Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Good morrow, Richard III nerds; you are early stirring

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

Okay, it’s not that early. I just couldn’t resist mooching from Shakespeare for obvious reasons. This is your official History Blog wakeup call: one hour from now the St. Louis University colloquium on the excavation and identification of the remains of King Richard III kicks off. Station yourself on the R3@SLU website to watch the event streaming. Geneticist Dr. Turi King and the dig’s fieldwork director Matthew Morris will be on hand to discuss the find along with history, humanities, forensic pathology and English professors from SLU.

The colloquium lasts six hours but they will break for nature and lunch, so you probably won’t have to use that Snapple bottle you haven’t recycled yet. Alternatively, you could just wait for the entire video to be uploaded to the site after the discussion is over. Dr. Jonathan Sawday from the St. Louis University English department and one of the organizers of the event, was kind enough to comment on the first post to assure us that the video will be available, and the site now confirms it will be found on the Schedule page.

Right now that page contains the actual schedule. Matthew Moris and Turi King will be on in the afternoon, but don’t skip the St. Louis University talks because it all looks like gold, Jerry. There’s something for everyone. As I am also a forensic pathology nerd, I am very much looking forward to Dr. Michael Graham discussion of Medico-legal Death Investigation: Now and Then.

I’ll be watching today, updating this post with any nerdy commentary as the proverbial spirit moves me. Join me in the comments, if the proverbial spirit moves you. :boogie:

And we’re on! It’s cool to hear to the perspective of Leicesterians from Dr. Sawday.

Oh hey, I didn’t know Sir Walter Scott invented the term “War of the Roses.”

Archaeologist Thomas Finan: Leading a dig is “less of an Indiana Jones experience and more of an Eisenhower experience.” Nicely put.

Dammit, the stream has stopped for me. :angry: Okay it’s back. I missed a chunk of Dr. Finan’s presentation about his finds in the UK which I will catch up when the full video is uploaded.

Archaeologists see an unidentified skeleton as a sample of the wider population, a source of information about the population’s health, age, diet, physical attributes, etc. The individual’s cause of death is not often writ on the skeletal remains. If they’ve died of disease or old age or a sudden heart attack, say, you’re not going necessarily going to find evidence of that on the bones.

Now that the recovery of ancient DNA is possible, it opens the door to a whole new investigation into the remains as an individual rather than as a source of data for the wider population.

It’s pathology time! Ooh, interesting that China was doing forensic death investigations in the 13th century.

The coroner’s office was established in England in the 8th or 9th century. That is crazy. They didn’t include autopsies until much later, however, so even if Richard’s death had been investigated, his body would have been looked at but nothing more.

The US is still under the coroner system today. Frontline did a fantastic and terrifying expose’ of what a slapdash disaster death investigations can be in the United States. You can watch that program online on the PBS website and I highly, HIGHLY recommend it.

The choppiness is getting me down, y’all. I might have to wait for the finished video.

Stab wound with hilt mark and hesitation marks on the wrist. That slice with the lined up pinpoints indicate a serrated weapon was used, in this case a saw. Wound interpretation is fascinating.

Now there’s what I’m sure is a compelling round table conversation on how archaeologists, curators, etc. handle human remains in a respectful way but it’s like an audio version of a strobe light and I just can’t take it anymore. I’m giving up for now, but I’ll try again regularly.

Huh. They seem to have gone back to Dr. Finan’s presentation and it sounds and looks fine. I’ll take it!

Okay, it appears they used the break to replay the presentation that was so choppy. Now it’s back to the live colloquium with Dr. Anthony Hasler’s talk Richard’s World. There are still some moments when the stream has to catch up with itself, but that constant choppiness has cleared up.

Spoke too soon. The choppiness is back.

Okay it’s 1:20 EST and they’re replaying Anthony Hasler’s presentation during the lunch break. The replays all seem to be work well, which means the final video will be good quality.

…. Aaand choppiness again. I’m officially conceding defeat. I’ll try again after lunch.

It’s 2:34 EST and Matthew Morris is up. The stream still stutters. I’m going to go ahead and wait for the completed video. :skull:


Charlemagne’s bones found in his coffin

Friday, January 31st, 2014

That may seem obvious, but given how often he was exhumed and reburied and parts of him given away as relics, it’s actually quite notable that the collection of bones in the Karlsschrein, the Shrine of Charlemagne, and other reliquaries in the Aachen Cathedral all appear to come from the same person who matches contemporary descriptions of the Frankish king.

