Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Yorkshire Viking hoard has unique pommel, necklace

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Experts have declared that a hoard of gold and silver treasure from the Viking era discovered by two metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, last May is a “significant and nationally important discovery.” Stuart Campbell and Steve Caswell found a part of the hoard, but instead of digging up the rest on the spot, they reported it to the finds liaison officer at the Yorkshire Museum in York. The museum sent two archaeologists to the a pasture (the exact location of the find is being kept secret to deter looters) so the treasure could be professionally excavated.

Once the whole thing was unearthed, the hoard was found to comprise 29 silver ingots, four silver collars, one of which is a large piece made of four plaited silver ropes joined at each end (in the middle of the picture), silver neck rings, half a silver penannular broach, a silver arm ring, an iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques (the big clumpy looking thing in the bottom right of the picture), four gold hoops from the sword hilt, six gold rivets probably from the same sword.

Andrew Morrison, head curator at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The artefacts uncovered are typical of a Viking hoard, with the majority of it being silver ingots which were used for currency.

“However the gold sword pommel and a unique silver neck ring are incredibly beautiful and rare finds. We now hope to be able to raise the funds needed to keep them in Yorkshire.”

The pommel style and decoration dates the hoard to 850 – 950 A.D. Its triangular shape with a convex base is a late 9th century form of Viking sword. The plaques of gold foil are decoration with incised animal shapes characteristic of the late Anglo-Saxon Trewhiddle Style, also dating to the late 9th century although it continued to be used in the north of England into the 10th century. Two features mark the pommel as an exceptional piece: its size and its gold decoration. The pommel is 3.3 inches wide, 2 inches high, .5 inches thick; the guard is 3.8 inches long. The total weight of the piece is 10.7 ounces.

There is only one other pommel of comparable size, the Abingdon Sword now in the Ashmolean Museum, which is decorated in the same style but all in silver. The gold on the Bedale pommel makes it unique.

The hoard may have been raiding spoils or it could have been legitimately traded goods buried for later retrieval. The Vikings had a particular fascination with finely crafted metal work (see the National Museum of Scotland exhibit for more on that), more so than the general Saxon population, and although the hoard may have been pillaged, it’s more likely that it was buried by someone who was staying in the area. Many Vikings weren’t coming to Yorkshire just to raid and leave, but rather settled down and become farmers.

Right now the treasure is in the British Museum being cleaned and conserved. The next step is the standard treasure inquest which will certainly result in the coroner declaring the hoard treasure. Anything older than 300 years old or composed of precious metals qualifies as treasure, and the hoard hits the bullseye on both scores. It will then be evaluated for market value and the local museum will have the chance to pay the amount of the valuation to the finders. The York Museum Trust is already preparing to raise the necessary funds to keep the Bedale Viking Hoard in Yorkshire.


Remains unlikely to be Alfred the Great exhumed

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

In a secret ten-hour mission, archaeologists exhumed the possible but very unlikely remains of Alfred the Great from an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s in Winchester. This wasn’t so much an exploratory mission as a rescue operation. After the world-wide attention the discovery of Richard III’s parking lot burial received, church authorities were concerned that St. Bartholomew’s cemetery, where the putative bones of Alfred the Great were said to have been buried in the 19th century, might be targeted by grave robbers. The Parochial Church Council decided to opt for an ounce of prevention and commissioned a team to excavate the burial thought to be Alfred’s and store the remains in an undisclosed location.

This is even longer of a shot than the Richard excavation. For one thing, Richard died just over 500 years ago. He was also buried in one place. Alfred died in 899, 1114 years ago, and his remains were moved repeatedly over the next thousand years. He was first interred in the Old Minster in Winchester. It’s believed that Alfred had commissioned the construction of a new, larger church where his remains and that of his dynastic successors would be buried, but the New Minster wasn’t finished until around 903 when his son Edward the Elder was king. The son had his father’s body moved from the old church to the new. After they died, Alfred’s wife Ealhswith, Edward the Elder and Edward’s children were also buried in the New Minster.

When the Normans conquered England, they built a new cathedral on the site of the old church and it rendered the New Minster obsolete. King Henry I commissioned a new New Minster be built north of Winchester in the suburb of Hyde. Hyde Abbey was far enough completed by 1110 that Alfred and his family were reburied there. The Abbey was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, but the graves were left untouched.

