Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

African coins found on north Australian island may rewrite history

Monday, August 26th, 2013

In 1944, an Australian soldier named Morry Isenberg was manned a radar station on the remote Wessell Islands in Australia’s Northern Territory looking out for approaching Japanese aircraft. The enemy planes never materialized, but Isenberg’s sharp eye did spot something else. While fishing on the shore of Marchinbar Island, he found nine coins. He pocketed them, wisely drew a map where X literally marked the find spot and then forgot about them for 35 years.

In 1979, Isenberg found the coins he’d stashed away and took them to experts to determine their origin and value. They determined four of the coins were minted by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th century, which is not unexpected since the first known European to reach Australia was Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606. The other five were the shockers: copper coins from the east African Kilwa Sultanate that date to around 1100.

Before this, only one Kilwa coin has ever been found outside of the Swahili Coast (today the Indian Ocean coasts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique) where Kilwa dominated from 900 until the Portuguese broke up the sultanate in the early 1500s, and that coin was in Oman on the southeast Arabian peninsula. Oman was also colonized by the Portuguese for a few decades while they were in the neighborhood in the early 16th century and in the late 17th century Oman conquered the east African coast where Kilwa once reigned. So there were plenty of opportunities for an old Kilwa copper to wind up in Oman. How five of the made their way more than 6000 miles east to the Wessell Islands is a fascinating historical mystery, one with the potential to rewrite the history of when non-indigenous people first stepped foot in Oz.

Kilwa is a small island off the coast of Tanzania. The sultanate was founded around 900 A.D. by displaced Persian prince Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi and soon became the primary center of commerce and trade on the east African coast. Kilwa territory grew nothing but coconut palms. They built their wealth as middlemen, trading manufactured goods from Arabia and India for food, gold and ivory with the inland Bantu communities, keeping the food and shipping the precious materials to Asia where they bought manufactured goods and started the cycle all over again. The Kilwa traders had sailing ships — coconut wood dhows sewn together with cocoa coir and sporting braided coconut leaf mat sails — that could travel as far as India during monsoon season thanks to propitious winds in the summer and then head back home in the winter. As far as we know, however, the Kilwa dhows couldn’t handle the turbulent waters and winds much further south than Inhambane, in today’s Mozambique.

Ian McIntosh, an Australian archaeologist who is now an anthropology professor of at Indiana University, explored the island when he was writing his doctorate on the Wessel Islands in the 1990s, but there wasn’t the interest or funding to do a proper archaeological excavation. Interest in the coins’ story grew in 1998 after the wreck of an Arabian dhow was discovered off the island of Belitung on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The wreck was laden with 60,000 Chinese Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) artifacts including gold, silver and ceramics. The date of the wreck was determined by a handy date of manufacture on one of the ceramic bowls: 826 A.D.

Despite the significant find, it wasn’t until this July that McIntosh was able to return to the Wessell Islands with a team sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society to do a proper archaeological investigation of the site. Oral tradition from the local Yolngu people tells many stories of men from distant lands touching down. The team went looking for any signs of a non-indigenous presence on the island: ballast rocks, ship remains, more African coins, etc.

They didn’t find any more coins, but they did find something of great potential significance: indigenous rock paintings depicting a variety of ships and men wearing hats and trousers. The team documented about 20 images. Some feature whales and other local critters. Ten are ships of different sizes, shapes and configurations. One of them is a steamship with a visible propeller which obviously post-dates Captain Cook but is nonetheless a great find because it’s the only known rock art steamship. Another is a French sailing ship identifiable from its unique rigging.

The find site was a challenge to rediscover because the surveyor’s map from 1944 didn’t match where the radar base was known to be. The team was eventually able to pinpoint the X spot thanks to some topographical features and the remains of oil drums and shell casings from World War II.

“We didn’t find more coins which is disappointing,” Dr McIntosh said. “But the location was very interesting. It’s in a very inhospitable little bit of territory, on this crocodile infested creek littered with flotsam and jetsam amid thick mangroves.”

The coins were clearly not from an old aboriginal settlement, he said, but were most likely part of the detritus washed into the mangrove from the sea.