Charlemagne died almost exactly 1200 years ago, on January 28th, 814, and was buried in the choir of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen Cathedral. (See Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, written 15-20 years after his death for a description.) In 1000, Otto III, keen to present himself as the successor of the great man, had the burial vault opened. According to German chronicler and bishop Thietmar of Merseburg who was a contemporary of Otto’s, when the vault was opened they found Charlemagne’s uncorrupt body seated upon a marble throne wearing a crown with a scepter in his hand and the gospels open in his lap. Otto reportedly Helped himself to some of the relics and brought them to Rome.

Frederick I Barbarossa was the next to disinter Charlemagne. In 1165, he had the remains exhumed and displayed as holy relics at the Aachen Court festival. Again this was a means for Frederick to establish a connection with the revered leader and to position Aachen as a center of pilgrimage like St. Denis or Westminster. To curry favor with Frederick, Antipope Paschal III canonized Charlemagne that same year, although this, like all of Paschal’s acts, was never recognized by the Vatican. Barbarossa had Charlemagne’s remains reburied, this time in an elaborate third century A.D. Roman marble sarcophagus depicting the Rape of Persephone, which may seem incongruous as a topic for Christian burial, but like many ancient myths was re-interpreted as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.

He didn’t stay there for long. In 1215, Frederick II had Charlemagne exhumed yet again. He commissioned local goldsmiths to make a rich gold casket to hold the bones. That’s the Karlsschrein originally in the placed in the center of the Palatine Chapel underneath a chandelier donated by Frederick Barbarossa in 1168.

Nearly 200 years passed before the next king inserted himself into Charlemagne’s eternal rest. In 1349, some of his bones were removed to individual reliquaries by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He had a gold reliquary made to contain a thigh bone, and the Bust of Charlemagne to contain the skullcap. Louis XI of France contributed to the trend in 1481 by commissioning the Arm Reliquary, a golden arm that contains the ulna and radius from Charlemagne’s right arm.

It was scientists who took over from the emperors and kings. In 1861, Charlemagne’s remains were exhumed again so they could be studied. His skeleton was reconstructed and a very generous estimate (1.92 meters, or 6’4″) made of his height. In 1988, scientists exhumed his remains one more time, this time in secret. This study covered the bones in the reliquaries as well, a total of 94 bones and bone fragments, and they spent years meticulously examining and testing the collection. On Wednesday, January 28th, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, the results of the research were announced.

One of the scientists studying the remains, Professor Frank Rühli, said: “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne.”

From studying the dimensions of the upper arm, thigh and shin bones, scientists have built up a picture of the man behind the skeleton, and it matches descriptions of Charlemagne.

At 1.84 metres (six feet), he was unusually tall for his time. The team also estimated his weight at around 78 kilograms, giving him a slim body mass index of around 23.

The average height for an adult male in the 9th century was 1.69 meters or 5’6″, which put Charlemagne in the 99th percentile. Einhard’s description of him fits the results of the study even in some of the smaller details, like the limp that struck him in his later years. Researchers found that the kneecap and heel bone had deposits consistent with an injury.

From Chapter 22 of the Life of Charlemagne:

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot.


A view that hasn’t been seen in 500 years

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

What you’re looking at here is the beautiful prospect from a lancet window in the north wall of Mingary Castle, a window that was sealed in the late 15th or early 16th century and has now been reopened for the first time in 500 years. Built on a promontory on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the northwest coast of Scotland in the 13th century, Mingary Castle was a stronghold commanding the Sound of Mull, an important part of the great western shipping lane at a time when the Viking/Gaelic rulers of western Scotland ran fleets of galleys for trade, travel and war. Since the ships hugged the coast to avoid Atlantic storms, coastal castles dominated seagoing traffic.

It’s not certain who first built the castle. Clan MacDougall is one possible candidate, but by the time the window was sealed, Mingary Castle was the seat of Clan MacIain, one of the most powerful septs (vassal branches) of Clan MacDonald. Although technically they were vassals of kings of Norway and Scotland at various times, in practice they ran their territories independently as Lords of the Isles. Mingary was one of a chain of strategically important castles in the MacDonald fiefdom.