As with the Greyfriars church where Richard III was buried, the Hyde Abbey’s location was forgotten over the centuries. It was rediscovered when the county purchased the land for prison in 1788. The convicts building the prison began by clearing the rubble left by Henry VIII’s marauders. They dug deep pits in which to bury the larger pieces of masonry and one of those pits crossed paths with three royal graves in front of the former high altar. According to the prison warden who was interviewed by antiquarian Captain Howard a few years later, the convicts unearthed a large coffin thought to be Alfred’s. It was carved out of a single block of stone encased in lead. They broke up the coffin, buried the stone in the pit and sold the lead. The bones were scattered.

In 1866 antiquarian John Mellor excavated the site and claimed to have found Alfred’s tomb intact. Those are the remains that were reinterred in the St. Bartholomew churchyard.

So yeah, the odds of these bones being Alfred’s are vanishingly small. University of Winchester archaeologist Doctor Katie Tucker who led the exhumation hopes that the bones can at least be radiocarbon dated. If they turn out to date to the late 10th century, she thinks that will be evidence in favor of the remains belonging to Alfred or his immediate family because no other human remains from before Hyde Abbey’s construction in the 12th century were buried there, as far as we know.

I don’t think it’ll be evidence of anything because there’s hardly a well-established chain of evidence here. We can’t know for sure who was buried at Hyde, nor can we know for sure that the bones in this unmarked grave came from there. There’s little chance of DNA confirmation. Even if the bones did belong to Alfred, they’ve been moved so much and been exposed to who knows what conditions that DNA extraction will be a virtually insurmountable challenge. The remains of Alfred’s granddaughter Queen Eadgyth were discovered in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany in 2008, but there were only 40 bones left and none of them were well-preserved enough to extract a viable DNA sample.

Anyway the process hasn’t even started yet. Winchester Diocesan spokesman Nick Edmonds:

“Understandably, there is widespread interest in this situation. For now we can’t say any more about the remains, their nature or whereabouts, but promise to keep people updated when there is something to tell.

Although no application has yet been made to carry out any scientific investigation, we do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about the remains found in this grave.”


Refrigeration container preserves past instead of food

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

A commercial refrigeration container normally used to transport perishable foodstuffs on the backs of trucks or stacked on cargo ships has been cleverly enlisted in the preservation of delicate archaeological remains at an important historical site in Lübeck, Germany.

Lübeck’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its layout, planned from the earliest days of its founding in the mid-12th century, and large number of surviving medieval buildings. Even with 20% of the Old Town destroyed in World War II, Lübeck still has more than 1,000 listed buildings, characteristic back courtyards and a thick network of alleys from the Middle Ages.

Because of its dense history, before a major construction project to build luxury housing in the old merchant’s borough could begin, an equally major archaeological survey of the area had to clear the site first. This wasn’t a hasty six-week rush job (*cough* Drumclay Crannog *cough*). Excavation began in 2009 and is slated to end in 2014. In 2012, archaeologists made an incredible find: a wooden storage cellar from around 1180, less than 40 years after the founding of the town (1143) and 60 years before the alliance with Hamburg (1241) that would form the kernel of the future Hanseatic League.

It’s one of the largest and best-preserved medieval cellars in Europe, and remains of hops and cereals have been found indicating it was used to store ingredients for the production of beer. Just 30 years before this cellar was built, the first written description of hops’ preservative power as an additive to beer appeared in the medicinal text Physica Sacra by Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, musician, healer, abbess and as of December 2012, one of only four women named Doctor of the Church. The 12th century was an important transitional time in the political and economic history of beer as well. Secular princes increasingly took control of the brewing business from the monasteries that had been the traditional producers. The merchants of northern Germany, a burgeoning new social class not bound by feudal or monastic regulation, also got into brewing and trading beer.

It was a dangerous gig. You need long, steady fires to brew and in a time when entire cities were built of wood, one home brewing operation could burn the town to the ground. Municipal laws were promulgated preventing home brewing and transferring the industry out of individual houses and into stone communal brew houses which also served as bakeries. I can see masonry around the wooden elements in the pictures, so perhaps the Lübeck structure was a communal brewhouse/bakehouse cellar. That could well be later construction, though, and this the cellar of a wooden home brew operation with the remains of beer-making ingredients which has somehow survived devastation by fire for more than 800 years, several years of which included active aerial bombings. It’s an incredibly rare and important find.

But how to preserve such rare organic survivals quickly and carefully enough to give researchers a chance to study them thoroughly with as little loss as possible? As soon as the cellar was exposed to air it was in danger. Usually archaeologists have to keep wooden artifacts constantly wet, or find a massive freeze dryer or spend years replacing the water with polyethylene glycol. These methods are inconvenient, expensive and require transportation before conservation.

