Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

First paper on Richard III dig full of info about grave, site

Friday, May 24th, 2013

The University of Leicester archaeological team that found the skeletal remains of King Richard III has published its first peer-reviewed paper on the discovery in the journal Antiquity which has generously made the entire thing available in pdf form here. Co-authored by lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, osteoarchaeology expert Jo Appleby, geneticist Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan and historian Lin Foxhall, the paper presents the archaeological evidence unearthed at the site and the basic skeletal evidence for the body being that of King Richard III. Jo Appleby and Turi King will publish separate papers respectively focusing on the osteological evidence and the DNA evidence. There was grumbling from some in the scientific community at the time of the press conference reveal that peer-review should have come before the splashy announcement, so these papers are long-awaited.

The news stories about the paper are mainly interested in the new details it reveals about the grave, but before you even get to the report of the excavation, there’s all kinds of fascinating information about the background of the project, the history of the site and the layout and construction of the Grey Friars church. So this here is a rundown of the parts that stood out to me. Read the whole paper, though, because it’s a rare chance to have a scholarly publication allow free access and it’s eminently readable.

This excavation was an unusual collaboration that brought together amateur history buffs (Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society) with professional archaeologists and city officials. The Richard III lobbied for years to get the excavation done and they funded it; the University of Leicester archaeologists were willing to take the plunge despite the insane (from an academic perspective) dream underpinning the dig; the city was directly involved in that the council had to give up their parking lot for the excavation. This unique combination ensured the questions the excavation sought to answer would include a strong non-academic component.

What is somewhat different from the ways in which archaeological professionals and amateurs have generally worked together is that in this case the non-specialists played a role in shaping the intellectual frameworks of the project, although the final project design (including how questions could appropriately be asked of the evidence), and the execution of the project in practical terms remained in the hands of the archaeologists. Grey Friars offers a case study for addressing the issues of how to formulate multiple sets of research questions and aims, and how different kinds of partners can accommodate each other’s questions.

The tremendous, nearly unbelievable success of this collaboration may inspire future such endeavors. There are so many amateur historical societies, it doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as finding the missing remains of a king of England. I think it’s a cool prospect to see small, local subjects that aren’t likely to scare up much funding interest being investigated when passionate non-professionals work together with professionals and governmental authorities.

The paper goes into depth about what we can and can’t deduce about the structure of the church from the trenches dug. This was such a short excavation they only scratched the surface, but it’s still remarkable how much they found in three short trenches. For instance Trench 3 encountered a section of a buttress and a wall across that reveal the east end of the church where the choir was was a large, tall building 34 feet wide. Inside that structure archaeologists found three phases of flooring, steps, walls and three graves, one of which held a stone coffin.

None of the graves were excavated due to time constraints, but the archaeological team has applied for permission to return in July and exhume the stone sarcophagus. They believe they know who’s buried there: Sir William Moton, a knight who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362, 123 years before Richard’s death in 1485. They’ll also expand the dig onto the property of the former Alderman Newton Grammar School which is slated to become the new Richard III heritage center. Sir William’s tomb, assuming it is his, will be part of the new center.

An interesting piece of Reformation-era information: none of the graves found at Grey Friars showed any signs of having been disturbed during the dissolution of the monastery. The building was razed very thoroughly and much of its masonry appropriated probably to build new structures, but the destruction stopped at floor level. A little residual concern for the Catholic dead, perhaps?

An interesting piece of architectural information: stains of brick dust were found on the eastern end of the church that indicate the church may have been constructed or faced in brick.

This would have given the building a striking appearance, with off-white limestone tracery windows framed in red brick; quite a contrast to the pale grey sandstone walls of the cloistral buildings. If the eastern end of the church was partially built of brick, this would place it among the earliest medieval brick buildings in Leicestershire.

Now on to the burial details. Unlike the other graves unearthed in Trench 3, Richard’s grave in Trench 1 is too short and irregularly dug. It’s a lozenge shape with a scooped concave base and sloping sides, not a clean vertical-sided rectangle. It’s not a poverty issue, although by the time of the dissolution the handful of Franciscan monks remaining at Grey Friars subsisted entirely on alms. The much poorer parish church in Leicester has neatly dug graves of proper size with coffins.

Because the grave was too short, the body was placed on one side of the grave, its torso pressing against the northern side. THis was probably because the body was handed by one man down to another man standing in the grave and taking up space. The position of the body and legs suggest there was no shroud or coffin keeping the limbs swaddled together, nor where there any remains of clothing, jewelry, any adornments.

It seems his nude body was lowered into the grave feet first and then torso and head which is why his head was propped up against the side of the grave and was so much higher than the body that Jo Appleby thought it was from a different skeleton at first. The hands were crossed at the wrist and placed awkwardly above the right pelvis. This may have been how the diggers arranged him after burial, but given that there is no evidence that they took the time to arrange his body at all, it’s more likely that his wrists were bound when he was interred. The hastiness of this procedure makes sense when you remember that by the time it was buried, Richard’s abused body had been on public display for days. In August. He cannot have been a pleasant sight or smell.

If you have the chance, the University of Leicester is hosting a Richard III Family Open Day on June 29th. There are kid-friendly family activities, and best of all, nerd-friendly nerdy activities like three hour drop-in sessions at the Genetics and Archaeology Departments, multi-disciplinary mini-lectures like “What Were the Chances of Finding Richard III?” delivered by the Math Department, and “Richard III in History and Drama” by the School of English. The keynote lecture will be three blissful hours of Professor Lin Foxhall talking about “The Discovery of Richard III.”

