Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Unique silver 3D valkyrie found in Denmark

Monday, March 4th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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


Richard the Lionheart’s embalmed heart analysed

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Louis I of Orléans found in The Agony in the Garden

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Details from the Richard III press conference

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Pardon my ongoing obsession, but yesterday’s press conference went by so quickly and the materials flashed on the screen for a second at most. I missed a lot of the details while typing furiously, and even if I hadn’t been multitasking it still would have been too fleeting to satisfy my craving for details on the archaeology, history, genealogy and science. Thankfully, the University of Leicester has put much of the materials and speakers’ notes from the press conference online.

They go through the presenters pretty much as they appeared, starting with lead archaeologist Richard Buckley’s evidence from dig site. The PowerPoint presentation that was on the screen behind him during the press conference is linked at the top of the page, but it was too big for Chrome to launch it online so I made a pdf version you can see here.

Next comes osteoarchaeologist Dr. Jo Appleby’s evidence on forensic analysis of the bones. Her supporting presentation can be downloaded here.

Then Professor Lin Foxhall discusses the historical sources for Richard III’s appearance and character. PowerPoint slides from her presentation are here, but they’re basically a title slide and a blurred pullquote from a medieval source. Not tremendously illuminating.

On to genealogist Professor Kevin Schürer and geneticist Dr. Turi King who explain the importance of locating modern descendants of Richard’s family in order to confirm the identity of the skeleton through DNA testing, the process of sample extraction and the results. Dr. King’s PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here, Professor Schürer’s here.

Those are the presentations I particularly wanted to see because even though they’re only a couple of slides each, they’re packed with information that I couldn’t even begin to read on the live video feed. The comparison of all three mtDNA samples and the list of female descendants from Richard’s sister Anne of York to Michael Ibsen are delicious. EDIT: Professor Schürer’s list of female descendants has a typo. The year of Anne of York’s death was 1476, not 1467. She died in childbirth.

The entire collection of PowerPoint presentations from intro to conclusion is available for download here. I’ve also made a pdf version you can use if your browser balks and you don’t have PowerPoint.

The Channel 4 documentary, The King in the Car Park, will be made available online soon. Keep your eye on this page to find out when. For irritating licensing reasons, the video will only play for viewers in the UK and Ireland. *cough*unlock*cough*

It’s not much to tide you over, but this article from the BBC at least provides a little glimpse at the plastic model of Richard’s face reconstructed from the 3D CT scans of his sculls that was revealed in the documentary. He looks pretty much like he looks in his portraits, perhaps a little younger, with a prominent chin and nose. The model has been unveiled this morning at London’s Society of Antiquaries where it will presumably go on public display.

Far more satisfying is the collection of videos on the University of Leicester’s brand new Richard III site. This is the money video, in which Dr. Jo Appleby walks us through the osteological evidence pointing to Richard and Dr. Turi King explains the process of extracting and comparing the mtDNA:

The science pages are also not to be missed. There are details about the CT scanning, which turns out to have been micro-CT, a far more high resolution technology than the standard CT scan, and about the radiocarbon dating process and results. The osteology pages take you through every part of the skeleton and what the forensics say about it. Be sure to click on all the blue buttons at the top of the page to suck all the marrow, if you’ll pardon the phrase, out of the science. The spine page is my favorite.

Lastly, there are many lovely photos to peruse in the University’s Dropbox account:


Liveblogging the Richard III announcement

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here at this ungodly hour to find out as soon as humanly possible whether the skeleton discovered underneath a Leicester parking lot can be conclusively identified by a combination of DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating and forensic analysis as the remains of King Richard III.

The University of Leicester is livetweeting the press conference. This Is Leicestershire will be posting live updates and pictures on this page. BBC News will have live video feed of the press conference but I don’t have that link yet. EDIT: Here it is! BBC Radio Leicester is carrying the press conference live at 5:00 AM EST and is already on site.

They’ve been broadcasting all their regular programming from the University of Leicester since 1:00 AM EST. Along with the usual weather and traffic updates, there have been live reports from the now-famous parking lot, excited speculation on what this discovery might mean for the city, a retrospective on how the dig came about and progressed, interviews with people involved in the project, capsule histories of the Wars of the Roses with dorky sound effects, “news broadcasts” from the 15th century about pigs being loose and a new passion play being staged at Jewry Wall Roman Ruins, plus lots of songs with “king” in the title. The correspondents and hosts are giddy from excitement and lack of sleep. It’s all so charmingly nerdy, especially when compared to our media outlets which only do pre-shows of sports events, award show red carpets and elections.