A refrigerated container, on the other hand, can be transported on site within 24 hours, is big enough to store a whole cellar, and has a wide range of environmental controls. A Maersk Container Industry Star Cool container, for instance, not only has precision temperature controls, but also an Automatic Ventilation feature which regulates airflow and relative humidity in the container and a Controlled Atmosphere option which monitors oxygen and carbon dioxide inside the container and maintains them at pre-set levels. Technology necessary to keep food from spoiling is also just what the doctor ordered to keep archaeological remains from decaying.

“Star Cool was chosen because of its extremely precise temperature and atmospheric control. Such precision is a must if you want to preserve sensitive cultural assets like wet organic structures,” says conservator Maruchi Yoshida who is associated with the Fraunhofer-Institute for Building Physics and Leibniz-Gemeinschaft to manage the reefer container project, ARCHe.

(Reefer in this case meaning refrigerated container, not the jazz musician kind of reefer.)

This is the first time a container has been used for archaeological preservation. Yoshida hopes to turn this pilot into a business, deploying units to newly discovered sites at a moment’s notice or to preserve cultural assets in danger from natural disasters or conflict.


Viking ship recreated with rivets on threads

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

The National Museum of Scotland’s Vikings!: The Untold Story exhibition has more than 500 artifacts from the permanent collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm which have rarely been seen outside of Scandinavia. The exhibition takes an innovative approach to showing how the Vikings lived, with interactive digital displays and replicas that allow visitors to touch and play with Viking culture. The aim is to dispel the intensely bellicose image of the Norsemen and to show how Scandinavians in the Viking Age, most of whom were farmers and traders rather than warriors, lived.

The coolest exhibit, I think, is a half of a Viking ship recreated with 1200 metal rivets strung on translucent spidery threads that replicate the shape of the vessel. The ship’s planks covered the grave of a wealthy man of status on Orkney. None of the wood survived; only the rivets were still there when the burial was excavated. They made marvelous lemonade out of the limited survival, creating a piece that is downright otherworldly and that can travel easily and safely in a way that a thousand-year-old wooden boat could not even if it had survived.

Is that not brilliant? I love how the rivets are angled as they would have been in the wood. It conveys not just the dimensions of the ship, but also exposes the technical carpentry skill that you couldn’t see if the ship were complete.

The high quality of Scandinavian craftsmanship is a recurring theme in this exhibition. In the sagas there are references to the gods being smiths or craftsmen. The transformation of metal into weapons and other objects was considered a fundamental alteration to the created world. Craftsmen therefore had rituals to perform as they worked to ensure their work was in keeping with the magic and deities of their world.

The jewelry and work in precious metals is as impressive as you would expect, but even the daily use objects are incredibly intricate and beautiful. These are keys:

These were household keys, not the unlockers of mystical treasure. They would be worn as part of her garments by the wife and mother who was in charge of the home. Their intricacy underscores this was a position of pride and importance. Can you imagine having a few of those on a ring clipped to your belt? We’ve lost a lot in our era of Ace Hardware keys made while you wait.

Viking daily life is represented by all kinds of beautifully detailed artifacts, some of them rare survivals. There’s a woven textile embroidered with a stag, wooden board games, an ironing board (maybe slate?) with the large smooth stone used to iron, an engraved folding comb carved out of bone that would honor the pocket of even the most discriminating 50s greaser stereotype.

They even have bread loaves that appear to have survived thanks to carbonization, like the bread from Herculaneum. The Viking bread found in Birka, Sweden, was analyzed and the likely recipe recreated. It’s ridiculously healthy, made primarily from barley flour and including flax seeds. If you’d like to try your hand at making it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Viking Bread

About 150 g barley flour
About 50 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 100 ml water
2 tsp lard or butter
A pinch of salt

Work all the ingredients together into a dough and knead. If the dough is too wet or hard, add flour or water. Let the dough rest cold for at least one hour, preferably longer.

Shape the dough into flat cakes (about 1/2cm thick). Bake them in a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat, a few minutes on each side, or in the oven at 150 degrees, for 10–13 minutes.

The exhibition runs from January 18th to May 12th. I’m afraid I can’t find a list of the other stops in the tour, but I know it spent last year in Northern Europe and this is its only stop in the UK. The National Museum of Scotland has an excellent collection of pictures of the Vikings! exhibit on its Flickr page.

For more details about Viking life, the artifacts on display and the brilliantly futuristic, Star-Trek looking design of the exhibit which was actually inspired by Viking iconography, see the exhibition page on the Swedish History Museum’s website.


