Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Hiker finds 1,200-year-old Viking sword

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

A hiker in Norway has discovered a 1,200-year-old Viking sword in such good condition that with a vigorous oiling, a little time on a whetstone and a new grip it could still be used today. Gøran Olsen was hiking an ancient trail in Haukeli, south central Norway, when he sat down to take a break and caught a glimpse of the sword under a pile of rocks. The single-edged blade is 77 centimeters (30 inches) long and made of wrought iron. It is of a type that was common around 750-800 A.D.

The trail where the sword was found crossed a mountain plateau between western and eastern Norway. Most of the year the pass is covered in snow and ice, and the climate during summer months when the snows have melted allowing the trail to be easily hiked is low in humidity. This combination helped maintain the condition of the sword, leaving it a bit rusty and dulled, but otherwise remarkably well-preserved.

“The sword was found in very good condition. It is very special to get into a sword that is merely lacking its grip,” said Hordaland County, Norway, archeologist Jostein Aksdal. “When the snow has gone in spring, we will check the place where the sword was found. If we find several objects, or a tomb, perhaps we can find the story behind the sword. This was a common sword in western Norway, but it was a costly weapon, and the owner must have used it to show power.”

Finding an associated gravesite would be a very lucky break, but odds are long. Other artifacts have been found along the trail before. It’s possible that the sword may have been inadvertently lost by a traveler or someone who was caught in bad weather and died of frostbite. There could easily be no grave to be found.

The blade has been sent to the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, for conservation and eventual display.

“We are really happy that this person found the sword and gave it to us,” said County Conservator Per Morten Ekerhovd. “It will shed light on our early history. It’s a very (important) example of the Viking age.”

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Agincourt thank-you sceptre to go on display

Monday, October 12th, 2015

For the first time in 600 years, a sceptre King Henry V gave to the City of London in gratitude for its support in the Hundred Years’ War will go on public display. The City of London helped finance the Battle of Agincourt, loaning Henry 10,000 marks (about three million pounds in today’s money). After Henry’s forces won so decisive a victory against the flower of French chivalry arrayed in much greater numbers against them on October 25th, 1415, the king had the sceptre made and presented it to the city as a thank you gift.

Made by the finest craftsmen — including French ones — of the age, the sceptre is 17 inches long and made out of two spiral-carved stems of rock crystal with ribbons of inlaid gold. At the top of the sceptre is a gold crown topped with fleurs-de-lis and crosses and decorated with gemstones from around the world: red spinels from Afghanistan, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Arabian gulf. Inside the crown is the king’s coat of arms painted on parchment. The sceptre was made between 1415 and February of 1421 when it appears in a painting of the coronation of Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V.

It’s a near-miracle that the sceptre has survived all this time.

Under the republican protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War, the Crown Jewels were sold off and there was a danger the sceptre could have met the same fate, had it not been hidden away by the City authorities.

Eight years after Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Monarchy which followed, it took the cowardly self-interest of the serving Lord Mayor to save the sceptre.

During the Great Fire of London of 1666, Sir Thomas Bloodworth – rather than lead the rescue efforts – made sure his personal treasures were safely sent out of the City, including the sceptre, only returning in person three days later.

It’s been seen by very few people in the past 600 years. The sceptre emerges from the protective confines of London’s Guildhall during Coronations when it is borne by the Lord Mayor of London, and for the “Silent Ceremony” in which the outgoing and incoming Lord Mayor place their hands upon it during the annual inauguration of a new mayor. The last time it was seen in public was at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The sceptre’s connection to Agincourt was only recently discovered by Dr. Michael Hall, curator of the Rothschild Collection at Exbury House, Hampshire, and Ralph Holt while researching the treasures of Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London since the 18th century. Dr. Hall and Mr. Holt with the help of Dr. Clare Taylor, wife of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, have authored a book on the silver and gold of Mansion House. The book, the third in a series about the collections of Mansion House, covers more than 80 precious objects, including the regalia of the Mayorality.

