Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Codex Calixtinus thief sentenced to 10 years

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

On Wednesday the Provincial Court of La Coruña convicted former electrician José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras of stealing the Codex Calixtinus, an invaluable 12th century manuscript that contains the first travel guide for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the theft of the codex, ongoing burglaries of cash and other items and money laundering, Castiñeiras was sentenced to 10 years in prison (three for the codex, five for the burglaries, two for the laundering) and a 268,000 euro ($304,000) fine. His wife Remedios Nieto was sentenced to six months for money laundering and got her own 268,000 euro fine because she had to have known her husband’s wealth was ill-gotten. His son Jesus Fernández Nieto was acquitted as the court considered him a patsy used by his father who bought two apartments in his son’s name to launder some of the stolen money.

The court concluded that the electrician had taken keys to, among other locations, the office of the Dean and of the administrator, and used them to gain access to the Cathedral safe that regularly held large quantities of cash from sales of tickets to the Cathedral museum and roof, rent from Church properties and donations of the faithful. The total amount Castiñeiras stole in cash alone is 2.4 million euros ($2,735,000) in currency from 59 countries.

Defense counsel Carmen Ventoso tried the “this whole courtroom is out of order” defense, calling the trial a “procedural Guantanamo” in which the defendants’ rights had been trampled from before they were even on trial. She claimed police had broken into the house and installed monitoring devices a month before the arrest, that the official police search exceeded the parameters of the warrant, that the first interview in which Castiñeiras admitted he had stolen the Codex at 12:00 AM on July 4th, 2011, was full of errors and invalidated by the interrogator’s hardball tactics (“suggestive,” “argumentative” and “repetitive” questioning verging on duress), and that the Cathedral’s security camera footage showing the defendant shoving stacks o’ cash into his pockets was altered after the fact to incriminate her client. She wanted the search thrown out and all the evidence gathered as a result of it.

The court, unsurprisingly, was not persuaded by this argument or by Ventoso’s repeated imprecations against Judge José Antonio Vázquez Taín who, according to her, is a sterling example of “what shouldn’t be done.” The judge didn’t buy her next defense — that Castiñeiras had OCD and was a hoarder — either, on account of he somehow managed to overcome this compulsion just fine when he invested his filthy lucre in property.

On the stand last month, the first time he spoke publically about the theft, Castiñeiras admitted he had “probably” stolen all that cash (different news stories put the amount at anywhere from 1.7 to 2.4 million euros) from the Cathedral safe before he had a stroke in 2004, but he stopped keeping his accounts after the stroke and couldn’t remember if he kept stealing. When the magistrate asked him if he had stolen any other artworks or valuables from the church (a number of antiquities were also found in his home), the defendant replied that he woke up every day at 6:00 AM to work hard for the Cathedral. Because apparently early mornings and work entitle you to stuff millions in cash, art, church documents and whatever else into your pockets, seems to be the implication.

That fits with the disgruntled employee theory of the crime. He was let go in 2011, officially due to restructuring, but possibly because he was suspected of theft. That can’t have been the source of his cleptorage, however. He may have stolen the Codex Calixtinus in July of 2011 out of pique, but he’d been making off with huge fistfuls of cash regularly for something like a decade by then. In his confession he said he was acting against the institution that had failed to offer him permanent employment, but he also hinted darkly that the lack of poverty and chastity from certain Cathedral personnel his poor, traumatized eyes had witnessed during his many years on the job drove him to a decade of thievery. The lack of chastity was homosexual, gasp, and the lack of poverty consisted in staff taking money out of the offering bag and helping themselves to the best donations of silverware, hams and fine wines.

The Codex is now back at the Cathedral. It was returned on July 8th, 2012, four days after it was found in a garbage bag under some newspapers in Castiñeiras’ garage. It was on public display in the chapter house for the day, after which it was put in a safe location while the Cathedral looked into improving its obviously faulty security systems.

Video reveals Richard III’s fatal blow

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The University of Leicester has released a video of the forensic examination of Richard III’s skull that revealed the blow that is likely to have been the coup de grâce. The video captures the moment (in real time, this is not a reenactment) when Professor Guy Rutty of the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit working with University osteologist Dr. Jo Appleby traced the trajectory of a penetrating wound from a sharp weapon that would certainly have been fatal.

Out of the nine injuries to the skull, there are two candidates for wounds that caused Richard’s death: a big hole on the right side of the occiput at the base of the skull caused by sharp-force trauma from a large bladed weapon like a halberd, and a smaller penetrating wound with radiating fracture to the left side of the occiput caused by the pointed tip of an edged weapon like a sword or the spike of a polearm weapon like a halberd or bill. (For more details about Richard’s wounds and the weapons that may have caused them, see this article from the Royal Armouries.)

At the time of the press conference announcing the early results of the study of the skeleton, the larger injury seemed the likeliest fatal wound. The smaller one of the two wasn’t even mentioned, that I recall.

