Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.


Casket of 12th c. Swedish king opened

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Uppsala University researchers and clerical officials from Uppsala Cathedral opened the reliquary casket of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm, on Wednesday. There’s footage of the solemn opening in this Swedish-language video. The casket was opened as recently as 2000, but the remains weren’t studied or conserved at the time. This year is the 850th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Uppsala as the archbishopric of Sweden and the Cathedral plans an unprecedented exhibition in honor of the jubilee. Since they wanted King Eric’s funeral crown as part of the exhibition, officials decided to amortize the opening by allowing the university to examine the remains.

Little is known about this king. There are many miracles attributed to him and his remains but not much in the way of historical or archaeological evidence. There is at least one surviving chronicle that mentions him in passing. Most of what we know of him comes from hagiographies that date to the 13th century at the earliest. According to them, Eric was a pious and just king who came to power in 1156 after the murder of King Sverker I. He wrote Sweden’s first law book, hence the nickname Eric the Lawgiver, traveled the country, which still had a significant complement of non-Christians, dispensing justice and founding churches.

According to these accounts, Eric was killed by nobles who resented his devout Christianity (and the 10% tithe his piety made him enshrine in law) who were in cahoots with Magnus, son of the king of Denmark. He was at church on Ascension Day, May 18th, 1160, when a messenger interrupted services to tell him an army of rebels were coming for him.

After mass he recommended his soul to God, made the sign of the cross, and, to spare the blood of the citizens, who were ready to defend his life at the expense of their own, marched out alone before his guards. The conspirators rushed upon him, beat him down from his horse, and struck off his head with a thousand indignities in derision of his religion. His death happened on the 18th of May, 1151. God honoured his tomb with many miracles.

Eric was venerated almost immediately after his death, his remains collected as holy relics. They were kept at the Trinity Church (the current church by that name was built in the 13th century) in Uppsala where the king was martyred and used in processions every year on May 18th. His son Canute, undisputed King of Sweden from 1173 to 1195, strongly supported the cult of Saint Eric, but Pope Alexander III, who had created the archbishopric of Sweden in 1164, refused to canonize him. In an important (from a canon law perspective) letter he wrote to Canute in the 1170s, Alexander admonished the Swedish church for allowing veneration of a man who was drunk when he was killed by a bunch of other drunks, insisting that the determination of sainthood was solely in Rome’s purview. That may or may not be Eric he was talking about (he doesn’t name the saint in question), but he does say “a great many signs and miracles are wrought by him,” and since he’s addressing the king, it’s a strong possibility he meant Eric. The Swedish church still observes a saint day of May 18th for Eric, even though he never did get the official imprimatur.

The reliquary holding his bones and funeral crown was moved to the Uppsala Cathedral, built on the site of the original Trinity Church, after construction was completed in 1273. The current gilt silver reliquary was made in the 16th century. The original one is thought to have been worn out from all the handling during processions. The second was made in 1435 in the shape of a Gothic cathedral. It was melted down in 1573 by King John III to finance a war with Russia. He and his wife then had the current casket made from 75 pounds of gilded silver the next year.

The reliquary was opened and some bones distributed to other churches in the 14th century, so the skeletal remains are not complete. The skull, minus the lower jaw, is still there, however, as are the long bones of the legs and the remains of the collarbone in a special pouch. The new study will examine the cervical vertebra and collarbone for cutting marks. The bones will be measured, X-rayed and DNA extracted if possible. Isotope testing on the teeth will hopefully answer long-standing questions about his origin. (His name, Eric Jedvardsson (son of Edward), suggests he may have English heritage, but the hagiographies claim he was from Västergötland or Uppland, in southern Sweden.)

That’s all secondary to the main research project: an interdisciplinary study of osteoporosis. The project compares ancient remains to modern ones to study changes in bone density and joint damage from the disease. The Uppsala University team have examined other skeletons from the early Middle Ages as part of this project, but they were all regular folk. Information from an upper class individual will fill in an important blank.

The gilded copper crown with glass stone accents, Sweden’s oldest royal crown, will be conserved and then put on display for the first time in modern memory at the Heaven Is Here exhibition in Uppsala Cathedral from June 18th through November 16th. Celebrating the 850th jubilee, the exhibition features more than 50 historical religious artifacts from diocesan churches as well as installations by contemporary Swedish artists. It’s the first time so large an exhibition has been held in an active church in Sweden.