The Honour and Grandeur: Regalia, Gold and Silver at the Mansion House will be released later this month to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. This is the first time the sceptre has been published in its long life, believe it or not. The sceptre itself will celebrate the anniversary by going on public display for the first time. Unveiling the Crystal Sceptre: Henry V’s Gift to the City opens at Guildhall Art Gallery on Saturday, October 24th, the day before St. Crispin’s Day. The exhibition will tell the full story of the sceptre, starting with the City of London’s financial support for Henry V’s great battle and following King Henry’s 1421 pilgrimage to holy sites associated with his three patron saints.

During that pilgrimage he may have stopped in Hedon where he presented the mayor with another Agincourt-related treasure: the Hedon Mace, an iron mace believed to have been an actual weapon used at the Battle of Agincourt which Henry had silver-gilt and presented to the city again as thanks for its support. The Hedon Mace will be on display with the Crystal Sceptre, the only objects given by Henry V that have remained with their original recipients for 600 years.

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10th c. Danish Borgring fortress to be excavated

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

The 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand last year was identified by a geomagnetic survey and a few test pits dug at the gates and ramparts. There are only seven ring fortresses of the Trelleborg type known to exist, and the last one was found 60 years ago. The discovery of Borgring 30 miles south of Copenhagen was exciting because of its rarity and because it opened up the possibility of an excavation done with the latest archaeological technology.

The Danish Castle Centre will bring that possibility to life, thanks to a 20 million kroner (ca. $3 million) grant from the AP Møller Fund and 4.5 million kroner (ca. $687,000) from Køge Municipality. These generous gifts will fund a three-year excavation of the Borgring fortress.

“With the grant, the Danish Castle Centre – a division of Museum Southeast Denmark and Aarhus University – has worked out a unique research project seeking to explore the secrets Borgring is hiding beneath Danish soil,” the Danish Castle Centre said.

“With the use of modern archaeological methods the scientists and archaeologists will investigate how the fortresses were used, how they were organised, how quickly they were built, their age and what environment, landscape and geography they were a part of.”

So far, it has become clear that the massive ring fortress has a diameter of 142 metres with 7 metre-high palisades, while it also endured a fiery blaze at one of its gates.

The Trelleborg fortresses were all built according to the same geometric plan — circular with gates aligned on the cardinal compass points — within an hour’s march of each other. Counting tree rings at the type site of Trelleborg pinpointed the construction date to early 981 since the timbers were felled in autumn of 980 and would have needed some time to cure before use. The other fortresses date to approximately the same time, and their strikingly similar design and aligned placement suggests they were conceived by a single mind.

There are some anomalies with the Borgring, however. Its gates are not perfectly aligned along the cardinal points; there is an 11-degree dislocation which may have been a topographical necessity to ensure that it looked properly symmetrical in its landscape. Also samples of burned oak timbers found at the north gate were radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D., which places the fort in the general age range of the other trelleborgs but isn’t precise enough to confirm that it is in fact one of them. Dendrochronological analysis can narrow it down further.

The precise date is important with these fortresses because the most prevalent theory right now about their construction is that they were built by King Harald Bluetooth in reaction to his defeat at German hands in 974. To defend his territory from further incursions, Bluetooth set about building an extensive network of forts and infrastructure (bridges, roads) in Denmark and southern Sweden. Harald Bluetooth died in 985 or 986, just five or six years after the first Trelleborg ringfort was built. If Harald didn’t build them, his son Sweyn Forkbeard may have, not as a defensive installation to keep out the Germans, but as military training camps to prepare his troops for his raids on England in the first decade of the 11th century and his full-scale invasion of the island in 1013.

The excavation is slated to begin next year and with the fortress being a short distance from the highway so close to Copenhagen, the archaeological team is expecting a significant amount of interest from the public. The team plans to build an observation deck so visitors can follow the archaeologists at work without getting in their way.

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Crowds wait 10 hours to spend minutes with “China’s Mona Lisa”

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a 12th century painted handscroll by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) which is widely considered the greatest painting in China. Some scholars have dubbed it “China’s Mona Lisa,” because of its immense cultural hold, but artistically it has nothing in common with Renaissance portraiture.