It was a new threat from the landward side that caused the MacIains to block up the north windows. The slender pointed arch windows, used to fire arrows and crossbow bolts onto attackers, were in walls that ranged in thickness from 60 centimeters (ca. 1’12″) to 80 centimeters (2’7″). This was the thinnest the castle walls got and since they faced land, they were particular susceptible to recently-invented cannons that packed enough punch to pierce much thicker masonry walls. To fix this weak spot, the MacIains had stonemasons fill in the windows and the chambers where defenders wielded their weapons. They did a most thorough job of it, too.

The castle fell out of MacIain and MacDonald control in the early 17th century. The Campbell family, Earls of Argyll, took the castle and held it so effectively that they destroyed Clan MacDonald when they attempted to retake the castle by besieging it. In the early 18th century the Mingary estate was sold to Alexander Murray; 50 years later it was sold to James Riddell whose family owned it until 1848. All of these post-MacIain owners made modifications and additions to the castle, keeping it in livable condition without destroying the original structure from the 1200s. After 1848, the estate was still used by locals, but the castle increasingly deteriorated until the interior was too dangerous to inhabit.

The estate was purchased by Donald Houston 20 years or so ago. He has restored many of the structures on the property, and is now restoring the castle itself with the goal of keeping the walls from crumbling and making the castle inhabitable as a residence for humans again. Because of its relative remoteness and the long centuries of occupation, Mingary Castle is the best preserved 13th century castle in Scotland. It’s therefore of great historical significance to the country.

Mr. Houston has founded the Mingary Preservation Trust, a charitable organization that is raising the £2 million ($3,300,000) needed to restore the castle. (If you’d like to contribute, click here to donate or, if you’d prefer to get a piece of the castle itself, you can adopt your very own stone.)

Part of the restoration project was the reopening of the north wall chambers and lancet windows. On Thursday, January 16th, workmen broke through the incredibly hard infill that blocked off the left top window, gingerly removed the stones and opened it to expose a beautiful view last seen by human eyeballs 500 years ago.

Jon Haylett, a local historian who has been overseeing the excavation said: “There was a real sense of excitement that we could, for the first time in 500 years, look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.

“Looking out of the window was an eerie experience, realising that the last person to see that view was probably a stonemason, some half a millennium ago.

“Next to me, doing the clearing, were two modern stonemasons from Ashley-Thomson, the building restoration firm, and I think they were equally moved.”

They were hoping to find organic material or some artifacts embedded in the fill that would help narrow down when the windows were sealed, but so far all the attending archaeologist has found are some tiny bone fragments, probably the detritus of a meal left behind by the masons who last worked there half a millennium ago. They did find an interesting architectural element: a groove around the inside of the window, probably used to hold a shutter or wooden board to close the window when necessary.

Now the restoration team is digging across to the double lancet windows on the right. You can read all about their progress and enjoy the exceptional photographic documentation of the restoration on the marvelous Mingary Castle blog authored by Jon Haylett.


Richard III team members alight in the US

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I’m excited to report that two members of the team who excavated and analyzed the remains of King Richard III in September of 2012 will be coming to the US in February for public lectures. This is the first chance we norms in the US have had to hear from the horses’ mouths about the extraordinary discovery that riveted the world.

The first stop will be Washington, D.C. where they will be giving a talk on the discovery on February 5th, 2014. The lecture is being offered by the Folger Shakespeare Theatre as part of a program devoted to the Bard’s tragedy Richard III. A new staging of the play will be accompanied by Q&As with the performers, talks by the literary director and local poets. The University of Leicester’s Greyfriars Project will be represented by geneticist Dr. Turi King and fieldwork director Matthew Morris, two of the co-authors of the first paper published on the excavation.

Their lecture, entitled Finding Richard, will cover the archaeological excavation (Matthew Morris’ bailiwick) and the DNA analysis (Dr. King’s expertise) that established a genetic link between Michael Ibsen, direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister Anne of York, an unnamed second female-line descendant and the skeleton found under the Leicester council parking lot.

The lecture will be held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation 212 East Capitol Street on Wednesday, February 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets cost $25 for regular people and $20 for members of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. You can book over the phone at (202) 544-7077 or online here.

After that, Turi King and Matthew Morris will join professors in history, humanities, forensic pathology and English at St. Louis University for a full day colloquium on Saturday, February 8th. The discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the university’s Il Monastero on 3050 Olive Street. It is open to the general public and free of charge.