Celebrate St. George’s Day with an orgy of dragons

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

If you, like me, are grumpy about the complete dearth of dragons in the past two episodes of Game of Thrones, the British Library is providing a healing unguent for that burning sensation in the form of gorgeous illuminations of dragons from Medieval manuscripts. The library’s always outstanding Medieval Manuscripts blog kicked off the homage to the winged serpents of lore with a selection of diverse representations.

Dragons were popular subjects in Medieval literature, making appearances in manuscripts from Bibles to bestiaries to histories to romances to hagiographies. Although St. George may be the saint most associated with dragon-slaying today, he was far from the only holy figure to have that claim to fame. Dragons in this tradition are symbols of demonic evil and paganism, and indeed like George, many of the saints whose legends have them fighting dragons lived in the fourth century when the battle between Christianity and the traditional polytheistic religions came to a head.

The late 4th century bishop Mercurialis of Forlì, the first bishop of the city, slew a dragon and saved the Forlians from a fate worse than death (ie, their own pre-Christian beliefs). Early 4th century Saint Theodore of Amasea (aka St. Theodore of Tyro), who burned down a temple of Cybele was martyred for refusing to join in pagan sacrifice while a soldier in the Roman army, killed a dragon with a cross. Saint Margaret of Antioch (d. 304), daughter of a pagan priest who disowned her when she became a Christian and dedicated her virginity to God, slew a dragon from the inside out. Tortured by a Roman governor and would-be suitor, Margaret was swallowed by Satan in the form of the dragon only to burst out of its belly holding after making the sign of the cross. St. George himself defeated the maiden-devouring dragon after crossing himself, and the grateful population of “Silene” (it’s uncertain which city the legend refers to) convert to Christianity in response.

This association of saint-slain dragons with victory of paganism is made explicit in many of the hagiographies. Here’s an instructive passage from the Life of Saint Silvester in the Golden Legend, a popular compendium of the lives of saints compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275:

In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people.

Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal, wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat.

Thus as S. Peter had said, S. Silvester did. And when he came to the pit, he descended down one hundred and fifty steps, bearing with him two lanterns, and found the dragon, and said the words that S. Peter had said to him, and bound his mouth with the thread, and sealed it, and after returned, and as he came upward again he met with two enchanters which followed him for to see if he descended, which were almost dead of the stench of the dragon, whom he brought with him whole and sound, which anon were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them. Thus was the city of Rome delivered from double death, that was from the culture and worshipping of false idols, and from the venom of the dragon

Aside from those in the lives of saints, I think my favorite dragons from the Medieval Manuscripts selection are the ones battled by Alexander the Great. Alexander became a chivalric hero in the Medieval romances and as such had several confrontations with fantastical creatures. In the French illuminated manuscript Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (c. 1420 -1425), which you can browse in glorious high resolution here, he fights dragons with large emeralds embedded in their heads, dragon with ram horns and dragons with two heads, eight legs and multiple eyes on their torsos.

The mythologizing of Alexander the Great started in antiquity, with the source of many of these fantastical stories in the Medieval romances going back to a Greek language biography by Pseudo-Callisthenes, an unknown author from the 3rd century. Another ancient source the Medieval writers relied on heavily was the Historia Alexandri Magni by Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st century historian who used the character Alexander to teach lessons about proper kingship versus tyranny, a subject people who lived under Julio-Claudian rule obviously had a strong personal interest in exploring.

The Historia Alexandri Magni is incomplete, with the first two books and parts of the remaining eight lost, but that didn’t stop authors like Walter of Châtillon in the 12th century and the Archpriest Leo in the 10th century from writing epic poems and prose in Latin based on the Historia. They just filled in the blanks with bits from other sources (like the Greek version of a heavily mythological Persian history of Alexander that was translated by Simeon Seth, an 11th century Jewish doctor and chamberlain to Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas) and from their own fertile imaginations. Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre is a French treatment of Archpriest Leo’s Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni.