The almost monochrome (there are some pops of green here and there) ink-on-silk scroll is 17 feet wide and just 10 inches high and depicts the vignettes of exuberant life on the Bian River, which runs through Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, during the Qingming Festival. Originally meant to unscrolled slowly by the viewer to enjoy an arm’s width at a time, from right to left, the painting moves from countryside to city and people change with it. Farmers tend their crops and men load their donkeys with wood outside the city so that they can sell it inside the city. Then the peaceful bucolic pursuits shift to hectic, population-dense urban environment bustling with activity: peddlers hawk their wares, fortune tellers tell fortunes, people buy food from street vendors or visit an elegant two-storey tavern, a long-range rice boat transports its cargo on the river. There are 814 people, almost all of them men, 28 different boats, 60 animals (livestock of various sorts), 30 buildings, 20 carriages and eight sedan chairs in the painting.

What there isn’t is any religious activity. The Qingming Festival, held in early spring, is dedicated to the worship of ancestors. People sweep their ancestral tombs and clean temples during the festival, but none of that is overtly present in the painting. The only hint of it is a group of people with willow brooms in a sedan chair who could conceivably have just come from sweeping their ancestors’ graves. There’s debate whether the Chinese title of the work, Qingming Shanghe Tu, actually refers to the festival. The scenes don’t match 12th century chronicles describing the city during the festival at all. “Shaghe tu” means “going along the river picture” but “Qingming” on its own means “clear-bright.” There are several possible interpretations not involving the festival.

In any case, the aim of the painting is to display the prosperity and peace. Most every stratum of society is represented except for the not-so-picturesque beggars, criminals and slum-dwellers. It’s not known exactly when Zhang Zeduan painted it, but if it was after the overthrow of the Northern Song Dynasty by the Jin in 1127, the artist was likely depicting an idealized view of the good ol’ days before Kaifeng was sacked by Jin armies and the emperor captured. Not that it’s literally Kaifeng in the painting. There are no recognizable landmarks, so it could be an ideal city from an ideal time.

The painting has been famous and coveted for 800 years. The first recorded time of many that it was stolen from the imperial collection was in the 1340s and for centuries afterwards emperors would find the stolen masterpiece when estates were confiscated from rich, troublesome nobles. There are more than one hundred seals and colophons (provenance notes) from different owners on the scroll. The earliest is by Zhang Zhu, a Jin Dynasty official, and dates to 1186.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival was a great favorite of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who took it with him when he was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924. When the Soviet army captured him in 1945 as he attempted to flee the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo of which he nominally ruled, Pu Yi had the painting on him. The Soviets put it in a bank in northern China where it remained until 1950 when it was moved to a local museum. Eventually it made its way back to the Forbidden City, just as it always had, this time to the Palace Museum where scholars announced its rediscovery in 1954.

It has been there ever since, but is rarely displayed because of how fragile and precious it is. It last saw light at the Tokyo National Museum in 2012. Before then it went to Hong Kong in 2007 to take part in a nakedly nationalistic exhibition of China’s greatest artistic masterpieces on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of the island to China. The last time it was on display in Beijing was 2005 in honor of the museum’s 80th anniversary. Now it’s on display again in the Palace Museum for the 90th anniversary, and there are lines a thousand people long waiting to see the iconic masterpiece an hour before the museum opens.

“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”

Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.

“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.

What a change from the Eliminating the Four Olds. It’s like The Cultural Revolution 2: The Re-Enculturing.

Here’s the whole scroll at a satisfyingly high resolution of more than 38,000 pixels wide. I recommend slowly scrolling from right to left, taking in all the details of dress, architecture, animals (Bactrian camels ftw), ship design, food, to experience the progression the way it was meant to be experienced.

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1000-year-old sarcophagus found in Odense

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Odense, Denmark, land of wonderous barrels of poop, has produced another treasure from deep within its bowels: an 11th century stone sarcophagus. The coffin was found on the site of the small timber church of St. Alban’s Priory where King Canute IV of Denmark, later canonized a saint, was assassinated by rebels in 1086. A light rail project was slated to cut through the area known to be the site of the historically important church, so archaeologists from the Odense City Museums surveyed it first. They were hoping to find out more about the church at the time of the murder of King Canute. Instead they found a sarcophagus on Wednesday, September 16th.