In the video Professor Rutty, who was a Home Office forensic pathologist for 19 years, and Dr. Appleby slide a thin metal rod through the smaller penetrating wound. They align it with a cut mark on the left posterior arch of Richard’s first cervical vertebra to determine the angle of the blow and finds that the rod culminates at a small flap injury that looks like a tiny divot on the inner surface of the cranium. The three aligned injuries strongly suggest that the point of an edged weapon was driven up through the back of his head up into the brain and penetrated the skull opposite the entry wound. That’s a distance of 10.5 centimeters, or just over four inches.

The audio is rough and there is no closed captioning option, but it’s still neat to see the moment when all the wounds aligned. If you’d like to get a fuller picture, read the paper on the examination of Richard’s perimortem wounds published in The Lancet.

The video is one of 26 shot by a University videographer to document the discovery, study and reburial of Richard’s bones. Ten others are currently available for viewing on the University’s dedicated Richard III website. The set won’t be complete until the funerary cortege on Sunday, March 22nd, the lying in state and finally the reinterment ceremony on Thursday, March 26th, are recorded.

While I’m on the subject, I am compelled to recommend the episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead in which a young man with scoliosis very similar to Richard’s in degree and shape of spinal curvature volunteers to be put through the paces of medieval combat to study how effective the last king of England to die in battle would have been as a fighter. It is fascinating to see what he can and can’t do. Spoiler: he can do an amazing amount, and unlike Richard, he only got broadsword and horseback training for a couple of weeks in his adulthood. The best part is the extremely badass custom suit of armor a blacksmith makes for him. It needs some modification from the standard template because of certain anatomical peculiarities caused by his scoliosis (mainly the lack of a usable waist for armor purposes), but once he’s in it you wouldn’t know there’s anything at all unusual about that knight.

If you have any questions about how a man with Richard’s disability could perform on the battlefield, watch this show. I’ve already watched it twice it’s so good. I might have to make that thrice now that I’ve reminded myself of how awesome it is.

England’s oldest cannonball found on battlefield

Friday, February 13th, 2015

A lead ball discovered on farmland that is part of the English Heritage-registered historic site of the Battle of Northampton is believed to be the oldest known surviving cannonball in England, fired at the War of the Roses battle on July 10th, 1460. The ball was first discovered near Eagle Drive, Northampton, some years ago by Stuart Allwork, the late owner of the farm, but was thought to have been lost. Mr. Allwork died in 2013; last year the cannonball was rediscovered in his house. Since then, the projectile has been analyzed in detail by Dr. Glenn Foard, the battlefield archaeologist who led the successful search for the true location of the Battle of Bosworth.

Lead shot is disproportionately valuable to historians because it doesn’t corrode as quickly as steel and iron and can therefore be subjected to forensic ballistic examination that tells its story. The ball is about three inches in diameter and bears the scars of its use in battle. It is misshapen and gouged, impact damage from at least two bounces after it was fired. It may also have hit a tree. Particles of Northampton Sand (a subterranean geological formation that was once a shallow sea) and ironstone were found inside one of the deep gouges, evidence of how deep into the field the ball was driven and that it was used in the Northampton area.

[Dr. Foard] said: “It is highly likely that the projectile was fired during the battle in 1460″.

“I have worked with all the lead and lead composite (i.e. lead balls containing a piece of iron or stone, or many fragments of stone) round shot from battlefields of the 15th and 16th centuries that have, as far as I know, been reported from any battlefields in the UK and also those from several siege sites.

“With this knowledge I can say that this lead round from Northampton is indeed a ‘cannonball’ and that it has been fired (there is distinctive firing evidence) and has impacted with stone in the ground.”

Historical accounts of the Battle of Northampton refer to the use of artillery on the field, or more specifically, the failure of artillery. It was raining hard when the Yorkists under Richard “Kingmaker” Neville, Earl of Warwick, advanced on the forces of King Henry VI. The Lancastrians attempted to fire cannons at their opponents, but the driving rain entirely disabled the artillery. If those sources are accurate, that would mean the Eagle Drive ball was shot from a Yorkist cannon. When Neville’s troops reached the Lancastrian defenses on the left flank, the Yorkists holding the line laid down their weapons by order of their commander Lord Grey of Ruthin who had cut a deal with Neville to betray the king in return for support in a land dispute.

The battle was over 30 minutes later, the king captured and thousands of his troops killed either by Yorkist hand or by drowning in the River Nene during their retreat. The result of this rout was the Act of Accord which made Richard, Duke of York, heir to the throne. Henry’s wife Margaret of Anjou had no intention of meekly acceding to the disinheriting of their son, so she rallied the troops and kept the war going. Richard died in battle in December of 1460, less than two months after the Act of Accord had made him Prince of Wales. His son would become King Edward IV, the first Yorkist King of England, less than three months after that in March of 1461.