Another Alexander romance with a particularly juicy dragon treatment is Les faize d’Alexandre, a French translation of the Historia Alexandri Magni done by Vasco da Lucena for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, between 1468 and 1475. It didn’t make the Medieval Manuscripts blog entry, but its author, Sarah J. Biggs, has been tweeting additional dragons today and one from Les faize d’Alexandre is a stand-out:

Who is that lady in bed with the dragon while a crowned man watches? That is Olympias, mother of Alexander, and the dragon is his real daddy. The voyeur is his, let’s just say adoptive, father Philip II of Macedon. This is what happens when the first two books of an ancient source go missing. Things get a tad fanciful and that version spreads far and wide. The Medieval Alexander romances all start with a dragon impregnating Olympias. There’s a less naughty version in the Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre where the dragon is just flying in through the window rather than actively making out with her.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. Egyptian pharaoh and sorcerer Neptanabus takes refuge in Macedonia after the gods tell him he’s about to be defeated by the Persian king Ochus. He bills himself as an astrologer and becomes a regular at court while the king is abroad fighting. Neptanabus becomes infatuated with Olympias and conceives a cunning plan to get in her bed through deception. He tells her the god Ammon will soon come to her chambers and together they will conceive a child. He then either changes himself into a dragon or tricks her into thinking he’s a dragon (there is some variety in the retelling) and they have sex, Olympias certain the whole time that she’s being impregnated by the god Ammon.

Neptanabus then sends Philip a dream about Ammon getting his wife pregnant, so when he returns he’ll accept the demi-god foster son rather than, say, slaughter the baby and his mother for her adultery. Philip isn’t happy about it, but he takes it. Later magical occurrences confirm the accuracy of the prophecy, and so little Alexander is set on his path to greatness.

He does eventually find out about the deception. Alexander is 12 years old and doing military maneuvers when he playfully pushes Neptanabus into a ditch and breaks his neck. As any smartass would, Alexander tells Neptanabus he should have known that was going to happen,. The pharaoh replies that nobody can avoid their fate, and that his fate was to be killed by his own son. He then explains the true circumstances of the conception. Alexander takes it improbably well, as does Olympias. Alexander buries Neptanabus with all honors due a king, sorcerer, rapist, liar who conned his mother, father, country and himself into believing he was the son of a god.


Canoe thought to be 250 years is 1,000 years old

Friday, April 11th, 2014

New radiocarbon dating results have found that a Native American dugout canoe discovered in Lake Minnetonka southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1934 is nearly 1,000 years old, making it the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Minnesota. It was thought to date to around 1750 and even though it was in excellent condition it wasn’t considered an archaeological superstar. That’s all changed now.

The canoe was discovered by Helmer Gunnarson and his brother Arthur when they were building an extension to their dock on the North Arm of Lake Minnetonka in August of 1934. It was a record dry year — the water level was seven feet below normal — and the shoreline had receded significantly. While sinking a dock piling 90 feet from the shore, Helmer and Arthur encountered an obstacle about a foot under the lake floor. At first they thought it was a log, but when they dug it out and dragged it to shore, they saw it was a dugout canoe. They noted it was in excellent condition, preserved by years under the silt and several feet of lake water.

The Gunnarsons reached out to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society to examine the canoe, but wound up donating it to the Minnesota Archaeological Society, who generously gifted their father Gustave with an honorary membership in response. The MAS loaned the canoe for display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Minneapolis Public Library and exhibited it at the Walker Art Gallery along with some of their other artifacts. In 1961, they sold it to the Western Hennepin County Pioneer Association museum in Long Lake, Minnesota, who added it to the museum’s eclectic collection of artifacts including a moose once shot by Theodore Roosevelt.

It was in its display in a hallway of the WHCPA museum that Maritime Heritage Minnesota archaeologists Ann Merriman and Chris Olson first encountered the canoe. They secured a $9,000 grant from the state to radiocarbon date and study the Lake Minnetonka canoe and seven other canoes discovered in Minnesota. The study did turn up some bad news. The canoe has deteriorated over time. The ends are frayed and the sides lower than they used to be. There is a long crack that splits the craft’s entire 11-foot length, a crack that was not there in 1934 as historical pictures confirm. Fragments of wood have come off and litter the hull.