Jealous of the fine folks of St. Louis who, as if having a kickass arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River weren’t enough, now get to enjoy a day of Richard III nerdery with two pivotal figures from the Greyfriars team? Well don’t be, because the whole thing will be streamed live over the internet! :boogie: :cool: :boogie:

Bookmark this website, mark your calendar, set your alarm clock to wake you up before 10:00 AM Central Time (11:00 AM EST), get breakfast, lunch, beverages and possibly some sort of vessel to hold your waste, then settle down in front of your computer for a luxurious six hours of nothing but Richard III.


Huge grant to help save Alaskan “melting village”

Monday, January 20th, 2014

The efforts to excavate the archaeological remains of the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Nunalleq before climate change erodes it into the Bering Sea have been markedly boosted by a £1.1 million in ($1,800,000) research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been digging at the site since 2009 when they were called in by the Yup’ik living in the nearby village of Quinhagak who were alarmed to see their ancestral artifacts being swept out to sea.

Organic elements from human hair to woven grass baskets to wooden planking had been preserved in the permafrost for centuries after the village was abandoned around 1650, but rising global temperatures are melting the permafrost leaving behind brittle soil that is particularly susceptible to erosion. Add the rising sea levels and extreme weather events battering the coast and you have a recipe for destruction. Since that first excavation season, the coastline has lost more than 30 feet.

In order to preserve a uniquely rich archaeological record that project leader Dr. Rick Knecht describes as “one of the clearest records of the past that we know of anywhere in the north,” the University of Aberdeen team in conjunction with the local Yup’ik community have worked assiduously to recover everything they can from the site of the 700-year-old village. So far they’ve already unearthed thousands of artifacts. Highlight artifacts of the 2013 dig include an ivory carving of a mythological monster thought to be a Palraiyuk, a gator-like creature that lived in rivers and lakes emerging to devour humans and animals, and a ceremonial face mask that depicts a person, probably a woman, in the act of transforming into a wolf or fox.

The archaeologists excavating Nunalleq don’t just remove artifacts as they come across them; they remove the entire context so they can sift through the soil and organic matter looking for wood chips, plant remains, insects, tiny fish vertebrae, fur, human bone fragments and hair, all the unglamorous but essential sources of information on how the Yup’ik lived in Nunalleq from the 1300s until the village was raided and abandoned.

It’s important research because while the Yup’ik are the largest indigenous group in south-western Alaska today, they only came in contact with Europeans in the 1820s and the vast region they inhabit has barely been explored archaeologically.

Dr Knecht added: “This is our first look at pre-contact Yup’ik life. It’s been a complete revelation to both scientists and the local native community.

“The discovery of these artefacts is helping to reintroduce lost skills back into these communities – the skills used to make them may have been lost and are being re-learned. We literally have pieces being recreated within days of being discovered.

“I think the dig is helping to get the local young people interested in their heritage. A group of youngsters recently asked the village elders for permission to form a traditional dance group – something that was supressed by the missionaries more than a century ago. They did their first dance last year and the first song was about the storms washing the site away, and this year they did their first dance in Quinhagak itself – the first in 100 years – and they did it when we showed our summer’s finds to the community.”

The grant will allow archaeologists to keep digging for the next four years. Part of it will go to archaeological education and training programs, and to fund a regional survey that will identify more sites endangered by the eroding coastline.

The artifacts, bulk samples and other materials recovered have all been packed up and sent to Scotland for analysis and conservation. They all remain property of the people of Quinhagak and once the objects have been studied, they will be returned to the area. The plan is to build a local research center and artifact repository where the collection can be maintained in proper conditions. It will also be a pivot for ongoing site protection and rescue operations along the endangered coast.

For more pictures and wonderful write-ups about each day of the dig, do yourself a favor and read the Nunalleq Project blog. These folks work in challenging conditions — here’s Lindsey looking ridiculously cheery despite having to wear an eyepatch because A MOSQUITO BIT HER ON THE EYEBALL — but their commitment, dedication, work ethic and positive attitudes are irrepressible.


Is this Alfred the Great’s pelvic bone?

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

Last year, in the wake of the announcement that the remains of King Richard III had been discovered, the church authorities granted archaeologists permission to exhume an unmarked grave reputed to hold the bones of King Alfred the Great in the cemetery of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Winchester. To exactly no one’s surprise, they did not find the bones of Alfred the Great.

