Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

St. Anne’s Well rescued from oblivion

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

A medieval holy well in the village Rainhill, in Merseyside, England, used for centuries by pilgrims for its reputed miraculous healing powers, has been recovered after decades of neglect. The location of St. Anne’s Well was known, but after decades of ploughing in the surrounding fields, it had filled up with soil and was marked only by a couple of rocks perched on a patch of half-dead grass. In danger of disappearing from the landscape all together, six years ago it was placed on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. Earlier this year, Historic England commissioned Oxford Archeology North to excavate the site and find out what was left.

Two days of digging revealed a shallow well 5’9″ square and four feet deep constructed of local ashlar sandstone blocks with a level stone floor and three steps lead down to the water basin. There is a thin layer of water at the bottom of the well even now. A stone conduit on the north side of the well which once carried overflow water from the well to a carved stone basin is no longer extant. Also missing is a medieval carved relief of a woman carrying a pitcher that was last recorded on site in the mid-19th century when the well was still in use.

While there doesn’t seem to be an explicit association of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, with water or wells in Catholic or Orthodox traditions, in England many waters believed to have healing powers were dedicated to her. Veneration of sacred springs, wells and fonts was a common in pre-Christian religions, so it seems likely the powers of earlier divinities or forces were mapped on to Anne in the late Middle Ages when her cult became increasingly popular. The wells were sometimes said to have been visited by an apparition of St. Anne who bathed in the waters rendering them miraculous; other times her image appeared in the water or structure of the well, like Jesus on a potato chip.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Rainhill St. Anne’s Well had a reputation for specializing in the treatment of skin diseases. Pilgrims seeking healing would walk down the steps and dip into the water that naturally filled the basin, seeping in from below the stone floor. The faithful who sought aid from the healing waters would leave offerings, from the simple (crutches, shirts) to the rarefied (gold coins), another practice long predating Christianity. As the holy well became a greater and greater draw, Sutton Priory, the monastery about a mile away which owned the well, had a small three-room house built over the well. Two of the priory monks lived in the house to tend to the well, the pilgrims and their gifts.

Sutton Priory was small in population, having about a dozen monks, but large in income. Besides the well, which by the 16th century was very lucrative, it owned the valuable surrounding farmland which it leased to moneyed members of the gentry. A boundary dispute between the priory and its neighbor Sir Richard Bold would transform the holy well into a cursed one.

The legend of how the holy well became the locus of a curse was recounted in the St. Helens Leader (pdf), the journal of the local YMCA, in 1877. Hugh Darcy, Bold’s steward met Prior Delwaney and traded harsh words with him. Darcy sneered that maybe the prior wouldn’t be a prior a much longer. The year was 1536, and one or two days after that tense exchange, Layton and Leigh, agents of Thomas Cromwell charged with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, notified Delwaney that Sutton Priory was to be no longer. All the monks were given a couple of pounds, a robe and packed off to another monastery (until that one too was dissolved), and the crown claimed all of the priory’s property, including the holy well.

When the prior and the crown’s agents went to the well, they found Dancy there, gloating. Delwaney became enraged at Dancy’s taunts and hissed: “The curse of the serpent be on thee, thou spoiler of the Lord’s inheritance. Thy ill-gotten gains shall not profit thee, and a year and a day shall not pass ere St. Anne thy head shall bruise.” Three hours later, Delwaney was dead. Dancy did fine at first, acquiring the farmland that included the well and demolishing the house over it. But within months his only son was dead, his lost his money in dubious investments and he took to drinking heavily. One night, after an evening of imbibing at the tavern, he failed to come home. He was found dead the next morning, head smashed against the well.

The story of the curse and the loss of the priory didn’t stop people from seeking healing in the waters of St. Anne’s Well. It was in use into the 19th century, adding to its previous reputation one for healing diseases of the eye. It was captured in a sketch by naturalist and fossil-hunter Richard Owen in 1843, and it still had its basin and the relief of the lady with the pitcher. By 1877, however, when the St. Helens Leader article was written, the stones were broken, the water dried up and weeds grew unchecked.