Cameras were present to capture the opening of the sarcophagus.

When they removed the heavy four-part limestone lid, archaeologists found an articulated skeleton, although only the leg bones were immediately visible because the upper body was covered in earth that had filled the top half of the sarcophagus through a large hole in the lid. The remains were excavated in situ and found to be the skeleton of a man about 30 years old of exceptional height. He was 187 centimeters tall, or just a hair short of six feet and two inches. The man was buried with a miniature eucharist set, a plate for the host and a chalice for the wine, near his hip.

The presence of communion gear suggests the man was a cleric, and the expense of a heavy limestone sarcophagus indicates he held an important ecclesiastical position. He was also buried just in front of the altar, the most honored placement in the church. Museum archaeologists believe the most likely candidate is Eilbert, Bishop of Odense from around 1048 to 1072. If it does prove to be Eilbert in that sarcophagus, it will be the oldest bishop’s grave discovered in northern Europe.

The skeletal remains and artifacts have been moved to the University of Southern Denmark for study. An X-ray of the disk revealed an inscription: “the Lord’s right (hand) has created strength amen.” It is likely a reference to Psalms 118:16, “The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.” It doesn’t help identify the deceased, but it confirms the disk is a communion plate.

We know the remains are not those of Canute even though he was buried there for a brief time. Canute’s ambition to invade England and wrest the throne from the ailing William the Conqueror (as Canute the Great’s great-grandnephew, Canute IV actually had a halfway decent claim to the throne, unlike William who was a) illegitimate, and b) only Edward the Confessor’s first cousin once removed) and his attempts to centralize power resulted in heavy tax and tithe increases. Peasants and noble in Jutland joined forces and rebelled against Canute’s taxes, chasing him to Odense where he and his brother Benedict took sanctuary in the church. The rebels broke in and ganged up on Benedict, slashing him to death. Canute, standing unarmed and unresisting in front of the altar, was struck with a spear or a sword (chroniclers differ on the point) and was struck on the head with a stone thrown through the window.

He and his brother were buried in the church where they fell. Miraculous occurrences at the church and years of famine that were seen as divine punishment for the martyrdom of Canute followed and a cult quickly grew up around him. In 1101, just 15 years after Canute’s death, Pope Paschal II canonized him. Canute was the first Danish saint and became patron saint of Denmark. A new stone church was built to accommodate the saint’s relics even before they were official saint’s relics. Canute and Benedict’s bones were moved to St. Canute’s Cathedral just over a decade after his death.

Further analysis of the St. Alban’s bones will hopefully answer some questions, like the cause of death and his country of origin. Bishop Eilbert was from Bremen which is about 260 miles south of Odense. I don’t know if stable isotope analysis can differentiate between northern Germany and Denmark. Researchers will also attempt to extract DNA which will give us information about his appearance and heritage.

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Medieval bones found under 1950′s Westminster Abbey lavoratory

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Demolition of a 1950s block of bathrooms outside Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner has revealed scores of human skeletal remains dating to the 11th and early 12th century. The lavatory block is being removed to make way for the Abbey’s first new tower in almost 300 years, a subtle addition nestled behind the buttresses of the chapter house that will provide new and improved access to the Abbey’s attic (triforium) museum. Underneath Victorian drainage pipes, archaeologists found bones from at least 50 people, many of them disarticulated and stacked like cord wood, others in graves lined with chalk slabs in Anglo-Saxon/early Norman style, plus the remains of a three-year-old child buried in a wooden coffin and one adult man buried in an expensive coffin of Northamptonshire Barnack stone.

The child is too young to have been pledged to the monastery or to have worked there, and the fact that he or she was buried in a wooden coffin indicates a high social status. The bones aren’t preserved enough to determine sex by visual examination. The adult man is missing his skull. His stone coffin was moved to its current location by work crews under Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Gothic Revivalist architect and Surveyor to the Fabric at Westminster Abbey who restored the 13th century chapter house in the 1860s. Scott had the coffin moved because it would have blocked a new window in the chapter house and had it built into a brick wall. The coffin bears the tell-tale signs of interference from this period. A corner of the lid is broken, likely the result of workers lifting it to have a look inside. The skull was probably removed at that time.