I wanna gooooooo. :love:


Bored Viking carved outline of his foot on ship deck

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

The carved outline of foot found on the removable deck planking of the late 9th century Viking Gokstad Ship bears mute witness to how at least one crew member passed the time during a long sea voyage. There are two foot outlines: a right foot carved across two planks and a weaker outline of a left foot on a single plank. The deck was made out of moveable pine planks that could easily be lifted if the crew needed to access the small hold for cargo storage or to bail out water. When the ship was first excavated in 1880, the planks were found scattered so we don’t know if the feet were originally next to each other or if they were carved independently.

Even though the ship was excavated 133 years ago and has been in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum since 1932, researchers only noticed the footprints in 2009 when moving the loose floorboards. Museum storage manager Hanne Lovise Aannestad thinks the carving was the work of a bored youth, much like kids these days might carve their initials into their desks.

“My guess is that some time or another a person was bored and simply traced his foot with his knife. It’s a kind of an ‘I was here’ message,” says Aannestad. [...]

Aannestad has measured one of her own feet against a tracing of the carved outline – because no one can actually step on the fragile floorboard, of course. The foot was smaller than hers, and even though people were generally shorter in the Viking days, this was probably a little person.

“It could have been a young man. People were treated as adults much earlier in those days. They took off sooner than we would allow young boys to do today,” says Aannestad.

They should add the shoe outline to the exhibit so visitors, especially kids, can compare their feet to that of a real Viking who lived and traveled in that ship 1100 years ago.

The foot carving is not the first time a young man established a lasting connection to this ship. It was first discovered on Gokstad farm near the town of Sandefjord on the west side of the Oslo Fjord in 1880 by the two teenage sons of the farm’s owner. The hill was called Kongshaugen (meaning “The King’s Mound”), and one day the boys decided to see if the legends that a king was buried there with all his treasure might be true. Just after New Year’s when the ground was still frozen, the highly motivated youths climbed the hill and started digging. Although the name suggests the hill was a burial mound for royalty, there are many mounds named Kongshaugen that turn out to be just hills. This one turned out to have an elaborate Viking ship burial within.

The news reached the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments and its then-president Nicolay Nicolayse managed to stop the amateur dig. He returned in the Spring and began a proper excavation from the side instead of the top down. You can read his 1892 account of the dig here. What he found was an oak clinker-built ship 76 feet long and 17 feet wide with 16 oar holes on each side of the hull. There was room for more than the 34 rowers, however. The ship’s maximum capacity was around 70. A scrap of white wool with red stripes sewn on was found in the front of the ship, possibly a fragment of the square sail.

There was a birch bark-covered wooden burial chamber built at the stern of the ship behind the mast. Inside the burial chamber was a raised bed with the incomplete skeleton of an adult male, a man in his 40s around 5’9″ whose leg bones showed the marks of the cutting blows that probably killed him in battle. Blows to the leg were a common fighting technique in Viking times. Fragments of silk and gold thread stuck in the joists of the roof indicate the chamber was once draped with expensive textiles.

There were grave goods, although none of the gold, silver, jewelry, precious accessories and armaments that usually accompanied a Viking ship burial. Those had been looted, probably not long after the burial, but plenty of archaeological wonders remained: wooden furniture, a game board with horn pieces, fish hooks, a sledge, a tent, a harness tackle made of iron, lead and gilded bronze, fish hooks, kitchen equipment, six beds and 64 shields. There were also three smaller boats in pieces and the remains of many animals (eight dogs, two goshawks, two peacocks and 12 horses).

The ship and artifacts were removed to the University of Oslo where they were studied, conserved and stored until the Viking Ship Museum room was built to house them. Since this was before the days of PEG and giant freeze dryers, the wood dried during excavation and conservation. Restorers steamed the planks to shape them back into their original curved positions and put the ship back together. The wood that was too damaged to subject to the process was replaced with modern planks.

It wasn’t until 1993 that dendrochronological (tree ring) analysis narrowed down the date. The timber that built the ship was felled in 890. The ship was used for sea voyages for at least a decade — we know this because the oar ports in the upper hull are worn and now because smart-alecky teenagers carved their feet into the deck — before being retired for the burial of what had to be a very important person. A possible candidate for the deceased is Olaf Geirstad-Alf, a king of Vestfold of the Swedish Yngling dynasty, who according to the Norse saga Heimskringla died at the end of the 9th century.

Although the ship and grave contents have been much seen and analyzed since their discovery, the site itself has been somewhat neglected. As of 2009, researchers from the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo have returned to Gokstad to explore the mound in the light of our current understanding of Viking history and culture and using the latest technologies.

Up to now, the find has had an apparently isolated position, both as archaeological monument in the landscape, and as cultural historical phenomenon. Although sporadic archaeological investigations and chance finds since the 1880′s have demonstrated that the surroundings around Kongshaugen are rich in other contemporary structures, there has never been an attempt to investigate and analyze the landscape surrounding the mound as a whole. And likewise it has never been tried to look at the entire Gokstad find – the mound, the animals, the objects and the deceased – as a single, monumental manifestation by those who once created it, and to decipher what it was that they intended to accomplish. At the core of the Gokstad revitalised project thus stands the goal to create a context around the burial, and to give an archaeological answer to the question Who was the Gokstad man?


Remains of early church found under Lincoln Castle

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating Lincoln Castle as part of a major refurbishment project have unearthed the remains of a stone church and burials pre-dating the Norman invasion and the construction of the castle. A total of eight skeletons have been found thus far, all buried in the east-west alignment that is typical of Christian burials. The remains of walls and flooring suggest this was a religious structure in which people of high status would be buried rather than a cemetery. Pottery found at the same level dates to the 10th century, which means the church and burials are around a century older than Lincoln Castle, which was one of the first castles built in England by William the Conqueror in 1068.