Bodies in Norwich well buried in Jewish cemetery

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

The remains of 17 bodies, 11 children and six adults, dating to the 12th-13th century found at the bottom of a well in 2004 were given a Jewish burial in Norwich’s Earlham Cemetery on Tuesday. The bones were picked up by a hearse from the Norwich Castle Museum where they’ve been in storage. They were placed in five coffins covered with tallits (Jewish prayer shawls), driven past the Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and to the Jewish Cemetery within the larger cemetery where local Rabbi Alex Bennet conducted a traditional Jewish burial service.

Bishop David Gillet, interfaith adviser to the Diocese of Norwich, eulogized the deceased and took the opportunity to express repentance for the ugly history of Christian antisemitic persecution, pledging to “live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.” There’s film of the service in this ITV story.

It took a lot of work to get to this place. The biggest issue was whether the remains could be positively identified as Jewish. Although DNA testing performed by Dr. Ian Barnes on the BBC show History Cold Case indicated that five of the 17 people were members of the same family with origins in South-East Europe to Central Asia rather than Western Europe, that’s not conclusive proof of Jewishness. It’s certainly evidence, especially in the relatively ethnically homogeneous society of medieval Norwich, but there are other possibilities. They could have been the descendants of Roman soldiers or even the result of intermarriages between Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and Middle Eastern locals.

The circumstantial evidence supports the Jewish theory. The well in which they were found was adjacent to the Jewish neighborhood and why would 17 Christians, 11 of them children, be dumped down a dry well rather than buried in consecrated ground? Even plague victims were laid out in pits and they were infectious. Their sad fate smacks of the deliberate disrespect of a mob, and many Jews faced the business end of mobs between the Norman conquest and Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

At any rate, the evidence was sufficiently convincing for Clive Roffe, Norwich representative on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to campaign for the bones’ proper burial. Starting in 2011 after the BBC program aired, Roffe together with Bishop David Gillet and other members of the Jewish community and Christian clergy petitioned for the bones to be released from the Norwich Castle Museum “for decent and appropriate burial.”

Museum authorities were initially reluctant. They wanted the bones to be available for further study and Alan West, curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, didn’t think there was any evidence suggesting they were Jewish. After more than two years of lobbying, the Board of Deputies persuaded the museum that no matter what their ethnicity, the bones should be respectfully buried and if the Jewish community was willing to accept them as their own based even on the mere chance that they were the remains of murdered Jews, then they should be allowed to take them in hand.

The board intends to erect a monument on the grave site indicating that the buried are thought to have been victims of a pogrom like the one in 1190 which took place in Norwich on the heels of an anti-Jewish massacre in York. The bodies will also be commemorated on a plaque in St. Stephen’s church which will quote the Hebrew scriptures.

Meanwhile the attempt to narrow down who these 17 people were continues. Dr. Joachim Burger of Mainz University in Germany, a top expert in the field, is in the process of analyzing the DNA. He won’t have any results to share for at least another month or two.


Stolen 14th c. crucifix panel painting back in Venice

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

After more than six decades on the lam, a 14th century crucifix panel painting attributed to Paolo Veneziano returned home on Monday, March 11th. Painted between 1335 and 1345 in the Gothic style made famous by Florentine masters Giotto and Cimabue, the crucifix is more than nine feet high and eight feet wide. The crucified Christ is the central figure, with the Virgin Mary looking sorrowfully at her son from the right of the crossbar and Saint John from the left. An angel painted above the cross looks straight out at the viewer.

It was removed from the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr in Venice at the end of World War II. Although most of the articles vaguely allude to Germans stealing it on their way out of occupied Italy, it seems they weren’t marauders so much as receivers of stolen goods. According to Edward B. Garrison’s 1959 book Italian Romanesque Panel Painting, it was the parish priest himself who illegally sold the masterpiece to German troops to raise desperately needed money for his war-ravaged community.

Consider its massive size, it’s quite remarkable that the painting remained intact during its smuggling travels. It touched down in Rome and France before winding up in a private collection in Germany. Last year, the collector consigned the crucifix to the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. When Lempertz experts investigated the ownership history of the piece, they realized it was never legitimately sold.

With the crucifix’s presence in the market the result of theft and considering its unique cultural importance, Lempertz did something I have never seen an auction house do: they bought it from the seller at cost and donated it to the Church of San Pantaleone. That is some gift. Medieval painted crucifixes are rarer than hen’s teeth on the market, and one of such massive size and quality is practically unheard of. The auctioneers were of course fully aware of what they were losing, but they made a conscious decision to make the ethical choice rather than ride willful blindness all the way to the bank like so many auction houses before them have done.