The well is on private property today, but Historic England has struck an agreement with the farmer to keep the well from getting clogged with dirt and disappearing again.

New wooden edging to the perimeter of the excavation will prevent soil falling in, and provide a buffer to protect the well from damage by farm machinery. It can now come off the Heritage at Risk Register.

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Oldest library in the world renovated, digitized

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Founded in the 859 A.D. by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was herself highly educated and who dedicated her considerable inheritance to the creation of a mosque and school in her community, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is the oldest degree-granting institution in the world. The Al-Qarawiyyin library has been in continuous operation since the 10th century and is believed to be the oldest library in the world. After years of neglect, the library is undergoing extensive renovation as part of a renewal program that will restore the Medina, Fes’ walled pedestrian historic district built in the late 8th, early 9th century. In a fitting tribute to its founder, the person in charge of the restoration is a woman, Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni.

Inside the library are ornately carved wooden window frames and archways, colorful ceramic tile designs on the floors and elegant Arabic calligraphy engraved in the walls. The high ceilings in the reading room are adorned with gold chandeliers.

“There is a big restoration because there was a need for the building and the manuscripts to be preserved,” said Abdullah al-Henda, part of the restoration team that’s been working on the restoration since 2012. “There were problems of infiltration, of sewage, degradation of walls, some cracks in different places in the library.”

The library is replete with extremely rare, some unique, volumes. There are more than 4,000 manuscripts in its collection, including a 9th century Quran written in beautiful Kufic script on camel skin, the earliest known Islamic hadiths, and an original manuscript of the Mukkadimah, a universal history written in 1377 by philosopher Ibn Khaldun which many scholars hold to be the first exploration of fields we know as sociology, historiography, demography and other social sciences. It’s particularly meaningful to have a book written in his hand, because after university he began his career as a calligrapher for the Chancellery in Tunis. When he moved to Fez shortly thereafter, he got a job writing royal proclamations for the Sultan.

“When you read a book, you travel in history. When you see a manuscript that is nearly ten or more centuries old, you travel in time. As I said, the library gives you a spiritual bond for these and other reasons. Since I arrived at Al Qarawiyyin Library, it never crossed my mind that I would leave it,” said deputy curator Abou Bakr Jaouane.

These priceless texts need conservation as well. Some have been damaged by the moisture and decay plaguing the building itself. Now that the restoration of the structure is almost complete with new gutters, solar panels and air conditioning, the manuscripts finally have a room suited to their preservation. It is climate controlled with a custom temperature and humidity settings as well as a state-of-the-art security system. The restored library also has a new laboratory for the treatment and conservation of its historic manuscripts.

Right now, only curator Abdelfattah Bougchouf has access to the rare manuscripts kept in the secure room. With the help of experts from the Institute of Computational Linguistics in Italy, that will soon change. All 4,000+ manuscripts are being digitized in the new laboratory. This will make them widely available to students and researchers all over the world. About 20% of them have been digitized so far. The scanning process will also highlight any small holes and areas in need of conservation that are not necessarily evident to the naked eye.

The library will reopen to the public in May 2017.

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40+ ancient shipwrecks found in Black Sea

Monday, October 24th, 2016

The Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project wasn’t looking for shipwrecks. Its brief is to survey the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea for data about the rise water levels after the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago. To accomplish this aim, marine archaeologists have been scanning the seabed using cutting edge Remotely Operated Vehicles that can detect land surfaces underneath what is now the Black Sea but in prehistory were on dry land. They’ve also taken core samples, laser scanned and filmed the sea bed both in video and with high resolution 3D photogrammetry. One of the two Black Sea MAP ROVs has broken records for depth (1,800 meters or 5,905 feet) and speed (over six knots) and was able to survey 1,250 km (777 miles), recording everything with its path using a full panoply of geophysical instrumentation, high definition cameras and a laser scanner.