The original Romanesque church that would become Westminster Abbey was built by saint and king Edward the Confessor as part of an expansion of the Benedictine monastery on the site. He dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle but it was known as the “west minster” in contrast to St. Paul’s Cathedral which was London’s minster to the east. St. Peter’s was completed in 1065 only days before Edward’s death. He was buried in front of the high altar.

It was King Henry III, a highly devout man who took Edward the Confessor as his patron saint, who decided to replace Edward’s church with a new one in the glamorous Gothic style pioneered by Abbot Suger in the Church of Saint-Denis in the mid-12th century. Henry envisioned the soaring new church as a more majestic shrine for Edward’s bones and those of England’s kings and queens. The Romanesque church was demolished in 1245 and construction began. Saint Edward’s remains were translated to the new shrine on October 13th, 1269. By the time Henry died in 1272, the apse and radiating chapels of the eastern end, the north and south transepts and choirs were completed.

The stacking of the bones was the work of Henry III’s construction team.

Paw Jorgensen, who supervised the excavation by specialist firm Pre-Construct Archaeology, said they had originally been buried in a small burial ground just outside the south transept walls. The highest status individuals, the kings, queens and most senior clergy, would have been buried within the church itself, but the newly found remains were close enough to indicate they probably were those of senior clergy. When Henry demolished Edward the Confessor’s church and began his own massive construction project, the land was dug up, and they were all reburied in a layer under the surface of what was the 13th-century masons’ yard, littered with chips of the stone used to build a platform to take the enormous weight of the new building.

Some of the skulls have small square holes in them which were likely caused by Henry’s workers wielding pickaxes with less than pious care. Even with holes the stacked bones are in quite good condition, much better condition than the chalk-lined graves which have been damaged by leaks in the Victorian drainage pipes. Archaeologists hope laboratory analysis of the bones will pinpoint who they were, their profession, age, diet, health and where they were raised.

Jorgensen says the lavatory block is “built as solidly as a nuclear bunker” making it “a nightmare to demolish.” As the tedious process continues, archaeologists expect to find more bones. As it is, the 50 or so already discovered bring the total number of people known to have been buried in Westminster Abbey to an impressive 3,350. Once the remains have been studied, they will be reburied in the grounds on the church.

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Getty and Armenian Church reach agreement over stolen Bible pages

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Five years ago, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a $105 million lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum alleging that the museum was wrongfully in possession of seven pages ripped out of the 13th century Bible that belongs to the Church. Now the parties have come to an agreement: the Getty acknowledges that the Armenian Apostolic Church owns the pages; the Church donates the pages to the Getty. This way nothing has to actually move or change hands, but the Getty, which in its initial response to the suit insisted that it had “legal ownership” of the pages and that the lawsuit was “groundless and should be dismissed,” has to admit the Armenian Apostolic Church is the true owner.

The Zeyt’un Gospels were commissioned in 1256 by the Catholikos, the leader of the Armenian Church, Constantine I. This Bible is the first signed works of T’oros Roslin, scribe and the greatest Armenian illuminator of the Middle Ages. The pages (there are actually eight of them; the Church didn’t know about the last one when it filed) are canon tables, concordances listing passages in the Gospels that describe the same event. The text is therefore sparse, just chapter and verse references.

In the Middle Ages, canon tables were often depicted in an architectural setting, the columns of numbers placed between drawings of literal columns. What makes these pages exceptional is the illumination by T’oros Roslin who decorated each page in a riot of brilliant colors and gold paint. The tables are divided by columns and topped with intricately detailed geometric panels. Birds, vines, trees, vases line the borders and stand proudly atop the header panels. No two pages are the same.

This Bible, in addition to being an irreplaceable Armenian national treasure, is held to be sacred and miraculous. The Zeyt’un Gospels were venerated as having protective powers which is why in 1915 when the Ottoman government began massacring Armenians, the book was carried through every street of Zeyt’un in an attempt to ensure the entire city would be under its divine protection.

