Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

Friday, July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.


Update: three treasures go home

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”


1,200-year-old lost city found in Cambodia

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

A team from the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Asian Art and Archaeology has discovered a previously unknown city from the early Khmer Empire on Phnom Kulen mountain, 25 miles of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Archaeologists knew that there were a few scattered temples on the site because the ruins are still visible through the jungle growth, but when they attached Lidar to a helicopter and then flew over the area for seven days, the remote sensing technology revealed much more than a handful of isolated temples.

Lidar, a portmanteau of laser and radar, points a laser beam at a target and then determined distances by analyzing the reflected light. It’s a highly effective (and highly expensive) tool for mapping architectural features hidden underneath thick jungle canopies. What the Lidar found was more than two dozen new temples, plus canals, roads and dykes indicating the site was a major city complex. Many of the temples are invisible to the naked eye and show no sign of having been interfered with by looters, a rare boon to archaeologists.

In effect the Lidar technology peeled away the jungle canopy using billions of laser pulses, allowing archaeologists to see for the first time structures that were in perfect squares, completing a map of the city which years of painstaking ground research had been unable to achieve.

The archaeologists were amazed to see that 36 previously recorded ruins scattered across the mountain were linked by an intricate network of gridded roads, dykes, ponds and temples divided into regular city blocks.

The team believes these structures belong to the ancient city of Mahendraparvata, the capital built by the founder of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II. Scriptures describe a great ceremony held by Jayavarman II on Phnom Kulen mountain in 802 A.D. to celebrate Cambodia’s freedom from Javanese control. He was proclaimed God King at this ceremony and built a city on the sacred mountain and ushered in the glories of the new Angkor era. Angkor Wat was built more than 300 years later in the 12th century.

Like Angkor Wat, the Mahendraparvata city grid is oriented east-west and north-south, but Angkor Wat was built on a flat plain while Mahendraparvata was built on a mountain side. Clearing the area of vegetation and building in neat geometries was an exceptional feat of engineering for the newborn empire. That deforestation may have been an important contributing factor to the demise of the city because stripped of its natural ecology, the city became dependent on water management systems which could not support its population as it grew.

Much more investigation much be done before the question of what happened to Mahendraparvata is answered. Archaeologists believe the Lidar only covered the tip of the iceberg over those seven days. They think the city is far vaster and they want to return with a more extensive Lidar exploration. It’s an expensive proposition so they’ll need to raise funds before they come back with more Lidar, but in the meantime they have a rich new archaeological site to explore the old-fashioned way.

Here’s a video of them tramping the jungle, looking for the structures revealed in the Lidar data. Watch the whole thing because it’s amazing to see just how little of the archaeology can be seen with the naked eye. One of the temples is under a rice field and there is exactly one partial brick on the surface testifying to what’s underneath.


Lost medieval inscribed stone found in Wales stream

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Archaeologists on a walk stumbled on a long-lost inscribed stone dating to the 9th or 10th century in the Nant Tawelan river in the village of Silian, County Ceredigion, mid-west Wales. Nikki Vousden, staff member of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and University of Wales archaeologist Dr. Roderick Bale were taking a stroll along the stream one bank holiday when they noticed one of the wet stones had an inscription. The water glinting off the surface highlighted the unusual pattern: a linear Latin cross with a lozenge shaped ring at the upper end.

There are only three stones known with a cross and lozenge pattern. One of them is at St. David’s Church in Llanllawer, the other at St. Tecwyn’s Church, Llandecwyn, and the third has been missing for longer than anyone knows. Its existence was documented by Dr. Victor Erle Nash-Williams in his 1950 reference The Early Christian Monuments of Wales, but his sources were a cast of the surface and a photograph of the stone kept at the National Museum of Wales. A label on the picture identified the stone as coming from Silian, but there was no record of who took the photograph, who made the cast or the context of the original find.

So at some point somebody knew it was historically significant enough to make a cast of the inscription. How the stone went from museum cast-worthy to sitting in a stream 40 miles south of St. Sulien’s Church, Silian, is a mystery. The stone is being kept at St. Sulien’s right now, which has two other inscribed stones. The earliest, inscribed “Silbandus lies” with a linear Latin cross superimposed over the words, dates to the 7th-9th century and is now built into the church’s external south wall. The second dates to the 9th or 10th century and has a pattern of linked knots on one side and square frets on the other. It was discovered in the churchyard in 1808 and was moved to the interior south wall of the church in 1960.