Meanwhile, the University of Leicester has released the first picture of the skull found under the parking lot. They’re still not saying whether this is the skull of Richard III, but at this point the hype is so huge if the results are inconclusive they are the cruelest of teases. Also, as soon as the press conference is over they’ll be launching a new website at which URL is a rather large hint. So here is the skull belonging to an unknown person who for want of a better name we’ll call Mr. X III:


4:21 – Each of the researchers will be explaining the results of their examinations and tests, with Dr. Turi King from UL’s Department of Genetics up last. The final conclusion will be announced by Richard Buckley, co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services and dig leader.

4:42 – There’s quite a bit of talk about how Richard III will be Leicester’s Robin Hood. “Nottingham, eat your heart out,” that sort of thing.

4:47 – The panel:
Richard Taylor (RST), Deputy Registrar at the University of Leicester
Richard Buckley (RB), Lead archaeologist
Dr. Jo Appleby (JA), Osteology expert
Professor Lin Foxhall (LF), History expert
Professor Kevin Schürer (KS), Genealogy expert
Dr. Turi King (TK), Genetics expert

4:51 – Experts at the lead table are beginning to take their seats.

4:55 – BBC News video live feed will start in 4 minutes.

5:01 – And we’re on! Professor Sir Robert Burgess starts with an introduction about the research process and how the experts have to lay it all out for us so we can understand the findings.

5:03 – RST: what we’re about to tell you is astonishing. Will be published in academic journals.

5:04 – RB: David Baldwin, a local historian wrote more than two decades ago that he thought the remains of Richard were still buried rather than having been thrown in the Soar.

5:07 – They found evidence of an articulated skeleton almost immediately, within hours of beginning the dig! They just covered it up and kept going because they expected to find multiple human burials and they were trying to find structural evidence of Greyfriars so they knew where they were.

They kept going until they got their bearings and then excavated the skeleton they had found in what they now realized was under the choir stalls.

5:12 First picture of in situ skeleton:

The barbed arrowhead they thought they had found resting between vertebrae is probably an earlier Roman nail.

Body still articulated, but the torso was twisted and the head propped up on top. The hands were crossed at the hip, possibly tied.

Two labs radiocarbon dated samples from rib bones. Found that the individual ate a high protein diet and that he died between 1455 and 1540. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485.

5:15 JA: Individual aged between late 20s and early 30s. Richard III was 32 when he died.

Without scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, but the curvature of the spine would have shortened him considerably, they can’t be sure how much. He had idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis which developed after the age of 10.

The complete spine with clearly visible curvature:

They found 10 wounds to the skeleton, 8 of them on the skull. The large slice on the back of the skull is consistent with a wound inflicted by a halberd. Smaller wounds on the skull shaved off pieces of the skull. They were not fatal and would not have knocked him out, but blood loss could have been considerable. Another wound in the cheek is consistent with a dagger stab wound, not fatal.

It’s unlikely that a person wearing a helmet could have suffered these wounds. The helmet may have been lost, or they may have been inflicted after death as humiliation wounds.

A blade wound to the pelvis, the result of a sword penetrating through the buttocks all the way to the bone.

5:24 – Jo Appelby’s conclusion is that the skeletal evidence as a whole provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III

5:26 – LF: reading contemporary sources on Richard’s looks. He’s described as slight but strong.

5:30 – KS: Three main goals: 1) identify group of living male relatives, 2) verify in documents the maternal line from Anne of York to Michael Ibsen and siblings, 3) identify if possible a second maternal line descent.

5:31 – 1) succeeded, finding three male descendants.

5:32 – 2) were able to find documentary evidence supporting the Anne of York – Ibsen maternal line.

5:33 – 3) succeeded again, finding a second maternal line which allows them to triangulate the mtDNA evidence with the DNA samples from the skeleton. This descendant wishes to remain anonymous.


Too early to confirm the Y-chromosome DNA from the male line of descent.

The mtDNA analysis of both female lines matched each other AND THE SKELETON AND THE SKELETON AND THE SKELETON!


5:38 – RB: Sound academic conclusion from cross-disciplinary research:


5:42 – Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester, thanks the team for their work. Thanks to Phillipa Langley and the Richard III Society without whose vision this would never have happened.


