Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Medieval mummies protected by wall inscriptions in Sudan

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

The archaeological site of Old Dongola in what is today Sudan has a rich history. Originally built as a fortress in the fifth century, Dongola grew into a prosperous town thanks to its Nile-side location and, after its conversion to Christianity by the end of the sixth century, became the capital of the Coptic Christian kingdom of Makuria. In the seventh century, Makuria was able to defeat the forces of the Rashidun Caliphate after its successful invasion of Egypt. The ensuing peace treaty established trade relationships between Muslim Egypt and Christian Nubia that lasted for 600 years, a long period of stability that allowed the Kingdom of Makuria to flourish. The kingdom’s power began to wane in the 12th century and it was finally defeated by the Sultan of Egypt in the 14th century.

In 1993, the Polish Archaeological Mission (PAM) discovered three burial crypts in the northwest annex of a monastery in Old Dongola. Archaeologists believe they were part of a commemorative complex built either at the direction of or for the burial of Archbishop Georgios, Dongola’s primary cleric who was appointed directly by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria rather than via a national church hierarchy. According to a funerary stele found in the annex near the crypts, the archbishop died in 1113 A.D. when he was 82 years old.

Inside each chamber were several natural mummies, some wrapped in textiles, and the walls of the southernmost crypt were covered with inscriptions written in Greek and Sahidic Coptic. The crypts were photographed and then resealed to preserve the contents until a more thorough excavation could be done. That finally happened in 2009.

They found that the southern crypt (crypt 1) held seven mummies, one of which is thought to be the body of Archbishop Georgios. Archaeologists were not able to single out which of the bodies, if any, was the Archbishop’s. They are all adult males older than 40 and, judging from the extensive evidence of chronic and degenerative illnesses, probably older than that at the time of death. The bodies were dressed fairly modestly, mainly in linen garments, wrapped in shrouds and then interred in the crypt over a course of years. Four pectoral crosses were found in the crypt as well, two of them wood, one of them stone, one of them glass.

The inscriptions on the walls of crypt 1 provide a particularly fascinating glimpse into Makuria’s unique religious culture. Painted in black ink over a thin layer of whitewash, they cover the four walls of the barrel chamber almost entirely. They are in very good condition, except for areas where the walls themselves were damaged. The writing was all done by the same person, one Ioannes, who did us the favor of signing his name at the end of the inscriptions on the north, east and south walls. He probably signed the west wall too, but it was lost due to damage.

Ioannes was better at Coptic than he was at Greek. There are copious errors in the Greek, some of which he covered with whitewash and redid, like Medieval white-out, which suggests he may have been trying to copy a text, which suggests he had access to a library, either in the monastery or perhaps the private library of the archbishop. It’s a reversal of what you might expect, since Greek was still going great guns in the Eastern Church while Sahidic Coptic was already a dying language by the end of the 11th century.

The inscriptions begin on the west wall with an invocation of the Holy Trinity. Underneath that the writings are defined as a phylakterion malakias, a phylactery or amulet against weakness. A series of magical symbols in a frame follow, and beneath them are two lists, one of numerical cryptograms representing the names of god and angels, the other of magical divine names. Quotations from the gospels and prayers in Greek are next. One of the prayers, said to by the Virgin Mary, is well-known in a languages from Coptic to Arabic, but this is the first time it’s ever been found in Greek. Since Greek was probably its original language, it’s a highly significant find. The prayer ends abruptly with the invocation of a magical ritual meant to chase evil spirits from the tomb.

The inscription on the east wall quotes from the Gospel of Luke in Greek then moves on to a Coptic piece on the death of the Virgin Mary. It includes the prayer she spoke before she died and describes her final scene. This is an excerpt from a popular fourth century Coptic work by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, but unlike every other extant version of the text known, the crypt inscription has a curious line: after Mary finishes praying, death appears to her “in the form of a rooster.”

