Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

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“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

Monday, March 21st, 2016

The ring purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc that was sold at auction last month for $412,845 is back in France. Its new home is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of western France where the ring was unveiled with great pomp on Sunday by the park founder Philippe de Villiers before a crowd of 5,000.

The theme of Puy du Fou is French history through the centuries. Visitors can enjoy gladiatorial combat and real live quadriga races at the Gallo-Roman stadium, the traditional crafts in the medieval city, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table complete with dragon slaying and enchanted lake, a Viking longship attack on a wooden keep, a working mill and musicians in the 18th century village, the bird of prey show in a ruined castle, a joust and tricks from horseback knights, the vicissitudes of a French naval officer fresh from the Revolutionary War in America to the French Revolution, a swashbuckling 17th century adventure of the dastardly Richelieu versus the King’s Musketeers, a Belle Epoque city ca. 1900, a fire fountain show on the lake at night and much more.

This party-time version of the past is a fitting setting for the ring because there are widespread doubts as to its authenticity. An Oxford University laboratory dated the ring to the 15th century based on its style, wear and engraving, but that’s as close as it gets to any actual facts linking this jewelry to the Maid of Orléans. They share a century. That’s all we know for sure. The long track record of ownership history included with the ring is entirely speculative. It’s based solely on the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ancestry can be traced back to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. There are no references in archives or histories that mention the ring being owned by anyone in the family at any time between 1431 and when it first appears on the historical record in 1914.

On the advice of experts, neither the town of Orléans nor the Joan of Arc Historical Exhibition in Rouen bid for the ring. There are many fake Joan of Arc relics out there, and the association of this particular piece with Joan only dates to the early 20th century when there was a revival of Joanmania. Philippe de Villiers is no museum curator, however, and he insists despite the lack of evidence that the ring is unquestionably authentic. As a politician, leader of the conservative Movement for France party, he is keen to claim Joan and there’s a hefty portion of nationalism underpinning this acquisition. At Sunday’s unveiling he said “It’s a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here,” then launched into a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.

He was putting Britain on notice there. Appropriately enough, the export of the ring has sparked a war, of words this time, between the British and French. When the auctioneers gave the ring to park lawyers, they informed them that an export license would have to be secured before the ring could leave the country. Any antiquity worth more than £39,219 that has been in the UK for more than 50 years requires a special export license issued by the Culture Minister. The license is only issued after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) gives the Minister its recommendation, and in the case of this ring, it’s highly unlikely that they would have let it walk away without temporarily blocking export to give British institutions the chance to raise the purchase price and keep it in the country.

Philippe de Villiers has no intention of returning the ring, illegally exported or no, a position he made very clear at Sunday’s ceremony.

“The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London,” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. […] “Is the ring part of England’s national heritage?,” he asked the crowd, which booed loudly. Cheers erupted, however, when he asked whether it was part of France’s heritage.

Mr De Villiers claimed that he had checked the rules and found they only apply if the object is taken out of the European Union. In a mocking nod to Britain’s upcoming referendum over whether to remain or leave the EU, he told the crowd: “It is not at all our intention to have a Puy de Fou exit.”

In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating: “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it’s too late.” “The ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back.”

So much ado about a very questionable artifact. I have to admit, though, as theme parks go, even with its inherently inaccurate, sanitized, kid-friendly, way too clean version of history, it’s pretty cool. I am all over that quadriga race.

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Update: St Eric’s wounds consistent with legend

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

On April 23rd, 2014, researchers from Uppsala University opened a reliquary casket in Uppsala Cathedral to study the bones of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm. The primary goal was to compare medieval remains to modern ones looking for changes in bone density for an interdisciplinary osteoporosis study, but while they were in the neighborhood, the research team examined the skeletal remains in the hopes of answering some questions about his national origins, health, diet and violent death.