February 8th, a new exhibit will open next to the cathedral telling the story of the search for Richard III.

New guest center at the Victorian school adjacent to the parking lot will be opened next year, coinciding with the re-interment.

5:47 – David Monteith, Canon Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, says they will begin immediately to plan the reburial of King Richard III.

5:48 – Ralph Lee from Channel 4 promoting the documentary airing tonight at 9:00 GMT. Their cameras were there from the beginning. They recorded the discovery of the skeleton, the dig, the lab research. They filmed the DNA results last night. The last scene will be a reconstruction of the skull.

The documentary will not available on Channel 4′s website, at least not yet. :(

5:54 – Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, driving force behind this project from 2009, says at the last minute funding was pulled. A worldwide call for donations stepped in to provide the necessary funds.

She sees this as a vindication of the real Richard III rather than the post-Bosworth smears.

In 2010, the Looking for Richard project commissioned the design of a tomb based on what he would have liked. The Cathedral has accepted the design.

Thanks everyone on the research team and on the Leicester Council who gave up their parking lot to the cause. Sarah Leavitt from Leicester City Council has been a champion of the project. Without her we would not be here today.

6:01 – Q&A from journalists now. The BBC video feed is closed so I’m back on the radio and they’ve stopped covering it for a quick headline newsflash. Annoying.

The body will be buried by the end of August 2014 as required by the Ministry of Justice.

Okay, the radio isn’t really covering this part, so I’m going to sign off. The University of Leicester’s Richard III website is now live. Also, the BBC has an excellent pictorial guide to the bones of the king.


Precious history in Timbuktu library saved from fire

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

I haven’t had the stomach to post about the sickening destruction of cultural heritage that has plagued Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu since it was occupied by the extremist Salafist Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group last spring. It’s been a nightmare, an orgy of demolition akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan, only these guys were targeting Islamic archaeological sites from a different denomination rather than Buddhist ones.

Located at a crossroads of trade, during the Middle Ages, Mali (in particular Timbuktu) was a center of scholarship, art and science, attracting the greatest intellects of the era from all over Africa. Sufi Islam was the dominant branch, and very much unlike today’s Salafist, it took an open-minded approach to pre-Islamic faiths and embraced the variety of cultures – Arabic, African, Berber, Tuareg – that mingled in the cosmopolitan country. Sufi luminaries were buried in mud-brick tombs which gave Timbuktu the moniker “the city of 333 saints.”

Still from video showing Ansar Dine extremists destroying a Sufi shrine in Timbuktu on July 1st, 2012Ansar Dine considers these Sufi shrines idolatrous. As part of its effort to impost strict Sharia law by force, as soon as they took over Timbuktu they started tearing the tombs apart with guns, shovels and pickaxes. At least eight of them were demolished or burned. When the world protested the destruction of these UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ansar Dine made a statement telling them exactly how much they gave a rat’s ass: “We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion.”

There was a great fear that their next target would be the approximately 300,000 manuscripts in an old library building and in the newly built Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu, a storied collection of manuscripts going back to the 12th century written in Arabic and African languages on every topic you can think of from astronomy to math to botany to geography to theology and ever so much more. Even though precious copies of the Koran and other one-of-a-kind Islamic manuscripts were kept in the library, the fate of the Sufi sites proved conclusively that religious scruples wouldn’t stop them from destroying that history either.

Burned manuscripts at Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in Timbuktu, January 29thWhen the French military operation to wrest northern Mali out of Ansar Dine’s control got close to Timbuktu at the end of January, it seemed like the library’s fate was sealed. Ansar Dine forces torched the Ahmed Baba Centre on their way out. News stories reported that hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts were in ashes, an incalculable blow to the history of Timbuktu, Mali, Africa and the world.

It turns out, however, that the librarians and curators were too smart for those barbarians. By the time Ansar Dine beat their hasty and fiery retreat, most of the manuscripts were safely hidden away.

The two sources said that soon after Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu on April 1 in a revolt later hijacked by sharia-observing Islamist radicals, curators and collectors of the manuscripts had started hiding the texts away for safety.

“They shipped them out and distributed them around,” Jeppie said. The Malian source said the manuscripts were concealed “a little bit everywhere,” but he declined to give details.