From the paper on the inscriptions in the journal Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean by University of Warsaw professor Adam Łajtar:

The decoration of the burial vault may therefore be properly described as a silent ritual, intended to safeguard not only the tomb, but primarily those who were buried inside of it during the dangerous liminal period between the moment of dying and their appearance before the throne of God. The entire ensemble of texts and architecture must be considered a unique and important witness to the funerary beliefs and practices of Christian northeastern Africa in medieval times.

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Medieval bones go online at Digital Diseases

Monday, December 9th, 2013

More than 1,600 archaeological bones, mainly Medieval, from collections across the UK have been scanned and digitized to create a rich online database of pathological specimens accessible to all. These bones cannot be seen in person by laypeople because they are restricted to scholarly research. In some cases, they are so fragile that even scientists aren’t allowed to handle them. The Digital Diseases team has used 3D laser scanning, computer tomography scans and high resolution photography to create photo-realistic 3D digital models that visitors to the website will be able to examine at a forensic level of detail that wouldn’t be possible in person.

This record of bones affected by more than 90 pathological conditions like leprosy, bone tumors, tuberculosis, congenital deformations, force trauma both sharp and blunt will be an invaluable resource for medical students, doctors, historians and researchers all over the world who have no access to pathological specimens. The fact that they’re archaeological remains makes them particularly significant because researchers will be able to study the skeletal impact of disease and injury on people who in all likelihood experienced nothing or very little in the way of effective medical intervention. It also gives archaeologists the chance to examine bones taking all the time they need without concern that they won’t be finished before legal reburial requirements kick in.

“We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping – they do have what one observer called ‘a grotesque beauty’.”

They’re also just plain interesting. You don’t have to have an aesthetic appreciation of, say, a giant benign bone tumor on a mandible, to find it worth examining and reading about.

The Digital Diseases website officially opens any minute now. It is being launched at an event at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and judging from the project’s Twitter feed, the party has started. The site has a preview on the landing page, but hasn’t gone fully live yet as of this typing. Some images are still missing, some menu links go nowhere, there’s no search function I could find and the home page doesn’t quite exist yet. Still, you can browse categories and click on some examples for more details. Once it is live, visitors will be able to examine bone models in 3D via their web browsers or to download them to their smartphone or tablet device.

The project’s blog is a good place to start right now while the site is still being tinkered with. During the course of the two years spent digitizing the specimens, team members have been blogging about their efforts and particularly interesting bone pathologies they’ve encountered. Take a look at the big hole in this right femur.

That’s some gunshot wound. There’s no date on it (I’m sure once the site is functioning we can find that info there), but judging from the big round hole, that was ball shot, like from a musket. Amazingly, the bone is healed, so the injury did not prove to be fatal.

This vertebral column and ribs is an example of advanced ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory arthritis that can eventually result in fusion of the spine. That’s what has happened here. Even the ribs have fused to the vertebrae via the ossification of the ligaments attaching them to the spine. Galen first documented some symptoms as distinct from rheumatoid arthritis in the second century A.D., but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that doctors fully identified the disease.

This skull has played a supporting role in the archaeological story of the year/decade/century, the discovery of the skeletal remains of King Richard III. It once belonged to a man who met a bloody end along with so many others during the War of the Roses at the Battle of Towton on March 29th, 1461, Palm Sunday. Inside a mass grave from the battle discovered in 1996, archaeologists found the full articulated remains of 37 men. This was a highly significant find because often in mass graves the remains are so jumbled up it’s impossible to put individuals back together. Articulated skeletons can tell us much more about the injuries sustained in battle and before.

This skull and other bones from the Battle of Towton grave were used by University of Leicester osteologist Dr. Jo Appleby to compare wounds with the skull of the scoliotic skeleton found at the Greyfriars dig site. Richard III and this anonymous but not forgotten fellow both fought and died in the same war, albeit more than 20 years apart (Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth on August 25th, 1485). To confirm that the Richard III candidate’s extensive head wounds properly fit the period’s weapons and battle tactics, Dr. Appleby and Bob Woosnam-Savage, Senior Curator of European Edged Weapons at the Royal Armouries, examined the Towton skull’s peri-mortem weapon injuries. As we now know, they were found to be compatible.