Alfred’s bones were moved several times after his first burial in Winchester’s Old Minster in 899. In 1110, the remains of Alfred, his wife Ealhswith, his son and successor Edward the Elder and Edward’s children were moved to Hyde Abbey. The Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII’s marauders during the dissolution of the monasteries but reportedly the human remains interred there weren’t damaged. Construction of a prison on the site in 1788, on the other hand, appears to have been a riot of damage. A Catholic bishop named John Milner wrote about the destruction:

Miscreants couch amidst the ashes of our Alfreds and Edwards; and where once religious silence and contemplation were only interrupted by the bell of regular observance, and the chanting of devotion, now alone resound the clank of the captive’s chains and the oaths of the profligate! In digging for the foundations of that mournful edifice [the prison] at almost every stroke of the mattock or spade some ancient sepulchre was violated, the venerable contents of which were treated with marked indignity, A great number of stone coffins were dug up, with a variety of curious articles, such as chalices, patens, rings, buckles, the leather of shoes and boots, velvet and gold belonging to chasubles and other vestments as also the crook, rims and joints of a beautiful crozier, double gilt.

According to Captain Henry Howard who heard it from the foreman of the construction site 10 years after the events,

A great stone coffin was found, cased with lead both within and without, and containing some bones and remains of garnets. The lead, in its decayed state, sold for two guineas; the bones were thrown about and the stone coffin broken into pieces. There were also two other coffins and no more found in this part, which were also broke for the sake of the garden in which they lay, broken up and buried as low as the spring.

The stone coffins and expensive artifacts suggested these brutes may have desecrated royal graves, and for nothing because the prison didn’t even last 50 years. It was demolished in 1840. When antiquarian John Mellor excavated the Hyde Abbey site in 1866, he claimed to have found the Wessex dynasty tombs and identified one of five skulls he had unearthed as that of Alfred the Great based on a visual comparison with Alfred’s face on a coin. Yeah, he was a … creative fellow. He created several other entertaining tale tales about discoveries he purportedly made and also salted the site with supposedly 10th century artifacts. After the dig, Mellor gave the bones he had unearthed to the rector of Saint Bartholomew’s Church who buried them in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.

When University of Winchester archaeologists opened the grave, they found the skeletons of at least six people, including five skulls. After a few months, the Diocese granted them permission to clean and test the bones. Radiocarbon dating proved that these could not be the bones of Alfred and his immediate family. Alfred reigned from 871 – 899; his son Edward the Elder died in 924; Edward’s son Athelstan died childless in 939 and his other son Edmund I died in 946. The oldest of the bones from the unmarked grave dated to 1100. The rest dated from 1230 to 1500 and showed extensive signs of degenerative health conditions which suggests they may have been patients who died in the Hyde Abbey infirmary.

All hope was not lost, however. In 1999, an excavation of the abbey site done by the Winchester City Museum had recovered some bones. These were stored in two boxes at the museum but had never been thoroughly analysed due to lack of funds. After the St. Bartholomew’s Church bones were found to be too recent, Winchester University’s Dr. Katie Tucker, team leader of the exhumation project, was notified of the Winchester City Museum bones and arranged to have them tested. A piece of pelvic bone, recorded as having been found in a pit in front of the monastery’s High Altar, was radiocarbon dated to between 895 and 1017. Osteological analysis identified the bone as having probably belonged to an adult male who was between 26 and 45 at the time of death.

This is the only bone ever found to date to the era when Alfred and his family were interred. Its find spot in front the High Altar is also an important piece of the puzzle because only the royal family was buried there. This could indeed be a small piece of either King Alfred or King Edward.

Or not. The problem is the chances of actually identifying a third of a pelvic bone as belonging to a king who died 1100 years ago are infinitesimally small. With the Richard III discovery, they found a fully articulated skeleton in its original context. There was a wealth of circumstantial evidence derived from the bones — battle wounds, scoliosis — and they were able to extract DNA for comparison to modern descendants of Richard’s sister. One chunk of pelvis really can’t tell us much about its owner, and recovering historical DNA is already a great challenge even when the bones haven’t been moved and exposed to God knows what conditions multiple times over the centuries.

Even if they did catch the luckiest of breaks and were able to extract DNA from the bone, finding someone to compare it to for identification would be a whole other snipe hunt. A modern descendant, if there even are any, could take years to locate. DNA from Alfred’s granddaughter Queen Eadgyth (her remains were found in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany in 2008) would have done the trick, but her bones were too damaged to extract a viable DNA sample.

They’ll give it the old college try, though. Meanwhile, the renewed interest in Alfred’s remains has renewed interest in the Hyde Abbey site. The University of Winchester team is hoping to parlay that into a new excavation.