The good news is those fragments made sampling the wood for typing and dating a simple matter of picking up a few of them. The radiocarbon dating found the wood sample dates to 1025-1165 A.D., the Final Late Woodland Period of the Woodlands Culture. The report of the Maritime Heritage Minnesota study has now been published and can be read in its entirety here).

Now that the canoe’s true historical value has been identified, it must be properly conserved to prevent further deterioration.

In Long Lake, the canoe that once was relegated to a corner is now the museum’s centerpiece — fitting, since it’s about 6 miles from where it was discovered. The museum will rope it off and enclose it in a glass case with updated details about how rare and old it is.

“We’ll never loan it again, especially now we know what it is,” [Russ Ferrin, the volunteer who runs the Pioneer Museum,] said.

It’s not just newfound fame for an ancient artifact but also for the small museum. Founded by pioneers 107 years ago, the nonprofit is housed in an old school building. It’s run by Ferrin and other volunteers, and admission is free when it’s open for four hours on Saturdays.

“It is [the main attraction] now,” Ferrin said of the canoe. “We hope it will draw visitors.”

I’ll add that I hope it draws lots of donations too, to ensure it can be kept in a humidity controlled environment and properly conserved for future generations.


Iron Age mint found in Leicester

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

An archaeological survey on the site of future construction in Leicester, central England, has unearthed evidence of an Iron Age mint. More than 20 Iron Age coin molds have been discovered at the Blackfriars site since excavations began in January, so large a number that it strongly suggests the site was a mint used by the local British tribe, the Corieltavi, who had their capital at Leicester.

What makes this find particularly exciting is that Leicester is just 15 miles west of Hallaton, the village where a massive treasure including 5,296 British silver and gold coins, 4,835 of them from the Corieltavi tribe, was discovered in 2000. It’s the largest group of Iron Age British coins ever found in Britain. Roman coins and coins from other British tribes were also found at Hallaton, along with a Roman cavalry parade helmet, silver bowls, jewelry, the remains of 400 pigs and several dogs. The site was an open-air shrine in use between 50 B.C. and 60 A.D., with the valuables interred as offerings to the gods.

Given that the British coins found at Hallaton make up 10% of the total number of British Iron Age coins ever discovered, it makes sense that there would be a nearby source, like, say, a Corieltavi mint in Leicester. The molds don’t have reverse images to identify the kinds of coins struck. They were dated to the early 1st century A.D. thanks to fragments of high status pottery recovered from the ditch where the first coin mold was found.

The site appears to have been an enclosure in the British Iron Age. There were at least two distinct phases of Iron Age activity, followed by at least three phases of Roman activity. Most of the structural remains come Roman phases of occupation, starting with a residential townhouse. There are foundations and partial walls, no floors, but the remains of mosaic tesserae and painted plaster that indicate the house was highly decorated and therefore expensive. There was also a colonnade, as evidenced by surviving column bases. The walls were thick and supported by buttresses so it must have been a building of considerably size.

Inside the building evidence of burning and of a kiln over multiple floor layers suggest at some point this building was dedicated to industrial use, perhaps the production of roof and floor tiles. Several tiles have been found bearing the adorable signs of why they were discarded.

The team also found a Roman tile in the northern half of the site, with what appear to be dog paw imprints embedded in the ceramic.

Nick said: “When tiles were made in Roman times, they used to get local clay and leave it out in the sun to dry and pets and animals used to escape across them leaving these kinds of imprints – it was quite a common thing to find.

“We’ve also found some floor or roof tiles with sheep or goat prints here as well.”

Also one with what may be cat prints judging by the size, shape and the absence of visible claws.

Much of the masonry and columns were lost over time, probably repurposed in the Middle Ages for construction of the Blackfriars Priory. There are several instances of medieval construction features cut into the Roman archaeology, plus the remains of medieval pottery and cesspits.


National Museum’s Viking Ireland video series

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The National Museum of Ireland has put together a wonderful video series based on their Viking Ireland exhibit. It’s a tour of Viking history in Ireland as seen through some of the artifacts on display. Each of the eight videos is short and eminently digestible, a sort of capsule history on topics like Viking swords and trade. It also makes you want to go to the museum something fierce, which is obviously the entire point, so job well done, National Museum of Ireland!