“There can be only two conclusions, we think: One that they were a product of a storm surge from a shipwreck, and two, alternatively, they were in the possession of one person who just happened to lose them there for whatever reason.”

The team also discovered a piece of timber that at first glance looked like driftwood but upon closer examination appears to be deck bracing for a sailing ship. The wood hasn’t been dated yet, but it might be evidence of a relevant shipwreck.

The timber and rock art will be thoroughly analyzed over the upcoming year. Next summer the expedition will return with underwater archaeologists who will dive the reefs looking for the remains of any ships that may have inspired the paintings.

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Poison ring found in 14th c. Bulgarian fortress

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

It’s not the large cabochon gemstone that opens on a hinge to reveal a secret compartment filled with tasteless, odorless, deadly iocane powder of your imagination. This ring has a more subtle, and therefore effective, design. It’s made out of modest bronze and has a hollow cartridge welded to the bezel. It’s finely crafted with a circular granulation detail around the top and five cylinders that look like stacked pennies going up the side. There’s a small hole on the side of the ring between two of the cylinders through which poison could be introduced into the hollow chamber and, when the propitious moment is at hand, into the food or beverage of your benighted target.

Its size suggests that it was made for a man to wear, probably on the little finger of the right hand. Since the hole is on the left side, it would be concealed by the ring finger next to it. A quick lift and tip of the pinkie and poisoning accomplished. It’s a much stealthier approach than having to open a splashy begemmed lid and turn your hand upside down without anyone noticing.

The ring was found by archaeologists excavating the remains of a 14th century fortress on Cape Kaliakra on the Black Sea about seven and a half miles from the town of Kavarna in northeast Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology has been excavating the fortress site since 2011. Amidst the remains of the 14th century walls, water pipes, baths and fortress, archaeologists have found more than 30 gold jewels, pearl earrings, rings set with precious and semiprecious gems. This ring is the only one made out of bronze discovered on the site.

Some of the gold rings also have holes deliberately drilled in them, but only the ones with gemstones and none of them have hollow cartridges. According to team leader Boni Petrunova, holes were sometimes added to rings to allow the gems to “breathe.” The bronze ring is in excellent condition and intact as is. There were no gemstones in need of a breathing port, so that hole was used for other purposes, nefarious ones at that.

The location certainly lends itself to deadly political machinations.

The ring was most likely used in the conflict between Dobrotitsa, ruler of the independent Despotate of Dobrudja in the second half of the 14th century, and his son Ivanko Terter, Petrunova said. The conflict is the most likely cause of many deaths of nobles close to Dobrotitsa at Kaliakra fortress.

Kaliakra was the capital of the short-lived principality that stretched from the Danube River delta to present-day Bourgas. The peak of its power came under Dobrotitsa, who had sufficient military strength to participate in Byzantine civil wars and, allied with Venice, challenge Genoese naval domination in the Black Sea.

Dobrudja was a center of wheat production for Byzantium and it had extensive trade networks with Italy and Spain through Genoa. That connection took an unpleasant turn on occasion, like when Genoese galleys dropped off the Black Death in 1346 or 1347 before carrying their Y. pestis-laden rat fleas to Sicily and thence to the rest of Western Europe.

There was also plenty of local intrigue. Dobrotitsa and his son Ivanko had a dysfunctional relationship, to put it mildly. Their vicious rivalry left swaths of dead supporters in its wake. Perhaps this ring is responsible for some of that body count.

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Signet ring testifies to early Christians in Norfolk

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

An engraved silver disc thought to be the bezel of a signet ring discovered by a metal detectorist in February in Swaffham, Norfolk, has been officially declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest in King’s Lynn on Tuesday. It’s a small piece, less than half a gram in weight and just 11 millimeters (.43 inches) in diameter, but all ancient precious metals are treasure trove by British law and this one has particular historical significance as well.

The disc dates to between 312 and 410 A.D. and features a male head in profile wearing a diadem with the inscription “ANTONI VIVAS IN DEO” encircling the figure. The Latin inscription means “Antonius, may you live in God” which is a common Christian formula seen on rings and other jewelry. They’re very rare in Norfolk, however. This ring is only the second “VIVAS IN DEO” ring known to have been found in that county — the first is a gold betrothal ring found in Brancaster — and it’s the only such signet ring.

