Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

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.


Yorkshire Viking hoard has unique pommel, necklace

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Experts have declared that a hoard of gold and silver treasure from the Viking era discovered by two metal detectorists in a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire, last May is a “significant and nationally important discovery.” Stuart Campbell and Steve Caswell found a part of the hoard, but instead of digging up the rest on the spot, they reported it to the finds liaison officer at the Yorkshire Museum in York. The museum sent two archaeologists to the a pasture (the exact location of the find is being kept secret to deter looters) so the treasure could be professionally excavated.

Once the whole thing was unearthed, the hoard was found to comprise 29 silver ingots, four silver collars, one of which is a large piece made of four plaited silver ropes joined at each end (in the middle of the picture), silver neck rings, half a silver penannular broach, a silver arm ring, an iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques (the big clumpy looking thing in the bottom right of the picture), four gold hoops from the sword hilt, six gold rivets probably from the same sword.

Andrew Morrison, head curator at the Yorkshire Museum, said: “The artefacts uncovered are typical of a Viking hoard, with the majority of it being silver ingots which were used for currency.

“However the gold sword pommel and a unique silver neck ring are incredibly beautiful and rare finds. We now hope to be able to raise the funds needed to keep them in Yorkshire.”

The pommel style and decoration dates the hoard to 850 – 950 A.D. Its triangular shape with a convex base is a late 9th century form of Viking sword. The plaques of gold foil are decoration with incised animal shapes characteristic of the late Anglo-Saxon Trewhiddle Style, also dating to the late 9th century although it continued to be used in the north of England into the 10th century. Two features mark the pommel as an exceptional piece: its size and its gold decoration. The pommel is 3.3 inches wide, 2 inches high, .5 inches thick; the guard is 3.8 inches long. The total weight of the piece is 10.7 ounces.

There is only one other pommel of comparable size, the Abingdon Sword now in the Ashmolean Museum, which is decorated in the same style but all in silver. The gold on the Bedale pommel makes it unique.

The hoard may have been raiding spoils or it could have been legitimately traded goods buried for later retrieval. The Vikings had a particular fascination with finely crafted metal work (see the National Museum of Scotland exhibit for more on that), more so than the general Saxon population, and although the hoard may have been pillaged, it’s more likely that it was buried by someone who was staying in the area. Many Vikings weren’t coming to Yorkshire just to raid and leave, but rather settled down and become farmers.

Right now the treasure is in the British Museum being cleaned and conserved. The next step is the standard treasure inquest which will certainly result in the coroner declaring the hoard treasure. Anything older than 300 years old or composed of precious metals qualifies as treasure, and the hoard hits the bullseye on both scores. It will then be evaluated for market value and the local museum will have the chance to pay the amount of the valuation to the finders. The York Museum Trust is already preparing to raise the necessary funds to keep the Bedale Viking Hoard in Yorkshire.


Remains unlikely to be Alfred the Great exhumed

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

In a secret ten-hour mission, archaeologists exhumed the possible but very unlikely remains of Alfred the Great from an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s in Winchester. This wasn’t so much an exploratory mission as a rescue operation. After the world-wide attention the discovery of Richard III’s parking lot burial received, church authorities were concerned that St. Bartholomew’s cemetery, where the putative bones of Alfred the Great were said to have been buried in the 19th century, might be targeted by grave robbers. The Parochial Church Council decided to opt for an ounce of prevention and commissioned a team to excavate the burial thought to be Alfred’s and store the remains in an undisclosed location.

This is even longer of a shot than the Richard excavation. For one thing, Richard died just over 500 years ago. He was also buried in one place. Alfred died in 899, 1114 years ago, and his remains were moved repeatedly over the next thousand years. He was first interred in the Old Minster in Winchester. It’s believed that Alfred had commissioned the construction of a new, larger church where his remains and that of his dynastic successors would be buried, but the New Minster wasn’t finished until around 903 when his son Edward the Elder was king. The son had his father’s body moved from the old church to the new. After they died, Alfred’s wife Ealhswith, Edward the Elder and Edward’s children were also buried in the New Minster.