The spot 10 feet under ground level was being surveyed before construction of an elevator shaft when archaeologists encountered multiple skeletons and two stone walls. Further excavation in the small space — it’s approximately 10 by 10 feet — revealed another skeleton which had once been wrapped in a finely woven fabric buried in a niche in the foundations of the oldest wall. The textile has long since disintegrated, but the imprint of it is still visible in the wall’s mortar. This unusual burial within a wall suggests the remains may be the relics of a saint or august venerated personage of some kind who was inhumed in the foundations as a votive deposit to sanctify and dedicate the building.

They also found a limestone sarcophagus with the lid mortared in place. Archaeologist Cecily Spall of FAS Heritage was able to peer inside the coffin using an endoscopic camera and saw a complete articulated skeleton within. Anglo-Saxons didn’t, as a rule, make sarcophagi. This is probably a Roman one that was re-used. That was a not uncommon practice for early English Christians in the centuries after the collapse of Roman Britain, but it’s highly unusual to see a stone sarcophagus in a late Saxon burial.

Judging from the dimensions and location of the walls, Spall believes the church was about 23 feet by 13 feet, which if accurate, would place the sarcophagus right in the middle of the structure. The sweet spot, if you will, where only the most important people would be buried. The other skeletons were buried in wooden coffins, less dramatic than the sarcophagus, but still an indication of wealth and rank.

It’s a highly significant find: an unrecorded church with high status burials underneath Lincoln Castle. The earliest Christian church was built in Lincoln in the 7th century by one Blaecca whom Bede describes (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book II, Chapter XVI) as the praefectus Lindocolinae civitatis, the main city official whose high title may indicate he was related to the royal family in addition to having been appointed city magistrate by King Edwin of Northumbria. That church, named St. Paul in the Bail after Saint Paulinus who brought Christianity to Lincoln and converted Blaecca and his family, was built in the former Roman forum near what is now the northeastern corner of the castle.

That church was demolished in the 14th century, but there is evidence that a body buried in the 7th century church was removed in the 10th century and buried somewhere else. Until now historians have assumed it was reburied in the late Saxon church underneath the 11th century Lincoln Cathedral, but perhaps that somewhere is else was the small but noble-packed church on the site of the future castle.

The skeletons will be analyzed by osteologists to determine their age, sex, place of birth, diet, lifestyle and possibly their cause of death. They will also be radiocarbon dated. After the scientific examination, the remains will go on display at The Collection archaeological museum in Lincoln. Meanwhile, visitors are welcome to visit the castle and observe the excavation work.

Lincoln Castle is undergoing an ambitious £19.9 million ($30 million) expansion of its visitor facilities. The walls are being repaired complete with disabled access (hence the elevator shaft) so people can walk the full circuit of them. There will be a new visitors center and a vault that will house Lincoln’s copy of the original Runnymede Magna Carta, one of only four known to exist. The hope is construction will be completed in time for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015.


Pope Celestine V was not killed by a nail in the skull

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Celestine V’s papacy was doomed from the start. Born Pietro Angelerio in Sicily, from his early 20s until old age he was an ascetic hermit who lived in a succession of remote caves on top of mountains and modeled his life after John the Baptist. He founded the Celestine monastic order whose rule was based on his own strict practices of hair shirts and bread-and-water fasts, but left it to somebody else to run so he could retire to his beloved mountain-top cave. He was only dislodged from there very much against his will when the cardinals declared him Pope in 1294.

That was the last thing he wanted. The problem was the cardinals had been trying for two years to decide who should be pope after the death of Nicholas IV in 1292, but divisions between Guelph and Ghibelline factions and rivalries between the great Roman families of the Orsini and the Colonna (out of the 11 cardinals, three were Orsini, two Colonna and one, Benedetto Gaetani, Colonna-affiliated) had caused a seemingly unbreakable stalemate. At that time there was no conclave locking them in the Vatican until the decision was made, so two years of dithering were entirely comfortable. Pietro sent them a stern letter telling them God had told him that if they didn’t elect a Pope in four months, His wrathful vengeance would fall upon them. Much to his horror, their response was to elect him Pope.

At first he categorically refused and even tried to run away, but he was 79 years old and 200,000 people had flocked to his mountain after the news broke. Finally a finally a delegation of cardinals and two kings (the Angevin King Charles II of Naples and his son, King Charles I Martel of Hungary) convinced him to don the mitre. On August 29th, 1294, almost two months after his election, Pietro was crowned Pope in L’Aquila and became Celestine V.

He was awful at it. Charles II hadn’t climbed that mountain just to pay his respects; he was looking to secure himself a pet Pope and secure him he did. Celestine never entered the Papal States, never went to Rome. He moved from L’Aquila, then a territory of the Kingdom of Naples, to Naples proper. He lived in a spare room in the Castel Nuovo — he had a tiny cell built so he could be properly eremitical during Advent — and appointed everyone who wanted anything to whatever they wanted, even if he’d already appointed someone else. For Charles he created 12 new cardinals, seven of them French and three or five of them Neapolitans. That completely altered the makeup of the college, giving the French massive new weight which would directly lead to the disaster of the Western Schism and the Avignon papacy 80 years later.

After a mere five months on the job, Celestine couldn’t take it anymore. He asked canon law expert Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani whether a pope could abdicate and Gaetani replied that he could, so long as he promulgated a decree saying that he could. On December 13th, 1294, Celestine V decreed that he was out of there. Eleven days later, the college of cardinals assembled in Naples and elected Benedetto Gaetani the new pope. He took the name Boniface VIII and hightailed it to Rome and out from under Charles II’s control.

Celestine headed back to his mountain top but he didn’t make it. The abdication was contentious, and there were factions within the Church and in the temporal world who Boniface feared might attempt to install Pietro as an anti-pope. While still in Naples, Boniface ordered Celestine to be taken to Rome. The old man, remarkably spry considering his age, hair shirt, the chain he wrapped around his body and his only eating on Sundays, managed to escape. He was captured and escaped again. He tried to leave the country but a storm forced his ship ashore in Vieste, in Apuglia, the spur of Italy’s boot. There he was captured yet again and this time Boniface dispatched him to the Castle of Fumone in the Campagna region.