Adrian Marsden, local finds officer:

“On one level, of course, this is good negative evidence, implying that most people at the time worshipped the old gods. On another, it shows there were one or two Christians around.

“The ring would have been a gift to Antonius, perhaps on the occasion of his conversion, coming of age or betrothal/marriage.”

The Brancaster ring was identified as a betrothal ring because it had two figures, a male and female, facing each other. Since this is just the one diademed fellow, I lean towards it being an individual special occasion present, like the coming of age or the conversion. Also, the signet ring element sounds more like a graduation gift than a marriage gift.

We know it was intended for stamping because the engraving is in intaglio, dug into the silver, and it’s backwards. The inscription is retrograde: it reads left to right only when you’ve stamped it in wax.

Norfolk coroner William Armstrong also declared another two silver discoveries treasure trove at the same inquest: four East Anglian silver coins (one is actually plated in silver but with a copper alloy interior) attributed to the Iceni tribe, and one Viking silver ingot. The ingot dates to between 850 and 1000 A.D. and is of interest to historians because Vikings used ingots for currency in this period, so metallurgic analysis might provide some insight into Viking trade practices.

It weighs 7.04 grams and is 28 millimeters (1.1 inches) long. One end was broken in antiquity, so it was longer and heavier when it was new. The ingot has also been stamped with a decorative motif of pairs of triangles touching at the peaks which is usually found on Viking jewelry from this time. The British Museum has a piece of a silver arm-ring from the Cuerdale Hoard that bears this same stamp.

The next step is for British Museum experts to assess market value of the treasures, which probably will be relatively modest figures. The Norwich Castle Museum hopes to acquire the signet disc and the Viking ingot for its permanent collection.

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Panels stolen out of medieval rood screen in Devon church

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Thieves stole two painted oak panels from a rare 15th century rood screen in the Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, southwestern England, sometime between July 22nd and August 9th. The two stolen panels depict Saint Victor of Marseilles and Saint Margaret of Antioch in rich jewel tones and gold paint. They were pushed out of their casings from the front and somehow, an adjacent third panel of an unknown female saint was also damaged, leaving a large shard missing from the left side.

Rood screens are large tracery partitions, usually the width of the church, that separate the nave (the main part of the church where the parishioners attend services) from the chancel (the front of the church where the altar is). They were made of wood or stone and were elaborately carved and decorated. This was a common feature in late medieval churches, but most of them were destroyed during the upheavals of the Reformation and under Cromwell because their decorative elements, especially figurative painting like the saints on Holy Trinity’s rood, were seen as idolatrous and because the partition represented a Catholic hierarchical divide between priest and church-goer. Holy Trinity’s piece is a rare survival and one of the best examples remaining, which makes the loss of the panels particularly painful.

The rood was built between 1460 and 1470, carved in elegant peaked Gothic arches that mimics the tracery of the stained glass windows. At the bottom of the structure are 40 oak panels 17 inches high and six inches wide, each painted with different saints and dignitaries of the church, some of whom have no other known surviving medieval representations. The quality of the painting is very high, probably the work of a master craftsman. There is evidence that the images were once whitewashed, which might explain how the rood survived the iconoclastic zeal of the Tudor and Civil War eras. Parts of it — the painted wood screens inside the arches rather than panels at the base — were removed and either destroyed or recycled to construct a pulpit that stands in front of the rood.

The entire church is a gem of historical preservation. It was built in its entirety in one two-decade effort between 1450 and 1470 and wasn’t subjected to later additions to alter its character. Its high medieval design and many original elements — even the original 15th century oak benches are still there, albeit encased in later box pews — have garnered it a Grade I listing, a designation that marks it as a building of exceptional historical interest.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time the rood screen has been the target of art thieves. Four of the saint panels were stolen in the 1990s and another three were ripped off in 2003. None of them have been recovered. The Church of England gave the church to the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity that cares for 340 at-risk historic churches that are no longer in use as parish churches, in 1997. It is still consecrated ground, but now it is dedicated primarily to tourism and special events.