The site of the Battle of Northampton was added to the English Heritage Register of Battlefields in 1995. Few artifacts from the fight have been discovered because the field is vast — 187 hectares — and hasn’t been archaeologically excavated. Just three possible lead shots have been found and the Eagle Drive cannonball is the only one to have been thoroughly studied so that its identity as a medieval cannonball could be confirmed.

Magna Carta found in Kent library scrapbook

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

An exemplar of the 1300 edition of Magna Carta has been discovered in a Victorian-era scrapbook in the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, Kent, southeast England. The newly discovered parchment is almost two feet long, but it is not in good condition. Moisture has claimed about a third of the document — a vertical strip down the middle is gone — and the royal seal of King Edward I is missing. Still, with so few exemplars surviving (there are only seven of the 1300 issue), even a damaged one is an exceptional find.

The document was discovered by Dr. Mark Bateson, Kent County Council’s community history officer, while he was looking for another medieval royal charter at the behest of University of East Anglia professor Nicholas Vincent, Principal Investigator for the Magna Carta Project, a wide-ranging study of the seminal charter limiting the rights of kings in anticipation of the 800th anniversary of its issue by King John at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215. Vincent asked Bateson to look up Sandwich’s original copy of the Charter of the Forest, a complementary charter to Magna Carta asserting public rights of access to royal forests first issued by John’s son King Henry III on November 6th, 1217. As the Kent History and Library Centre contains the county’s historic archives, a vast treasury of almost 9 miles of historical documents going back as far as 699 A.D., Bateson searched there for the Forest Charter.

He found it pressed in a scrapbook put together by E. Salisbury, a British Museum official, in the late 19th century. This particular edition of the Charter of the Forest was issued to Sandwich in 1271. Turning the page, Bateson saw another medieval parchment and recognized it as Magna Carta. The 1300 issue date was still visible at the bottom of the page. Professor Vincent authenticated it as genuine from its layout, the handwriting of the scribe and the details of the text which match the other surviving 1300 Magna Cartas.

Since King John was made to sign the first issue by his rebellious barons in 1215, Magna Carta was reissued multiple times to affirm and modify the enumerated rights. The 1300 reissue was the last to be distributed under the king’s seal, and the fact that Sandwich received a copy may indicate Magna Carta was more widely distributed to smaller towns and ports than previously thought. Sandwich was one of the Cinque Ports, a confederation of five coastal towns who maintained fleets of ships for the monarch in return for tax breaks and a number of self-government rights. Richard the Lionheart landed in Sandwich in 1194 upon his return to England after the extortionate ransom demanded by his captor, Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, was paid. The only other Cinque Ports town known to have a copy of Magna Carta is Faversham. Professor Vincent hopes the discovery of the Sandwich Magna Carta may be an indication that other small towns could have one of their own squirreled away in their archives.

The fact that Sandwich has originals of both the 1300 Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in its archives is exceptionally rare. Only one other institution, Oriel College, Oxford, has the same pair. The two go together like the proverbial horse and carriage, historically speaking. The Charter of the Forest was issued to expand upon the forest law references in Magna Carta, like a Forest Bill of Rights to Magna Carta’s Constitution. Since avid hunter William the Conqueror first established a separate forest law to keep people from messing with his personal game preserve, lands declared royal forest had expanded greatly, especially under King Richard and King John. The Plantagenet kings had claimed ever more land, some of it not even wooded but rather moor or pasture land or even villages, as royal forest and forbade traditional customs like the use of forests as common land for grazing, fishing, collecting firewood, foraging or cultivating subsistence crops. The Charter of the Forest restored these rights to free men and abolished the death penalty for taking the king’s venison. Magna Carta deals with the rights of barons, so the Forest Charter is actually the first charter to protect the rights of the regular people from aristocratic overreach.

The Charter of the Forest also bears the honor of being the cause for the coining of the epic name “Magna Carta.” The term was first used in a 1218 proclamation to distinguish the “Great Charter” from its smaller and more focused relation, the Forest Charter. In 1297, Edward I issued the two charters together in the Confirmatio Cartarum, or Confirmation of Charters, to pacify yet more unruly barons who were mad at him for taxing them. It’s of note that Sandwich received both charters even though the county of Kent had no royal forest. It suggests the two went out together as a team no matter the destination.

This is obviously a banner year for Magna Carta enthusiasts. Last week, the four surviving exemplars of the 1215 Magna Carta came together for the first time in a “unification” exhibition at the British Library. As these are very delicate documents, there was limited space for people to visit the once-in-a-millennium event so the BL went fully democratic and randomly selected 1,215 attendees from 43,715 applications received from more than 20 countries. After the all too brief three days of unification, the two Magna Cartas that do not live at the British Library permanently returned to their home bases: Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. Salisbury Cathedral will host an exhibition of its own starting on March 6th. Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta will be on display in a fancy new vault built at Lincoln Castle starting April 1st.

The British Library’s upcoming Magna Carta exhibition runs March 13th through September 1st, 2015. It is sponsored by legal firm Linklaters which has set up a simple and effective Magna Carta viewer where you can zoom in on a legible exemplar and read a transcript or translation of it.