“It’s a work that has no equal in the market,” says the Lempertz specialist in Old Master Paintings Mariana M. de Hanstein. “If it didn’t have the history it has, the pre-sale estimate would probably be around 700,000 euros. But this is a work that cannot be sold. It is a moral issue. It does not belong to the market, but to a large international museum.”

The managing partner of Lempertz Henrik Hanstein said: “In the beginning we were excited about the delivery of a work of Venetian painting from the fourteenth century of such quality. But then it became immediately clear to us: this work does not belong in an auction but to its original home, the church that Venetians with their wonderful dialect called San Pantaleon. We are happy to be able to return so significant a work to the city of Venice, to which we are grateful for so much extraordinary art.”

Note to self: when you hit the lottery, go buy all your stuff at Lempertz.

On November 17th, a ceremony was held in Cologne officially returning the painting to Venice. Before the Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Italian consul Eugenio Sgrò, Italian ambassador Elio Menzione, the crucifix was formally handed over to Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, Patriarch of Venice. Before settling down permanently in Venice’s ever-loving arms, however, the masterpiece made one more stop. From February 15th until the end of the month, it stood in the place of the papal throne in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. On February 28th, it witnessed Pope Benedict XVI’s final address to the College of Cardinals before his formal abdication and departure to Castel Gandolfo.

Now that the crucifix is in Venice, it is being examined by conservators. Once it gets a clean bill of health, the painting will be moved back to the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr.


St. Oran’s Cross reassembled for 1450th anniversary

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Historic Scotland is reassembling St. Oran’s Cross, one of the first (if not the first) Celtic High Cross ever made, so that it may be raised on the island of Iona in time for the 1450th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on the island and his founding of the monastery in 563 A.D. Built in the mid-8th century, the massive cross has been in five pieces for centuries. Before January 2012 when the reassembly project began, the pieces were on display on the floor, resting on their back at the Iona Abbey museum.

As of last year the broken pieces of St. Oran’s Cross were sent to Selkirk, Scotland, to the workshop of museum mount maker Richard West. He is creating a steel structure that will keep the cross pieces together upright so visitors can see the one-ton, 14.4-foot tall sculpture in all its imposing height as pilgrims to Iona saw it for hundreds of years. This isn’t just a nifty thing, but a historically significant display since the High Crosses were created in the tradition of pre-Christian standing stones and thus meant to inspire not only with their beautiful decoration, but with their sheer vertical massiveness.

The cross was chiseled out of three large blocks of schist stones and was erected at the Reilig Òdhrain (Sr. Oran’s graveyard), the cemetery that would become known as the burial ground of at least seven early Scottish kings, plus kings of Ireland and Man and the chieftains of important Scottish clans in the later Middle Ages. The carved decorations are also fusions of the pre-Christian Celtic tradition and early Christian symbols. The spirals and vines, Celtic symbols of the intertwining of heaven and earth, were syncretized into Celtic Christianity, as were the snakes, whose shedding of their skin symbolized Christ’s resurrection. Rounded circles called bosses like the metalwork center of shields, are grouped into fives (the number of wounds Christ suffered) and arranged into cross shapes.

These designs dovetail seamlessly with more explicitly Christian iconography, like the image of Daniel in the Lion’s Den on the left cross-arm. Most notably, in the center underneath the cross arm is an image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ flanked by angels on either side. This is one of the earliest images of Virgin and Child known.

Quarrying the stone, transporting it, carving it, putting it together would have been an exceptionally expensive proposition. Although the carvings are faded now after centuries in the elements, their quality remains unmistakable. The best in the business made this cross. Historic Scotland experts believe it had to have been commissioned by a king since nobody else could have mustered the funds and manpower to make it happen. A likely candidate is Óengus son of Fergus king of the Picts, who conquered Iona around 741 A.D.

The cross underscores the religious and political significance of Iona in early Christian and medieval Scotland. St. Columba is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. We don’t know how much converting he personally did, but the abbey he founded, his relics, the High Crosses made the island a sacred place and site of pilgrimage. Its importance was undiminished until the Protestant Reformation which ended monastic life on the island and ushered in a long era of neglect, hence the decay of three of the four High Crosses (only St. Martin’s remains intact, upright and in its original position).