CCT churches are maintained exclusively by volunteers and needless to say, there is no money for security or monitored CCTV cameras. The church is open to the public during the day, and the key is kept by a neighboring volunteer. That’s why they don’t know when exactly the theft occurred. A maintenance contractor noticed the missing panels and alerted the trust.

Whoever stole them is unlikely to make much money from them. All auction houses, galleries, museums and antiques dealers have been alerted to the theft. They won’t want to touch so unique a property, especially since the thieves chose two rarely seen saints instead of more obvious figures. CCT chief executive Crispin Truman fears the panels will wind up being sold in some grubby back alley deal for a tenner. Their value, which is incalculable because of their rarity, lies in their proper context: the rood screen in Holy Trinity Church. Unmoored on the black market, they are unlikely to bring in a big price.

The Devon and Cornwall police have launched an appeal for information about the missing panels. They believe the pieces may have been taken out of the county in an attempt to sell them somewhere where they are less known. Thanks to all the publicity, police think that any attempt to sell them in the UK will be thwarted at this point, but they could be shipped out of the country or worse, dumped in a gutter somewhere that they’ll never be found until they decay beyond retrieval.

The CCT asks that anyone with information about the panels contact Laoise Bailey at lbailey@thecct.org.uk, land line: +44 (0)20 7841-0415, cellphone: +44 07831 873-515. They have received many calls already from the general public and from art dealers so let’s hope one of them results in the return of these precious medieval artifacts.

This video shot in 2011 is a walk through the church. You can see the thick wooden doors, the rood screen, the pulpit, the pews, the windows, the vaulted ceiling and just the overall loveliness of this 15th century treasure.

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Badger digs up graves of medieval Slavic chieftains

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Refusing to let English moles get all the glory, a German badger has unearthed a 12th-century burial ground on a farm outside Stolpe in Brandenburg, Germany. the sculptors who live on the farm, Lars Wilhelm and his wife Hendrikje Ring, had noticed the badger digging his sett (a badger’s den) over the course of five years. They had an idea that they might install some of their sculptures in the sett for an exhibition, so they observed the badger’s progress closely.

Last autumn, they saw the animal had turned up what appeared to be a human pelvic bone. Excavations by archaeologists in the 1960s had discovered an ancient graveyard on the other side of the road, so Lars and Hendrikje thought the badger might have turned up something similar. To see what else was inside that sett, they placed a camera into one of the openings and snapped photographs by remote control. They found jewelry that they were able to recover and then promptly called the authorities to report their finds.

The badger, his work now done, left the sett to the biped professionals. The archaeological excavation ultimately unearthed eight graves from the first half of the 12th century. Two of the graves were particularly notable because they held the remains of Slavic chieftains.

The skeletons in the two lords’ graves had bronze bowls at their feet. “That identified them as belonging to the social elite, they had the bowls to wash their hands before dining because they knew that was the refined thing to do,” said Kersting.

The objects found included an arrow head and a belt with a bronze, omega-shaped buckle with snake’s heads at each end.

One of the two skeletons was particularly well preserved and had evidently been a warrior. His body showed multiple sword and lance wounds and a healed fracture suggested he had fallen off his horse at some point, said Kersting.

The snake head buckle seem to be of Scandinavian manufacture, which underscores the warrior’s high status and wealth. Initial examination could not pinpoint the cause of his death. He was about 40 years old when he died, and he certainly was hardy, having taken several sword blows to the head that had healed before whatever killed him killed him. He was buried with a double-edged sword three feet long by his side, a testament to his battle-scarred existence.

The second of the two chieftains was missing his sword. Archaeologists believe his grave was looted, perhaps during the turbulence around the time of his burial. In the early 12th century, the Stolpe area was the site of constant conflict between the pagan Slavs who had lived there for centuries but whose power was on the wane, and the Christian Franks and Poles advancing from the west and east respectively. The people buried in this graveyard were among the last pre-Christian peoples in Germany. By the 12th century, east Brandenburg, central Germany, Pomerania and all of what is today Poland were fully Christianized.

Next to the second chieftain was the grave a woman, possibly his wife, who was found with a coin in her mouth to pay the ferryman for her passage over the river Styx to the underworld, another important indication that the deceased still worshiped the old Slavic deities.