A felicitous but entirely unplanned side-effect of this exceptionally thorough geophysical survey is the discovery of more than 40 historic shipwrecks, including ancient Byzantine, medieval and Ottoman ships. Some of them may even be the first of their kind ever found, previously known only from documentary sources. Such a large, varied group of shipwrecks from different periods will give archaeologists a whole new understanding of trade and maritime links between towns on the coast of the Black Sea.

[University of Southampton professor and Principle Investigator on the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project Jon] Adams comments: “The wrecks are a complete bonus, but a fascinating discovery, found during the course of our extensive geophysical surveys. They are astonishingly preserved due to the anoxic conditions (absence of oxygen) of the Black Sea below 150 metres.

“Using the latest 3D recording technique for underwater structures, we’ve been able to capture some astonishing images without disturbing the sea bed. We are now among the very best exponents of this practice methodology and certainly no-one has achieved models of this completeness on shipwrecks at these depths.”

With the data from the ROVs, researchers have created 3D digital models using the photogrammetry process. Software calculates the position of millions of points captured in thousands of photographs and builds a model which is then overlaid with the visual elements from the pictures to make it look real. The resulting 3D models of the shipwrecks are, to put it mildly, spectacular. Minute details are clearly visible. There is no pixelation and the kind of visibility difficulties that might impede clear video are no match for 3D photogrammetry. The results speak for themselves:






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Tiny 8th c. “horned” Odin found in Denmark

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Søren Andersen was scanning a field near Mesinge on the Danish island of Funen this summer when he discovered a figurine of bearded man with a tidily combed pageboy haircut wearing a helmet adorned with what looked like two oversized curved horns. Less than two inches high, the figurine was originally part of a ringed pin, a long pin with a ring at the head used to fasten clothes. Its style dates it to the 8th century.

The “horns” on the helmet are probably not actual horns. Viking helmets were not horned, despite their frequent appearances in literature, comics, film and Wagnerian extravaganzas. (In fact, it was a production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 that launched the image of the Viking in a horned helmet. Read Roberta Frank’s fantastic paper on the subject here.) A number of similar figurines have been found in Scandinavia and Russia, and archaeologists have interpreted the horns as stylized representations of Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn.

I know what you’re thinking. Those don’t look anything like ravens, and you’re right. They don’t. But they’re also not complete. You can see the “horns” are different sizes and have rough edges. If you look at these two comparable figurines in the National Museum of Denmark, when intact, what look like horns now could have been a circular headdress terminating in two bird heads. The idea is to represent his information-gathering ravens as flying above the Odin’s head.

It’s also possible that the figurine doesn’t represent Odin himself, but a follower wearing an outfit associated with the deity. A cast-bronze die from the Vendel Period (550-790 A.D.) found on the Swedish island of Öland depicts a man in a bear suit next to a dancing warrior carrying a spear and wearing a helmet with circular “horns” that end in bird heads. The man dressed like a bear has been interpreted as a berserker devotee of Odin who had many shape-shifting adventures, the dancing warrior as Odin. The helmeted warrior was also thought to be a berserker at one time, his outfit an homage to Odin, but recent scans of the die found that the warrior has only one eye, an iconic attribute of the deity. The Mesinge figure appears to have two eyes.

It is currently on display at the Viking Museum at Ladby with other exceptional metal detector finds, like the gold crucifix that is believed to be the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. After a brief stay, it will move on to the National Museum of Denmark for further study.

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Happy 950th anniversary, Battle of Hastings!

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

On October 14th, 1066, a date that will live forever on 6th grade pop quizzes, the army of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings ushering in the Norman conquest of England which ultimately claimed 100,000 lives. The Norman conquest irrevocably altered the evolution of the English language and landscape. It was William who made it a point of policy to build large stone castles to consolidate his power, replacing the more earthworks and wood motte-and-bailey castles favored by the Anglo-Saxon with the intimidating fortresses preferred by powerful lords in Normandy. Stone churches and cathedrals were also a Norman contribution.