The Digital Diseases database will make that kind of work possible on a far vaster scale since most people in the world aren’t able to visit these collections in person.

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8th century Japanese statue digitally re-colored

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

When the life-sized clay statue of the Buddhist deity Shukongojin was made for the Todaiji Temple in Nara, southeastern Japan, in 733 A.D., it was painted in vibrant colors and liberally gilded. Although much of the polychromy has been lost over time, there’s still an unusual amount of color paint and gilding surviving on the surface. So much has pigment has survived because Shukongojin is a hidden god — he is extra powerful because he is kept behind closed doors at all times and only revealed to the public one day a year — and has therefore been protected from exposure to the elements and our various emanations and effluvia.

The particularly great state of preservation of this oldest Shukongojin figure in the country has made it possible to extrapolate what the whole statue looked like when it was new 1,280 years ago. Researchers from the Tokyo University of the Arts and the Tokyo University of Science spent two years studying the statue to detect trace pigment remnants and recreating the original colors digitally.

The result is as striking in 8th century clay as it is in first century marble:

Gold was an indicator of divinity in Japanese Buddhist iconography, while red symbolized the quelling of demons and protection from illness. Shukongojin is a protector deity, the thunderbolt-bearing guardian of the laws of Buddhism and its faithful. His furious expression, crowned in bright red hair, and his thunderbolt ready to strike ward off the evil spirits who would bedevil the devoted at prayer in the temple. He was originally an Indian deity, one of the vajrapani or thunderbolt-holders who were said to have been personal guardians of the historical Buddha. His thunderbolt broke everything it was flung at while being itself unbreakable, a symbol of faith’s ability to destroy evil without being damaged by the encounter.

The bright colors and elaborate adornment served a political function as well. Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749 A.D.) saw the establishment of government-controlled Buddhist temples and shrines as a means to unify and protect the country. His reign had been plagued with rebellions, smallpox outbreaks and crop failures. In 743, he issued an edict requiring people to help build temples and shrines in every province, with Todaiji as the head of all provincial temples. He believed a new, widespread piety would appeal to the Buddha and spare the country further disasters. Shukongojin, with his full armour, gold shine, blinding colors and powerful intensity of expression, was modeled after depictions of Chinese guardian generals. His role is religious, but his intimidating presence and elaborately decorated outfit are meant to convey the protection of a unified faith, already well-established in India and China, a protection inextricably linked to the emperor’s government at this time.

This particular Shukongojin has another connection to the early history of Buddhism in Japan. According to the Nihon Ryoiki, the oldest collection of Buddhist myths and legends in Japan (it dates to the late 8th/early 9th centuries), the monk Roben, second patriarch of the Kegon school of Buddhism and founder of the Todaiji Temple, was helped in the creation of the temple by a magical sculpture of Shikkongoushin. Tradition has it that this is that very Shikkongoushin who supported Roben’s work. It was first made for the Kinshoji, the temple Roben established in 733 a decade before the emperor ordered construction of Todaiji. The former Kinshoji is now the Hokkedo (Lotus Hall), the oldest building in the Todaiji temple complex, and is still Shikkongoushin’s home today.

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Sarcophagus found under Lincoln Castle opened

Monday, November 18th, 2013

A limestone sarcophagus discovered earlier this year underneath Lincoln Castle during an archaeological survey before construction of an elevator shaft has been opened. It was a lengthy, delicate process. When the stone coffin was first unearthed, only the side was visible. The trench was deep and the sarcophagus very heavy; it took months to dig it out. Finally in October archaeologists were able to gingerly remove the sarcophagus from its berth 10 feet under ground level, sliding it out horizontally.

The team had hoped that once the lid was exposed they’d find an inscription identifying who was buried within, but they were not so lucky. The lid of the stone coffin was mortared down for burial and since then had cracked all the way across horizontally in two places. In order to lift it, the team had to remove the lid in three sections. Archaeologists had gotten a glimpse of the contents when they threaded an endoscopic camera into the sarcophagus after the initial discovery so they knew it contained an articulated skeleton. When the first section of the lid was removed, they found the remains of leather boots or shoes, a very unusual discovery that confirmed the deceased was someone of great status in the community.