The first video is about the Viking battle axe. The stars are three axe heads found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, Galway, that date to the 11th or early 12th century. They are three different sizes and, thanks to the survival of small parts of the cherry wood handles still attached to the axe heads and other wood fragments from the rest of the handles, researchers are able to hypothesize that the two smaller ones were probably wielded by one hand, while the largest was probably a two-handed weapon. They’re late enough in date that they almost certainly belonged to Irish warriors, not Vikings. It was the Vikings who brought the battle axe to Ireland. Before that they had axes tools, built heavy to help split wood, but the Viking weapons were designed to be light and sharp, with the maximum amount of cutting edge for minimum amount of weight.

Next is the Viking sword, a more expensive weapon than the axe and every warrior’s most prized possession. The video focuses on a sword discovered in the River Shannon near Banagher in 2012. It dates to between 925 and 975 A.D. The blade may be of German manufacture while the hilt was made in Scandinavia. The coolest part of the video is the X-rays of the sword which gave conservators information about which areas needed work and provided more details about manufacture like the use of silver wire in the hilt.

The Viking Wealth & Trade video has some neat shiny stuff like some pretty huge penannular brooches that were both status symbols for the men who wore them and a means of portable wealth. I loved the set of woven silver cones found in a cave in Kilkenny. They aren’t very heavy in silver so they were purely decorative rather than a potential source of bullion. They were probably attached and hung as tassel from the edges of cloth and worn by a woman.

It was Vikings who introduced coin to Ireland. Before they came Ireland was a barter economy, with cattle as the primary currency. The Vikings were introduced to coin by trade with the Byzantine Empire and Arabic merchants and by plundering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which minted coins starting in the 7th century. The video shows one of the first coins struck in Ireland, a silver penny from 995-997, struck in Dublin by King Sitric Silkenbeard.

The Viking Women in Ireland video is a little thin on details. You see some beautiful ornaments found in graves from pre-Christian burials — large oval brooches used to fasten straps of traditional Scandinavian pinafore with glass bead chains strung between them. The highlight for me is a whalebone plaque similar to the one unearthed in Lilleberge (see this post) which the British Museum speculated might be used for food service, but the National Museum of Ireland thinks were used in textile production, maybe to stretch linen or other fabrics, in conjunction with a glass smoother.

Arrival of Vikings & Beliefs is centered on remains and artifacts found in burials in Islandbridge, Dublin, the largest Viking burial site outside of Scandinavia. Featured is a skeleton buried with a sword and spearhead, one of the earliest preserved Viking burials in Ireland. There’s also a splendid collection of swords, axes, spearheads and bosses from shields excavated from the 19th century on. Islandbridge excavations are still making new discoveries, including early single-edged sword from the 9th c., a spearhead, ringpin and the human remains of male 18-20 who grew up outside of Ireland and came to the island a couple of years before his death.

The Irish & the Vikings video is about how the two cultures came together. The Vikings created an urban commercial culture with Dublin as the center of trade and manufacture, while the Irish remained rural and agricultural, living in small groups on crannogs and in ringforts. The presence of urban Viking settlements provided new markets for Irish agriculture, cattle, leather, wool. There are some fabulous surviving textiles in the video.

Despite their disparate living arrangements and cultures — the Irish spoke a different language, had different legal and political systems — there was significant overlap in the material culture as the Irish quickly adopted Viking weapons, tools, jewelry. Not to be missed at the 2:51 mark is the Hnefatafl gaming board, a Chinese checkers or draughts sort of game with pegholes in the board decorated in Viking style.

Also striking is the late 10th c./early 11th c. slave chain found near Ardakillen crannog in County Roscommon. There was slavery in Ireland before the Vikings, mainly prisoners of war, but the Vikings made it into a thriving industry. They set up slave emporiums in Dublin, tapping into a vast trade network that meant an Irish war captive could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to north Africa.

Daily Life in Viking Ireland looks at the two best preserved Viking settlements: Dublin and Waterford. Because the environment is water-logged, the most exceptional organic remains have been found, like bedding that is still green after 1,000 years. Through a scale model drawn from a Dublin excavation, you see the dawn of the European town design, the six different types of houses, the layout of streets and defenses. Artifacts show the daily life in these towns. Pieces of of walrus bone and tusks were worked there, and there was a huge amber trade. More than 3,000 pieces of Baltic amber from the Viking era have been found in Dublin, the second greatest amount of amber found in Europe.