It was a challenge creating the steel structure that would support the cross in its original posture, but moving it back to Iona is going to be an even greater challenge. The cradle and cross are huge and heavy. It will take two ferry trips and a walk across a field to get it to the museum, and then it will have to be squeezled into the building which isn’t exactly set up for giant freight intake. Once they manage to get it in the door, the final stages of cleaning, conservation and stabilization will take place at the museum.


Unique silver 3D valkyrie found in Denmark

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Morten Skovsby had found a few coins, tools and a cannon ball in his backyard with his new metal detector when he decided to go further afield. On December 28th, 2012, Skovsby, Michael Nielsen, Jan Hein and Jacob Sietam, all members of a local metal detector group, explored a field in Hårby, central Denmark. Morton got a strong signal so he loosened a clump of frozen soil only to find a little silver face looking back at him. He scooped up the whole clod of earth, brought it home and put it on the radiator to thaw. Once unfrozen and cleaned of soil, the face turned out to belong a small female figurine just 3.5 centimeters (1.38 inches) tall.

Morten emailed the curator at Odense City Museums, Mogens Bo Henriksen who replied that it was a very interesting discovery. Further investigation by museum experts confirmed that early assessment and then some. It’s a standing figure of a Viking shield maiden broken at the abdomen. She wears a long textured gown and her long hair is in a pony tail tied in a knot at the back of her head. An eyelet behind her neck indicates the figurine was worn on a cord, perhaps as a pendant. She carries a double-sided Viking sword in her right hand, arm bent at the elbow, and holds a round shield in front of her body on her left arm.

She is made of solid silver and weighs 9.2 grams (.32 oz). The silver is gilded and the pattern details in the gown and shield are filled in with a black enamel-like material called niello. She dates to the Viking age, around 800 A.D., and the design details identify her as not just any shield maiden, but as a valkyrie, emissaries of Odin who choose who dies in battle and escort their souls to Valhalla. Other valkyrie figures from the early Viking era have been discovered in Denmark, but they are flat two-dimensional pieces (mostly brooches). The Hårby figurine is the first three-dimensional valkyrie figurine ever discovered. The fact that her back and sides are carved reveal heretofore unknown details about Viking hairstyle and dress from the period.

Odense City Museums did a small follow-up excavation at the discovery site. They found evidence of multiple pit houses, huts used as workshops for various crafts. Layers of burnt debris and fragments of scrap metal testify to the pit houses’ use as silversmiths. Perhaps the valkyrie lost her legs in the process of being chopped up and melted, her silver to be reused in new jewelry, only somehow the process was interrupted and she wound up in the trash instead.

The figurine has been declared treasure trove and the finder will receive a reward, although Morten doesn’t care about that. He’s just excited to have found such a special historical artifact. As of March 1st, she is on display at the National Museum’s yearly exhibition on treasure trove finds. After that she will be included in the National Museum’s upcoming exhibition on the Vikings which will travel to the British Museum in 2014.


Richard the Lionheart’s embalmed heart analysed

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

King Richard I of England, dubbed the Lionheart for his bravery in combat, died not in battle but while walking around a castle he was besieging examining the work of his offensive engineers. The castle of Châlus-Chabrol, close to Limoges in central France, was defended by crossbowmen, but they were a raggedy crew by this time and Richard had no qualms about walking the perimeter of the castle wearing no chain mail. Prideth goeth before a you-know-what, and he was struck in his left shoulder by a crossbow bolt. The doctor who removed it did so sloppily and soon infection set in. On April 6th, 1199, 12 days after he was wounded, Richard the Lionheart died.

As was a common practice for the aristocracy at the time, his body was partitioned. His entrails were placed in a coffin and buried in the Châlus castle chapel. His body was buried at Fontevraud Abbey at the feet of his father King Henri II. Later the remains of his formidable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine would join them there. His heart was embalmed, wrapped in linen, then placed in a lead case. That case was held in an elegant silver vessel in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rouen, capital of the duchy of Normandy.

The silver container was melted down by Blanche of Castile, granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and mother of King Louis IX of France in 1250 to raise money for Louis’ ransom after he was captured by Egyptian forces during the Seventh Crusade. An appropriate fate, if you think about it, given how much money Eleanor had extorted out his English subjects to ransom Richard when he was imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI on his way back from the Third Crusade. The embalmed heart was kept in a lead case.

On July 31st, 1838, a local historian with the mellifluous name of Achille Deville unearthed the lead box near Richard’s effigy in the course of excavations at the Rouen cathedral. The box was still sealed and bore a Latin inscription: “HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM” or “Here lies the heart of Richard, King of the English” in a font characteristic of the 12th-13th century. The remains inside were no longer recognizable as a heart. It had decayed into a brown-whitish powder.