The mere fact of his having been buried in a sarcophagus indicated he was someone of wealth and/or prestige. The bones have not been radiocarbon dated yet, but pottery found in the same layer as the burials dates to the 10th century, a hundred or so years before the Norman invasion and the construction of Lincoln Castle by William the Conqueror in 1068. It seems William chose the site of an Anglo-Saxon chapel or church upon which to build his castle, a chapel in which the community’s elite were buried. Anglo-Saxons didn’t typically use sarcophaguses to bury the dead. It was probably a Roman-era coffin recycled for a local dignitary, perhaps a king or a religious leader.

In addition to the one in the sarcophagus, eight other bodies were found in the small 10-by-10-foot space. Seven were buried in wooden coffins, one wrapped in a finely woven woolen shroud and laid to rest in a niche in the foundations of the wall. Archaeologists believe the shrouded burial was a votive, that the man was someone holy and his remains were placed in the foundations of the church to sanctify it.

Before the lid was removed, experts took a 3D scan of the complete sarcophagus. Once the lid came off, the interior was also 3D scanned. This will allow researchers to examine the burial in detail without risking damage to the human remains or any artifacts that might still be there.

Mary Powell, Programme Manager for Lincoln Castle Revealed project, said: [...]

“Finding a sarcophagus from this period that’s still undisturbed is extremely rare, so this discovery is of national significance.

“The next step will be to thoroughly analyse both the sarcophagus and the remains to learn as much as we can from it. This will undoubtedly increase what we know about Saxon Lincoln.”

It pretty much has to, because historians know very little about Lincoln after the Romans left and before the Normans came. That’s why the discovery of the church, of which there are no surviving records so nobody even knew it was there, and burials is of national significance.

They will also attempt a facial reconstruction extrapolated from the remains of the skull, but they have to put it back together first. Judging from the pictures, it looks heavily damaged.

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Dig in Alsace yields intentionally deformed skull

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

An archaeological survey in advance of construction in Obernai, in the northeastern French province of Alsace, has unearthed nearly 7,000 years of history, from the Neolithic through the Merovingian periods. The oldest section of the 7.5-hectare site is the south-eastern zone where a Neolithic burial complex dating to 4900 – 4750 B.C. was discovered. There are 20 people buried there. Another Neolithic burial ground, this one dating to 4750 B.C. at the earliest, revealed 15 corpses buried with jewelry — necklaces of limestone beads, weirdly large stone armbands — flint tools and pottery. It’s the latter that marks these graves to the waning days of the Grossgartach culture, a period of transition in Stone Age Europe that up until now has been poorly represented in the archaeological record of Alsace.

There are some Bronze Age artifacts, but the next major evidence of occupation on the site dates to the Gallic period, starting around 450 – 350 B.C. Again it’s burials, but very curious ones. Round storage pits contain human and animal remains in various combinations. One grave contains the bones of two children and several dogs. Another features the skeletons of a dog and a sheep or goat. A third contains the partial remains of a buck, including his head and handsome rack. A fourth holds a shield. There’s evidence of habitation there too, the remains of dwellings. Archaeologists believe the burials indicate this was a site of religious significance, perhaps a shrine.

Adjacent to these burials is a more recent Gallic enterprise, a prosperous farm from 150 – 30 B.C. which covers nearly two acres of the site. It is bounded by a dug enclosure which in its time was strengthened by earthenware embankments, now long gone.

[The Gallic farm] has two doors built into its corners, one of which is covered with a monumental porch. Inside the enclosure, there are building remains, storage pits and many artefacts from the Final La Tene period (150 to 130 BC). These artefacts (fibulae, glass ornaments, pottery, amphorae, coins, etc.) show the importance of this farm and the wealth of its owner.

The Gallo-Roman period is attested to by the remains of a bathing complex and by sandstone columns that appear to have been deliberately discarded, thrown broken into a pit.