By all accounts, this imprisonment was not a gentle one. Even for a man with his taste for the Spartan, Celestine’s cell was tiny, so narrow that the two younger monks who accompanied him got sick. He died 10 months later, on May 19th, 1296. The circumstances of his death were immediately seen as suspicious. Boniface was accused of having had the old man killed to remove the potential anti-pope with undeniable finality. His enemies got their revenge in the end by having Celestine canonized a saint in 1313.

Pietro’s body was moved repeatedly after death, finally finding a permanent resting place in the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, although it didn’t get to rest easily. The silver coffin he was laid in was stolen in 1529; a new one was stolen in 1799; his remains were stolen in 1988 but found two days later, and in 2009, the glass casket that held his remains in public view was buried under the rubble of the church during the earthquake that devastated L’Aquila.

For hundreds of years, a square hole in Pietro’s skull was considered evidence that he had been murdered by a nail driven through his head. Now pathologists at the San Salvatore Hospital’s in L’Aquila can confirm that the nail hole was definitely not the cause of death. Dr. Luca Ventura, son of the pathologist who last examined Celestine’s remains after the 1988 theft, studied the bones.

“[O]ur analysis found no trace of the murder engineered by Boniface. On the contrary, we can say beyond doubt that Celestine wasn’t alive when the lesion was made.”

According to the researcher, the morphology of the lesion clearly shows it was produced on a skeletonized skull. Most likely, the hole was made with a pointed, metallic object during one of the many reburials of Celestine’s bones. [...]

“We can’t establish the real cause of death,” Ventura said. “A previous research carried test for heavy metal poisoning with negative results.” [...] “Contemporary sources cite pneumonia and a possible hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body),” Ventura said.

That doesn’t let Boniface off the hook. Even if he didn’t put a hit out on him — and we still don’t know if Celestine was killed by some other means — Boniface is responsible for walling up an sickly old man in a tortuously cramped castle cell. Osteological evidence indicates Celestine was 5’5″ tall, had chronic sinusitis, parodontopathy (a chronic bacterial infection of the gums), vertebral arthritis and Schmorl’s nodes, herniations of vertebral discs probably caused by heavy labor done as a youth. It’s impressive he lasted 10 months, all things considered.

Researchers at L’Aquila University took the opportunity to do a laser scan on the skull so they could make an accurate facial reconstruction. There’s a practical reason for this reconstruction beyond just curiosity. When on display, Celestine’s remains are clothed and his skull face covered by a wax mask. The mask wasn’t a likeness of the saint, however, but rather that of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the Archbishop of L’Aquila from 1941 to 1950. With the new facial reconstruction, artists were able to make a handsome silver funerary mask that is an accurate likeness of the face it now covers.


Roman cemetery found under Leicester car park

Monday, May 6th, 2013

At this point, Leicester should probably just become a pedestrian-only city and tear up every patch of tarmac they have. The archaeological unit of the University of Leicester has made another unusual find under a city parking lot: a Roman-era cemetery that includes both pagan and Christian burials. Surveying the small site at the corner of Oxford Street and Newarke Street slated for future development, archaeologists unearthed 13 sets of human remains of mixed age and sex. Some of them were buried east to west in a supine position, a traditional Christian style of burial, whole others were buried north to south on their sides with grave goods in the pre-Christian tradition. The burials date to around 300 A.D.

The area, now in the historic center of Leicester, was in Roman times 142 yards outside the south gate of the city walls. By Roman custom, all burials took place outside the perimeter to ensure the dead would not pollute the living. Cemeteries would grow outside the city, usually near major roads to ensure easy access for the families to return to the graves regularly for ritual libations and commemorative feasts.

Indeed, the cemetery extends considerably past this one parking lot. Land on Newarke Street to the east and north of the lot has been excavated before and Roman burials were discovered, so archaeologists were not surprised to find more bodies under the asphalt, but the previously uncovered burials east and north of this one were all Christian. This is the first mixed section found.

Two burials are especially strong examples of their diverse religions.

“One in particular appears to have been buried in a Christian tradition, facing east and wearing a polished jet finger ring on their left hand which has a possible early Christian Iota-Chi monogram etched onto it, taking the initial letters from the Greek for Jesus Christ. If so this would represent rare evidence for a personal statement of belief from this period.

“In contrast a nearby and probably near contemporary grave appeared to indicate very different beliefs. This grave had a north-south orientation, with the body laid on its side in a semi-foetal position, with the head removed and placed near the feet alongside two complete pottery jars that would have held offerings for the journey to the afterlife. This would seem to be a very pagan burial, so it is possible from the variety of burials found that the cemetery catered for a range of beliefs that would have been important to people living in Leicester at this time.”

The digging is done, but the learning has just begun as the artifacts and bones are now beginning the process of cleaning and analysis. Once the finds have been cleaned and stabilized, archaeologists and other scientists will run a variety tests to determine the age and sex of the remains and any possible cause of death writ in the bones. Isotope analysis on the teeth will give us information on how they lived — their diet, where they came from — and osteological examination will tell us what kind of work stress their bodies were under, how well-nourished they were, how healthy. The team also took soil samples from the abdominal areas of the skeletons just in case some ancient digestive tract parasites could be gleaned from them.

The Roman burials were the most exciting find, but they weren’t the only ones. Remains of a medieval suburb were unearthed, including a 12th-13th century quarry, cesspits and garbage dumps that were once dug in people’s backyards. Those pits, as unglamorous as they may be, are replete with archaeological gems in the form of pottery fragment, bone, poop and all kinds of discarded day-to-day objects that can tell us a great deal about the daily life of medieval Leicester. Archaeologists also found a 17th century ditch that was part of the city’s defensive fortifications during the English Civil War.