BBC cameras have followed the team on their journey. The Search for Alfred the Great debuts on BBC2 on Tuesday, January 21st. They’ve released some clips from the show already, and by some miracle they are both embeddable and viewable outside the UK, so here you go.


Anglo-Saxon game piece found at royal complex

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Archaeologists with the University of Reading excavating an Anglo-Saxon royal complex at Lyminge, Kent, have unearthed an extremely rare board game piece dating to the 7th century. It’s the first discovery of this particular form of gaming piece in 130 years, and it’s the only time one has ever been found outside of a burial context. This one was unearthed in a room adjacent to the feasting hall, a place where it would actually have been used in active play rather than as a ceremonial grave good.

Alongside this astonishing discovery, Dr Gabor Thomas and his team have also uncovered items of jewellery, numerous fragments of luxury vessel glass and pits with animal bones, confirming that feasting and social display were integral to Lyminge’s role as a place of royal ceremonial events and gatherings during the late 6th and 7th centuries.

Dr Gabor Thomas from the University’s Department of Archaeology is leading the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded dig. He said: “Our excavation is providing an unprecedented picture of life in an Anglo-Saxon royal complex. Gaming, along with feasting, drinking, and music, formed one of the key entertainments of the Anglo-Saxon mead-hall as evoked in the poem Beowulf.

“The discovery of Anglo-Saxon gaming-pieces and gaming-boards has previously been restricted to male burials, particularly those of the Anglo-Saxon elite. To find such a well preserved example in the hall, where such board games were actually played, is a wonderfully evocative discovery.”

The piece is a made of a hollow tube of bone capped at both ends with bone discs held together through the middle by a copper alloy rivet. Anglo-Saxons were fond of a board game and a number of pieces, even sets, have been found, but this kind of craftsmanship is top of the line. The only comparable pieces of this type ever discovered in Britain were found in the Taplow burial, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon princely burial mound in Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, that was excavated in 1883. The grave goods interred at Taplow include a pair of drinking vessels made out of aurochs’ horns with elaborate gilded silver fittings, a gorgeous set of four glass claw beakers, a lyre, multiple weapons, gold braids, a gold and garnet belt buckle and a set of game pieces laid out at the prince’s feet. The Taplow burial is contemporary in age with the Sutton Hoo burial and the artifacts are of a same high level of quality.

The game pieces were almost certainly an import from Germanic Europe, most likely of Langobardic manufacture. The most apt parallels have been found in the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Saxons were part of the Lombard invasion force of Italy in the late 6th century, and it’s probable these luxury goods made their way up north through trade routes that ranged as far as the Byzantine Empire.

The Lyminge game piece was discovered by a volunteer. He’s a metal detectorist who works side by side with the archaeologists exploring the site as they dig. He wasn’t actually using his metal detector the time. He was digging in a trench in the spot where several buildings in the complex intersect when he found this small but immensely important artifact. The structural evidence reveals a complex with large timber halls, floors made out of Roman-style mortar with opus signinum, a crushed tile finish, and huge entrance portals larger than any other from this period unearthed in England.

As far as what games the royal hall denizens might have been playing with these pieces, we don’t know. There are no written descriptions of the fine sport to be had in the feasting halls of Anglo-Saxon royalty. What we have to go on is archaeological evidence from the Germanic burials pre-dating the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. One burial in Leuna, Saxony, dating to around 300 A.D., contained a set of black and white pieces on a double-sided wooden board. This was used to play two games: tabula, an early form of backgammon, and latrunculi (soldiers), a checkers-like game wherein matched sides attempt to capture each other’s pieces. These games were brought to England in the fifth century during the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

For more photographs of this season’s and the previous four years of excavation at Lyminge, see this photo gallery.


Celtic brooch found among Viking artifacts in storage

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Barry Ager, curator of the British Museum’s Early Medieval Scandinavian and continental Europe collection, has discovered a Celtic brooch dating from the 8th-9th century hidden among Viking burial artifacts found in the late 19th century and kept in the museum’s stores. The objects were excavated in Lilleberge, Norway, in 1886 by British archaeologist Alfred Heneage Cocks. The 9th-10th century burial was a long barrow 128 feet in length containing a 30 foot boat, grave goods and the skeletal remains of a high status woman. The artifacts included beaded necklaces, two oval brooches, a whalebone plaque decorated with horse heads that may have been a food serving tray, an iron grid, possibly used as a pot stand or as a boat fitting, a pottery spindle-whorl, plus iron rivets, nails and wood fragments from the boat.