It’s the Merovingian (5th-8th century A.D.) finds that take my cake, however. In a necropolis containing 18 west-east burials, one woman was found buried with the richest grave goods. Gold pins kept a garment together over her chest and she had two chatelains, chains suspended from a belt that held practical objects for household use. The objects she carried where a silver mirror, beads of glass and amber, a set of tweezers and an earscoop (a surprisingly popular device throughout the ages) for her emergency grooming needs. Also buried with her was a triangular comb made out deer antler decorated with geometric patterns that reminds me of that 3rd century Germanic one with the runes.

The silver mirror is of a design common among the Alano-Sarmatian peoples who left their North Caucasus homelands heading west under pressure from invading Huns in the late 4th century and 5th centuries. What really identifies her as an Alan is her ovoid skull, a result of intentional cranial deformation. The fashion for binding infants’ heads with straps or cradleboards to elongate and flatten their skulls wasn’t just a Mesoamerican phenomenon, although they may be its most well-known proponents today. Intentional cranial deformation was used extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa as well. The Alan version of the practice used circular bandages wrapped around babies’ heads to flatten front and back of the skull with equal pressure. Here’s a facial reconstruction of a Hunnish woman with this kind of cranial deformation.

This practice distinguished the elites and affirmed their social status. Similar graves, which are usually isolated, have been discovered in Northern Gaul, Germany and eastern Europe. They are accompanied by abundant grave goods. They thus appear to be the graves of high dignitaries and their families, of eastern origin, incorporated into the Roman army during the “great migrations”. The Obernai necropolis is one of the few large groups of discovered in France. It is the first evidence of the presence of an eastern community over a long period of time in Alsace at the end of the Roman Empire.

INRAP (the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research) has a gallery of (sadly small) photos from the excavation that you can browse here.

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Update: begin solving the Pictish Puzzle October 25th

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

If you’ve been anxiously anticipating getting your chance to help piece back together the carved face of the Pictish Hilton of Cadboll Stone from thousands of fragments, mark you calendar: on October 25th, the website Pictish Puzzle officially launches. It’s a placeholder right now, but once it goes live, anybody with a reasonably functional computer — it doesn’t have to be a high-end gaming machine — will be able to use the Pictish Puzzle program to manipulate fragments in 3D and piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The fragments are organized in the database by category and users can collect pieces from all the categories to work with in the same way you would put together a conventional jigsaw puzzle. You could pull up all the knotwork pieces, for instance, and pick fragments you think look like they might go together, then go to the corner category to look for some framing pieces. Other categories include human, animal, tool mark, strip, spiral, key and, awesomely, appendage. Once you have two or more pieces on your desktop, you can push them around in three dimensions to see if any of them might fit.

Here’s a preview of the software at work:

That looks hard, man. I’m intimidated because I am not a great puzzler, but you don’t have to be a great anything to give this a try. You don’t have to have a fancy computer, gaming experience or flawless spatial awareness. The designers specifically made the program to be widely usable by anyone. The more people participate, the better the odds of getting any useable recreations out of this project.

All suggested solutions will be displayed for users to judge before being examined by professionals. The final results will be combined to create a digital replica of the original face of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, something that hasn’t been seen since 1676. Everybody who worked on the puzzle will be credited in some way.

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Gamers enlisted to put Pictish slab back together

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The National Museums Scotland will be enlisting the aid of gamers to help piece back together the base of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, an elaborately carved Pictish sandstone cross-slab from 800 A.D. The stone once stood in Hilton of Cadboll, a seaboard village on the east coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in northeastern Scotland. Originally carved on the seaward side with an early Christian cross and on the landward side with traditional Pictish symbols like the crescent and double disc and secular themes like a hunting scene, the stone was knocked down in the 17th century, possibly by a storm in 1674.

After its fall, it was lying face down with the Christian side exposed which apparently gave someone a very bad idea. One Alexander Duf had the early Christian Pictish cross on the reverse side chipped away and replaced with his crappy coat of arms. He also left an inscription identifying himself as the vandal: “He that believes well does well sayeth Solomon the wyse. Heir lyes Alexander Duf and his three wyves 1676.”