The newly rediscovered stone is called Silian 3 because it’s the third of St. Sulien’s three stones. Silian 3′s inscription is made of punch marks clustered close together. The design wasn’t carved into the surface with a chisel; it was punched out in divots with a metal tool. According to Professor Nancy Edwards of Bangor University, author of the three-volume A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, the Silian 3 inscription is unique. Although they share the cross and lozenge imagery, the other two stones are different in overall pattern.

There are 534 documented early medieval inscribed stones and sculptures in Wales. Find sites cluster around churches and burial grounds. Some of the inscriptions indicate they were used as grave markers, and indeed there are extant stones that bear clear marks of having been embedded vertically into the ground. However, not a single inscribed stone has ever been discovered in context attached to a grave. Nancy Edwards believes (pdf), and inscriptions back her up, they were also used as boundary markers of church property, to record a donation of land to the church, or in the case of the larger works, as unmistakable signs of sacred ground. They may also have been placed along roadsides to serve as prayer stations, much like statues of saints and whatnot are still used in Italy to this day.


Robert the Bruce to Edward II: Stop persecuting us

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

The transcript of a previously unknown letter written by Robert the Bruce of Scotland to King Edward II in October of 1310 has been discovered in a British Library manuscript. Previously attributed to Robert II, the Bruce’s son-in-law and king of Scotland from 1371 to 1390, the letter was included in a scrapbook of sorts, a compendium of poems, histories, legends, medicinal recipes, chronicles and correspondence compiled by the Cistercian monks of Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds, Yorkshire, in the late 15th, early 16th century. The correspondence section was apparently copied from a dossier of letters between King Edward III of England, Pope Benedict XII, Pope Clement VI, Philippe VI of France, John Stratford, the archbishop of Canterbury, emperor Ludwig of Bavaria and the Duke of Guelders.

The Bruce letter comes early in this correspondence series which is why a 19th century cataloger assumed it was from Robert II to Edward III. When University of Glasgow Professor Dauvit Broun came across the letter while doing research for the Breaking of Britain, a project examining Scottish independence from 1216 through Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314, he realized that there was no way the letter was written by Robert II. The context was all wrong. The letter is dated October 1st, “in the fifth year of our reign,” which under Robert II would have been 1375. However, Scotland and England weren’t at war in 1375. Robert II and Edward III had signed a truce in 1370 and it lasted for 14 years. The only way this letter makes sense is if it was written by Robert I.

Here is the English translation of the letter (originally written in Latin):

To the most serene prince the lord Edward by God’s grace illustrious king of England, Robert by the same grace king of Scots, greeting in Him through whom the thrones of those who rule are governed. When, under the sweetness of peace, the minds of the neighbouring faithful find rest, then life is adorned with good conduct, and also the whole of Holy Mother Church, because the affairs of kingdoms are everywhere arranged more favourably by everyone. Our humbleness has led us, now and at other times, to beseech your highness more devoutly so that, having God and public decency in sight, you would take pains to cease from our persecution and the disturbance of the people of our kingdom in order that devastation and the spilling of a neighbour’s blood may henceforth stop. Naturally, everything which we and our people will be able to do by bodily service, or to bear by giving freely of our goods, for the redemption of good peace and for the perpetually flourishing grace of your good will, we are prepared and shall be prepared to accomplish in a suitable and honest way, with a pure heart. And if it accords with your will to have a discussion with us on these matters, may your royal sublimity send word in writing to us, by the bearer of this letter. Written at Kildrum in Lennox, the Kalends of October in the fifth year of our reign.

Edward II and a large army were in Scotland in October of 1310. The Bruce had been accumulating military successes since 1307, harrying the British with guerrilla warfare tactics. Edward, encamped in Biggar, south Scotland, hoped to entice Robert into a pitched battle where his troops would dominate. Kildrum (today part of Cumbernauld) was a town just a day’s horse ride away from Biggar. It follows that Robert, having heard of Edward’s army movements, sent the letter in an attempt to stop the British advance into Scotland.