When the Normans conquered England, they built a new cathedral on the site of the old church and it rendered the New Minster obsolete. King Henry I commissioned a new New Minster be built north of Winchester in the suburb of Hyde. Hyde Abbey was far enough completed by 1110 that Alfred and his family were reburied there. The Abbey was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, but the graves were left untouched.

As with the Greyfriars church where Richard III was buried, the Hyde Abbey’s location was forgotten over the centuries. It was rediscovered when the county purchased the land for prison in 1788. The convicts building the prison began by clearing the rubble left by Henry VIII’s marauders. They dug deep pits in which to bury the larger pieces of masonry and one of those pits crossed paths with three royal graves in front of the former high altar. According to the prison warden who was interviewed by antiquarian Captain Howard a few years later, the convicts unearthed a large coffin thought to be Alfred’s. It was carved out of a single block of stone encased in lead. They broke up the coffin, buried the stone in the pit and sold the lead. The bones were scattered.

In 1866 antiquarian John Mellor excavated the site and claimed to have found Alfred’s tomb intact. Those are the remains that were reinterred in the St. Bartholomew churchyard.

So yeah, the odds of these bones being Alfred’s are vanishingly small. University of Winchester archaeologist Doctor Katie Tucker who led the exhumation hopes that the bones can at least be radiocarbon dated. If they turn out to date to the late 10th century, she thinks that will be evidence in favor of the remains belonging to Alfred or his immediate family because no other human remains from before Hyde Abbey’s construction in the 12th century were buried there, as far as we know.

I don’t think it’ll be evidence of anything because there’s hardly a well-established chain of evidence here. We can’t know for sure who was buried at Hyde, nor can we know for sure that the bones in this unmarked grave came from there. There’s little chance of DNA confirmation. Even if the bones did belong to Alfred, they’ve been moved so much and been exposed to who knows what conditions that DNA extraction will be a virtually insurmountable challenge. The remains of Alfred’s granddaughter Queen Eadgyth were discovered in the Cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany in 2008, but there were only 40 bones left and none of them were well-preserved enough to extract a viable DNA sample.

Anyway the process hasn’t even started yet. Winchester Diocesan spokesman Nick Edmonds:

“Understandably, there is widespread interest in this situation. For now we can’t say any more about the remains, their nature or whereabouts, but promise to keep people updated when there is something to tell.

Although no application has yet been made to carry out any scientific investigation, we do acknowledge that there is local interest in learning more about the remains found in this grave.”


Refrigeration container preserves past instead of food

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

A commercial refrigeration container normally used to transport perishable foodstuffs on the backs of trucks or stacked on cargo ships has been cleverly enlisted in the preservation of delicate archaeological remains at an important historical site in Lübeck, Germany.

Lübeck’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its layout, planned from the earliest days of its founding in the mid-12th century, and large number of surviving medieval buildings. Even with 20% of the Old Town destroyed in World War II, Lübeck still has more than 1,000 listed buildings, characteristic back courtyards and a thick network of alleys from the Middle Ages.

Because of its dense history, before a major construction project to build luxury housing in the old merchant’s borough could begin, an equally major archaeological survey of the area had to clear the site first. This wasn’t a hasty six-week rush job (*cough* Drumclay Crannog *cough*). Excavation began in 2009 and is slated to end in 2014. In 2012, archaeologists made an incredible find: a wooden storage cellar from around 1180, less than 40 years after the founding of the town (1143) and 60 years before the alliance with Hamburg (1241) that would form the kernel of the future Hanseatic League.

It’s one of the largest and best-preserved medieval cellars in Europe, and remains of hops and cereals have been found indicating it was used to store ingredients for the production of beer. Just 30 years before this cellar was built, the first written description of hops’ preservative power as an additive to beer appeared in the medicinal text Physica Sacra by Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, musician, healer, abbess and as of December 2012, one of only four women named Doctor of the Church. The 12th century was an important transitional time in the political and economic history of beer as well. Secular princes increasingly took control of the brewing business from the monasteries that had been the traditional producers. The merchants of northern Germany, a burgeoning new social class not bound by feudal or monastic regulation, also got into brewing and trading beer.