Seoul’s 14th c. South Gate restored after 2008 arson

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

The Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, a wooden pagoda-style gate built in 1398 to serve as the main southern entrance to the walled city of Seoul, will officially reopen on Saturday, May 4th, after five years of painstaking restoration following a devastating fire.

On 8:40 PM on Sunday, February 11th, 2008, a man climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate, poured paint thinner on the floor and set it on fire with a disposable lighter. He quickly climbed back down and fled, leaving behind unused bottles of paint thinner, a backpack, disposable lighters and the ladder. Firefighters were on the scene promptly, but there was some confusion about whether the fire was still burning and the Cultural Heritage Administration had warned the crews to proceed with caution so as not to damage the ancient structure. When the conflagration blew up again, it was too large to put out immediately. By the end of the five hour battle to put out the blaze, the gate had collapsed and was a smoldering pile of wreckage.

A suspect was apprehended the next day. A search of his home found a can of paint thinner and leather gloves used in the arson and he confessed immediately, pleading the public’s forgiveness. Apparently he destroyed this ancient and beautiful monument because he was mad at the government for ignoring a petition he filed complaining that property developers had not paid him proper compensation for land that had been expropriated to build an apartment complex. A four page screed on the topic was also found at his home by police.

He was 69 when he committed this crime, hardly an impetuous youth, and it wasn’t the first he set fire to a historical monument. He was convicted in April of 2006 for setting a fire that burned down part of UNESCO World Heritage site Changgyeong Palace in Seoul. In an example of justice gone very wrong indeed, he was given a suspended 18-month jail sentence and a fine of a few thousand dollars. He was convicted of the arson of Namdaemun in October of 2008. The law learned too late from its mistake, but at least this time he got 10 years in jail, none of them suspended. Let’s hope he’s too old to climb ladders when he gets out.

The destruction of the Namdaemun, officially named Sungnyemun, or The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, was a devastating blow to the country. Seoul has lost a great many of its historic monuments to modernization, occupation and war. This ancient gate, one of four built along the walls protecting Seoul just six years after the city became the capital of the then-new Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910), was the oldest wooden structure in the city. It was given the formal designation of National Treasure Number One in 1962 during a previous restoration to repair damage from the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945). It was only opened to the public for the first time since the occupation in 2006.

As horrific as the devastation was, there was still a fair amount of recoverable material from the site, enough to support a restoration. Authorities thankfully had made detailed architectural plans 182 pages long of the gate before opening it to the public in 2006, so restorers had accurate measurements and construction details to go on. However, given the opportunity to start from scratch, the government decided to restore the gate to its original form, rebuilding walls destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation and using only traditional construction methods. Instead of the modern paint and tiles employed during the restoration of the 1960s, this restoration would use only hand-made roof tiles fired in traditional kilns and natural paints, which had to be imported from Japan because there are no traditional paint manufacturers left in Korea, for the dancheong, the gloriously colorful decorative painting. Carpenters and stonemasons would use no power tools. It was hammers and chisels all the way.

Before the first hammer could strike, historians spent two years researching how the gate had looked originally. Surviving workers from the 1961 restoration were consulted for their memories of what had been changed. Craftsmen worked painstakingly to salvage every last part of the burned structure. Bent nails were heated and straightened one at a time at a rate of 50 to 70 a day. One team identified and tagged each piece of burned wood using radio frequency identification to find whatever could be reused and to collect more information about how they had once been put together. They recovered an incredible total of more than 60,000 original wooden pieces to reuse during the restoration. The 68 stone animals on the roof were pieced back together from fragments.

What could not be reused was recreated using materials as close to the original as possible. Pine wood from old growth trees, very rare in Korea today, was located so there would be time to fell the trees and cure them properly before using them. People flocked to donate pines from their property, so many that experts had their pick of the most noble pines left in the country. They ultimately chose 167 trees from 12 locations, including 20 trees from the Jungyeong Tomb in the city of Samcheok, the source of the pines used by the royal family during the Joseon Period. The total weight tally for the project was 26 tons of pinewood.

The roof tiles were almost obliterated by the fire, but 95% of them were factory-made versions installed during the 1961 restoration. All 23,369 of the new clay roof tiles were produced using traditional methods which result in a lighter weight, unique tile. This was no mean feat. According to traditional tile maker Han Hyung-joon of Jaewajang, who bears the outstanding title of Intangible Cultural Asset No. 91, there are only three kilns left in South Korea that produce traditional tiles. Making thousands and then shipping them to Seoul was tricky because the tiles can easily be cracked by temperature changes and damaged during transportation.

Master carpenter Shin Eung-soo (71) led the project, overseeing a team of 1,000 top woodworkers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and others craftsmen who had to work as their ancestors had. Even the tools themselves required research to find.

Lee Eui-sang, a 72-year-old mason who participated in the project, said the government’s plan to restore Sungnyemun in a traditional way perplexed him at first.

“I didn’t know what to do because all the tools used by the nation’s traditional masons disappeared in the middle of 1970s,” he said. So, he had to travel around the country in search of old tools.

“The past three years that I participated in the Sungnyemun restoration project were the most unforgettable experiences in my 55 years as a mason,” he said.

The project was initially estimated to take three years to complete at a cost of $21 million. It took five years and $24.4 million, which really is impressively close to the estimate considering the kind of detailed handcrafting that went into recreating the gate in all its glory.

On Saturday the gate will be reopened with a traditional cheondo ceremony to eliminate all bad luck and with a performance of traditional folk Korean folk song Arirang. The signboard on the front of the gate, repaired from surviving pieces of the old tablet with some new patching and now covered by a tarp, will be unveiled. Given the revival of traditional customs that this restoration has engendered, it’s eminently fitting that the reopening should feature the same ceremonies traditionally used to inaugurate new homes.