The badger made the archaeologists very happy. These days they usually only get the chance to excavate sites slated for construction, and their work is bounded by the construction schedule. The badger’s digging gave them a rare opportunity to excavated an undeveloped site on a farm and they made an apposite rare find in a 12th century pagan burial ground. Nothing like it has been found in Brandenburg before.

The artifacts are currently being conserved. They will go on display in September at the State Archaeological Museum in the town of Brandenburg an der Havel.

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New method gives insight into final days of medieval child

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

Chemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark has found a way to extract information once contained in the soft tissues of decayed human remains from the soil in which they were interred. That gives researchers access to details about the final weeks and days of a person’s life that cannot be determined from the bones. The trick is to gather soil samples from the precise positions where the tissues used to be.

“When the body decays in the grave a lot of compounds are released to the surrounding soil – by far most of them organic compounds. Also most of the inorganic elements are transformed to other compounds and later removed by the percolating groundwater throughout the centuries that follows. If we can localize an element in the soil in the immediate vicinity of the skeleton which is not normally found in the soil itself, we can assume that it came from the deceased and this can tell us something about how the person lived. We are not interested in death, but in the life before death,” Kaare Lund Rasmussen explains.

Rasmussen and his team extracted soil samples from the burial of a child who died between 1200 and 1250 and was buried in a cemetery in Ribe, Denmark. They took little tubules of soil from the areas where the lungs, liver, kidney and upper arm muscles would have been before the remains were skeletonized. The soil was then analyzed in the lab for traces of mercury.

Mercury’s properties make it a potential rich source of varied information about the deceased. In soil that is neither polluted nor rife with cinnabar deposits, mercury is a very rare element, but people have used it for thousands of years in everything from medicine to cosmetics to filling canals in the massive mausoleum complex of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of a united China. That means the source of any mercury found in burial soil is almost certainly the human remains.

It is also absorbed and released at different rates depending on which tissues it’s in, so for instance, since mercury inhaled in the lungs is excreted within no more than 48 hours, any mercury found in the soil sample taken from the lung area indicates that the deceased took a hit of mercury up to two days before death. Mercury was found in the lung area soil of the Ribe burial, ergo, the child was exposed to mercury shortly before he or she died. Mercury was also found in the kidney area soil, indicating exposure two months or so before death.

“I cannot say which diseases the child had contracted. But I can say that it was exposed to a large dose of mercury a couple of months before its death and again a day or two prior to death. You can imagine what happened: that the family for a while tried to cure the child with mercury containing medicine which may or may not have worked, but that the child’s condition suddenly worsened and that it was administered a large dose of mercury which was, however, not able to save its life”, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

Archaeologists have been testing for excess mercury in bones for some years now, but bones take a long time to absorb mercury so they can only testify to exposures that happened from three to 10 years before death.

So far, the University of Southern Denmark team has used their new methodology on soil samples from 19 medieval burials in two Danish cemeteries: the Lindegaarden cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Jutland, and the Ole Wormsgade in Horsens, eastern Jutland. This is a potential gold mine of archaeological information that has been up until now been dug, sifted or brushed away.

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Inca child sacrifices were drunk, high before death

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

An international team of researchers studying the three Inca mummies discovered in 1999 in an ice pit atop Llullaillaco volcano in the Argentinian Andes has found that the children drank alcohol and chewed coca leaves regularly for up to a year before they were sacrificed. The children died approximately 500 years ago in a sacrificial harvest ritual called capacocha. They walked to Cuzco, the seat of the emperor, and back again to participate in ceremonies and then were taken to the top of the volcano where they were given a maize beer called chicha until they passed out. Once they were unconscious, the priests carefully placed them in underground niches. There they froze to death.

The cold, arid, thin air of the high Andes (the summit where the children were found is 6,739 meters, more than 22,000 feet, high, the highest elevation where Inca sacrificial victims have ever been discovered) created natural mummies so well preserved that they still look like sleeping children. Many of their internal organs are intact; there is brain matter in the skull, blood in the heart and lungs, skin and hair in place.