It’s not just about Vikings and the Irish. There’s an amazing leather scabbard at the 4:13 mark that was made by an English man. We know this because he so generously engraved his name on it: Edric me fecit (Edric made me). Around 4:50 you get an awesome tour of tools — his own and ones for other trades — made by a Dublin blacksmith, including the earliest datable spurs and stirrups in Ireland.

Last but not least is the Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland. By the 10th century, the Viking settlers had intermarried with the Irish and the hybrid Hiberno-Norse brought together Viking and Christian design elements. The Crozier of Clonmacnoise looks like a stylized Viking horse head. The Shrine of the Cathach, a decorated gold box meant to hold a 6th century Irish psalter thought to have been written by Saint Columba himself, is inscribed with the name of its maker: Sitric Mac Maghe (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly), a Scandinavian first name and an Irish family name.

Then there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 12th century that was created to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It’s an outstanding example of the late Viking Urnes art style which features stylized animals in combat with snakes symbolizing the battle of good against evil.


Byzantine monks used asbestos under wall paintings

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Ancient sources tell us that asbestos was used in antiquity for its fireproof properties primarily in textiles and candle wicks. The 2nd century Greek geographer Pausanias in Book I, Chapter 26 of his Description of Greece describes a golden lamp in the temple of Athena that burned all year on a single wick made of “Carpasian flax, the only kind of flax which is fire-proof.” Pliny the Elder dedicates a whole chapter of his Natural History (Book XIX, Chapter 4) to incombustible linen napkins woven out of asbestos fibers.

It is generally known as “live” linen, and I have seen, before now, napkins that were made of it thrown into a blazing fire, in the room where the guests were at table, and after the stains were burnt out, come forth from the flames whiter and cleaner than they could possibly have been rendered by the aid of water. It is from this material that the corpse-cloths of monarchs are made, to ensure the separation of the ashes of the body from those of the pile.

Pliny says the Greeks call these fibers asbestinon, meaning “inextinguishable.” He believes they grow in the heat of the Indian desert, not realizing that the fibrous substance is actually a mineral rather than a plant.

Asbestos continued to be used in the Christian era. Marco Polo mentions Tartars using a cloth made from fibers dug out of a mountain that whitens in fire, and the 10th century Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, aka Ibn al-Fatiq, in his Concise Book of Lands records how clever scammers in Jerusalem sold Christian pilgrims little chunks of asbestos as pieces of the True Cross. The fact that they burned without being consumed by fire was seen as proof of authenticity. In the early 1800s, physics professor Jean Albini made a fireproof suit out of asbestos cloth and took it on a tour of Europe.

The use of asbestos in construction, however, has no such pedigree. That has been thought to be a relatively recent development of industrialization, first implemented in the late 19th century. Researchers from UCLA have discovered that Byzantine monks on Cyprus beat them to the punch by 700 years or so. Underneath 12th century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos the UCLA team found a layer of chrysotile (white asbestos) in the finish coating of the plaster.

The researchers weren’t looking for asbestos. They were analyzing the paintings using an impressive panoply of technologies, among them infrared, UV and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and microsamples examined by scanning electron microscopy and gas chromatography mass spectrometry, to determine whether the materials changed over time. It was one of those microsamples, taken from an 1196 wall painting of the Enthroned Christ, that revealed the presence of chrysotile.

The sample was taken from the red frame of the book Christ is holding and consists of four layers: a dark brown top layer that was likely a varnish, an intense red cinnabar paint layer, the asbestos-rich orangey layer, and underneath them all, a plaster layer made mostly of plant fibers. Researchers believe the chrysotile was used to enhance the red cinnabar layer.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

The closest asbestos mine was in the mountains about 40 miles inland from the coastal monastery. The monks, like their leader St. Neophytos, sought isolation in their monastery, so they weren’t likely to have traveled inland personally. They likely took advantage of a regional trade network to purchase their materials.

Although asbestos has only been found under that red cinnabar layer thus far, the UCLA team plans to return to the monastery to examine more of the wall paintings, and to look for asbestos that may have been missed in previous studies of other Cyprus wall paintings.