It was a dangerous gig. You need long, steady fires to brew and in a time when entire cities were built of wood, one home brewing operation could burn the town to the ground. Municipal laws were promulgated preventing home brewing and transferring the industry out of individual houses and into stone communal brew houses which also served as bakeries. I can see masonry around the wooden elements in the pictures, so perhaps the Lübeck structure was a communal brewhouse/bakehouse cellar. That could well be later construction, though, and this the cellar of a wooden home brew operation with the remains of beer-making ingredients which has somehow survived devastation by fire for more than 800 years, several years of which included active aerial bombings. It’s an incredibly rare and important find.

But how to preserve such rare organic survivals quickly and carefully enough to give researchers a chance to study them thoroughly with as little loss as possible? As soon as the cellar was exposed to air it was in danger. Usually archaeologists have to keep wooden artifacts constantly wet, or find a massive freeze dryer or spend years replacing the water with polyethylene glycol. These methods are inconvenient, expensive and require transportation before conservation.

A refrigerated container, on the other hand, can be transported on site within 24 hours, is big enough to store a whole cellar, and has a wide range of environmental controls. A Maersk Container Industry Star Cool container, for instance, not only has precision temperature controls, but also an Automatic Ventilation feature which regulates airflow and relative humidity in the container and a Controlled Atmosphere option which monitors oxygen and carbon dioxide inside the container and maintains them at pre-set levels. Technology necessary to keep food from spoiling is also just what the doctor ordered to keep archaeological remains from decaying.

“Star Cool was chosen because of its extremely precise temperature and atmospheric control. Such precision is a must if you want to preserve sensitive cultural assets like wet organic structures,” says conservator Maruchi Yoshida who is associated with the Fraunhofer-Institute for Building Physics and Leibniz-Gemeinschaft to manage the reefer container project, ARCHe.

(Reefer in this case meaning refrigerated container, not the jazz musician kind of reefer.)

This is the first time a container has been used for archaeological preservation. Yoshida hopes to turn this pilot into a business, deploying units to newly discovered sites at a moment’s notice or to preserve cultural assets in danger from natural disasters or conflict.


Viking ship recreated with rivets on threads

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

The National Museum of Scotland’s Vikings!: The Untold Story exhibition has more than 500 artifacts from the permanent collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm which have rarely been seen outside of Scandinavia. The exhibition takes an innovative approach to showing how the Vikings lived, with interactive digital displays and replicas that allow visitors to touch and play with Viking culture. The aim is to dispel the intensely bellicose image of the Norsemen and to show how Scandinavians in the Viking Age, most of whom were farmers and traders rather than warriors, lived.

The coolest exhibit, I think, is a half of a Viking ship recreated with 1200 metal rivets strung on translucent spidery threads that replicate the shape of the vessel. The ship’s planks covered the grave of a wealthy man of status on Orkney. None of the wood survived; only the rivets were still there when the burial was excavated. They made marvelous lemonade out of the limited survival, creating a piece that is downright otherworldly and that can travel easily and safely in a way that a thousand-year-old wooden boat could not even if it had survived.

Is that not brilliant? I love how the rivets are angled as they would have been in the wood. It conveys not just the dimensions of the ship, but also exposes the technical carpentry skill that you couldn’t see if the ship were complete.

The high quality of Scandinavian craftsmanship is a recurring theme in this exhibition. In the sagas there are references to the gods being smiths or craftsmen. The transformation of metal into weapons and other objects was considered a fundamental alteration to the created world. Craftsmen therefore had rituals to perform as they worked to ensure their work was in keeping with the magic and deities of their world.