Subsequent DNA analysis found that none of the three were related to each other. They were also in good physical condition before their death — well-fed, no injuries, no signs of violent death, although the boy was bound around the time of his death and blood on his clothing may indicate he suffocated from a pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal side-effect of altitude sickness. The eldest girl, dubbed “La Doncella” meaning “The Maiden,” had sinusitis a lung infection when she died. The younger girl was struck by lightning some time after her death, hence her nickname “La Niña del Rayo” (the lightning girl).

Flecks of coca leaf were found around the Maiden’s lips, so archaeologists have known for years that she was chewing on it right before she died. Given their long journey high up the volcano, coca leaf would have been a helpful, even necessary tool to combat altitude sickness. It was also a ritual substance used reverently for ceremonial purposes. The chicha had a ceremonial and practical role as well: it was symbolic, a product of the harvest being celebrated and it put the children to sleep to enable their death from exposure.

By studying the hair of the mummies — the long braids of the Maiden and the shorter cropped tresses of the younger children — researchers were able to put together a timeline of coca and alcohol consumption. Since the Maiden had much longer hair than the little kids, her timeline spans the last 21 months of her life. Only the last nine months of the two younger mummies’ lives could be plotted. The team discovered that the two young ones drank alcohol and chewed coca at a steady pace over their last nine months. The Maiden ingested far greater amounts of coca in the last year of her life than in the nine months before that and large amounts of alcohol in her final weeks.

At about six months before death, there was a ceremony that involved ritual hair cutting — some clippings were found with the mummies — and that coincides with a peak in coca consumption.

The coca consumption and alcohol use then begin to rise sharply again in the weeks before death, probably as the Ice Maiden and two younger children were marched from Cusco to the volcano, stopping along the way for ceremonies that likely involved large amounts of coca and chicha. [...]

These festivals en route to the mountain, [Tulane University anthropologist John] Verano noted, could explain why the Ice Maiden was drinking so much corn beer along with elevated coca chewing in her final weeks.

It’s also possible, he added, that “she had a drinking problem. Maybe she started drinking beer the last year of her life and just found it to be pleasant or particularly soothing.”

She also would have realized what was coming more fully than the little ones, so maybe she had more of a reason to drink heavily.

A hair study in 2007 found that the three children ate better in their final year than they had early in life. They subsisted mainly on potatoes when they were very young, but their diets late in life consisted of llama meat and maize, elite foods in Incan society. This strongly suggests all three children were peasants who were chosen, thanks to their physical “perfection,” for ritual sacrifice. Once they were in the hands of the priests, they were fattened up and plied with alcohol and coca to prepare them for their ceremonial roles. Being chosen to die was considered a great honor and according to Incan beliefs, the sacrificed did not die but become angels guarding over their people from the mountain heights.

That the children were intoxicated just for the final ceremony isn’t the only received wisdom the new study has upended. The Maiden was previously thought to be 15 years old at the time of her death, Lightning Girl six and the boy seven. CT scans from this project found that they are all two years younger than their estimates. The Maiden was 13, the girl four and the boy five. Archaeologists also thought that the two young children may have come from nobility because their heads show sign of deliberate malformation, but if that were the case, they would not have lived on potatoes for the first years of their lives.

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Grey Friars stone coffin opened to reveal lead coffin

Monday, July 29th, 2013

On Tuesday, July 23rd, the University of Leicester team excavating the Grey Friars site set about taking the lid off the medieval stone coffin discovered last September during the Richard III dig in what was once the choir of the church. Made out of carved limestone, it’s the first intact medieval stone coffin ever discovered during an archaeological dig in Leicester. The box is 2.12 meters long (seven feet), .6 meters (two feet) wide at the wide end were the head would be placed, .3 meters (one foot) wide at the narrow feet end and .3 meters deep. The heavy stone lid does not match the coffin and the mortar is damaged in some areas, suggesting it may have been added after the original internment, then removed or at least tampered with.