It would not be the first time that Timbuktu’s inhabitants have had to protect their city’s manuscripts from intruders.

Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and French colonialists.

Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research in TimbuktuConsidering that Ansar Dine enforcers went door-to-door to threaten Timbuktu residents that Sharia was now in effect, keeping their heritage safe and secret was an act of immense collective courage. This Wall Street Journal article has some more details about the cloak and dagger operations to save the precious manuscripts.

There are still some terrible losses. Many bills of sale and other documents from the slave trade were burned, and even the documents that were not burned are so fragile they’re bound to have been damaged by their hasty transportation.

UNESCO is planning to send a mission to document conditions and determine which crises require the most urgent attention. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited Mali on Saturday and met with Malian authorities and French President François Hollande who was also visiting. In collaboration with local experts and community leaders, UNESCO will help rebuild what was damaged and conserve endangered documents.


Mark your calendars: Richard III results on Feb. 4th

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Remember back in the salad days of late August 2012 when a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging a couple of trenches to see if they could locate the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth? Sure, there was some talk of looking for the remains of the king, but it was a goof almost, since nobody in their right mind would believe that the king whose body had reputedly been dragged through the town and thrown into the Soar River during the dissolution of the monasteries 475 years ago was even there to be found, never mind that his location could be pinpointed in a two-week two-trench dig.

Then weird stuff started happening. Everything went right. Things got found, things leading to other things being found and locations pinpointed so that a third trench was dug and the excavation time extended. On September 12th it all came to a (cleaved) head. A press conference was called to announce the discovery of human remains: a male skeleton with scoliosis, perimortem slicing to the back of the head and a barbed arrowhead between two vertebrae of his spine.

The evidence strongly suggested that these were indeed the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king and the last king of England to die in battle, but despite its strength it was still circumstantial. Only DNA can prove beyond any doubt that this is the skeleton of King Richard III, and extracting DNA from archaeological remains is a tricky business. DNA molecules degrade over time, nuclear DNA at twice the rate of mitochondrial DNA, so getting testable samples from a skeleton that has been buried for almost 530 years is not always possible. Even if DNA can be retrieved from protected areas like inside the teeth or the bone, just breathing on it can be enough to contaminate a sample with modern DNA.

Genealogical researchers located someone they think is a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister Anne through the female line. Assuming they’re right, if a clean sample of mtDNA were extracted from the skeleton it could be compared to that of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. To ensure the best possible conditions, the University of Leicester lab is testing the modern DNA while a laboratory that specializes in sampling and testing ancient DNA is extracting the DNA from the skeleton.

That’s not all. The skeleton has also been given a CT scan so that a 3D digital image of the man can be constructed similar to the one that produced the face of King Tut in this post. Researchers have collected samples of the dental calculus from his teeth to find out more about his diet and health, as per the technique described in this post with the extremely gross picture. The skeleton is being radiocarbon dated in two separate labs. Forensic pathologists are examining the bones to hopefully determine the cause of death, and experts in medieval weaponry are lending their expertise to narrow down what sharp implement might have caused the damage to the back of the skull.

At the September press conference, the team estimated that the DNA results could take as long as 12 weeks. Twelve weeks ended on December 5th, but no results were forthcoming. There were rumors swirling about that the University of Leicester was deliberately holding back evidence so that they could release it in conjunction with an upcoming documentary on the discovery to air on Britain’s Channel 4, rumors the University strenuously denied.

Well, the wait is almost over now. On Monday, February 4th, at 10:00 AM GMT, the University of Leicester will reveal the results of their tests and investigation at a press conference. The University won’t be streaming it live, but press outlets will be present and cameras will be rolling, so we’ll probably be able to follow via BBC livestream like last time.

I was up at the crack of dawn, high on nerdrenaline, to liveblog the last press conference, so as long as there’s video to follow, you know I will be this time too. Meanwhile, there’s a Google + group you can join to keep abreast of all Richard III-related news.

Oh, and that documentary which the University of Leicester was definitely not holding back information to be in sync with just happens to be airing on Monday evening. Richard III: The King in the Car Park debuts on Channel 4 at 9:00 PM GMT.


Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon reunited

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

For the first time since their world-altering acrimonious divorce, King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon have been reunited in painted form in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The early portrait of Henry VIII, painted around 1520 by an unknown Anglo-Dutch artist, has been in the NPG since 1969. The one of Catherine, on the other hand, is a relatively new discovery.