Five years after the excavation, Cocks sold his collection of Lilleberge artifacts to the British Museum. Some of the objects were indeterminate, still encased in blocks of soil and organic matter from the excavation. They were kept in storage for more than a century and only recently been subject to further research. Their uncleaned condition has proven to be an archaeological boon since small organic fragments survived in the dirt and the kind of things that people paid no attention to back then are extremely valuable to researchers today.

Barry Ager was looking over the collection in anticipation of a visiting Norwegian expert researching the Lilleberge find when he noticed a piece of metal sticking out of a lump of organic material. He had the lump X-rayed to see what it might contain.

“It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.”

He believes that it was originally made in Ireland or Scotland, that it came from a shrine or a reliquary, and that the Vikings converted it into a brooch by attaching rivet holes and a pin.

The brooch couldn’t just be pulled out of the block because there are significant organic survivals — wood fragments, possibly from a box that held the brooch, and very rare Viking textiles from which three different patterns, including a herringbone, have already been identified — that needed to be preserved. Conservators painstakingly removed the brooch using scalpels to separate it from its context without damaging the fragile organics.

Once it was removed and cleaned, the brooch was found to be elaborately decorated and in excellent condition with its original gilded surface still shining. It’s six centimeters (2.3 inches) in diameter and engraved with a central roundel with three stylized dolphin-like heads looping around it.

“The …patterns, the quatrefoil of the central roundel and the form of the ‘dolphins’ heads have clear parallels in Celtic metalwork and manuscripts of the 8th to early 9th centuries, such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Mac Regol,” Ager said.

He described the craftsmanship as “very fine” and said that the Vikings valued “eye-catching” objects: “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye.”

The brooch will go on public display for the first time starting March 27th. It will join the exquisite beauties of Sutton Hoo in Room 41 of the British Museum when the gallery re-opens after refurbishment.


British Museum buys Lacock Cup for £1.3 million

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A year after St. Cyriac’s Church in the Wiltshire village of Lacock offered its prize medieval chalice for sale to the British Museum for £1.3 million ($2,130,570), the British Museum has acquired the piece it has been exhibiting on loan since 1963. The year was spent raising the money. Grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (£650,000) and The Art Fund (£150,000) got them 60% of the way. A large individual donation of £200,000 from investment banker and art patron John Studzinski, plus contributions from British Museum supporters, various charitable organizations and the museum’s acquisitions budget got them the rest of the way.

In a first that hopefully presages future such arrangements, Big Museum teamed up with the little guy on this project. The small but prestigious Wiltshire Museum in Devizes lent its aid by working on the grant applications and now it is co-owner of the Lacock Cup along with the British Museum. The original cup will mainly stay at the British Museum on permanent display in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe, but two identical replicas will be made by the museum’s metalworker Mike Neilson. An expert who has copied historical metal pieces from medieval chain mail to Bronze Age gold cloaks, Neilson will painstakingly recreate the chalice by hand using silver and gold. One of the replicas will go to the Wiltshire Museum where it will grace its Medieval Gallery along with other items from Lacock. The other will be given to St. Cyriac’s church so they can once again use an exquisite silver chalice for Communion on special occasions.

Made in the early 1400s by a master silversmith, the covered chalice was not created for liturgical use. It was a secular object, a shared cup at the feast table of a rich lord. Unmissable at almost 14 inches in height and weighing more than two pounds, it was certainly meant to be seen, an indication of wealth that would stand out even on a table groaning with food and drink. Nonetheless, its ornamentation is restrained. A twisted rope design decorates the top and base of the foot and rim of the cover and a row of delicate little leaves adorn the base of the lid, the top of the stem and the base of the foot, disguising the joins that connected the bowl and two sections of the foot. The lid is topped with a spherical finial which has been gilded, as have the lip of the cup, the lower part of the foot and leaf cresting. The smooth sides and elegantly simple decoration only underscore the skill of its maker. He hand-beat the chalice from three sheets of silver; any mistake would be brutally exposed by the simplicity of the design.