Later that year, church officials gave the Bible to a member of the Armenian royal Sourenian family. The Sourenians had connections in the upper echelons of the Ottoman government, so the hope was they wouldn’t be killed or deported and could keep the Gospels safe. They lasted a year before they were deported to Marash in 1916, but they did receive special treatment that allowed them to survive transportation instead of starving to death like so many of their compatriots.

The Sourenian pater familias loaned the Bible to his friend Dr. H. Der Ghazarian for what was supposed to be a few days. At the perfectly wrong time, the Sourenians were unexpectedly deported and lost track of the Zeyt’un Gospels. It seems the book remained in Marash for the duration of World War I. It surfaced there in 1928 but various obstacles kept it out of the Church’s hands until 1948 when the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul took possession of it and gave it to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, for safekeeping and display. The Bible remains there to this day.

The missing pages were spotted in 1948 when the Bible returned from Aleppo after it was authenticated by the same Dr. Ghazarian who had it for a while during the war. Although the Church investigated, it was never able to discover who stole the pages and when. At some point the pages ended up in an anonymous private collection in Watertown, Massachusetts. They were seen in public for the first time since the Genocide when the collector loaned the pages to the Morgan Library for a 1994 exhibition. After that exhibition, the Getty acquired the pages. Thirteen years later, Armenian attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan who has often represented victims of the Armenian Genocide discovered the pages were at the Getty and alerted the Church. The Getty refused all requests to repatriate the unquestionably stolen pages and the lawsuit ensued.

It seems to me the Church is conceding a great deal for the sake of a statement of historical ownership. There really is no question that the pages were stolen, so why shouldn’t they be reunited with the rest of the Bible?

The following statement from Getty director Timothy Potts irks me:

“That the pages were saved from destruction and conserved in a museum all these years means that these irreplaceable representations of Armenia’s rich artistic heritage have been and will be preserved for future generations.”

The removal of the pages was the destruction. They weren’t “saved.” They were ripped out and sold on the black market, bought by unscrupulous collectors and the Getty. The Bible itself survived a genocide and two world wars and has been conserved in a museum for 67 years. The Getty having taken care of blatantly stolen pages for a decade hardly makes it the heritage-preserving hero of the piece.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys seem happy, at any rate.

“This is a momentous occasion for the Armenian people, coming at a historic time, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. I want to thank the Getty for joining in a solution that recognizes the historical suffering of the Armenian people and that will also allow this Armenian treasure to remain in the museum which has cared for it and made it available to the Armenian and larger community in Los Angeles. We are pleased that both sides arrived at an amicable solution,” said Lee Crawford Boyd, the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder representing the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. “The sacred Canon Tables are now being recognized as having belonged to the Armenian Church. Together with the Church and the Armenian people, we are thrilled with this outcome.”

No word on whether this on-paper ownership switcheroo was accompanied by some kind of financial settlement.

To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, including primary sources, maps, eye-witness statements, a timeline of events and a collection of horrifying photographs, please visit the website of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.

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7th c. skeletons unearthed at Temple of Concordia

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Palermo have unearthed what they believe are two 7th century skeletons at the feet of the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. They have yet to be radiocarbon dated, but if the archaeologists are right, the remains are evidence of an Early Christian cemetery in front of the temple in the period shortly after the temple was converted into a church.

The skeletal remains were found in a single grave. A fully articulated skeleton of what preliminary analysis indicates is an adult male is on top, his skull oriented west and his arms crossed on his chest. Underneath his legs are the bones of the other skeleton; its sex has not yet be determined. No grave goods or artifacts of any kind were found to aid in dating. Excavations are ongoing and the remains will be analyzed to pinpoint their age.

Here’s a video of the excavation shot by tour guide Rosa Maria Montalbano.

The Temple of Concordia was built around 440 B.C. in Archaic Doric style in the ancient Greek city of Akragas. It’s not certain which deity it was dedicated to, possibly the Dioscuri, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The name Concordia was assigned to it by 16th century Dominican friar and historian Tommaso Fazello, known as the Father of Sicilian history or the Sicilian Livy. He got it from a 1st century Roman inscription on a marble slab in the city of Agrigento which read: “CONCORDIAE AGRIGENTINORUM SACRUM RESPUBLICA LILIBITANORUM” or “[Erected] by the republic of the Lilybaeans, as sacred to the concord of the Agrigentines.” (The ancient city of Lilybaeum is modern-day Marsala, where the wine comes from.) Fazello translated that as “Temple of Concordia of the Agrigentines, made by the Republic of the Lilybaeans,” deducing from the inscription that the temple was constructed at the expense of the Lilybaeans after a military defeat.