The University has now released the first results of the study of Eric’s bones, and so far the osteological evidence is remarkably congruent with the stories told about him at least a century after his death. Since no contemporary writings about him have survived and the later histories are hagiographies that frame him as a saint in life, a martyr in death and a miracle-worker after death, it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s legend. The study attempted DNA extraction and analysis, performed stable isotope analysis of his teeth, did a forensic examination of the bones looking for ante-mortem and perimortem wounds, radiocarbon dated the bones and enlisted orthopaedists and radiologists to determine his vital statistics and state of health.

There are 24 bones in the casket, 23 of them from the same person, plus one random shinbone. The group of 23 are the bones of a man about 35-40 years old who was 171 centimeters tall (5’7″). CT scans found no medical conditions evident on the bones. He did not have osteoporosis or suffer any kind of bone loss. On the contrary, his bone density was 25% greater than the average young man today. Eric was strong and very physically fit. Radiocarbon dating results are consistent with his having died in 1160.

Stable isotope analysis found one reason for his excellent health: he ate a great deal of freshwater fish. Kings had access to a great quantity and variety of animal protein, thanks to plentiful game and freshwater fish available on great estates. Eric ate both land animal protein and fish but emphasized the latter.This conforms to accounts of him in the hagiographies which describe him as fasting often out of religious devotion. Fasting in the Middle Ages didn’t require abstention from all food. It was usually meat that was excised from the diet, sometimes extended to animals products — butter, milk, cheese, eggs — during penitential seasons like Lent. The more extreme strictures were primarily observed by monks or individual ascetics. For lay Christians over most of the liturgical calendar, there were three fast days: Wednesday (the day Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ), Friday (the day Christ was crucified) and Saturday (the day dedicated to the Virgin Mary). Game birds like swan and peacock that only the aristocracy had access to were exempt from the no-meat rule.

Wounds on his bones also seem to fit the stories about Eric. His cranium had one or two healed wounds, possibly inflicted by sharp weapons. He fought a war, some call it a crusade, against pagan Finland, which would have afforded him plenty of opportunities for this kind of injury. The unhealed wounds inflicted at the time of his death match his story even better.

The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that the victim lay on his front.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was an interlude, as described by the taunting in the legend, between battle and decapitation. At no point do the documented wounds gainsay the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

One thing that contradicts the hagiographies was an isotope analysis finding that suggests he spent the last decade of his life not in Uppsala, but in the southern province of Västergötland. This is only a preliminary finding, however, since stable isotopes have to be compared to previously recorded values in order to determine geographic locations and there’s still a lot of comparing to be done.

DNA analysis is still pending as well. Researchers were able to extract DNA samples successfully, which is a major hurdle to leap when dealing with 900-year-old bones. The DNA analysis is expected to take another year. They have DNA from King Magnus III of Sweden (reigned 1275-1290) who was descended from Eric IX through his mother Ingeborg. They will be compared to confirm the bones are indeed Eric’s.

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Buckle from British Isles found in Danish Viking grave

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

A buckle of Scottish or Irish origin has been discovered in the grave of a Viking woman in Enghøj on central Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The gilt bronze disc is a small piece of six centimeters (2.4 inches) with a Greek key-like geometric pattern that was made in the 9th century. The woman who took it with her to the grave died in the 10th century, so it was already decades, maybe even a century, old when it was buried in Denmark. She used it to keep her petticoat together.

Archaeologist Ernst Stidsing from the Museum East Jutland realized right away that it was a very unusual piece. He’d never seen anything like it before, so he sent pictures to Emerita Professor Else Roesdahl of Aarhus University. She had never seen anything like it either. Stidsing shared the pictures with English and German colleagues and they agreed that it was made in the British Isles. Having only the ornamentation to go on, the experts disagreed on whether it was of Irish manufacture or from southern Scotland.

They were certain that it didn’t start out as a buckle or brooch. It was a fitting from a shrine of some kind, stripped off a wooden box used to hold sacred objects. It’s therefore not a trade piece. Monasteries and churches weren’t in the practice of prying the decoration off their reliquaries and selling them to Vikings. This was acquired in a raid.