The jewelry and work in precious metals is as impressive as you would expect, but even the daily use objects are incredibly intricate and beautiful. These are keys:

These were household keys, not the unlockers of mystical treasure. They would be worn as part of her garments by the wife and mother who was in charge of the home. Their intricacy underscores this was a position of pride and importance. Can you imagine having a few of those on a ring clipped to your belt? We’ve lost a lot in our era of Ace Hardware keys made while you wait.

Viking daily life is represented by all kinds of beautifully detailed artifacts, some of them rare survivals. There’s a woven textile embroidered with a stag, wooden board games, an ironing board (maybe slate?) with the large smooth stone used to iron, an engraved folding comb carved out of bone that would honor the pocket of even the most discriminating 50s greaser stereotype.

They even have bread loaves that appear to have survived thanks to carbonization, like the bread from Herculaneum. The Viking bread found in Birka, Sweden, was analyzed and the likely recipe recreated. It’s ridiculously healthy, made primarily from barley flour and including flax seeds. If you’d like to try your hand at making it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Viking Bread

About 150 g barley flour
About 50 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 100 ml water
2 tsp lard or butter
A pinch of salt

Work all the ingredients together into a dough and knead. If the dough is too wet or hard, add flour or water. Let the dough rest cold for at least one hour, preferably longer.

Shape the dough into flat cakes (about 1/2cm thick). Bake them in a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat, a few minutes on each side, or in the oven at 150 degrees, for 10–13 minutes.

The exhibition runs from January 18th to May 12th. I’m afraid I can’t find a list of the other stops in the tour, but I know it spent last year in Northern Europe and this is its only stop in the UK. The National Museum of Scotland has an excellent collection of pictures of the Vikings! exhibit on its Flickr page.

For more details about Viking life, the artifacts on display and the brilliantly futuristic, Star-Trek looking design of the exhibit which was actually inspired by Viking iconography, see the exhibition page on the Swedish History Museum’s website.


Bodies in Norwich well buried in Jewish cemetery

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

The remains of 17 bodies, 11 children and six adults, dating to the 12th-13th century found at the bottom of a well in 2004 were given a Jewish burial in Norwich’s Earlham Cemetery on Tuesday. The bones were picked up by a hearse from the Norwich Castle Museum where they’ve been in storage. They were placed in five coffins covered with tallits (Jewish prayer shawls), driven past the Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and to the Jewish Cemetery within the larger cemetery where local Rabbi Alex Bennet conducted a traditional Jewish burial service.

Bishop David Gillet, interfaith adviser to the Diocese of Norwich, eulogized the deceased and took the opportunity to express repentance for the ugly history of Christian antisemitic persecution, pledging to “live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.” There’s film of the service in this ITV story.

It took a lot of work to get to this place. The biggest issue was whether the remains could be positively identified as Jewish. Although DNA testing performed by Dr. Ian Barnes on the BBC show History Cold Case indicated that five of the 17 people were members of the same family with origins in South-East Europe to Central Asia rather than Western Europe, that’s not conclusive proof of Jewishness. It’s certainly evidence, especially in the relatively ethnically homogeneous society of medieval Norwich, but there are other possibilities. They could have been the descendants of Roman soldiers or even the result of intermarriages between Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and Middle Eastern locals.

The circumstantial evidence supports the Jewish theory. The well in which they were found was adjacent to the Jewish neighborhood and why would 17 Christians, 11 of them children, be dumped down a dry well rather than buried in consecrated ground? Even plague victims were laid out in pits and they were infectious. Their sad fate smacks of the deliberate disrespect of a mob, and many Jews faced the business end of mobs between the Norman conquest and Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

At any rate, the evidence was sufficiently convincing for Clive Roffe, Norwich representative on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to campaign for the bones’ proper burial. Starting in 2011 after the BBC program aired, Roffe together with Bishop David Gillet and other members of the Jewish community and Christian clergy petitioned for the bones to be released from the Norwich Castle Museum “for decent and appropriate burial.”