In fact, the inscription doesn’t say what was erected and in any case it was carved 500 years after the temple was built, so it wouldn’t necessarily be accurate even if it were referring to the temple. Lilybaeum wasn’t founded until the late 300s B.C., so the city didn’t even exist when the temple was built. Historians starting with 18th century classicist Jacques Philippe D’Orville called out the errors in Fazello’s attribution and now it’s universally acknowledged to be false, but the name stuck anyway.

The Temple of Concordia was converted into a church in 597 A.D. by archbishop Gregory II of Agrigento (559-630) and there’s a wonderfully juicy story behind it. A biography written by the 7th century monk Leonzio, abbot of Saint Saba in Rome, tells the tale. After Gregory was appointed archbishop entirely against his will (he preferred a life of withdrawn contemplation), a priest and presbytery in Agrigento conspired to replace him as archbishop with a certain Leucio who had been exiled for his heretical beliefs on the incarnation. The conspirators bribed the guards and hid a prostitute named Evodia in Gregory’s chambers while he was at church.

The next morning the conspirators “caught” the prostitute and scandal erupted. They had Gregory arrested and imprisoned. The people of Agrigento loved their archbishop who took care of the poor and performed miraculous healings regularly so they didn’t believe the story. They insisted he be freed and caused enough of a stink that the Pope’s deacon had to smuggle Gregory on a ship to Rome for trial. When he got to Rome, he was jailed for two and a half years before his supporters in Agrigento were able to enlist the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Patriarch to finally secure a trial.

There were more than 100 jurors arrayed against Gregory and only a handful, including the imperial delegation, on his side. It seemed Gregory was doomed, but in a shocking Law & Orderesque twist, Evodia recanted her testimony on the stand, naming the conspirators who had coerced her into setting up the saintly cleric. The conspirators were exiled and Gregory returned to Agrigento, his reputation and position restored. Unwilling to preside over his congregation in a church that had been profaned by the usurper Leucio, Gregory turned his back on the city proper and looked to the Valley of the Temples for his new cathedral.

He chose the Temple of Concordia. Planting the signum, the cross of Christ, over its threshold, Gregory exorcised the ancient pagan demons of Eber and Raps who still dwelled in the temple. (The “demons” may be transmutations of an original double dedication, hence the theory that the temple may have been dedicated to Castor and Pollux.) Now consecrated and holy, the temple was converted into the new cathedral.

Gregory of Agrigento is the patron saint of the conservation of archaeological and architectural patrimony. That’s both ironic and appropriate, because while he destroyed significant parts of the temple to Christianize it, as a church it survived in far better condition than the other temples in Agrigento which were damaged in earthquakes and pillaged for construction material. In the conversion process, all of the temple’s decorative elements and the altar were destroyed. The back wall of the cella (the inner chamber) of the temple was demolished to make a new entrance, the columns walled up and 12 arches cut into the sides of the cella to give the building the nave and two aisles of a classic Christian basilica.

Gregory dedicated the new church to Saints Peter and Paul. In the late Middle Ages the church was rededicated to its builder and excellently renamed San Gregorio delle Rape, or Saint Gregory of the Turnips because the humble, ascetic Gregory was said to have tended to the vegetables of his flock. In 1748, Bourbon king Charles V of Sicily had the church dismantled and the temple restored as much as possible to its original form. Today it is considered the second best preserved Doric temple in the world after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens which was itself converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

There are known Early Christian burials cut inside the temple and in catacombs outside, carved into the rocky outcroppings west of the temple much like Greek catacombs were carved east of the temple hundreds of years earlier. The skeletons unearthed this month are the first indications that there may have been Christian burials in the ground in front of the temple, which in the 7th century would have been the back of the church.