Winchester Cathedral opens mortuary chests

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The great Gothic Cathedral of Winchester, in Hampshire, England, is traditionally held to be the final resting place of some of the earliest kings of Wessex and England. The remains of kings and bishops from as early as the 7th century are said to be contained in decorated mortuary chests in the church’s Lady Chapel. The chests are inscribed with names, crowns, shields identifying the remains kept in them, but they were made hundreds of years after the original burials in the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster (the original cathedral on the site of the current one from 660 to 1093) so it’s not certain they were ever accurate. On top of that, the chests were interfered with by Parliamentarians in 1642. When the cathedral authorities put the bones back, they were so jumbled up there was no way to separate out individuals.

Over the years the chests have been cleaned and restored, but the human remains and artifacts within have not been examined in forensic detail. As part of a new development program aimed to promote and preserve the Cathedral and to create a better exhibition space in the south transept for the gem of its collection, the 12th century Winchester Bible, the Dean and Chapter of Winchester have commissioned experts to study and document the contents of six of the chests for the first time.

Because modern technology allows for radiocarbon dating of very small samples, Winchester officials decided to date select bone fragments, something they’ve declined to do until now because it would have required the destruction of a some of the remains entrusted to Winchester’s eternal care. The results from the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit found that the tested bones date to the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.

Speaking of this discovery, and the coming project, The Dean of Winchester, The Very Revd James Atwell, has this to say. “This is an exciting moment for the Cathedral when we seem poised to discover that history has indeed safeguarded the mortal remains of some of the early Saxon Kings who became the first monarchs of a united England. Winchester holds the secrets of the birth of the English nation and it does seem that some of those secrets are about to be revealed as future research continues. The presence of the bones in the Cathedral, where they would have been placed near the High Altar and the relics of St Swithun, remind us just how significant the inspiration of the Christian faith was for the foundation of our national life.”

Researchers will also try to separate the jumbled bones to count the number of individuals. Once the remains have been collated, archaeologists hope to be able to determine their age at time of death, sex, stature and physical characteristics of each person. It’s possible that there will be enough circumstantial evidence to be able to loosely match the bones to the royalty and clergy that the chests and the Cathedral’s burial records claim were interred at Winchester. Possible candidates include: Cynegils, King of Wessex (611–643), Cenwalh, King of Wessex (643–672), Cynewulf, King of Wessex (757-786), Ecbert, King of Wessex (802–839), Ethelwulf, King of Wessex (839–856), Eadred, King of England (946–955), Eadwig, King of England and later Wessex (955–959), Cnut or Canute, King of England (1016–1035), Denmark and Norway, his wife Emma of Normandy (d. 1052) (also queen consort to Ethelred II, King of England), William II ‘Rufus’, King of England (1087–1100), Wini, the first Bishop of Winchester (d. 670), Alfwyn, Bishop of Winchester (d. 1047) and Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1072).

If any one of these, particularly the early Anglo-Saxon kings, pan out forensically, Winchester Cathedral would be confirmed as the first national mausoleum, akin to the cathedrals of St. Denis and Reims in France.

There’s an intriguing little throw-away line with no follow-up in the press materials.

We have discovered in the chests some unexpected contents which are not mortal remains, and one of the aspects of the next stage of analysis will be to discover why they are there.

Ooh, unmentionable objects of mysterious origin! I’m looking forward to the explanation.

British Columbia library acquires 13th c. Papal bull

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

University of British Columbia history professor Richard Pollard with the Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.The University of British Columbia Library has acquired what may be the oldest document of its kind in Canada: a Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The ink on parchment manuscript was signed by the Pope and 13 cardinals, among them Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, recently appointed Cardinal-Deacon of the titular church of St. Nicola in Carcere and future Pope Nicholas III. Accompanying the parchment is the lead seal (bulla in Latin, which gives the decree its name) at the end of a tassel of blue ribbon and red and yellow silk cords. It’s no longer attached to the document, but it’s otherwise in excellent condition.

The bull is a beautiful document. It’s 2 by 1.8 feet in dimension and penned in a glorious hand on sheepskin or calfskin parchment.

Highlights include the first line, which boasts elongated letters referred to as litterae elongatae. Meanwhile, a circular Papal monogram called a rota (Latin for “wheel”) features a cross ­­– likely penned by the Pope himself. Every sentence ends in a particular rhythmical cadence called cursus, similar in effect to a poem.

Detail of first line. Image by Don Erhardt. Rota detail and monogram for 'Bene Valete' or farewell. Image by Don Erhardt.

It was purchased last year from London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for $15,000 to strengthen the library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. These documents are invaluable teaching tools for the university’s English and History departments because, in addition to the information they contain, they give the students a tangible connection to the past they’re studying. Although it was in good condition when it arrived, the bull

had been stored in a folded fashion for centuries. As a result, it featured numerous thick creases that caused small gaps and tears.