To celebrate the anniversary in grand style, this weekend English Heritage will be hosting a program of events at Battle Abbey, built on the site of Harold’s death by William by order of Pope Alexander II as penance for having killed so many, and the battlefield. There will be music, readings, lectures, a display of falconry, panel discussions, faux battles on the hour for children, something called “Have-a-go Archery” which sounds as fun as it is potentially dangerous, cavalry, Norman and Saxon encampments with living history for visitors to interact with, and in the afternoon a full-on reenactment of the Battle of Hastings with more than 1,066 volunteers participating.

Tickets for the weekend sold out quickly, so alas, unless you managed to score your own already or knows somebody who know somebody who knows an extremely nerdy scalper, I’m afraid you won’t be able to attend the festivities. You can still visit the abbey and battlefield on Friday, though, which is the actual anniversary.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mint, which was already in operation under King Harold, has issued a 50p coin commemorating the anniversary. With all due respect to the dignified profile of Queen Elizabeth II, because my love for the Bayeux Tapestry is stronger than the foundations of the earth, it’s the reverse of this coin that absolutely slays me (pun intended). It’s a coin version of the man believed to be Harold shown with an arrow in his eye and several in his shield in scene 57 of the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidered Latin above the scene reads “Hic Harold rex interfectus est,” or “Here King Harold is killed.”

There’s also another fellow next to him being felled by a sword, though, so it’s not entirely clear which of the two is meant to be Harold. The earliest known account of the conquest, the Song of the Battle of Hastings, written in 1067 by Bishop Guy of Amiens, says that Harold was hacked to death and his dismembered body buried under a stone pile on a cliff “that you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.” Fifty years later, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England (1118) said Harold’s “brain [was] pierced with an arrow” shot “from a distance,” and that is the account that has taken root, bolstered by the epic drama of the Bayeux Tapestry. (There is, incidentally, significant debate as to whether the arrow in the eye detail is original to the tapestry or the product of a later restoration to bring the work closer in concert to what was by then the accepted story.)

Five million of these 50p pieces will be going into circulation. Collectors can purchase fancier limited edition gold proofs (£785, or $960), silver proofs (£50, or $60) and double-thick “piedfort” silver proofs (£95, or $116), plus mint condition uncirculated versions of the regular coin (£10, or $12). Only the last one comes with a booklet. I love it when things come with a booklet.





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Find out if your ancestors fought at Agincourt

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

The Soldier in Later Medieval England website has added the names of more than 3,500 French soldiers known to have fought in the Battle of Agincourt, the 1415 clash between the English forces of Henry V and the French under King Charles VI (in name only; Charles was suffering one of several bouts of severe mental illness at the time and was not present on the battlefield). The French fighting men are now part of a database which lists more than 250,000 names of English soldiers who fought in campaigns between 1369 and 1453, including Agincourt. All together, the database is the largest list of medieval people ever assembled.

It’s amazing the level of detail the researchers involved in this project have assembled. It’s not just lists of names, but also any additional information. For instance, of the 3,500 French soldiers in the database, researchers were able to determine that 550 died on the field of Agincourt and that another 300 were taken prisoner to be ransomed. The database also records any known geographical origins of the soldiers, their ranks, where they served and when. You can search by name, rank or year of service. There are also biographies of a number of English soldiers of particular interest to researchers and contributors.

Muster rolls were the main source of information — records keep track of the money, if nothing else — and for the English soldiers, Chancery court documents were a rich source, pace Charles Dickens and Bleak House. Soldiers had to purchase letters of protection from the Chancery to ensure they wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits when they were deployed. Very useful information if you’re looking for year of service.

Professor Anne Curry, project Director and Dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, says: “It is fitting that this new resource has been made available following the major 600th anniversary commemorations of Agincourt in 2015, in which our university played a key role. The Medieval Soldier website has already proved an invaluable resource for genealogists and people interested in social, political and military history. This new data will help us to reach out to new users and shed fresh light on the Hundred Years War.” [...]