Viking loot from Britain and Ireland is very rare in Denmark, all the more so in a grave. It’s more common, albeit still a rarity, in Norway, where several examples have been discovered. A reliquary and fragment of an English 8th or 9th century crozier were found in the grave of a Viking woman in Romsdal, Norway, in 1961. A direct parallel, a Celtic disc, also originated in Scotland or Ireland as decoration on a shrine or reliquary. The Vikings converted into a brooch and it was buried the grave of a high-status woman in Lilleberge, Norway, in the 9th-10th century. It was unearthed in 1886 but kept in a soil block and only fully excavated and identified a few years ago.

Ernst Stidsing thinks there may have been a Norwegian connection for the Enghøj buckle.

“It could have been [brought by] a Norwegian woman who came to Denmark with her jewellery, and lived and died there,” says Stidsing.

He now hopes that strontium isotope analysis of the woman’s teeth could clear up where she came from.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

“It will confirm the picture that we were already [living] in a globalised world back then,” he says.

That picture was solidly confirmed most recently when Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age young woman whose exceptionally preserved burial complete with hollowed out tree trunk coffin, clothing, grave goods, textiles and accessories has become a Danish icon since its discovery in 1921, was actually from Southern Germany. Egtved Girl was a very important person even though she was only 16-18 years old when she died, a priestess or a dynastic bride, and it’s known that there were marriages between Danish kings and Slavic princesses starting in the 10th century. The woman who was buried with the buckle had status and wealth, but she wasn’t a princess. If isotope analysis finds that she was from Norway or somewhere else other than Denmark, it will give new insight into how mobile Vikings were at various social levels.

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Gardener finds Denmark’s oldest figure of Christ

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Landscape gardener Dennis Fabricius Holm picked up his first metal detector just two and a half months ago. It was his son’s, a Christmas present he’d gotten years before and never used. Holm fished it out of the basement and took it to the empty field next door to his home in the village of Aunslev on the Danish island of Funen to do a few hours of scanning every Friday afternoon. He found some buttons and small coins, nothing to write home about.

Last Friday, March 11th, Holm found something to write history books about. In an area of the field he hadn’t scanned before, his machine alerted him to a metallic object not made of iron. A mere four inches under the surface he found a little gold pendant 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) wide and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) high, weighing 14 grams. The artifact’s fine filigree showed through the caked dirt. Excited about his find, Holm posted pictures of it on a Facebook page for Danish metal detector enthusiasts and was quickly deluged with congratulations.

He contacted Malene Refshauge Beck, an archaeologist and curator at the East Funen Museums, who identified it as a crucifix from the first half of the 10th century. That makes it the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. Before this find, the Christ figure engraved on the largest Jelling Stone, a massive runestone raised by Harald Bluetooth in around 965 A.D., was the oldest known in Denmark. It was a fitting record for a stone whose runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The pendant could be dated with such precision because it is almost identical to a pendant found in Sweden. The first crucifix of this design was unearthed in 1879 from grave 660 in a Viking cemetery at Birka, an 8th century town about 20 miles west of Stockholm. The earliest Christian missionaries who went to Sweden in the 9th century were centered in Birka. The town was destroyed in the 10th century and never rebuilt. Its ruins were rediscovered by an entomologist, Hjalmar Stolpe, who was there to study ancient insects trapped in amber. When he found large quantities of non-native amber on the island, he realized it must have once been an important trading center and so began archaeological excavations that would continue for almost 25 years, from 1871 through 1895.

A fragmentary second crucifix of the Birka type has survived. Their designs are so similar that archaeologists believe they were made by the same craftsman. East Funen Museums archaeologists will now contact their counterparts at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, where the original Birka crucifix is kept. The two crosses will be compared to determine whether they were made by the same hand.