In 2008, Gallery staff went to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain survey. They noticed a portrait of a woman in 1520s dress hanging in private sitting room. The subject was purportedly Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, but the style of clothing and facial features were more reminiscent of Catherine of Aragon.

The Gallery borrowed the painting to analyze it further in their conservation lab. They found that the original portrait had been considerably altered. Under raking light (bright light held at an angle against a surface) the black background was revealed to be an overlay covering what had once been a patterned background painted to look like damask silk. An X-ray clearly indicated that the black overlay was also covering up the veil attached to the headdress. An ultra violet digital photograph showed that the face and chest had been considerably repainted in past restorations. The eyebrows were strengthened, the nose narrowed with shadows, white added to the eyes and a curvy brown line painted between the lips to separate them.

The analysis confirmed that this was not Catherine Parr, but rather a portrait of Catherine of Aragon from the 1520s. With that in mind, conservators worked painstakingly to remove the restorations. They removed the black overlay from the background to reveal the dark green damask pattern, a style very similar to the one in the background of the 1520 portrait of Henry VIII. They were also able to clean and remove the alterations to her face in stages. During the process they discovered diagonal lines of paint loss so strong that they would require the judicious application of translucent glazes to replace what was gone. From the strength of the paint loss and its focus on the face, experts believe the portrait was probably damaged deliberately.

The frame also received some tender loving care from Gallery conservators. It’s a rare thing, the original engaged oak frame that was constructed around the panel before the portrait was painted, a sort of combo easel/frame. Even rarer was the survival of some of the original decorative finish underneath layers of paint and gilding applied over the centuries. Conservators were able to recover much of the original bands of color painted blue with azurite and red with vermillion.

The finished product made a fine companion piece to the 1520s Henry VIII portrait. That’s not to say they were originally a paired set, but they’re from the same period, done in the same style and the same size. They’re examples of types of portraits that would have been copied and spread around, sometimes together, sometimes individually. If these two were ever together or at least paired with versions of each other, the last time was almost 500 years ago, before Catherine was banished from court in 1531.

Dr Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London says: “It is wonderful to have the opportunity to display this important early portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the Gallery. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were married for nearly twenty four years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England.”

Henry and Catherine are reunited on the wall of Room 1. The exhibit is free to visitors and will run from January 25th to September 1st, 2013.


Vikings left Greenland for cultural, social reasons?

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Vikings from Norway, Iceland and Denmark began to colonize Greenland in the late 10th century. Those were the halcyon days of the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250 A.D.), when pastures were green and farmland fertile. The Norse brought cattle with them and started farms in hundreds of settlements on the southern fjords. They prospered at first, founding vibrant communities with dozens of churches.

The good times started cooling off in the 13th century as the fertile warmth was replaced by the frigid storms of the Little Ice Age. For years historians have thought that the colder temperatures had resulted in crop failure and the death of livestock which in turn decimated the Norse colony. Settlers died from famine and disease and whoever was left beat a hasty retreat.

An archaeological study by a team of Danish and Canadian researchers proffers a new reason for the demise of the Norse settlements in Greenland: they chose to leave in orderly fashion in order to sustain their cultural identity and live in the style to which they did not want to become unaccustomed. The bone evidence and material remains suggest that the Viking settlers were not starving or ill, that they left the island deliberately taking all their valuables with them. It wasn’t a matter of life or death. It was a matter of the life they wanted to live no longer being possible.

The Norse settlers had lived for two centuries eating primarily food they cultivated and beef they raised, only supplementing their diet with seafood. Their aim in moving to Greenland was to get some land of their own to farm and ranch. Building materials, wood, iron, were supplied by trade with their homelands. The plan worked as long as the warm period held.

With the onset of colder temperatures, the pastures couldn’t support the cattle over the long winters. For a few decades ranchers tried replacing the cattle with pigs, but by 1300 the pigs were gone too. Sheep and goats lasted longer, but ranching and farming as the Norse practiced them simply could not sustain life in the new climate. There is no evidence that they even tried to keep the cattle alive using a starvation diet, a practice that was thoroughly established by their ancestors in cold climes and remained in use until recently.

Seafood, which had supplied no more than 30% of their diet in the warm days, shot up to 80% in the 14th century. Most of that 80% was seal, a reliable supply of which could be secured during the animals’ yearly migration stops on the island. They also had to use seals and fish to feed whatever livestock they had left.