Medieval skeleton bonanza under Edinburgh car park

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Archaeologists excavating an Edinburgh parking lot destined to become the site of a rainwater catchment tank keep running into medieval skeletons. The first one discovered in March was a dramatic find: a knight with a richly carved sandstone slab marking his high rank and likely profession. This was just a month after the Richard III announcement, so there were much exclamation about how UK parking lots are apparently a rich vein of medieval warrior remains.

At least two other skeletons were found at the time, but they were overshadowed by the knight and his fancy accessories. Now archaeologists have announced that seven more complete skeletons and one partial have been found under the same parking lot. There are three adults, four infants and a solitary skull. Just beneath the knight’s burial is a skeleton which appears to be that of an adult female. Just to the right of the knight’s sandstone slab are the remains of an infant. Their proximity to the knight may indicate a close familial relationship.

This brings the total number burials under this car park to at least ten. All of the bones were found within the perimeter established by an ancient wall, perhaps the wall of a family crypt. Radiocarbon dating is still ongoing, but archaeologists have dated the carving style of the slab to the 13th century.

That’s in keeping with the history of the site. A monastery was built there in the 13th century. Blackfriars Monastery was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II of Scotland. Much like the Greyfriars monastery under that other parking lot in Leicester, it was destroyed by a mob during the Reformation (John Knox’s rather than Henry VIII’s, though) and the exact location was lost. When archaeologists began the excavation, they expected to find monastery remains somewhere in the area, and it seems they landed right on them.

It was the sandstone slab which marked the spot. Archaeologists first encountered the corner of it and then unearthed the full piece. Carved on its surface are a Calvary Cross — a Latin cross mounted on three steps representing the hill on which Jesus was crucified — and a broadsword. In heraldic terms, the three steps of the Calvary Cross symbolize the three Christian graces (faith, hope, charity) and its use is often linked to the bearer having erected a cross in Rome or taken up arms in a crusade.

The head of the cross is not your standard horizontal bar. The arm-ends appear to be fleurs-de-lis, which are not only lovely floral motifs representing purity but also have the barbed looked of fighting spears. The flowers are linked in the middle by a diamond shape and enclosed by a circle. Fleur-de-lis crosses became popular in the Middle Ages as replacements for the traditional Celtic Crosses which often had round halos embracing the crossing point.

This unusual cross and its companion sword strongly suggest the grave of a fighting man of high status. Osteological analysis has not been completed yet, but Ross Murray, project officer for contract firm Headland Archaeology, notes that the skeleton was that of a strong, healthy, well-built man about six feet tall, a particularly impressive height in the 13th century. His height, powerful build and good teeth were the product of a consistently good diet from an early age.

The location of the burial also underscores his social importance. Archaeologists are still unsure of the layout of the monastery, but it’s possible that he and the rest of the group were buried inside the walls of the building rather than in an outdoor graveyard. The closer the burial to the church, the wealthier and more influential the person. That slab was meant to be seen and it doesn’t look very weathered to me, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it were an indoor grave.

The remains of a later building have also been found on the site. Royal High School was built there in 1578. It was demolished in 1774 to make way for a larger facility, Old High School, which was built in 1777. Sir Walter Scott and James Pillans, inventor of the blackboard, went to school there. The excavation area is known as High School Yards because the parking lot was once part of Old High School’s yard.

All of the human remains will be fully excavated, examined by osteoarchaeologists and then reburied in a respectful manner. The architectural remains will be preserved in situ, I’m glad to report. According to Richard Lewis of the Edinburgh City Council, the remains of Blackfriars Monastery and Royal High School will be left on the site as artifacts of national significance which would be destroyed should they be removed.

The Old High School building was purchased by the University of Edinburgh in 1905 to house various disciplines. In 1995 it housed the Department of Archaeology which Ross Murray attended. He fondly recalls hanging out in the High School Yards area during breaks between classes, just a few steps away from where he would find a wealth of medieval remains.

The building is being renovated at the highest green standards and will become the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, dedicated to researching and inventing new, sustainable low carbon technologies. Hence the rainwater catchment system which will apparently still be installed but without interfering with the structural remains.


Medieval skeletons found holding hands in Romania

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

As an avowed lover of skeleton sweethearts, I’m charmed to report the discovery of a double burial in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania, Romania, wherein a male skeleton and a female skeleton from the late Middle Ages were found facing each other and holding hands. The dearly beloved were unearthed by archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Art History and the Cluj National History Museum excavating the courtyard of the Sigismund Toduta Music High School, originally a 15th century Dominican monastery.

The monastery was built around 1455 on the site of a Roman church and an earlier 13th century monastery. It was active only for a century before it was secularized in 1556 amidst the upheaval of the Reformation. The lovers therefore can be contextually dated to between the 1450s and 1556. The material and style of the coffin nails confirms the 1450-1550 date range.

According to Adrian Rusu, senior researcher at the Institute of Archaeology, there is a possible Romeo and Juliet angle here (which of course is being promoted far and wide despite its tenuousness) in that the man appears to have been killed by a blunt-force blow that broke his sternum, while there is no immediately obvious cause of death for the woman. Her skeleton is that of a healthy 30 year old. She can’t have committed suicide Juliet-style when her man died because she would not have been allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, and certainly not within the hallowed walls of a monastery. Perhaps, Rusu speculates, she died from a heart attack or a stroke brought on by the shock of his accidental death.

Sure, he is totally pulling that explanation out of his fundament and his appreciation for the PR value of our collective cultural vernacular, but it is mysterious that they died fairly young, at the same time and only one of them shows signs of fatal trauma. I can think of several explanations that don’t require the broken heart ex machina, though. She could have died first of an illness that can’t be detected in the bones or that hasn’t been yet. She could have had an unfortunate encounter with the wrong mushroom. The male then entirely by coincidence had some kind of workplace accident or tangled with the wrong horse that broke his sternum with one well-placed kick. Really, there are many possibilities.