The criminal carving was done, but the stone was not moved to Mr. Duf’s actual tomb. It remained where it fell until the mid-19th century when the MacLeods of Cadboll removed it to Invergordon Castle for use as a garden ornament. From there it spent a brief stint in the British Museum in 1921, but public opinion was strongly opposed to the move, so it came back to Scotland within the year, this time going to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where it is still on display today in the Early People gallery.

In 2001, Historic Scotland funded an excavation by the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) on the site where the cross-slab had stood for eight centuries. Their aim to recover any fragments of the stone left behind and to determine when it was first erected. They found the missing base of the slab and more than 3,000 fragments of the carved cross face chiseled away to make way for Mr. Duf’s execrably poor taste and narcissism. The pieces range in size from little chips three centimeters (1.18 inches) in diameter to large pieces as much as 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) long.

Putting humpty dumpty back together has proved to be too challenging with conventional methods, and it has taken more than a decade for a possible technology solution to be developed. Scottish technology firm Relicarte has developed a program which gives users access to 3D scans of each fragment which can then be pieces together in an online 3D environment.

Aegir Maciver, director of Peebles-based Relicarte, which developed the platform for online gamers, said the stone’s precious fragments were transported at night to Borders General Hospital, placed in trays and put through a CT scanner, which digitised the fragments and reproduced them as 3D objects.

The task, which took two nights to complete, also involved the laborious business of labelling each individual fragment.

“We had already been doing some work at the museum and we were told they were about to undertake the Cadboll Stone project and intended to have a digital aspect too and asked us to come up with ideas,” Maciver said.

“We came up with the crowd-sourcing idea and digitising the three and a half thousand fragments. We created an online software platform which allows you to view and manipulate files.”

Maciver continued: “It’s very innovative and allows people who don’t have powerful computers or 3D software to go online and interact with 3D models in real time.”

Because gamers are accustomed to manipulating objects in a virtual 3D environment, archaeologists hope to enlist their skills in solving the puzzle of the Hilton of Cadboll fragments. National Museums Scotland will shortly issue an appeal to gamers asking them to contribute to the herculean effort of piecing together the carvings which can then be deciphered by experts in Pictish symbology.

UPDATE 10/10/2013: And we have a website! It’s just a placeholder right now. Pictish Puzzle officially launches on October 25th.

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Fragment of flag from Battle of Bosworth sold

Monday, September 30th, 2013

A fragment of cloth from a flag the flew over the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, sold to an anonymous private collector for £3,800 ($6,150) at auction last Saturday. The 6.5-inch by 5.5-inch piece of gold and red fabric is a remnant of the standard of Henry Tudor, who after his victory over King Richard III at Bosworth would become King Henry VII. From the auction house press release:

The fragment had been passed around over the years as an amusing after-dinner thought,” [auctioneer Charles Hanson] said.

“Our vendors are obviously aware of its social value today since the imagination of what happened at the Battle of Bosworth will keep historians debating for years to come. I am just delighted such a fundamental accessory to that 1485 battle has been unearthed only months after finding King Richard III in a Leicester car park. As an auctioneer, I thrive on the social relevance such bygone artefacts had on society. If only this fragment could talk I am sure it could tell us so much.”

The flag fragment is mounted in a frame along with a description of its history dated November 13, 1847. It’s been in the same family ever since then. Doubtless the result of 400 years of oral transmission, aka a very long game of telephone, the description gets some key facts wrong. It claims the piece is:

A relic of the Standard taken from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field, August 22, 1485. The enclosed relic was taken from Standard in Stanton Harcourt Church deposited by the tomb of one of the Harcourts, who was the Standard bearer to Richard III.

The glaring inaccuracy in this account is whose standard the fragment came from since we know it to be Henry Tudor’s rather than his royal opponent’s. The piece was taken from the Bosworth flag hung over the tomb of Henry’s standard bearer, Sir Robert Harcourt, Knight of The Bath. Sir Robert died five years after the battle, around 1490, and was buried in the Harcourt Chapel in St Michael’s Church, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire. The tattered remains of the standard he bore were hung above his effigy.