After a night of rain, the entire site was pockmarked with puddles, but the team had thoughtfully put a tent over the stone coffin so they wouldn’t have to wade hip-deep into mud to examine it. The team cut the mortar seal all the way around and placed straps under the lid. Eight people were enlisted to hold on to the straps and lift the solid stone lid up and to the side where it was set down carefully on the ground. Inside was another coffin, this one a lead wrapper 5 millimeters-thick embracing the body. We know there’s a body inside because the bottom of the lead coffin was damaged leaving the feet exposed. This is further evidence that the coffin was exhumed, opened and re-buried.

No identifying marks have been spotted on either of the coffins, which is a shame because a nice handy label is the only way to know for sure who was buried in them. There was a rough cross soldered into the lead, which could suggest it contained someone or something (a relic, for example) of religious significance. Then again, anybody Christian buried in two expensive coffins in a prime position under a church choir is just as likely to have a little cross iconography in the mix somewhere.

It was certainly someone of great consequence. Likely candidates include Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272), William of Nottingham (d. 1330), both leaders of the English Grey Friars order, and a man described in the documentary record as “a knight called Mutton, sometime mayor of Leicester,” who researchers believe was Sir William de Moton of Peckleton (d. between 1356 and 1362). A large limestone coffin would have been difficult and expensive to make. Sufficient lead to make a wrap-around coffin was also extremely expensive.

The lead coffin reminds me of the late Roman “burrito” sarcophagus found in a necropolis at the Etruscan site of Gabii in 2009. At a half a ton in lead, it was considerably bulkier than the Leicester coffin, but they are both major signifiers of wealth. Lead coffins tend to preserve remains relatively well, as long as they’re not damaged (like the Grey Friars one) or filled with earth (like the Gabii one). They certainly pose a great challenge to conservators because you can’t just open them and see what’s in there. Lead is highly malleable and easy to damage. Any rough handling would harm the artifact (hence the dangling feet situation) and therefore the human remains within.

The lead coffin was lifted out of the stone coffin and sent to the University of Leicester lab for analysis where researchers will try to figure out a way to examine the contents without damaging the artifact or the remains.

The second dig at Grey Friars is now officially over. The decapitated monks were not found, nor were they able to find the remains of the nave. It seems a large portion of the church was completely destroyed by later construction, no foundations left or anything, which makes the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton even more insanely improbable.

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Cheapside Hoard watch looks like the Enterprise

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition of the Cheapside Hoard at the Museum of London, Birmingham City University researchers are examining select pieces from the hoard with the latest technology to investigate how they were made. Using laser scanning technology, artCAD (artistic Computer-Aided Design) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software, experts have collected as much data as they can about the construction of the jewelry and then recreated them digitally.

“Our forensic analysis has revealed the amazing technologies which craftsman of this period were using – and we fear some of these 400-year-old processes may now be lost to us,” said Dr Carey.

“It is has been a fascinating investigation. We think of our own time as one of impressive technological advances but we must look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean age as being just as advanced in some ways.”

Just what those technologies were has not been specified.

Some of the pieces were so damaged researchers have to restore them digitally before they could study their craftsmanship. The Ferlite watch, for instance, a gilded brass verge watch signed by G. Ferlite, is severely damaged in a number of areas and corrosion has eaten away at the pendant, case and dials. It was Laser scanned but the results were disappointing because highly reflective surfaces like glass and polished gold can’t be scanned easily. The scans had to be enhanced and interpreted through CAD in order for a full picture to emerge.

This kind of highly technical approach went outside the usual curatorial purview, so experts from other university departments were enlisted. Keith Adcock, Senior CAD CAM Technologist at the University of Birmingham’s Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC) and Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), worked on the watch in CAD/CAM.

Keith imported a photograph of the watch face and using ArtCAM’s “Relief from Image” tool created a model surface. This removed the need to trace around every part of the imported image to create the vector artwork. Keith comments, “ArtCAM is absolutely fabulous for interpreting photographs and creating textures.”

However, due to the effects of the corrosion on areas such as the day-dial on the right hand side of the watch face, Keith needed to alter some of the automatically generated reliefs. Fading out the photo, Keith used ArtCAM’s advanced vector drawing tools to quickly trace around the parts he wanted. He then remodelled areas using ArtCAM’s “Shape Editor” and combined these with the reliefs generated from the scan data. Smoothing tools were then used to soften the surface finish before ArtCAM rendered the piece as it would have looked prior to receiving its enamel finish.