The Aunslev crucifix is the most precious of the three. The first Birka crucifix is gilded silver with much of the gilding worn off. The fragmentary second one is silver. Holm’s find is solid gold. The goldsmith shaped a thin gold wire in parallel lines and small balls called granulation. It would have been a very expensive piece, likely worn by a woman.

Christianity was introduced to Denmark via the elite so this pendant probably belonged to someone wealthy and influential. Whether that person was Christian is impossible to know since the piece was found in a field, not in a grave like the others. Wearing a crucifix could be advantageous when dealing with the already Christianized peoples south of Denmark, and even if the wearer did espouse Christian beliefs, at this stage the new faith often coexisted with the traditional one of Thor and Odin. Indeed, Christ’s expression on the crucifix is not the one of a suffering man near death, but rather of a fearless warrior akin to the Norse heroes and deities.

The pendant is now at the Viking Museum in Ladby where it will be cleaned and conserved. It will be put on display this summer.

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The glorious Mogao cave temples and the earliest printed book

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Legend holds that in 366 A.D., a Buddhist monk named Yuezun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas on the face of a cliff near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China. He began digging caves into the cliff face to make his vision a reality. Who knows if there was a Yuezun who had a vision, but it’s undeniable that in the 4th century, Buddhist monks began to dig grottoes into the cliffs and they didn’t stop for a thousand years.

From the 4th to the 14th century, the monks, sponsored by politicians and wealthy donors who wished to express their religious devotion, dug 492 caves and decorated them with exquisite wall paintings, tile work and more than 2,000 clay sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other figures. The largest sculpture is a Buddha about 116 feet high, the third largest Buddha sculpture in China, which was made during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). In total, there are almost 500,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings depicting Buddhist stories, sutras, donors, abstract ornament and scenes of daily life.

The enormity of the Mogao Caves (Mogao means “peerless”) complex is a testament not just to the religious dedication of the monks, but to its location along the Silk Road. The evidence of the rich cultural exchange brought to the site by the Silk Road is evident in the mixed influences of the art, and it was the demise of the Road which led to the abandonment of the caves in the 15th century. They were all but forgotten, the painstakingly carved and painted grottoes sealed with sand from the Gobi Desert.

Hundreds of years would pass before someone embraced the ancient complex again. A Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu took it upon himself to care for the caves in around 1892. Entirely alone and unsupported, he began to clean the sand choking the temples and repair the wooden elements. In 1900, he opened a cave that had been sealed in about 1000 A.D. and discovered a massive cache of documents without parallel in human history.

Cave 17, which for obvious reasons became known as the Library Cave, held almost 50,000 manuscripts, printed texts, paintings on silk and paper, intricate embroidered silks and other textiles. The dry air of the Gobi had preserved them in exceptional condition. The documents provide a unique view of life in medieval China. There are financial ledgers, calendars, legal papers, property sale contracts, dictionaries, medical books, artworks that capture the music, dancing and games of the period. The are Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts are written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Tangut, Old Turkish and other languages spoken along the Silk Road.

The stand-out document amidst the vast archival treasure discovered in the cave is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed dated book. A copy of an ancient Indian Buddhist text, this Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra was made in 868 A.D., and we know this because the maker noted it in the colophon: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.” While there are extant woodblock printed art works on silk from the 3rd century, the earliest fragments of printing on paper date to the mid-7th century. Woodblock printing was established by the 8th century, but the Diamond Sutra is the first complete book that we have a precise date for known to survive. It is a scroll more than 15 feet long made from seven panels of paper pasted together.

Keen to preserve this great collection, Wang showed some of the texts to local government officials but they showed zero interest. In 1904, the governor order the Library Cave be resealed. Word of the find got out to archaeologists and explorers and in 1907 British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein offered to buy thousands of the manuscripts and artworks. This is Stein’s description of Cave 17:

“The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without perfect order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet. The area left clear within the room was just sufficient for two people to stand in.”