The powder and fragments of linen that were all that remained of the Lionheart were transferred to a more airtight crystal box and placed in Rouen’s Departmental Museum of Antiquities. They are not and likely will never again be on display. The museum’s curator Caroline Dorion-Peyronnet explains why: “Visually, it is not something very pretty to present. It’s dust, it looks like nothing.”

It may look like nothing, but it’s definitely something, especially to our indefatigable forensic anthropologist friend Philippe Charlier, who when not conducting autopsies on modern Parisian cadavers enjoys examining ancient teratomas, a royal mistress who overdosed on gold, the mummified head of Henry IV and the dried blood of Louis XVI. In May of 2012, he turned his sights on the heart of Richard, hoping to learn more about 12th century embalming techniques, and in a very long shot, to find out which bacterium caused the sepsis that killed the king. On Thursday the results of his examination were published in Scientific Reports.

Museum authorities granted Charlier’s team permission to take two grams of the 80 grams inside the container, thus making Richard I’s heart the oldest embalmed hearts to be examined scientifically. The two grams would be sufficient for chemical analyses of the contents, but not for DNA testing or for radiocarbon dating. Even with a larger sample size it’s unlikely carbon dating would have returned accurate results because of contamination from the embalming materials.

Microscope examination found fragments of linen textiles compatible with a 12th-13th century origin, numerous vegetal cells, pollen grains, bacteria and fungi. The pollen came from myrtle, daisy, mint, pine, oak, poplar, plantain and bell-flower. Myrtle, daisy and mint were much better preserved than the others, and since the plants had to have been harvested and dried before Richard’s April death, it’s likely that they were used to embalm the heart. The other pollens are probably environmental contaminants. The bacteria and fungi appear to have grown on the sample after death. No cause of death could be ascertained.

Given these ingredients, you can see why 12th century embalmers were originally cooks. They had access to all the herbs, spices and fragrances they needed and expert understanding of their uses. They were also accustomed to butchering meat and removing offal, an important skill when bodies are being partitioned, and one that medieval doctors would have very little knowledge of because their expertise was in the writings of older doctors rather than in the guts and gore of human anatomy.

Analysis of elements found copious lead and tin, plus traces of iron, copper, mercury, antimony, bismuth, calcium and aluminium. The lead came from the reliquary, as did the tin, antimony and bismuth which are common in poorly purified medieval lead. The iron came from the box’s hardware. Mercury has never been found in lead impurities, but it has been found in the remains of medieval bodies, sometimes in very large quantities. Documentary evidence supports the use of quicksilver in treatment of cadavers. The calcium probably was added during the embalming process rather than from environmental contamination, perhaps in the form of lime which can be used as a disinfectant and desiccant. Creosote was also present. The anti-septic and preservative properties of this tar distillate were well known to medieval embalmers.

The most intriguing single find was frankincense, the white powder in the remains. Frankincense hasn’t been found in any other medieval embalmings. An expensive resin with ritual significance, frankincense was reputedly one of gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi and was later used to anoint his body after his death on the cross. Its use on Richard’s heart doubtless had symbolic significance, connecting the deceased temporal monarch to his spiritual one.

Apparently he needed any boost he could get. According to Henry de Sandford, Bishop of Rochester from 1227 to 1235, Richard the Lionheart spent 33 years in Purgatory for his sins. In a sermon at Sittingbourn in March 1232, before assembled nobility and the Archbishop of Canterbury, he announced:

“Rejoice in the Lord, my brethren all, and know ye assuredly, that of late there departed out of purgatory Richard sometime king of England, Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury [d. 1228], and a chaplain of his, to go to the Divine Majesty. And in that day came forth no more than these three from that place of pains. Fear not to give full and assured faith to these my words, for this is now the third time it has been thus revealed to me, and to another man, and that so plainly as to banish all doubt and suspicion from my mind.”


Louis I of Orléans found in The Agony in the Garden

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Conservators at Madrid’s Prado Museum have uncovered a rare portrait of Louis I, Duke of Orléans, son of Charles V of France and brother of Charles VI, hidden under overpaint in The Agony in the Garden, a 15th-century French painting depicting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, John and James slumber. The museum first encountered the work in February of 2011, when the private owner offered it to the Prado for study and potential acquisition. The lab gave it the full analytical monty: ultraviolet photography, X-rays, Infra-red reflectography, tests on the pigments and the panel.