Anne Lama with humidification chamber used to treat Papal bull. Image by Don Erhardt.Anne Lama, conservator at the library, previously spent a decade working at the National Archives in Paris. To address the creases, she placed the document in a humidification chamber, a rectangular structure with a Plexiglas lid that regulates moisture in order to “relax” the bull and soften its stubborn creases. “The document is like a patient,” explains Lama. “Restoration is like medicine.”

She also undertook other efforts, which included dusting, gap-filling, and drying and flattening the bull. The result is a gorgeous, golden-hued specimen. “I’m completely happy,” says Lama. “Now we can read the document without damaging it.”

You can see the difference by comparing the photographs in this post to the digitized version of the document.

Papal seal obverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The First Council of Lyons was the least attended church council yet with 150 bishops, but that sparse attendance was actually a ramification of how politically significant it was. Pope Innocent IV was on the run from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stupor mundi, whose troops were besieging Rome. He escaped through Liguria reaching Lyons, which was conveniently located just outside of Frederick’s territory, in December of 1244 and in the beginning of the new year called an ecumenical council for June. Although Frederick sent three representatives of his own, many of the prelates from his German and Sicilian territories were too intimidated to attend. Turmoil in the east kept many others away. In the end attendants were primarily from France and Spain.

On the agenda at this council was the dignity of the Church (the rule that cardinals had to wear red hats was first promulgated at Lyons), reconquest of the Holy Land, dealing with the Mongol Empire’s invasions of eastern and central Europe, and last but most certainly not least, addressing the conflict between papacy and empire. On July 17th, the council issued the bull Ad Apostolicae Dignitatis Apicem which excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II on the grounds that he’d broken oaths he made to the Church, forcibly detained delegates on their way to an earlier council and was probably a heretic anyway, complete with a harem, eunuchs and Saracen guards.

Papal seal reverse. Image by Don Erhardt.The bull at the UBC Library was issued on July 30th, three days after the pope excommunicated and deposed the Holy Roman Emperor. It confirmed the benefices and properties of the Poor Clares in the church of Saint Michael in Trento, placing them under the direct protection of the Holy See. As minor an issue as this may seem compared to the excommunication of an emperor, it was all part of the rich tapestry of flipping Frederick the bird.

In 1027 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II had established the Bishopric of Trent, an area roughly equivalent to the modern autonomous region of Trentino, as an ecclesiastical principality. Conrad deemed bishops less likely to cause trouble than German princes and Trentino was strategically important because two transalpine Roman roads connecting what is today southern Germany to northern Italy crossed through it. The Bishops were strong allies of the Emperor against local lords for two centuries. In 1236, Frederick II deposed the bishops and reclaimed direct imperial authority over Trento, appointing his personal friend Ezzelino III da Romano as viceroy.

Meanwhile, Abbess Palmeria of the Poor Clares had received the church of Saint Michael in Trento and its associated benefices from Bishop Gerald Oscasali in 1229. In 1237, the year after Frederick deposed the Bishop of Trent, Pope Gregory IX wrote to the secular authorities in Trento to complain about them harassing the sisters and levying taxes on donations to the convent. By placing the Saint Michael convent under the protection of the Holy See, the 1245 Papal bull was drawing yet another line in the sand between Church and State: this is ours and your laws/taxes/claims don’t apply.

As an aside, the question of donations was a thorny one from a religious perspective as well, since whether the Poor Clares could own property was a raging debate. Clare herself was still alive and not yet a saint when all this was going down. There was no Rule yet. The Clares lived according to strictures drawn up by Gregory when he was bishop. Innocent IV’s bull asserted their right to financial self-sufficiency, to possessions, one of a series of similar decisions from a number of popes that would materially alter the original brief of the mendicant orders.

 

Mons Meg leaves Edinburgh Castle for tune-up

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Mons Meg lifted by crane from Edinburgh CastleMons Meg, the six-ton 15th century cannon that guards the parapets of Edinburgh Castle, has left her post for the first time in 30 years. Before dawn on Monday, January 19th, a crew of specialists strapped Meg up so she could be gingerly lifted out of her carriage by a crane, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to an off-site facility where Historic Scotland experts will give her a thorough examination and do necessary conservation work. The oak and iron carriage that has been supporting her since 1934 also went along for the ride.

Here’s a neat timelapse of Mons Meg being lifted off her carriage while dawn breaks:

Richard Welander, Head of Collections for Historic Scotland said: “Mons Meg undergoes regular ‘health checks’ each year and is lifted off its carriage every five years for a closer inspection.

“This time it’s getting a major service, which means it must leave the castle for the first time for 30 years. The last time Mons Meg left was in March 1985, when she went to the Royal Armouries research establishment in Kent for a short technical examination.

“We’ll be using state-of-the-art equipment to examine the cannon and carriage inside and out, to assess their condition. Then we’ll commence with treatment and restoration, which is a delicate and specialist task.”