Two other sets of remains were found in the same area, one of an infant and the leg bones of another individual. Whether they bear any relation to the lovers is unknown. One genuine fact that can be deduced from the burial is that they must have been relatively wealthy, or had wealthy family members, to afford such a premium spot inside the monastery. This was an inner courtyard with a fountain and decorative garden and an area for the monks to pray and read religious texts. Placement here was like a turbo boost of sin forgiveness, something particularly desirable when a person died unexpectedly and thus without a final confession.

This excavation is phase one of a larger restoration project. The Dominican monastery is one of three important ecclesiastical structures from the Middle Ages still standing in Cluj. (The other two are the 15th century gothic St. Michael’s Church and the 15th century late gothic Calvinist Reformed Church.) It’s in desperate need of extensive archaeological renovation. When the courtyard was concreted over in the 20th century, it created a major water problem. No longer able to escape up through the soil, the water began to climb the walls of the building instead.

The funds needed to save this nationally important structure are hard to come by these days, which is why the archaeological team will be applying for EU funding after the preliminary dig is complete in two weeks. This first round of excavations is both an exploration of what kind of work is necessary and about finding material that will sweeten the pitch. A Romeo and Juliet burial that makes international news would seem to be just the thing.

Not that the sexy angle is all this monastery has going for it. In addition to its architectural significance — look at this amazing door — it’s also directly connected to a remarkable historical first: the first edict of religious toleration promulgated by a European ruler. In 1556, Isabella Jagiellon, Queen Dowager of Hungary (which included Transylvania), and her son John II Sigismund were invited by the legislative assembly to put the country, ravaged by wars between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent, back together. The Diet elected John king but as he was only 16, Isabella was co-ruler. During the transitional period when they worked on rebuilding government, she and John lived in the monastery for nine months.

In 1557 she issued the Edict of Religious Tolerance which declared:

Each person [should] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while we at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.

This was forty years before Henry IV of France issued the famous Edict of Nantes granting freedom on conscience to the Protestant Huguenots after years of religious wars.

Queen Isabella died in 1559. Her son, the first and only Unitarian king, continued to support religious freedom during his rule, sponsoring popular public debates and issuing the Edict of Torda in 1568.

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

Therefore this monastery bears the distinction of having been victim of religious conflict — it was sacked twice before it was decommissioned — and the place that helped nurture ground-breaking religious tolerance. Surely that alone makes it worth funding. (Also the door.)


Richard III documentary airs on Smithsonian Channel

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

The Smithsonian Channel is airing a documentary on the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. I caught The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed last night. You can watch it next on Saturday, April 27th at 5:00 PM, and on Sunday, April 28th at 10:00 AM.

Even though it was advertised as “new,” I assumed when I saw it on the schedule that it was The King in the Carpark, the documentary that aired on Channel Four in the UK the day of the announcement. I think in substance it is the same documentary, but there have been some changes made for a US audience. The only one I can identify for sure, not having seen the UK version, is that the narrator is American. If anybody has seen them both, I’d love to hear of any other differences you detected.

The cameras follow Simon Farnaby, a comedic actor and writer I’ve never heard of before whose sole tenuous relevance to this story that I could determine is that he’s from York. Anyway he seems to be the Greek chorus, our stand-in of ignorant wonder to whom the archaeologists, historians and scientists explain things in lieu of addressing the viewer directly. He also serves to hold Philippa Langley’s hand, metaphorically and literally, whenever she hyperventilates.

Much of the story of the dig, discovery and analysis is known to me now, but there were still some interesting surprises in the documentary. For instance, the team noted at the February press conference that the skeleton was actually found on first day, but they didn’t get into the details of that. The documentary shows the discovery, how those leg bones are the first thing found at the dig, how they’re covered back up to wait for future information since at that point they have no idea if they’d even found the Greyfriars church and priory yet.

Thirteen days later, all three trenches have been dug and archaeologists are able to determine from the artifacts that this was the Greyfriars site and the layout of the structures. Once the floorplan is clear, they return to those skeletal legs because they now realize that they are buried in the east of the church under the choir, which was exactly where Richard III was thought to have been buried.

Fun fact: after they cover the bones back up on day one, storm clouds quickly gather and it began to rain. Philippa Langley thinks that’s downright eerie. Rain in England at the end of August? It feels like a message from Richard, donchaknow. Certainly not an entirely expected minor weather event seen every day. Certainly not that.

Another interesting bit is when Simon visits a historian who shows him a couple of paintings of Richard and how they were tampered with, Medieval Photoshop style, by Tudor artists to make Richard look freaky. They added curves to one shoulder to make him look hunchbacked, narrowed his eyes, even carved his thumb to a point so it looks like he has a demon claw rather than regular human fingers.

Meanwhile, back at the dig they bring the earth movers in to extend the first trench crosswise at the place where the leg bones were found. The original trench isn’t wide enough to expose the rest of the skeletal remains, so the machines have to peel off more pavement and modern layers of soil while the precious legs bones were just beneath them. It’s amazing how delicate heavy machinery can be.

Next up is bone specialist Joe Appleby who takes over in her Outbreak suit to do the careful excavation that will hopefully reveal the rest of the skeleton. Yay she finds a skull! Oops, she found it when she drove her pickaxe through it. It’s cool, though, because the skull is at a weird angle compared to the legs so it’s probably not from the same skeleton.

Twist! Yes it is! The weird angle, Joe finds, is due to the marked curvature of the spine. She calls in Simon and Philippa to show them what she’s found, and Philippa loses the ability to stand when she sees that s-curve in the spine. She has to sit down on a mudpile because that’s one of her biggest bugaboos: Richard couldn’t have been a hunchback because how could he have worn armour and fought?