There are no makers’ marks to identify the creator or any evidence of who originally owned the Lacock Cup. All we know is that some point in the 17th century (thought to be between 1621 and 1636), the chalice was given to St. Cyriac’s probably by Sir Robert Baynard of Lackham Manor. The church used it to hold Communion wine during important services like Christmas and Easter for nearly 400 years. The timing of the donation and the centuries of careful church use are what kept this extremely rare piece intact in such exquisite condition. It was one of the most common types of chalices in the Late Gothic period, but almost none of them have survived because they were melted down when the fashion changed. Had it been donated to the church before the wholesale destruction of church silver during the Reformation, it wouldn’t have survived. Instead, it was kept intact in secular hands for a couple of centuries and then kept intact in ecclesiastical hands for the next four centuries.

Until 1981, the chalice made the return trip back to St. Cyriac’s for special occasions, but the trips stopped when its high value and perfect condition made regular travel too risky. The church, parts of which date to the 11th century and most of which dates to the early 15th century, is in desperate need of extensive repair work and, ideally, a source of funding for yearly maintenance. Since the chalice wasn’t going to be coming back any time soon due to the prohibitive cost of insurance and security, in 2009 the church explored the idea of selling it. Three years of debates ensued, ending with a legal challenge decided by an ecclesiastical consistory court in December of 2012 in favor of the sale.

Although current valuation puts the market value of the cup at around £2 million, the church offered it to the British Museum at their proposed price of £1.3 million because they wanted to ensure it stayed in its home of decades in the care of experts and accessible to the public. Now that the sale has gone through, the church plans to invest the principal and use the interest to fund necessary repairs now and in the future.


Ming Dynasty bridge revealed in dry lake

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

A granite footbridge built nearly 400 years ago in the late Ming Dynasty has been exposed by the record low waters of Poyang Lake in China’s central Jiangxi province. Lengthening dry seasons, low rainfall and the impact of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir upstream have dramatically reduced the lake’s area, shrinking it from an average high point of 3,500 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) to a two hundred square kilometers (77 square miles) at worst. Right now it is almost 10 meters (32 feet) below the average depth for this time of year. It’s an environmental and economic disaster, devastating for the fish, endangered porpoises, migratory birds, microorganisms and humans that depend on the lake for their lives/livelihoods.

So it’s not exactly a bright side because there really isn’t any, but it is neat to see the bridge again. It is an impressive 2,930 meters (1.8 miles) long which earned it the title of the longest lake bridge in China. Also known as the “thousand-eye bridge” because it was reputed to have 1,100 holes along its length, it was built by the Chongzhen Emperor in 1631, the fourth year of his reign. For the people who lived around the lake in the 17th century, the granite bridge was the main traffic artery. Since the lake has long reputed to be haunted, garnering the moniker of the “Bermuda Triangle of the East” for the number of ships that disappeared in its waters never to be seen again even during the dry season, and since the waters, haunted or not, are treacherous and subject to sudden squalls, the bridge was an important resource for residents, giving them the ability to cross the lake without boating.

It is fitting that the last Ming emperor left his mark on Poyang Lake as that’s where the future first emperor had the great victory that launched his dynasty. In 1363, as the Mongol Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan weakened and local warlords grew in strength and ambition, the three most powerful lords in the Yangtze River area clashed at Poyang Lake. Chen Youliang of the Han brought hundreds of tower ships, massive multi-storey troop carriers, and hundreds of thousands soldiers and sailors to besiege the Ming-controlled city of Nanchang on the south side of the lake. Zhu Yuanzhang, commander of the Ming fleet and founder of the dynasty, was fighting the army of the Zhang Shicheng, the self-style King of Wu, when the siege began. Zhu dispatched a fleet to the lake to support Nanchang which was holding steadfastly against the Han.

Over three days of direct conflict (there was a month of blockade and attrition between the first two days and the last) in which the Ming sent fire ships to demolish the Han towers and used their smaller, more nimble ships to run the Han fleet aground in the shallows, Zhu’s forces decisively defeated the numerically superior Han. Chen Youliang was killed by an enemy arrow through his skull, and only a few Han ships managed to make it up the Yangtze intact.

Zhu claimed hundreds of surrendered and disabled Han ships and with his reinforced navy and victorious army, he became the strongest of the contenders for the throne. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the Yuan capital (today’s Beijing) and proclaimed himself Emperor of China, first of the Ming Dynasty. The Mongols retreated to their homeland in the central Asian steppe and Yunnan, the last Yuan-controlled area of China, fell to the Ming in 1381.

The dynasty he founded lasted for nearly 300 years until the suicide of the Chongzhen Emperor in 1644, 13 years after he had the granite bridge built over the lake that saw the founder of his dynasty’s seminal victory.





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