Mons Meg lifted off her carriageThere have been a great many technological advances since the last time Mons Meg got the full treatment. Historic Scotland conservators will laser-scan the cannon and create a 3D model to reveal issues not visible to the naked eye. The current paint will be stripped using a pressure wash system and bead blasting. That will expose the iron surface for proper conservation. Once Meg is cleaned and dried, she will be re-coated in protective paint.

Historic Scotland is hoping their conservation analysis will also shed some light on the history of the cannon. Much legend has grown up around her over the centuries, so this is an exciting opportunity to fill in a few blanks. Mons Meg was made in 1449 for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, to present as a gift to King James II of Scotland, Phillip’s grand-nephew by marriage. (James’ queen consort was Mary of Guelders, daughter of Catherine of Cleves, whose mother Marie of Burgundy was Phillip’s elder sister.) It was constructed by Phillip’s artillery master Jehan Cambier in Mons, County of Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), out of iron staves clamped together by iron hoops. Its massive 20-inch barrel, still one of the largest cannon calibre in the world, could fire 330-pound balls up to two miles.

James II took delivery of Mons Meg, known at the time just by variants of “Mons,” in 1454. Sixteen years later, he had the giant cannon transported 50 miles south to aid in the siege of Roxburgh Castle, one of the last remaining English strongholds in Scotland. The Scottish forces were successful — they ultimately took the castle once and for all — but James was killed in action when one of his own bombards (not Meg) exploded. His wife Mary ordered Roxburgh Castle razed.

Print of Mons Meg in 1681 from the "Domestic Annals of Scotland" by Robert ChambersThe records of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland note an expenditure of 18 shillings on July 10th, 1489, to have “Monss” carried by command of King James IV, James II’s grandson, to besiege Dumbarton. There James IV deployed Meg’s might against an insurrection led by Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, and Robert Lyle, Lord Lyle. That venture was less successful. The siege was broken by a negotiated surrender of the rebellious lords on condition that a new Parliament be convened.

James used Mons Meg again in 1497 at the siege of Norham Castle in northern England. Meg did her part — the castle took a lot of damage — but the two-week siege ended when English reinforcements arrived.

Meg was kept in fighting condition for a few more decades. Her last military service was in James V’s navy, after which, from the 1540s or so, she was retired from active engagement but was fired on important ceremonial occasions like the signing of the treaty of marriage between five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, and three-year-old Francis, Dauphin of France, in July 1558. She was fired for the last time on October 14th, 1681. Here’s a description of the event from the Domestic Annals of Scotland (1859) by Robert Chambers. The quote within the quote is from Historical Notices of Scottish Affairs (1848) by Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.

The Duke of York paying a visit to the Castle of Edinburgh, the huge cannon called Mons Meg was fired in his honour. The charge, which was done by an English cannoneer, had probably been too large, for it caused the piece to burst. This “some foolishly called a bad omen. The Scots resented it extremely, thinking the Englishman might of malice have done it purposely, they having no cannon in all England so big as she.”

I am trying really hard not to snicker at the obvious phallic competition inherent in this struggle. Trying and failing.

Mons Meg's burst hoop still visible just ahead of back wheelWith the burst hoop exposing her internal staves, Mons Meg could never be fired again. She still starred in several tugs of war between England and Scotland, though. In the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in 1754 Mons Meg, now rusted, busted and sitting on the ground without even the dignity of a carriage, was confiscated along with other weapons to keep them out of reach of potential rebels. She was moved to the Tower of London, but she didn’t go quietly. The Tower records list a demand for compensation from the owner of the ship that brought her to London for damage to the vessel and mooring rope.

In 1829, George IV had Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh as a result of a campaign by Sir Walter Scott and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Scott believed fervently in a legendary Galloway origin story for Mons Meg.

When James the Second arrived with an army at Carlingwark, to besiege the Castle of Threave, the McLellans presented him with the piece of ordnance now called ‘Mons Meg.’ The first discharge of this great gun is said to have consisted of a peck of powder and a granite ball nearly as heavy as a Galloway cow. This ball is believed, in its course through the Castle of Threave, to have carried away the hand of Margaret de Douglas, commonly called the Fair Maid of Galloway, as she sat at table with her lord, and was in the act of raising the wine-cup to her lips. Old people still maintain that the vengeance of God was thereby evidently manifested, in destroying the hand which had been given in wedlock to two brothers, and that even while the lawful spouse of the first was alive.

Even without having amputated Margaret de Douglas’ hand, Mons Meg was and is still beloved. She was escorted back to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 by three cavalry troops and a regiment of foot, and remains today a great favorite with visitors to Edinburgh Castle.

The conservation is expected to be complete and Mons Meg back in place outside St. Margaret’s Chapel by the end of February.