Across from his tomb is that of his grandfather, also named Sir Robert Harcourt, and his wife Margaret Byron. The elder Sir Robert was initially a Lancastrian with a front row seat to the inception of the War of the Roses. He escorted Margaret of Anjou from France to England in 1445 to marry King Henry VI. Things began to go south in 1448 when he killed fellow Lancastrian Richard Stafford at Coventry. He was pardoned for killing Stafford by the king in 1450, but the murder launched a feud between the families that would last for 38 years, long outliving Robert.

As a result of the feud, Harcourt’s Lancastrian loyalties were sorely tested. He was already suspected of having Yorkist sympathies in 1459 and by 1463 he was a confirmed Yorkist. King Edward IV made him a Knight of the Garter that year and he fought for Edward in the siege of Alnwick Castle. For his great services in the capture of Alnwick, Robert was granted £300 a year for life. He died on November 14th, 1470, at the hands of a bastard son of William Stafford of Grafton and 150 Stafford retainers.

By 1485, the Harcourts were Lancastrian again, now fighting on Henry Tudor’s side. The Staffords took the other side and fought for Richard at Bosworth. The next year, Sir Humphrey Stafford of Grafton and his brother Thomas co-led the first uprising against King Henry VII after Bosworth, conspiring with Francis Lovell, 1st Viscount Lovell. The Stafford and Lovell Rebellion was quickly suppressed. The Staffords picked a fight in Worcester which was a stronghold of support for Henry, while Lovell thought better of putting his neck on the line and fled to Burgundy. The Staffords took cover in a monastery from which Henry removed them by force, engendering a big brouhaha about the right of sanctuary that resulted in a Papal Bull that excluded sanctuary entirely in cases of treason. Thomas Stafford was pardoned. Humphrey Stafford was executed at Tyburn. The feud between the Harcourts and the Staffords died with him.

In an unrelated but nonetheless satisfying coincidence, the Harcourt family, Norman French descendants of the Viking yarl Bernard the Dane, fought with William the Conqueror and settled in England after the Battle of Hastings. William granted them estates in Leicestershire and they made their family seat in, you guessed it, Bosworth. The family seat only moved to Oxforshire in 1191 when yet another Robert de Harcourt inherited the Stanton manor from his wife Isabel de Camville’s father. The town of Stanton was then renamed to Stanton Harcourt and the Harcourts have been there ever since. They still own the manor house although it hasn’t been the family seat since the 19th century.

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Dirty scrap metal turns out to be Viking silver

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

In April of 2012, David Taylor was helping his brother-in-law Andrew Coulter remove stones from his newly plowed field in Inishargy near Kircubbin, County Down, Northern Ireland, when he spied a muddy piece of metal perched on a rock. Its distorted open ring shape captured David’s interest. He picked the piece up and found it was soft metal which made him think it might be an object worth keeping, perhaps an expensive piece of machinery. When he brought it back home and cleaned it, his wife thought it was just some dirty scrap, an old discarded U-bolt bracket that David should throw in the trash.

David was still intrigued by its shape, however. He thought it might be a bracelet, although he had no idea what period it might date to. He took some pictures of the object and sent them to local museum experts. They recognized it as a Viking arm ring, a very rare discovery in Ireland.

On Monday, September 9th, a Belfast Coroner’s Court inquest officially declared the ring treasure trove. It’s composed of 90% silver with trace quantities of copper and gold and was manufactured between 950 and 1100 A.D. It weighs 45 grams, almost two Viking ounces, and would have been used by the Vikings not just as adornment but also as currency.

The Annals of Ulster note that monasteries and churches in the county were raided by Vikings in the 9th century, and there were constant battles between the Danes, Norse and Ulster kings. By 970 A.D. relations between the Vikings and native Irish had stabilized, however archaeologists speculate that the arm ring did not originate in the area, but rather in Shetland or the Orkneys where there were large Viking colonies. Not that there weren’t Viking settlements in Ireland. Dublin was awash with them, and in Northern Ireland there were notable ones at Ballyholme near Bangor and at and Strangford village, both in County Down.