Wang wanted to build a Daoist temple but he had no money and since the government had told him to shove it in regards to conserving the Library Cave’s library, he went ahead and sold the documents to Stein for a pittance. The next year explorer French Paul Pelliot bought more than 10,000 pieces from Cave 17. Then came the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The collection was thoroughly picked over by the time the sales stopped with the beginning of World War I. Finally resurgent nationalism in the 1920s woke the Chinese government up and the remaining documents were moved to the National Library of China in Beijing.

The Diamond Sutra was acquired in 1907 by Stein and is now in the British Library along with more than 400 other pieces from Dunhuang. (The BL, incidentally, has spearheaded the International Dunhuang Project, an initiative to digitize images of texts, art and textiles found at Dunhuang and other archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. There are almost a million images in the database as of now, and they’re not done yet.)

The Diamond Sutra hasn’t left Britain in more than a century, but that’s about to change. It will be the star of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty Conservation Institute has been working closing with the Dunhuang Academy since 1989 to conserve the paintings on the walls of the Mogao Grottoes. To give visitors a truly immersive experience, the Getty has constructed exact replicas of three of the caves. These aren’t Hollywood sets made to look like the grottoes. The replicas are precise duplicates in shape, size and decoration. The replica paintings were done using the same pigments originally used in Dunhuang. The Getty even imported the actual clay used to sculpt the Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inhabit the caves.

The exhibition runs from May 7th through September 4th, 2016. For those four months, Los Angeles may be the closest you can get to the Gobi Desert and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.



[youtube=https://youtu.be/Owy3GhtXAvY&w=430]

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Descendants of Rollo, Viking founder of Normandy, exhumed

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Scandinavian researchers have exhumed the bones of two direct descendants of Rollo, the 10th century Viking founder of the Duchy of Normandy, in an attempt to answer the long-debated question of whether Rollo was Danish or Norwegian.

Historians have differed on the matter of Rollo’s national origins since at least the 11th century. Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin (ca. 965-1043) said in his Historia Normannorum that Rollo was the son of a “Danish” king who was exiled and made his way to France, but at the time Dudo was in the employ of Richard II of Normandy who was allied to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. He had a dog in the hunt, as it were, and cannot be considered reliable on this question. Goffredo Malaterra, a monk in Sicily writing in the late 11th century, said Rollo hailed from Norway. In the 13th Norwegian-Icelandic sagas Heimskringla and Orkneyinga, Rollo appears as Ganger-Hrólf, the son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, yarl of Møre in western Norway. (Rollo is a Latinization of Hrólf.)

With these conflicting and vague sources, historians have argued the point for centuries. It matters because of how important Rollo was to European history. His raids along the Seine so bedevilled Charles III, aka Charles the Simple, King of Western Francia, that he finally bought Rollo off with huge tracts of land between the city of Rouen and the mouth of the Seine in exchange for him switching from raider to protector. He appears in only one primary source: a charter from 918 which mentions the lands ceded to Rollo and his “Northmen on the Seine.” It seems Rollo ruled those lands as Count of Rouen until at least 927 after which his son William I Longsword acceded to what would become known during his rule as the Dukedom of Normandy, after the Norsemen who founded it. William Longsword’s son was Richard I of Normandy. Richard I’s son was Richard II. Richard II’s son Robert I was the father of William the Conqueror.

This January, French government and church authorities granted the research team permission to open the tomb of Rollo’s grandson Richard I and great-grandson Richard II. This is only the second time a French king’s tomb has been opened since World War II. On Monday, February 29th, Per Holck, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, and University of Copenhagen geneticist Andaine Seguin Orlando, opened the two small ossuary coffins buried under the floor southern transept of the gothic church of Fécamp Abbey. Inside one of them were the skeletal remains of Richard II, known as Richard the Good, including a lower jaw with eight teeth.

They were hoping to find teeth because extracting ancient DNA is tricky and the genetic material inside teeth is well-protected by the outer layers. Holck and Orlando retrieved five of the teeth. They will be tested at the University of Oslo and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. If all goes well, the research team and French authorities will announce the results in the autumn.