 

Drone Indiana Jones maps ruins of Italian town

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

It’s the first month of the new year and we already have a fine addition to my collection of Pompeii metaphors used to describe archaeological sites that are nothing at all like Pompeii. This time it’s the town of Cerreto Sannita in the southern Italian region of Campania being made to wear the Pompeii colors. The connection is that both cities were struck by a horrific cataclysm, but the comparisons pretty much end there. The town was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in the 17th century and a new Cerreto Sannita was built next to the ruins (to distinguish it from the new town, the site of the medieval ruins is called Cerreto antica). Little of the old city is visible today. Whatever is left is underground.

To ferret out the remnants of Cerreto antica, archaeologists have deployed a drone named Indiana Jones. With its onboard laser and videocamera, Indiana Jones is surveying the site above and below ground. Indiana’s lidar data will be the jumping off point for a hands-on archaeological excavation. The site will then be secured and any structures exposed will be stabilized. Artifacts recovered during the dig will be catalogued, and finally, the drone and dig information will be used to create a 3D model of the complete site. The “Medieval Cerreto” model won’t be just a virtual recreation, but a starting point for exploring the terrain, history and traditions of the town.

The Cerreto project is part of an initiative funded by Ministry of Education, Universities and Research that seeks to addresses issues of structural security while developing methods to integrate the protection, oversight and sustainable redevelopment of historical sites. The aim is to bring added safety and value to sites of cultural interest in seismically active areas, and boy is this area seismically active.

The towns, like Cerreto Sannita, in the environs of Benevento have a long, storied past of earthquake-induced upheaval. In fact, Cerreto itself once prospered mightily from an earthquake that drove residents out of the nearby town of Telesia. For centuries a regional administrative center under Lombard and Norman authorities, Telesia was seat of a bishopric from the 4th century A.D. until a massive series of earthquakes struck the central Apennine regions for an incredible seven months, from January until September of 1349. Sinkholes and landslides filled up with stagnant water, soil became swampy and volcanic fissures that emanated carbon dioxide and sulfur fumes made the air close to unbreathable. Telesia was abandoned and much of the population moved to Cerreto.

This gave the town a major economic, political and demographic boost. In 1593, Bishop Cesare Bellocchi instituted the diocesan seminary in Cerreto Sannita. After his death two years later, the new bishop, Eugenio Savino, moved into a palace in Cerreto donated by a local nobleman and made it the new official seat of the diocese which was renamed the Diocese of Telese or Cerreto Sannita. The town was now an important religious center, replete with churches, monasteries and convents.

Karma struck on June 5th, 1688. Cerreto Sannita was the epicenter of an earthquake estimated by seismologists to have been more than 7.0 on the Richter Scale. More than 4,000 people, half the population of the town, died and the entire town was razed to the ground. Six days later, Bishop Giovanni Battista de Bellis wrote to the head of the Congregation for Bishops reporting on the disaster.

“I am forced, crying, to advise you of the horrific spectacle of desolation in this my diocese, for the earthquake that struck at five the night before Pentecost while I was left weeping for my misery and that of my people. … Telese from ancient times was abandoned and my predecessor bishops moved to Cerreto, already populous, and there built a church, extremely beautiful, and to this church they transferred the services of the Cathedral where 15 Canons officiated. In this land of Cerreto there was the Church of San Martino, parochial and collegial, with 11 Canons and the Archpriest. There was a monastery of Conventual friars, a distinguished place of study, a monastery of Capuchin friars, a convent of the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clair where there were 65 nuns and converts.

Now this land with the churches, monasteries and everything, in the time it takes to recite a Credo, collapsed all, all, all, without there remaining standing even one house to take refuge in, something that anyone who did not see it would scarce believe it.”

The response was sympathetic but laconic. The Bishop went over the Curia’s head and appealed straight to Pope Innocent XI, explaining how the entire town had been leveled, that only three small dwellings belonging to a potter had survived the quake at all, and their walls were either crumbling or about to collapse, listing the numbers of dead in every convent, monastery and church, and asking that Rome help with emergency funds. He received no response. Only with the election of Pope Alexander VIII, a man known for his magnanimity, in 1689 did the diocese receive financial support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Unlike Telesia, Cerreto was not abandoned. It was rebuilt from scratch. Count Marzio Carafa stopped residents who were already beginning to rebuild their homes using the rubble and instead turned to royal engineer Giovanni Battista Manni to plan a town with particular attention to seismic stability. Also aided by his bother Marino and Bishop de Bellis, Marzio Carafa moved the city center downvalley onto a broad, low hill that was significantly more stable than the land the old town had been built on. It was all private property which the Count claimed through a sort of medieval version of eminent domain.

He also took out a loan of 3,000 ducats to build one and two-room houses that he sold to residents for manageable sums of 50 to 184 ducats. Since they had lost everything, the Count authorized his debt collector to extend loans for the purchase of the houses with interest-free repayments for three years and 6% interest the fourth. Eight years after the earthquake, the new town was complete and every resident owned his own new home with seismic design features like split support windows.