Professor Adrian Bell, fellow project Director and Head of the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School at the University of Reading, comments: “Our newly developed interface interrogates sources found in many different archive repositories in England and France. Without our site, searching for this information would require many visits to the National Archives of both England and France, the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale and all of the Archives Départementales in Normandy.”

Even if you don’t have an ancestor who was pincushioned by Henry V’s Welsh longbowmen or stared down the charge of the French heavy cavalry but would still like to learn more about the Battle of Agincourt, the University of Southampton is offering a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the subject that starts October 17th. They’ve run it before and it was very popular, so they’re doing it again to give people who missed the first iteration another chance. I haven’t taken this particular course, but I did do their Archaeology of Portus MOOC (that’s being offered again too) and it was excellent.

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Lost Viking rune stone found at Swedish church

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

A thousand-year-old Viking rune stone whose whereabouts have been unknown for almost 200 years was rediscovered next to Hagby Church in Uppland, eight miles west of Uppsala in southeastern Sweden. It was discovered when workers dug a trench a few feet from the church to install a lightning conductor. Uppland Museum archaeologist Emelie Sunding was present to supervise the work in case anything of historical interest was found. When she saw the edge of a large, flat stone slab with some sort of engraving, she suspected it might be a rune stone. When the dig area was expanded and more of the stone exposed, her suspicion was confirmed.

The rune stone is six feet long and more than four feet wide and is decorated with a snake-like creature with almond eyes. Its head and tail come together in the middle of the stone, and the body winds along both long edges, although one edge is broken. The head of a bird is carved opposite serpent. The runes are carved into the animal’s long body, so the missing piece makes the full inscription unreadable. The legible part reads: “Jarl and … stone after Gerfast, his father.” Rune stones were often dedications to deceased loved ones by surviving family members, so it’s likely the missing section includes the names of Jarl’s brothers and sisters.

Although the stone is unsigned, the decorative style is recognizable as the work of a rune carver named Fot who was working in the mid-11th century. He worked in southern Uppland is believed to have carved more than 40 rune stones. Fot was known to be very particular about the stones he used and his runes are long and slender. Most of what we know of his work has survived only in replicas, so an original Fot is a very exciting find.

Uppland is rich with rune stone — more than 1,300 of the 2,700 known Viking rune stones in Sweden are located there — but most of them are fragmentary. Intact rune-decorated slabs are very rare. This one was known from a number of sources long after it was carved. It was first published, as many of its brethren were, in the 17th century. A woodcut of the stone made in the late 1600s by Johan Hadorph and Johan Leitz can be seen in the 1750 book on Swedish rune stones Bautil by Johan Göransson. It was the threshold stone of Hagby Church, installed at the door of the church portico in the 1400s.

It last appears on the historical record in the early 19th century, but much of the original church was demolished in the 1830s and the stone went missing. There were stories of it having been pulled up and dumped into a nearby millstone. Thankfully those were just rumors. The stone wasn’t even moved; it was just covered with soil when the new church went up next to it and people forgot all about it.

The stone will now be fully cleaned, studied and documented, including the back which, if we’re lucky, might have more carving that hasn’t been seen before because it has been embedded in the earth on its back since the late Middle Ages. Once conserved, the plan is for it to return to Hagby Church where it will be display in pride of place at long last.

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Icelandic goose hunters find Viking sword

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

Five friends on a goose hunting weekend in the Skaftárhreppur district near the Skaftá river in South Iceland, killed nary a single goose, but they did bag a Viking sword. It wasn’t even buried, but found on the surface of the soil. One of the hunting party, Runar Stanley Sighvatsson, said: “It was just there, waiting to be taken up.” That is probably the result of last year’s severe glacial floods eroding the old lava fields which had enveloped the sword for hundreds of years and carrying it to the field where it was found.