Then Joe makes her feel better. At least there’s no evidence that his right arm was withered, she tells Philippa. Philippa replies: “Some good news them.” Yes, finally some good news after the tragic discovery of a skeleton with scoliosis in the location where Richard III was buried.

The bones are bagged and sent to the lab for the long process of analysis. The skull goes to Turi King because she’s going to attempt DNA extraction from the teeth. You see her removing one of them, but the narration uses the plural so she had to remove more than one, clean them and grind them into powder in order to get any DNA out of them. That answers the question of whether the tooth loss visible in the skull was pre, peri or postmortem.

The DNA results are going to take months, so off goes Simon to York to talk about how Richard was perceived by the locals. Spoiler: they liked him.

Back at the lab again, we get to see the process of identifying the metal object that was found between two of the skeleton’s vertebrae. The researcher X-rayed the piece, compared it to arrows of Richard’s time and ultimately determines that it’s not an arrowhead but a pre-existing nail, possibly Roman, that just happened to wind up in the burial.

There’s also a rather cool bit about the creation of the facial reconstruction using specialized software. It’s neat to see the muscles being digitally added on to the skull.

So finally it’s time for the full osteological presentation. Philippa, Simon, Joe Appleby and Dr. Pierce Mitchell (specialist in deformities) meet over the bones. Mitchell says he would have been a hunchback with one shoulder higher than the other. Philippa freaks. Out. She can’t stay in the room anymore because she can’t deal with seeing him laid out like that with his glaring scoliotic spine making a mockery of her years of dedication to the idea that the only deformity in Richard was projected onto him posthumously by Tudor propagandists. Simon has to go out and pet her for a while to validate her tender feelers.

When they return, Mitchell points out that when he calls him a hunchback, he just means in the colloquial sense of someone with a spinal deformity. He didn’t actually have a hump on his back. When he was clothed, it would only look like one was shoulder slightly higher than the other.

Things get weird again when the facial reconstruction is complete. Philippa, led by Simon, enters the room with her eyes closed. She opens them to behold the reconstructed face of Richard III. “Doesn’t look the face of a tyrant. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. It’s like you could just talk to him. Have a conversation right now.” She does not lean in for a kiss, but that’s the level of vibe we’re talking about here. There’s a reason they didn’t leave her alone with him.

The show concludes with the DNA results. Adorably, Turi King takes Michael Ibsen to a private room to share the results with him first, because he’s family. Then she tells Simon and Philippa and there is much subdued English rejoicing.

My final verdict is that it’s definitely worth watching just to see the discovery unfold the way it did. It’s lighter on the science and archaeology than I would have liked, but I was steeled for that by the many excellent comments y’all left on the Richard blog entries.

A positive final note: there are no cheeseball reenactments of historical events. When historians and the narrator are talking about Richard’s rise to throne, his life, the princes in the tower, the Battle of Bosworth, his death, the descriptions are accompanied with a stylized, highly atmospheric animation. The art is kind of great and there are some excellent ravens involved. I really enjoyed the animations. Whoever did that needs to make a feature-length movie of the life and death of Richard III.

Edit: Here’s an animated telling of Shakespeare’s Richard III courtesy of WandaSusie which is very similar, if not identical, in style. I can’t tell if it’s the exact same animation as figures in the documentary, though.


Ring may be centuries older than previously thought

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

The unique sapphire and gold ring discovered in Escrick, a town six miles south of York, by metal detectorist Michael Greenhorn in 2009 may be as much as 600 years older than previously believed. It also may be of continental European, probably French, origin and worn by royalty, not by a lord of the Church.

The ring’s mixture of styles and materials from different periods has befuddled researchers ever since it was discovered. Although there are no rings like it to make for a viable comparison, the layout, the gold beading, the use of the sapphire, garnet slivers and cloisonné red glass, initially suggested a date in late 10th or 11th century. The combination of red glass and blue glass in a gold setting, however, is typical of early Anglian jewelry (7th – 9th centuries) but they didn’t use sapphires. Experts thought the anomalous sapphire might have been a later addition replacing a blue glass element to increase the value of the ring and make it worthy of royalty.

In an attempt to answer some of the questions raised by this unusual piece, the University of York and the Yorkshire Museum held a workshop at the end of January at which leading experts from all over the country convened to see the Escrick ring in person and discuss its dating. Their new theories moved the date and location of manufacture and excluded the possibility that it had belonged to a bishop rather than a king.

The workshop was attended by more than 30 experts from across the country. After a day of talks, presentations and discussions the main theories were that the ring was of a style similar to others found in Europe in the 5th or 6th centuries.

This link to Europe and the fact nothing has been found like it in Britain before, suggest that is where it was made. When checking for other examples of ring from this period, none similar were found to belong to Bishops, which suggests it would have belonged to a King, leader or consort.

The sapphire in the ring was probably cut earlier, possibly during the Roman period, but the ring itself was specially made around the sapphire. By looking at the wear on the ring it is thought that it was worn for at least 50 years before it was lost.

There could be another explanation for the stylistic anomalies. For instance, the ring may have been created later, the 8th or 9th century, say, but was inspired by 5th or 6th century designs. The inspiration need not have been jewelry either. It could have been local Yorkshire stonework.

It may also have had a previous life as a brooch. The hoop of the ring looks different from the crown. It may have been attached later to convert a brooch into a ring.

The research continues. Archaeologists and historians from the University of Durham will do further investigations of the find location for any information from the 5th or 6th centuries. The ring itself will be examined with X-ray technology and samples will be taken from the good hoop to compare it to the gold in the crown of the ring. Researchers hope some hard data will help eliminate possibilities and maybe even give us some concrete answers to solve the mysteries of the Escrick Ring.