Inspired by Roman urbs, the new Cerreto Sannita had two major streets (decumani) parallel to each other with one-way traffic in opposite directions running down the length of the town and a number of small streets (cardini) connecting the two arteries. There were no defensive walls, no cramped and crooked alleys. It remains to this day one of the only surviving examples of a pure planned city from the late 17th century.

Museum acquires Anglo-Saxon St. Peter carving used as cat grave marker

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015


The Museum of Somerset in Taunton has acquired a medieval carving of Saint Peter that for years was used as a marker for a pet cat’s grave. The 18 by 17-inch stone is carved with the tonsured and clean-shaved saint with his head turned slightly to the right and two fingers of his right hand raised to his chest in benediction. A partial inscription on the top left — SC (S) (PE)TRVS — identifies the figure as Saint Peter.

The design is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, with a close parallel found in the figure of Peter the Deacon on the St. Cuthbert stole and maniple, a richly embroidered vestment made in Winchester between 906 and 916. It is a piece of a larger object, possibly a section of a shaft from a free-standing cross or larger relief panel that was later recycled as a building material. It’s made out of oolitic limestone, a stone that’s native to the south Somerset area where it was discovered. There are several religious institutions nearby that could have been the original source: Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Dowlish Wake, while Glastonbury Abbey is 25 miles away.

Knowing the exact location where it was found might answer some of the questions about its original configuration, but it was only recognized as a rare surviving pre-Conquest carving after the stonemason, Johnny Beeston, who first rediscovered it had died. Beeston brought it home and installed it in his garden rockery in Dowlish Wake where it marked the grave of the dearly departed Winkles, a stray cat he had adopted. The person who recognized it was potter and local historian Chris Brewchorne who had a pottery shop across the road. It caught his eye in 2004. By then Johnny had joined Winkles over the rainbow bridge and Mrs. Beeston was willing to sell the piece.

They offered it to the Museum of Somerset for what would turn out to be a bargain price, but the museum didn’t have the funding at the time and declined the offer. So instead it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December of 2004 to Milwaukee native, timber and oil heir, art collector and all-around eccentric Stanley J. Seeger for £201,600 ($386,628).

Seeger died in 2011. His extensive collection of art was sold at auction, Sotheby’s again, in March of 2014 and the Peter stone sold for a far more modest £68,500 ($114,532) the second time around. That lower price was good news for the museum who could now arrange to buy it for £150,000 thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (who chipped in the largest chunk at £78,600), Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Fairfield Trust, the Friends of the Museum of Somerset and other donors.

The stone will go on public display in the Museum of Somerset, which occupies the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, starting this Saturday, January 17th.

New year of hoards begins with Anglo-Saxon coins

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Barely did the year turn before news broke of a new hoard of coins unearthed by metal detectorists in an English field. The finder, Paul Coleman, was scanning farmland near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, as part of the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club‘s yearly Christmas rally when he discovered a piece of lead and a silver coin. When he moved a larger fragment of lead, he saw there were rows of coins underneath. Buckinghamshire Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrrell was on site in case something notable was found, so she was able to coordinate a proper excavation after the first few coins were exposed.

The area was cordoned off and before an increasingly large crowd of detectorists (there were more than 100 club members at the rally) the find carefully excavated. Silver coins filled a large lead container, apparently a bucket that was folded over at the top to cover the hoard, buried about two feet underground. Portraits on some of the coins identified them as having been minted during the reigns of Ethelred the Unready (reigned 978-1013, 1014-1016 A.D.) and the Danish King Cnute (r. 1016-1035 A.D.).

As the coins were removed from the soil, they were packed in poly bags and then carried to the farmhouse in an orange Sainsburys plastic shopping bag. On the farm’s kitchen table spread with newspapers, the entire hoard was counted out. The final tally was 5251 silver pennies (plus half of another), one of the largest hoards of Anglo-Saxon coins ever discovered.

After the counting was done, Ros Tyrrell brought the coins that night to the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Halton and the next day they were transported by van to the British Museum. It was December 22nd, so much of the staff was on holiday, but the conservator who was at work immediately set about cleaning and cataloguing the coins. The cleaning process went smoothly, revealing coins in excellent condition. They are shiny, unclipped and so free of wear and tear that it seems likely they were never circulated.

There was a Royal Mint in Buckingham during the reign of Ethelred within a day’s walking distance from the find site. Given the dates and flawless condition, it’s possible these coins went straight from the mint into the ground, perhaps to hide them from the army of William the Conqueror as it advanced towards the mint.

There will be a coroner’s inquest to determine whether the hoard qualifies as treasure trove which it certainly will since it’s more than 300 years old and made of precious metal. Once declared treasure, a British Museum valuation team will determine its market value and a local museum will be given the opportunity of acquiring the hoard by paying the amount of the valuation. The fee will then be split between the finder and the landowner. Early speculation puts the possible value as high as $390 a coin for a total of $2 million, but that’s just spitballing based on the Ethelred coins. We won’t have solid figures until every coin has been identified and dated.

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