Anglo-Saxon ring engraved with Christian and pagan symbols

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

The Saffron Walden Museum in Essex has acquired a rare Anglo-Saxon gold ring engraved with a combination of Christian and pagan symbols. The ring was discovered in 2011 by metal detectorist Tony Carter in Uttlesford, Essex, and was declared treasure. In order to buy the ring and four other gold and silver artifacts discovered in the area, the museum had to raised £60,000 and £7,500 in donations. Since the grants were matching funds, the donations were necessary for the whole plan to come together. The campaign was successful and now all five pieces are going on display in a new showcase starting April 5th.

The ring, dubbed the North-Essex Ring, is the centerpiece of the new display. It’s a gold signet ring with a rectangular bezel and a heavy hoop 26.6mm in diameter at the widest point. It weighs a total of 20.1 grams and its composition is 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver and the rest a copper alloy. The square bezel and broad hoop are a Frankish form — for comparison see this Frankish ring from approximately the same period unearthed in the Mulsanne, France, and now in the British Museum — but the decoration on the North-Essex Ring is distinctly Anglo-Saxon.

On the bezel is engraved a belted male figure, possibly naked despite the presence of the belt. There is no visible clothing like the male and female figures on the Mulsanne ring wear. The man is holding a bird in one hand and a staff topped with a cross in the other. Above his head is another bird, bigger and more detailed. Both of the birds have curved beaks, indicating they’re birds of prey and the detail in the larger one identifies it as a Style II design, a zoomorphic style in which whole animals are depicted in an elongated, stylized fashion. Some of the pieces from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial are decorated in Style II.

The decoration and ring style date the piece to around 580-650 A.D., a period when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Essex and East Anglia were first introduced to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to convert King Æthelberht of Kent in 597 A.D. The combination of pre-Christian North European motifs and the Christian crossed staff makes the ring an extremely rare example of religious syncretism from this transitional period.

Another of the five objects secured by the Saffron Walden Museum is also a rare example from a transitional period in British history, albeit a much later one. It’s a gold ring from the 16th or early 17th century. The band is decorated with circular medallions in which are engraved scenes from the passion of the Christ. This imagery is Catholic, but from a time when people had to hide their adherence to Roman Catholicism to save their necks.

They don’t have a religious significance, but there are two historically significant gold coins in the new collection. They’re Gallo-Belgic class four gold staters struck in the Somme area in northwest France in the mid-2nd century B.C. Both of them are quite worn, one of them bent along the edge, indicating they were in circulation for some time before winding up in the ground. Very few class four gold staters have been found in Britain, and these are the earliest ever discovered in the district.

The last two artifacts are a silver hooked tag from the 9th century A.D. decorated with stylized animals that once held niello accents although the black enamel is long gone. (it’s known as Trewhiddle-style decoration) and an identified silver object with engraved niello animal figures from the 8th or 9th century.

All of the artifacts will be on display together starting April 5th. The museum has made a replica of the North-Essex Ring available so visitors can handle it and appreciate its size and decoration in person, which I think is a nifty idea that more museums should incorporate in their exhibitions.


Barrels of 700-year-old poop found in Denmark

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Archaeologists excavating I. Vilhelm Werners Square in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense, Denmark, are delighted to have found barrels full of medieval excrement. Poop is a boon to modern archaeology because it can tell us more about the daily lives of past people than golden treasures, and this particular poop is very well preserved thanks to having been buried in an oxygen-poor environment.

The content of the barrels was immediately identifiable from the odor which was still pungent after 700 years in barrels under layers of the city. The first round of analysis found that 14th century Odensians were fans of raspberries, as well they should be. Scientists also found fragments of moss, leather and fabric all of which are thought to have been used as toilet paper. (Moss toilet paper? Would it have been, like, a clump attached to soil? How does it stay intact otherwise? Because if the structural integrity issue was dealt with, I imagine moss would make a pretty comfortable tp.)

Markings on the barrels indicate that they were not initially used as latrines. An anchor carved on one suggests it was used to transport or store herring, a major source of trade for medieval Odense. The barrels themselves are generally in good condition, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to recycle a busted barrel for use as a cesspit. Containment is key to sewage management.