Once the digital model was complete, it was rendered in 3D and printed out of resin on a 3D printer. With the specialized supports created in CAD and printed in 3D, the watch resin model looks like the Enterprise with a custom clockface body kit.

Another piece of the Cheapside Hoard, an elaborate cage pendant (possibly worn as a headpiece) festooned with pearls, was recreated in bronze instead of printed in resin. Stripped of its pearl adornments, the intricate egg-shaped cage structure of the object is exposed.

I actually like it better without the pearls carbuncling things up.

Until we get details about the construction methods used to create these jewels, my favorite part about this research is that the 3D models and recreations will take part in the Museum of London’s Cheapside Hoard exhibition to show visitors how the pieces were made and, best of all, so that the vision impaired can touch, palpate and explore them at will. I think that’s a genius idea, one that I hope to see in implemented widely in the future.

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Elite Viking jewelry found on modest Denmark farm

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

An extensive archaeological survey of a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand slated for residential development uncovered traces of a Late Iron Age/Viking Age settlement and several pieces of important metal jewelry from that era. Between April and December of 2007, experts from Roskilde Museum excavated a total of approximately 27,000 square meters (290,000 square feet) on the 15 hectare Vestervang farm. They found the remains of 18 longhouses and 21 pit houses of modest size — none were more than 65 feet long — which weren’t all constructed at the same time. This wasn’t a town but rather a single farm built up over time in six phases between the late seventh century and the early 11th.

The jewelry unearthed on the site of this farm is far more luxurious than you might expect to find at a modest farm size. There are gilded pieces, intricately carved pendants and brooches, probably imports like a trefoil brooch from 850-950 A.D. designed in a Carolingian style and a pre-Viking brooch with a gold accents in a waffle texture and Christian cross motif in red glass that reminds me of some of the Staffordshire Hoard pieces.

The star of the show is a copper alloy piece 2.9 inches in diameter with a central animal figure wearing a beaded chain around its neck. Three masked figures with moustaches are placed around the object, one on either side of the main character, one across from it. Four holes between the masked men suggest there was additional decoration, perhaps two more animal figures like the central one. Experts believe it may have been part of a necklace.

According to the archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm, author of a paper on the excavation published in the latest issue of the Danish Journal of Archaeology, this is a rare piece and would have been extremely high-end in Viking times.

He said that the animal image itself seems to be anthropomorphic, something not unusual in Viking age art. “Some of these anthropomorphic pictures, though, might be seen as representations of ‘shamanic’ actions, i.e. as mediators between the ‘real’ world and the ‘other’ world,” Kastholm wrote in an email to LiveScience. He can’t say for sure who would have worn it, but it “certainly (was) a person with connections to the elite milieu of the Viking age.”

The Christian cross also must have adorned a person of rank. Made between 500 and 750 A.D., it’s not the product of local artisans. It was in all likelihood manufactured in continental Europe and decades or centuries later made its way to Southern Scandinavia, either through trade networks or perhaps carried by a Christian visitor.

What would make this tidy but seemingly unremarkable farm a magnet for such expensive, rare jewelry? Kastholm thinks the key is the farm’s proximity to Lejre, a site just six miles away which according to Beowulf and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki was the royal seat of the legendary first ruling Danish dynasty the Skjöldung or Scylding clan.

In the 1960s, there was vast residential development in the area of Vestervang, but maps that predate the development show two villages near the site with “Karleby” in their name, something that may signify that the area was given to retainers of Lejre’s ruler.

“The old Scandinavian term karl, corresponding with the old English ceorl, refers to a member of the king’s professional warrior escort, the hirð,” Kastholm writes in the journal article.

Together, the rich jewelry finds at Vestervang, the site’s proximity to Lejre and the presence of two nearby villages with the names “Karleby” reveal what life may have been like at Vestervang.

It “seems probable that the settlement of Vestervang was a farm controlled by a Lejre superior and given to generations of retainers, i.e. to a karl of the hirð,” Kastholm writes. “This would explain the extraordinary character of the stray finds contrasting with the somewhat ordinary traces of settlement.”

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