John Sheehan, archaeologist from University College Cork, told coroner Suzanne Anderson that the field where the ring was found lay close to the remains of a medieval church.

He explained that religious sites were often used as a storage place for valuable items.

With clashes between Viking settlers and native Irish commonplace, the expert suggested the ring may have been taken out of Scandinavian hands.

“Maybe it fell into Irish hands and as a result of that ended up deposited for safe-keeping at a church site but then got lost,” he said.

The arm ring will now be assessed for market value by the UK Treasure Valuation Committee, comprised of experts from the British Museum and other institutions. Once a fair monetary value is assessed, the closest local museum, in this case the Ulster Museum, will be given the opportunity to purchase the piece. The money will be divided 50/50 between the finder, David Taylor, and the landowner, his brother-in-law Andrew Coulter. David is hoping the Ulster Museum acquires the arm ring because he thinks it’s important that the rare discovery remain in the place where it was found. That’s what makes it so rare.

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Richard III had roundworms

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Leicester have analyzed sediment samples collected in September of last year from the burial site of King Richard III and discovered that he suffered from intestinal parasites, namely roundworms. The samples were taken from three places: the sacral region of the pelvis at the base of his spine (marked S on the picture), the skull (C1) and a spot outside the grave’s edge (C2). The sacrum is a triangular bone that forms the back wall of the pelvic girdle. The intestines are contained in the pelvic girdle. Since obviously Richard’s intestines are long gone, any remains of their contents would be found in the sediment around the sacrum.

Analysis of the sacral sample found multiple eggs of the giant roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) ranging from 55.1 to 69.8 micrometers in length. From those tiny eggs hatch the largest parasitic worm in humans. Adult females, which are bigger than the males, can reach over a foot in length. They are tremendously fertile, capable of laying 200,000 eggs every day. A person contracts a roundworm infection when they eat or drink something contaminated with egg-containing human feces. The eggs hatch in the small intestine and the larvae pass through its walls into the blood stream. From there they travel to the lungs where they grow for a few weeks until they’re coughed up and swallowed so they can head back home to the intestine. That’s where they grow to full size and sexual maturity and start producing hundreds of thousands of eggs a day so the cycle can start over again.

Roundworm eggs are remarkably resilient. They can remain viable in the soil for up to 10 years, and archaeological examples up to 24,000 years old have been found. Roundworm is the most common parasite in humans, infecting an estimated one sixth of the world. Improvements in sanitation in the US and Europe have drastically reduced the rates of roundworm infection making it relatively uncommon, but in Richard’s time it was widespread. Even kings weren’t spared, despite their access to the best food. All it took was an infected food handler with unwashed hands or vegetables grown using human feces as fertilizer, a common practice in the Middle Ages.

His cooks deserve credit for keeping other parasites at bay, though.

No other species of intestinal parasite were present in the samples. Past research into human intestinal parasites in Britain has shown several species to have been present prior to the medieval period, including roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), beef/pork tapeworm (Taenia saginata/solium), fish tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum), and liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica). We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork, and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork, or fish tapeworm. This finding might suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.

We know the eggs in sacral sample weren’t the result of later contamination of the soil because the control sample taken from the skull area had no eggs present and the control sample from the edge of the pit had 15 times fewer eggs than the pelvic sediment sample. This is the first time the remains of a British king have been examined for intestinal parasites. If Richard had any idea he was infected — he could easily have been asymptomatic — treatment at the time would have involved bloodletting and medicines to counter specific symptoms like coughing, fever, bloody sputum and abdominal pain.

To close on the grossest note possible, here’s a thought from the AP article about this discovery:

It’s also possible Richard’s worms made a gruesome appearance when he died on the battlefield in 1485 as the last English king killed in war. In adults infected with roundworm, traumatic events like car crashes can cause the worms to pop out of peoples’ noses and ears.

“The worms get shocked and they move quickly,” said Simon Brooker, a professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was not part of the study. He said it was possible the many blade injuries suffered by Richard before his death could have prompted the worms in his body to make a hasty exit.

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