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Medieval skeleton pulled out of grave by uprooted tree

Monday, September 14th, 2015


The newly established Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services (SLAS) had a fasinating first commission: to recover skeletal remains torn out of the ground when a tree was uprooted during a storm.

The beech tree had stood outside Collooney, County Sligo, Ireland, for 215 years before a storm blew it down last winter, pulling out the roots and the top half of a skeleton with them. The body was snapped in two when the tree toppled, leaving both femurs broken while the lower legs remained undisturbed in the grave. The National Monuments Service hired SLAS to excavated the remains in the ground and to painstakingly remove the bones embedded in the tree’s root matrix. The found part of the skull and spine in the roots, but other bones were destroyed by the roots as the tree grew.

Preliminary analysis of the bones by osteoarchaeologist Dr Linda Lynch revealed that the deceased was a young man 17-20 years old when he died. Radiocarbon dating found he was buried between 1030 and 1200 A.D. While a strapping 5’10″ tall in a time when the average height was 5’5″, the youth suffered mild spinal joint disease likely caused by heavy physical labour from a young age. There is evidence on the bones that he did not die an easy death. Sharp force injuries on the ribs and hand point to his having been cut repeatedly with a knife or sword.

He was given a formal Christian burial. His grave was aligned east-west and he was placed in the grave with his hands folded over his pelvic region. There are records from the 19th century that describe a church and graveyard nearby, but no other human remains or archaeological evidence of a church were found during the excavation. Also, the tree was planted in 1800, so any graveyard in the environs of the medieval body probably wasn’t in its immediate surroundings. He may have been an isolated burial rather than one of many buried in a cemetery.

The skeletal remains will studied in more depth and post-excavation work on the site continues.

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Small but sweet Viking hoard declared treasure

Friday, August 28th, 2015

A hoard of Viking-era silver ingots and coins discovered in Wales has been officially declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest. The hoard was found in March by metal detectorist Walter Hanks in a field in Llandwrog, north-west Wales. Consisting of fewer than 20 coins and coin fragments, three complete ingots and one partial, it’s a small trove of outsized historical significance because of its age and rarity.

Fourteen of the coins are silver pennies minted in Dublin under the reign of the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Anlafsson, aka Sigtrygg Silkbeard (r. 989-1036). Eight of them date to 995 A.D.; the other six, three of which are fragments, were minted in 1018 A.D. Sihtric’s coins are very rare discoveries on the British mainland. There are also fragments of three or four silver pennies from the reign of Cnut the Great, the Danish King of England who reigned from 985 or 995 through 1035. The Cnut coins were probably produced in the mint at Chester.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was lost or buried between 1020 and 1030. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard, unearthed in 1979 near Llandudno in Conwy, north Wales, was buried around that time — after 1024 — and it too contains coins minted by Cnut and Sihtric: 203 Cnut silver pennies and just two Sihtric silver pennies. The Bryn Maelgwyn coins are thought to have been Viking booty rather than a savings account, however, unlike the Llandwrog hoard. The weight of the ingots is 115.09 grams out of a total hoard weight of 127.77 grams. That means fully 90% of the weight of the hoard is in the ingots which suggests the hoard’s main role was silver storage.

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the Department of History and Archaeology at the National Museum Wales said the find will help historians to form a picture of the eleventh century Gwynedd economy.

He said: “There are three complete finger-shaped ingots and one fragmentary finger-shaped metal ingot. Nicking on the sides of the ingots is an intervention sometimes undertaken in ancient times to test purity, and evidence that they had been used in commercial transactions before burial.

“At least four hoards on the Isle of Man indicate that bullion retained an active role in the Manx economy from the 1030s to 1060s, and the mixed nature of the Llandwrog hoard falls into the same category. As such it amplifies the picture we are building up of the wealth and economy operating in the kingdom of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.”

The National Museum Wales is hoping to secure the hoard. The Bryn Maelgwyn hoard is at the Cardiff branch of the Nation Museum, so it would be in excellent company. First the valuation committee must decide the fair market value of the hoard. The museum will then try to raise the price, ideally through a Lottery Fund grant, which will be divided between the finder and the landowner.

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