With a British army in his territory spoiling for a fight, it’s no surprise that Robert takes an extremely conciliatory approach in this letter, addressing Edward in glowing terms while emphasizing his own humility. At the same time, he makes it clear that this is a king-to-king conversation, that Robert governs Scotland with the exact same legitimacy with which Edward governs England. The recognition of Scotland as a separate and independent kingdom is the underlying premise of the letter. England’s disagreement on this point is the reason there’s a war at all, so even though Robert appears to bow and scrape offering to do anything for peace, in fact he’s asserting his right and his rule in no uncertain terms.

Robert may also have been hoping to draw out the confrontation past fighting season. October is not a good time to start a military campaign in Scotland. A few months of back-and-forth messaging and negotiations would at least postpone the war until the next year. In fact, by December, Edward II sent negotiators to talks with Robert I at Selkirk. Historians have assumed that Edward initiated the talks, but this letter is strong evidence that Robert opened the door that Edward would walk through two months later.

The negotiations ultimately went nowhere. A follow-up meeting between Robert and Edward’s emissaries fell through when Robert failed to show up, possibly because he feared an ambush, but perhaps because he just wasn’t into it anymore. In October, the prospect of an overwhelming British invasion force loomed. Two months later, the immediate danger had passed.


Oldest complete Torah found at Bologna University

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

The oldest complete Torah in the world has been discovered in the library of the University of Bologna. Known simply as “Scroll 2,” the sheepskin scroll is 118 feet long and 25 inches wide and had been erroneously dated to the 17th century by librarian Leonello Modona in 1889. Modona was the first to catalog the university’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts. He was himself Jewish and highly educated but he wasn’t a Hebrew scholar so his dating was a guess. It was even accompanied by a question mark.

The key to cracking the true age and rarity of this Torah was the script. Modona had described it as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices,” but when Professor Mauro Perani came across the scroll last year while working on a new catalog of the university’s Hebrew manuscript collection, he immediately recognized that the script wasn’t some weird anomalous Italian style, but rather a superb example of a Babylonian script that was in use way earlier than the 17th century. It was in fact a hand more like the 12th or 13th centuries. Perani sent pictures of the scroll to other Hebrew scholars who all concurred with his assessment that the script dated to the 12th or 13th century.

Another important clue to the great age of this scroll is the presence of line justifications, compressed letters and “crowns” over certain letters prohibited in the rules on Torah copying established by the great 12th century rabbi Maimonides. Maimonides’ rabbinical regulation on how scribes should copy the Torah have been followed religiously, if you’ll pardon the term, for almost 900 years. The scribe who copied Scroll 2 either predated Maimonides (d. 1204) or hadn’t yet heard about the new standard.

The textual and graphic evidence of age was confirmed by two radiocarbon tests, one performed at the University of Salento and the other by the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The results date the scroll to between 1155 and 1225. This makes it the oldest complete Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) known to have survived. The previous record-holder dates to the 14th century.

Torahs this old are such rarities because even if they managed to survive destruction during centuries of pogroms, expulsions and the horrors of World War II, Torahs that are worn or damaged can no longer be used for services because they are deemed to have lost their holiness. When a Torah’s lifetime has run out, it is ritually buried.

Scroll 2 appears to be in beautiful condition. We don’t know how long it has been curled up in the University of Bologna library, but Perani thinks it’s been centuries. The University began teaching Hebrew classes in the 15th century, but it’s not likely they’ve had it in their possession quite that long. There’s some speculation that it may have been part of a Dominican monastery scriptorium — in the early Middle Ages, Dominican friars were known to sometimes work with Jewish scholars on ancient texts — when it fell victim to Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796. Bologna became part of a French Revolutionary client statelet called the Cispadane Republic, later expanded into the Cisalpine Republic. They adopted the same constitution of Directory France which came with suppression of monastic orders. Scroll 2 could have been sent to Paris as booty and then brought back to Bologna with other spoils after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 and given to the university library.

There will be further studies to see if the history of this remarkable Torah can be traced. Meanwhile, the majestic scroll is set to go on display at the university next month. Plans are also in motion to photograph it in high resolution and upload it onto the library website.


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

Friday, May 24th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wanna gooooooo. :love:


Bored Viking carved outline of his foot on ship deck

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Remains of early church found under Lincoln Castle

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, May 13th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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