The remains of the Richards have been moved before. Richard I, who rebuilt the church after it was destroyed in Viking raids, and Richard II, who made it a Benedictine monastery, were initially buried outside the church. Richard II’s great-great-great-grandson Henry II of England had his ancestors’ bones reburied inside the church. Remains that are not in their original location can be problematic to authenticate. I don’t know if this study plans to do anything specific to confirm first and foremost that they really are the bones of Richard II. Also, if the bones were treated at any point — boiled to remove the flesh and make them a clean fit for a small coffin — DNA extraction will be even more challenging, albeit not impossible. Teeth are the Fort Knox of the body.

Spoiler Alert!

If you’ve been watching Vikings on the basic cable station formerly known as the History Channel, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is very loosely based on the historical Count of Rouen. They had to conflate sagas and mess with the timeline to make them brothers, so who knows if he’ll wind up in Normandy on the series, but he’s in France and married to Charles the Simple’s daughter, who may or may not have existed and if she existed, may or may not have survived to adulthood, but is mentioned as Rollo’s wife in William of Jumièges 11th century chronicle Gesta Normannorum Ducum and in Dudo’s history which relied heavily on Jumièges’.

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Anglo-Saxon island settlement found

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield have found an Anglo-Saxon island settlement in Little Carlton, Lincolnshire, that they believe to be one of the most important discoveries in decades. It was metal detectorist Graham Vickers who made the first find: a solid silver stylus. He reported it to Lincolnshire Finds Liaison Officer Dr. Adam Daubney who identified it as a writing implement from the 8th century. It was used to inscribe words on wax tablets; the flat end (which is now bent, probably from an encounter with farming equipment) is an eraser. Pull it through the wax and it resets the field.

A decorated solid silver stylus was a very high status object in the Middle Saxon period. Inspired by his find, Mr. Vickers returned to the plough field and kept detecting, noting the GPS coordinates of every find so the archaeologists who followed him could map out the site. He wound up unearthing hundreds more artifacts: 20 styli, 300 dress pins, more than 100 coins and a very rare lead tablet inscribed with the female Anglo-Saxon name “Cudberg.” Vickers found more than 77 pounds of lead on the site, all relatively common finds. The fact that there’s a name inscribed on this tablet is unusual anyway, and a woman’s name makes it unique.

The coins are all sceats, a type minted in England, and in parts of modern-day Denmark and the Netherlands. Sceats are often found at important trading sites and since they were widely used in northern Europe and have been found in France as well, they were apparently a widely accepted international currency. Most sceats have no inscriptions to record where they were minted and there’s a bewildering variety of iconography. The pictured coin, for example, may not represent any actual king. It seems the minters roughly imitated Roman, Celtic and Germanic coin types because they were their idea of how coins should look.

Another intriguing find is a glass domed bead made from recycled Roman glass. The core is made of re-melted and reshaped Roman glass. The swirly bars of colored glass on top are very refined and could have only have been made by an expert glass maker. The surface shows signs of abrasion, which could have been done to shape it or mount it. Archaeologists think it’s a gaming counter, but if so it’s a very fancy one and it could be a decorative embellishment from a larger piece like jewelry or a bowl.

The University of Sheffield realized from the quality, number and nature of the finds that Mr. Vickers had stumbled on something remarkable so Dr. Hugh Willmott and graduate student Pete Townend from the Department of Archaeology did geophysical and magnetometry surveys of the site. The data was then 3D modelled so they could better understand how the lay of the land and how it was used in the 7th and 8th centuries.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/2Ne3SmCkTWo&w=430]

The imagery showed that the island they had discovered was much more obvious than the land today, rising out of its lower surroundings. To complete the picture the researchers raised the water level digitally to bring it back up to its early medieval height based on the topography and geophysical survey. […]

Students from the University have subsequently opened nine evaluation trenches at the site which revealed a wealth of information about what life would have been like at the settlement.