Runar Sighvatsson and another of the hunters, Árni Björn Valdimarsson, notified the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland of their find and on Monday delivered the sword to Kristín Sigurðardóttir, director of the Cultural Heritage Centre. Judging from a picture of the sword Valdimarsson had posted on his Facebook page, Sigurðardóttir estimated the weapon dated to the 10th century. Her initial examination confirmed that it is a type Q sword from 10th century, possibly the first half of the 10th century. She suspects the sword was probably buried in a grave.

The hunters came across it before it had been exposed for long, so while it is corroded, there’s a bend in the blade and the tip has broken off, all the parts are there and the sword is in excellent condition. There are even splinters of wood still attached to the handle.

“There might be some remains of scabbard on the blade but we will know more about this when the conservators have done a thorough search. The goose hunters that found the sword discovered another object which we have not analyzed yet,” [Sigurðardóttir] added.

“Our archaeologists have now gone to evaluate whether this [area] is a pagan grave.”

Finding a Viking sword anywhere is immensely exciting, but particularly so in Iceland where only 22 other Viking-era swords have been found. The last one was discovered more than 10 years ago.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret to keep treasure hunters away and give the agency the chance to explore the site for any other archaeological materials that might be there. Meanwhile the sword will go to the National Museum in Reykjavík for further study and conservation.

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Crusader-era grenade in group of artifacts turned in to authorities

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

A group of artifacts recently turned in to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) include a striking embossed hand grenade from the Crusader era. The objects were collected by the late Marcel Mazliah who worked at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera on the northwest Mediterranean coast of Israel since it was built in 1973. Over the years, he found a broad assortment of archaeological treasures in the sea, probably lost in shipwrecks or simply overboard.

The Mazliah family contacted the IAA after Marcel died and they inherited his less-than-legal collection. An expert went to their home to examine the artifacts and was surprised to find such significant pieces.

According to Mrs. Ayala Lester, a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The finds include a toggle pin and the head of a knife from the Middle Bronze Age (from more than 3,500 years ago). The other items, among them, two mortars and two pestles, fragments of candlesticks, etc. date to the Fatimid period (eleventh century CE). The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel. The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period”.

The hand grenade is a handsome example of a weapon in common use by Islamic forces during the Crusader (1099-1187), Ayyubid (1187-1250) and Mamluk (1260-1516) periods. It is made of unglazed ceramic and embossed with grooves and tear drop-shaped designs. It has a domed top over a spherical body that tapers to a point. They were filled with incendiary material – petroleum, naphtha, Greek fire — and thrown or catapulted into the enemy camp where they exploded fire that water could not put out on their targets. There’s a small hole in the top into which flammable liquid could be poured and a wick added once the grenade was loaded.

Some scholars believe these vessels were not weapons, but rather perfume bottles. They’re certainly pretty enough for it and it seems counterintuitive that someone would bother to decorate an explosive projectile whose sole function is to destroy itself and take people down with it. On the other hand, their shape makes them markedly unsuited for placement on a dresser, requiring a rack or holder to keep them vertical, and the decorations also have the practical function of making the devices easier to grip in the hand or set snugly in the sling of a catapult. A smooth clay grenade would be dangerously easy to drop.

There is historical and archaeological evidence of this type of vessel being used in war. For one thing, clusters of them have been found in fortresses, castles and moats. The 12th century historian Mardi ibn Ali al-Tarsusi mentioned in the military manual he wrote for Saladin in 1187 that terracotta vessels with incendiary contents were launched from catapults or thrown from ramparts. Other sources from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries describe the clay gourds in more detail, explaining how they were used in battle and the various launching methods. Chemical analysis of residue inside several similar pieces discovered traces of rock salt, pine resin and other flammable materials. One gourd on display in the National Museum of Damascus has an inscription that leaves no question as to its bellicose purpose: “This kind of projectile is useful for targeting the enemy.”

The IAA is grateful that the family has voluntarily come forward and handed the artifacts over to the state. Officials plan to give the Mazliah family with a certificate of appreciation and, which is way cooler, have invited the family to visit the IAA laboratories where the artifacts will be studied and conserved.