The poop barrels were unearthed last year. Continuing excavations on the site this year discovered even more barrels in an unusual configuration. Three barrels were stacked on top of each other and strapped together with strong wicker. At the base of the pit archaeologists found a mat of reeds and a pipe system made of recycled roof tiles. It seems this was a homemade water well, with the pipes used to draw water into the barrel well and the reed mat as a filter to keep sludge out of the water. On each side of the barrel stack are the remains of pillars, probably used to hold aloft a small roof to project the well water from bird poop or leaves or any other such contaminants.

The well is also from the 1300s and may have originally been in the courtyard of a home. It could also have been part of a beer brewing apparatus. Near the well archaeologists found a store of partially germinated barley, a key supply for beer making.

The Werners Square area is thought to be the oldest area in Odense, settled from at least the 11th century, and possibly as early as 988 when historical sources claim a bishopric was established there. The first recorded bishop, Reginbert, was sent to Odense by King Canute the Great in 1020 or 1022. The excavation, which began in 2013, hopes to reveal the earliest days of Odense going back to King Canute’s day. Preliminary studies found the remains of one of the oldest datable streets from around 1100.

The dig, which is the largest in the city’s history, is open to visitors every Tuesday and Thursday at 1:00 PM. The archaeologists’ workshop is also open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3:00 PM. I wonder if there were visitors present when the fragrant poop barrels were discovered.


Decapitated Vikings were noob raiders, in bad shape

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

The remains of around 50 decapitated Vikings unearthed in 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset on the southern coast of England were not the elite fighting force sung about in the sagas. They weren’t even garden variety Viking raiders. Researchers have found no evidence of previous fighting injuries which means if they were in England to raid, they were novices at it.

The early forensic examination of the remains pointed to this being a Viking raiding party who met a grisly end at Anglo-Saxon hands. The skeletons were all male, seemingly in good physical condition. Stable isotope analysis of their teeth confirmed their Scandinavian origin. They all spent their early childhoods in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. The bodies were on one side of the pit while the heads were stacked on the other side. Defensive wounds were found on hands and arms, but the fatal wounds were on the necks, skulls and shoulders. These were not clean decapitations. The heads were cut off in several sword blows from the front. There were no artifacts interred with them, not even any clothes, suggesting they were stripped before or after death.

Further osteological analysis found that the skeletons dated to 970-1025 A.D during the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. Almost all of the men were between 18 and 25 years old. There were outliers, though: one youth in his early or mid teens, and one senior who was over 50 years old at the time of death. Several of the men had filed teeth, a Scandinavian practice of unknown symbolism that may have been an indicator of social status, specific occupation or a way to make the battle grimace scarier by filling in the dental grooves with paint.

It was the physical condition of many of the remains that exploded the early theory that they might have been the mighty mercenary Jomsvikings or imitators thereof. The remains testified to a number of chronic illnesses and injuries that would have been seriously debilitating. One man’s thigh bone has two deep holes in it from the chronic bone infection osteomyelitis. Louise Loe of Oxford Archaeology describes it deliciously grossly:

“The bone was twice the size of a normal thigh bone and had openings which would have oozed smelly pus during his life. The leg would have been swollen and painful. It must have posed a considerable disability to the individual, and consequently the rest of the group.”

Another raider had a healed fracture to his right femur that left his right leg significantly shorter than his left. A kidney or bladder stone was found among the skeletal remains. Some of the men had what researchers think is brucellosis, an infectious disease transmitted from unpasteurized milk or other close contact with the secretions of infected animals. It causes joint and muscular pain and at its worst, can result in arthritis, meningitis and neurological disorders.

Some of these remains, including the suppurating thigh bone, are now on display at the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition. Although the British Museum was already well into the planning of the show when the Weymouth pit was discovered, they immediately moved things around so there would be room in the display for the decapitated raiders. The exhibition runs from March 6th to June 22nd and will include among its many treasures the first public display of the entire Vale of York Hoard.

In September, the Dorset skeletons will travel to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin. In January of 2015 they will return to England where they will find a permanent home in the new Ancient Dorset gallery of the Dorset County Museum. There they will be displayed in their original positions in a reconstructed version of the burial pit.





November 2015
« Oct    


Add to Technorati Favorites