They found a number of intriguing items including an area which seems to have been an area of industrial working, as well as very significant quantities of Middle Saxon pottery and butchered animal bone.

Archaeologists believe this wasn’t your average Middle Saxon settlement. So many writing implements, jewels and coins indicate this was a monastery or a center of trade and finance, perhaps part of an international trading network. There are very few surviving documents from this period in Lincolnshire. Reading the artifacts and context of this site will contribute significantly to historical understanding of the area in 8th century.

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Ring ostensibly owned by Joan of Arc sells for $333,000

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

A ring that was ostensibly owned by Saint Joan of Arc sold on Friday at Timeline Auctions for £240,000 ($333,000), blowing through the presale estimate of £10,000-14,000 ($13,990-19,590). Including buyer’s premium the final cost was £297,600 ($412,845). According to Timeline spokesperson, “The ring is returning to France.” Some news reports assume the French government is the buyer, but the auction house was vague on the particulars so it could just as well be a private collector.

The ring is silver-gilt inscribed with the letters “I” and “M” on the shoulders and “IHS” and “MAR” on the face. Those are abbreviations for Jesus and Mary. Along the shank are lozenges with very worn florals inside. It was made around 1400 and has an illustrious ownership history that can in theory be traced all the way back to the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431.

After Joan’s arrest, her ring was taken by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy and ally of the English, who presided over her trial for heresy. According to the ownership history established by researchers in the 20th century, Cauchon gave the ring to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial. It remained in his family, the Cavendish-Bentinck family (Dukes of Portland), for 500 years until the early 20th century when Lady Ottoline Morrell gave it to artist Augustus John a few years before 1914. It was through John that it first entered the auction market in 1914. The ring passed through several hands before physician James Hasson acquired it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1947 for the grand sum of £175. The current seller was Dr. Hasson’s son Robert Hasson.

Joan’s rings came up several times at her trial, as documented in the extant transcript (English translation here). The prosecution kept trying to make something of them, asking leading questions insinuating that her rings were seen as objects of devotion and power like the rings of kings, popes and saints. From the transcript:

Asked if she herself did not have some rings, she replied to us, bishop: “You have one of mine; give it back to me.” She said the Burgundians have another ring; and she asked us, if we had her ring, to show it to her.

Asked who gave her the ring which the Burgundians had, she answered her father or her mother; and she thought the names Jhesus Maria were written thereon; she did not know who had them written; she did not think there was any stone in it; and she was given the ring at Domrémy. She said that her brother gave her the other ring which we had and she charged us to give it to the Church. She said she never cured any one with any of her rings. […]

Asked whether the good wives of the town did not touch her ring with their own, she answered that “many women touched my hands and my rings; but I do not know with what thought or intention.” […]

Asked of what substance one of her rings was, on which the words Jhesus Maria were written, she answered that she did not properly know; and if it was of gold, it was not of fine gold; and she did not know whether it was of gold or brass; she thought there were three crosses, and to her knowledge no other signs save the words Jhesus Maria.

Asked why she gladly looked at this ring when she was going to battle, she answered that it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother; and having her ring in her hand and on her finger she touched St. Catherine who appeared before her.

According to the auction house and the documentation (all of which dates to the 20th century), the ring matches this description, but I think it’s a pretty huge fudge to say the ring has three crosses on it like Joan said it did. There are no crosses engraved on the ring. The lot description describes: “incised niello-filled florid lozenges and triangles, the design giving the appearance of three crosses.” I don’t really see Joan of Arc being so subtle as to describe crosses formed by negative space instead of just the plain fact of the lozenge decoration.

The wear, ring style and engraving are consistent with a 15th century date, so whoever dropped more than a quarter of a million dollars on the piece has a nifty medieval devotional ring to show for it, plus the Cavendish-Bentinck family lore, a hundred years of speculation and several museum exhibitions in France and England connecting it to Joan of Arc.

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Medieval painting saved by Reformation recycling

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.

The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.

The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.

When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.

It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.

It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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