Trade shriveled up too. The market for walrus tusks and seal skins, the goods the Greenland colonists had to trade, bottomed out. Ships came less frequently until by the middle of the 14th century there was no regular trade between the Norse settlements of Greenland and the motherlands of Norway and Iceland. Without reliable trade they had to hope for a random ship to stop by to renew their supply of iron or wood.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, that was not what they meant at all. That was not it, at all.

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says [National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette] Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

The young people of childbearing age left first. Archaeologists found almost no skeletons of young women from the late period of Norse settlement. The documentary evidence supports that pattern. The wedding of Thorstein Olafsson, a lad from Iceland, and Sigrid Björnsdottir, a local girl, was held on September 14th, 1408, in Greenland’s Hvalsey Church. We know this because when they moved to Iceland, they had to prove to the local bishop that they had been married in a proper sanctioned church ceremony. Those documents are the last records we have of the Norse settlers in Greenland.

Everyone else left shortly thereafter. The fact that no precious objects have been unearthed anywhere in the archaeological record of Norse Greenland indicates that they moved, packing all their treasures, rather than being devastated by disease, natural disaster or starvation. The bone evidence confirms that there was no more illness and hunger among the late Nordic population of Greenland than among comparable populations in Scandinavia.


16th c. locket found by 3-year-old on display at BM

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

On Sunday May 17th, 2009, three-year-old James Hyatt, his father and grandfather were exploring a field in Hockley, Essex. James went first, using his grandfather’s metal detector. After five minutes of scanning, the machine alerted.

“It went beep, beep, beep. Then we dug into the mud. There was gold there,” James, now four, said.

“We didn’t have a map. Only pirates use treasure maps,” he stated.

James is indeed wise in the way of treasure. After digging down eight inches into the soil, they pulled out an engraved locket which turned out to be reliquary from the early 1500s. As a gold object more than 300 years old, the locket was declared official treasure trove under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act at a coroner’s inquest.

When it made the news in late 2010, there was much excited speculation that the discovery was so rare it could be worth millions of pounds. It is rare — one of only four similar pieces known — but the market value turned out to be considerably lower. The British Museum acquired it for £70,000 ($110,000) and the sum was split between the Hyatt family and the owner of the land on which the locket was found. In terms of history, however, it’s a million dollar discovery which is why it’s now on display in the British Museum’s Medieval Europe gallery.

The diamond-shaped pendant is engraved on the front with the image of a female saint, probably Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, holding the cross. Dashes along the length and width of the cross are meant to indicate wood grain. The saint stands on a checkerboard pattern tile floor while on either side of her and the cross are floral tendrils.

On the back side is a veritable shower of blood droplets falling out of and over four incisions and a cut heart symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. That back piece is actually a panel that slides out along grooves cut into the sides. Inside would have been kept a small relic. Given the imagery on the pendant, the contents were probably thought to be a piece of the True Cross which according to legend Saint Helena found on her trip to the Holy Land from 326 to 328 A.D. Helena is often depicted holding the cross because of her famous finds.

The back didn’t open when the reliquary was first found. The bottom was damaged, pressed inwards so it was derailed from its guide grooves. Marilyn Hockey, Head of Metals Conservation in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research was able to correct this by painstakingly prying the back up from the bottom working under a microscope to lift the panel with a miniature probe.

When the back finally slid out, conservators found (drumroll) a few flax fibers locally grown. Sorry, no piece of the True Cross. Examination of the fibers with a scanning electron microscope identified fragments of the outer stems of flax. These are unprocessed and would not be present if the flax fibers were from threads of linen fabric. They’re root hairs, basically, which could well have gotten in there during the pendant’s sojourn underground.

On three sides of the of the pendant are inscribed the names of the Three Wise Men — Iaspar (Caspar), Melcior (Melchiore), Baltasar (Balthazar) — in a lovely Lombardic script. The fourth side has a floral tendril similar to the ones on either side of Helena.

The pendant is 1 inch wide and 1.3 inches long which makes its rich decoration even more unusual and difficult to produce. Experts believe the engravings were likely enameled when the piece was new. That would have given the object a rich combination of colors on top of the precious metal, a popular style in late Medieval jewelry. Only a very wealthy person could have afforded to buy such an expensive symbol of their pious dedication to the blood and wounds of Christ.