two Emperors and the Cross and Lozenge — in the Watlington Hoard. These are very rare coins, and the examples in the hoard are of particular historic significance because they were struck in different mints over several years. Previously extant Two Emperors and Cross and Lozenge coins were issued the same year. The newly discovered coins are proof that Alfred and Ceolwulf were allies and worked closely together at least in the arena of currency reform for more than one year.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum said: “This is not just another big shiny hoard.” He said it was evidence about a poorly understood time in the development of England. Even the scrap of gold, chopped up to use as currency by weight, shows the emergence of a gold standard.

The coins, he said, offered insight into a coalition that broke up acrimoniously after a few years, leading to one partner disappearing without trace. “They give a more complex political picture of a period which has been deliberately misrepresented by the victor.” He added, diplomatically, that the relationship of Stalin and Trotsky came to mind.

There is no more information about Ceolwulf II in the historical record after 879 A.D. and certainly by 883 he was no longer in power. His successor was Æthelred, no longer a king but a lord ruling Mercia as a vassal of King Alfred.

This defining period in English history is the subject of a popular BBC series called The Last Kingdom. It’s on BBC Two in the UK and BBC America in the US. I’ve seen the first season and it is outstanding. It’s based on Bernard Cornwell’s series of historical novels The Saxon Stories and while he was not involved in the creation of the series, he’s an avid watcher and has nothing but good things to say about it. As do I. Character development that makes sense. Battle scenes where you can actually see things happening clearly without giving up a sense of dynamic movement. Brilliant cast. Historically accurate sets. It’s as good as it gets, imo, when it comes to televised historical fiction.


Viking skeleton, wood coffin on display in York

Friday, December 4th, 2015

York was occupied by Vikings from 866 A.D. until the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred defeated Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking ruler of York, in 954 A.D. and united England into a single kingdom. When the Vikings arrived, the Anglo-Saxon port city of Eoforwic was in decay. They renamed it Jorvik and developed it into a thriving center of trade with Viking Scandinavia and Dublin, the Byzantine Empire and the merchant networks of the Silk Road. Despite this rich history, what little evidence of Viking material culture surfaced in York was discovered by accident. The first professional excavation by the newly founded York Archaeological Trust only took place in 1972, and that was just a few small trenches dug under Lloyds Bank on Pavement. The trenches were unexpectedly productive, revealing up to 30 feet of archaeological layers and proving that the waterlogged, peaty soil of York was an excellent preserver of organic remains like timber, textiles, leather, seeds, plants, pollen, human parasite eggs and insects, an invaluable source of information about people’s daily lives in Jorvik.

The York Archaeological Trust (YAT) performed the first planned excavation in 1976 in Coppergate, the city’s ancient center, which was slated to be redeveloped into an open-air shopping center. From 1976 through 1981, the Trust excavated more than 1,000 square metres and 2,000 years of history. The remains of an entire street of Viking York survived thanks to the magic of peat: timber buildings, woven wattle used to make walls and pathways, fences, animal pens, shop fronts, artisan workshops, cesspits and wells. More than 40,000 objects were unearthed in the Coppergate excavation and more than 500,000 people visited the site during the dig.

The excavation was incorporated into the new development. It became part of the Jorvik Viking Centre, visible through the transparent floors of the museum which recreated the Viking city with period-accurate structures, manikins with faces recreated from 9th and 10th century skulls, and my favorite part, the pungent smells of Viking York which came highly recommended by SourceRunner and Duncan Armitage in this comment thread.

The York Archaeological Trust had another archaeological coup between October 1989 and July 1990 when it excavated graveyard of the lost church of Saint Benet in the Swinegate area of York. The church had stood on the site from the 8th century through the 14th, and archaeologists discovered more than 100 burials from the churchyard. A number of burials dated from Viking era — late 9th to the early 11th century — and included the exceptionally preserved remains of wooden coffins and lids.

One of these Viking-era burials from the Swinegate excavation has now gone on display in its wooden coffin at the Jorvik Viking Centre. This is the first time any of the Swinegate skeletons or coffins has gone on public display.

The condition of the wood gives this coffin national significance, as so few similar examples exist – particularly as this coffin would have been fairly fragile when first constructed, which tells archaeologists that it would have only been transported a short distance for burial. The coffin was made for a young woman, estimated at being aged between 26 and 35. Recent analysis of the bones reveals some of her life story– including that she had inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips – but there is no indication of the cause of her death.

Over the last few weeks YAT’s conservation team have undertaken a thorough examination of the coffin to determine its structure and reveal how it was constructed. “The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings, and you can see that during construction, the piece of timber used for the lid of the coffin split and was repaired using a baton fastened inside, with the pegs cut flush on the outer surface to make the repair less obvious,” adds Sarah.

You can read the full reports of the 2015 reinvestigation of the skeletal remains and wood coffins on the York Archaeological Trust website. I particularly enjoyed the Woodworking Technology Report (pdf) and the Osteological Analysis (pdf).

The skeleton and coffin display is the vanguard of the Jorvik Viking Centre’s commemoration of the thousand year anniversary of King Canute’s accession to the throne of England in 1016. The Canute Millennial celebrations will kick off during next year’s 32nd annual Jorvik Viking Festival in February. If you’re in York for the festivities, there will be a lecture event at the Jorvik Viking Center on February 17th, 2016, at 7:00 PM about the skeleton and her coffin. York Archaeological Trust conservator Steve Allen will discuss the coffin, while osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst will talk about the skeleton.





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