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6th c. walls unearthed at Tintagel Castle

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the site of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, have unearthed the remains of massive walls built in the 6th century. The excavation is the first in a new five year archaeological exploration commissioned by English Heritage, the first major research project at Tintagel in 20 years. A team from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit did geophysical surveys of unexcavated terrace areas on the vertiginous headland where structures from the earliest iteration of the castle (5th-6th century) were believed to have existed. The survey confirmed there were walls and other elements of varied size from post-Roman structures underground.

Excavations began on July 18th and continued through August 2nd. Four trenches were dug on the terraces and as the geophysical survey indicated, the remains of ancient walls three feet thick emerged. The formed two rooms about 11 meters (36 feet) and four meters (13 feet) wide. This was a massive, imposing structure, at the very least a high-status building, and possibly even a royal palace complex. No similar structures from ancient Cornwall, then known as Dumnonia, have ever been found, so if these large walls can be confirmed as royal, it suggests this may have been a central, static court, as opposed to a mobile one that moved from stronghold to stronghold without a Camelot-like headquarters.

Other finds include more than 150 fragments of pottery and glass, including pieces of imported late-Roman amphorae, glass, probably imported from Merovingian France, and a rim from a bowl or serving dish made of expensive Phocaean red-slip ware made in western Turkey. They date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Tintagel was a bustling settlement in the centuries after the Roman retreat from Britain. Surveys have found evidence of almost 100 buildings, plus gardens and pathways, on the headland alone. Thousands of pottery fragments, most of them imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th to 7th centuries, attest to Tintagel’s importance as a trade center and as the home of regional rulers during the post-Roman period. Many luxury items have been identified at the side: wine from Turkey, olive oil from the Aegean, glassware made in Merovingian France, dishware from North Africa.

The settlement was abandoned in the late 6th or early 7th century, possibly due to a catastrophic occurrence like plague. Tintagel lived in memory, however, as the home of Cornwall’s early kings, which is probably what inspired its literary connection to King Arthur. The 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, tried to keep his beautiful wife Igerna from the lustful depredations of Uther Pendagron by hiding her at Tintagel. Uther’s advisor Ulfin noted that only magic could get Uther past its impregnable defenses.

“[N]o force will enable us to have access to her in the town of Tintagel[.] For it is situated upon the sea, and on every side surrounded by it; and there is but one entrance into it, and that through a straight rock, which three men shall be able to defend against the whole power of the kingdom. Notwithstanding, if the prophet Merlin would in earnest set about this attempt, I am of opinion, you might with his advice obtain your wishes.”

As the story goes, Merlin magically disguised Uther to look like Gorlois, he and the lady Igerna made sweet, fraudulent love and nine months later, with Gorlois safely dead and Uther and Igerna now married, Arthur was born.

Geoffrey made no distinction between history and legend, and his version of the Arthur story was embellished even more than it already was in his sources. There was already a tradition in Cornish and Breton folklore at the time Geoffrey was writing that associated Tintagel with the famous love story of Tristan and Iseult. That was later woven into Arthurian legend, with Tristan becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table, but in the late 12th-century it was its own tale. Tintagel was the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband.

The Arthur legend as recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cornish legends of Tristan are the reason the ruins of the Tintagel Castle that still stand today exist. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, was as erudite as he was rich. He traded three manor houses for the site, which had no defensive value whatsoever, and the only castle that could be built on that rocky outcropping was rather small and inelegant for a man of Richard’s refined tastes and financial wherewithal. It was purely its association with the great ancient kings of yore that inspired Richard to build a castle there. By the 14th century it was already in decay.

Using the information and materials discovered in this year’s dig, the team will make plans for more extensive excavations next year. They’ll have a clearer picture of the footprint of the medieval structures and they’ll be able to analyze samples that may fill in more blanks about how buildings were built, when and for what purposes.

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