Museum authorities were initially reluctant. They wanted the bones to be available for further study and Alan West, curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, didn’t think there was any evidence suggesting they were Jewish. After more than two years of lobbying, the Board of Deputies persuaded the museum that no matter what their ethnicity, the bones should be respectfully buried and if the Jewish community was willing to accept them as their own based even on the mere chance that they were the remains of murdered Jews, then they should be allowed to take them in hand.

The board intends to erect a monument on the grave site indicating that the buried are thought to have been victims of a pogrom like the one in 1190 which took place in Norwich on the heels of an anti-Jewish massacre in York. The bodies will also be commemorated on a plaque in St. Stephen’s church which will quote the Hebrew scriptures.

Meanwhile the attempt to narrow down who these 17 people were continues. Dr. Joachim Burger of Mainz University in Germany, a top expert in the field, is in the process of analyzing the DNA. He won’t have any results to share for at least another month or two.


Stolen 14th c. crucifix panel painting back in Venice

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

After more than six decades on the lam, a 14th century crucifix panel painting attributed to Paolo Veneziano returned home on Monday, March 11th. Painted between 1335 and 1345 in the Gothic style made famous by Florentine masters Giotto and Cimabue, the crucifix is more than nine feet high and eight feet wide. The crucified Christ is the central figure, with the Virgin Mary looking sorrowfully at her son from the right of the crossbar and Saint John from the left. An angel painted above the cross looks straight out at the viewer.

It was removed from the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr in Venice at the end of World War II. Although most of the articles vaguely allude to Germans stealing it on their way out of occupied Italy, it seems they weren’t marauders so much as receivers of stolen goods. According to Edward B. Garrison’s 1959 book Italian Romanesque Panel Painting, it was the parish priest himself who illegally sold the masterpiece to German troops to raise desperately needed money for his war-ravaged community.

Consider its massive size, it’s quite remarkable that the painting remained intact during its smuggling travels. It touched down in Rome and France before winding up in a private collection in Germany. Last year, the collector consigned the crucifix to the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. When Lempertz experts investigated the ownership history of the piece, they realized it was never legitimately sold.

With the crucifix’s presence in the market the result of theft and considering its unique cultural importance, Lempertz did something I have never seen an auction house do: they bought it from the seller at cost and donated it to the Church of San Pantaleone. That is some gift. Medieval painted crucifixes are rarer than hen’s teeth on the market, and one of such massive size and quality is practically unheard of. The auctioneers were of course fully aware of what they were losing, but they made a conscious decision to make the ethical choice rather than ride willful blindness all the way to the bank like so many auction houses before them have done.

“It’s a work that has no equal in the market,” says the Lempertz specialist in Old Master Paintings Mariana M. de Hanstein. “If it didn’t have the history it has, the pre-sale estimate would probably be around 700,000 euros. But this is a work that cannot be sold. It is a moral issue. It does not belong to the market, but to a large international museum.”

The managing partner of Lempertz Henrik Hanstein said: “In the beginning we were excited about the delivery of a work of Venetian painting from the fourteenth century of such quality. But then it became immediately clear to us: this work does not belong in an auction but to its original home, the church that Venetians with their wonderful dialect called San Pantaleon. We are happy to be able to return so significant a work to the city of Venice, to which we are grateful for so much extraordinary art.”

Note to self: when you hit the lottery, go buy all your stuff at Lempertz.

On November 17th, a ceremony was held in Cologne officially returning the painting to Venice. Before the Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Italian consul Eugenio Sgrò, Italian ambassador Elio Menzione, the crucifix was formally handed over to Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, Patriarch of Venice. Before settling down permanently in Venice’s ever-loving arms, however, the masterpiece made one more stop. From February 15th until the end of the month, it stood in the place of the papal throne in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. On February 28th, it witnessed Pope Benedict XVI’s final address to the College of Cardinals before his formal abdication and departure to Castel Gandolfo.

Now that the crucifix is in Venice, it is being examined by conservators. Once it gets a clean bill of health, the painting will be moved back to the Church of San Pantaleone Martyr.