They found that the painting was an extremely high quality piece. The pigments contain large amounts of expensive lapis lazuli painted on a Baltic oak panel. Tree ring analysis of the oak indicated the tree was felled in 1382. The X-rays and Infra-red reflectography revealed the artist had painted two figures on the bottom left which were later painted over with a thick layer of brown. The standing figure is clearly a saint, identified by the lamb at her feet as Saint Agnes. At her feet, a male figure kneels holding a scroll and looking at the scene in the garden. The man is dressed in sumptuous clothes that were fashionable around 1400. According to painterly convention, his posture and position indicates that he was included in the painting because he or his family commissioned the work.

Conservators could not identify the kneeling figure from the X-rays. The pattern on his sleeves was a likely clue — they could be a family emblem — but it wasn’t clear what they were. Saint Agnes was another clue. She takes a protective posture in the painting so could be the patron saint of the man kneeling in front of her. Researchers looked for someone in the upper ranks of French nobility with a connection to Saint Agnes and Louis of Orléans came up. Agnes was the patron saint both of his father King Charles V, to whom he was devoted, and of his wife Valentina Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan.

There are only three extant portraits of Louis, all of them manuscript illuminations. If the Donor could be confirmed as Louis of Orléans, this painting would be the only one of him ever found. Restorers decided to attempt to remove the overpainting to reveal the figure if it could be accomplished without damaging the original paint. The top layer was a natural resin varnish, easily removed using a light solvent. There were two layers of overpainting, the most recent applied in the 19th century or later. The overpainting was separated from the original paint by an isolating layer of varnish, but because the original paint is a very fragile egg tempera, it was too risky to use any solvents. Instead, restorers removed the overpaint with scalpel, looking through a stereoscopic microscope at the highest magnification so they could identify non-original pigment not visible to the naked eye.

Once liberated from their brown prison, the figures were revealed in all their brilliant glory. The colors were far brighter and richer than the colors on the saints and Jesus. The Donor’s scroll was found to be inscribed with the first words of the Psalm 50, aka the Miserere mei. The decorations on the sleeves turned out to be gold nettle leaves and they looked like appliqué rather than a fabric print.

The nettles were the key to the identification of Louis of Orléans. The nettle leaf was one of the duke’s emblems, one he particularly favored from 1399 until his death in 1407. Inventories of his possessions have survived and the 1403 inventory list “LXV feuilles d’or en façon d’orties,” meaning 65 gold leaves in the shape of nettles. He would have used these to decorate his clothes, like the dramatic fur-lined batwing houppelande the Donor wears in the painting.

Comparisons with the manuscript depictions of Louis support the identification. The distinctive nose and chin are similar in all the images, but his bald pate is only visible in the painting because Louis wears a hat in all three illuminations. He can’t wear a hat in Gethsemane, however, because he’s in the presence of God, Father and Son, no less. That makes this portrait even more remarkable.

Once Louis’ identity was pinned down, researchers were able to extrapolate from that the possible artist. There are very few surviving panel paintings from this period, and the style and quality of this one is unique so there is no means to devise attribution by comparing techniques. Louis of Orléans had painter in his household. Colart de Laon worked as a painter and as personal valet to the duke from 1391 until Louis’ death. He then did the same work for Louis’ son Charles until 1411. Contemporary sources praise him as one of the most significant artist of the day, but none of his work has been known to survive.

This painting is a small piece, probably intended for a use in a private chapel rather than a large church. The Gethsemane theme and the Miserere mei were usually included in funerary artworks, and since Louis’ family is not included in the panel, it’s likely that it was commissioned by his wife or son after his assassination.

Louis I, Duke of Orléans, Count of Valois, Duke of Touraine, Count of Blois, Angoulême, Périgord, Dreux, and Soissons, regent of France when his older brother Charles VI, aka Charles the Mad, went insane, was assassinated by his cousin and co-regent John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. John’s courage against Ottoman forces in the Battle of Nicopolis (1396) earned him his nickname and his bullheaded vanity helped ensure his side was utterly routed. You can read all about it in one of my favorite books of all time, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Many of these events are covered in Book IV of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, which sadly I cannot find for free online, but here’s a full version available for 90 cents.

The Prado decided to purchase the painting, needless to say. They cleaned the entire thing, removing the overpaint that had darkened and dulled the rest of the figures and revealing the original brilliant color. The Agony in the Garden is now on display in Room 58A of the Villanueva Building. For more about the painting and restoration, watch these subtitled videos on the Prado’s website.