Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstructed

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

With more than 4,000 pieces, the hoard of 7th century gold and silver fragments discovered in 2009 near the village of Hammerwich in Staffordshire, England, is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon precious metals ever found. About 1,500 of those pieces were found to come from a single artifact: an extremely rare helmet of highest quality. Like the famous helmet discovered in the 7th century ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, the Staffordshire helmet must have belonged to an individual of high status.The Sutton Hoo helmet’s owner is believed to have been King Rædwald of East Anglia; the helmet is made of iron, tinned bronze sheeting, bronze and a few prominent gilded elements like the upper lip. The Staffordshire helmet was covered in reliefs of silver gilt foil, so has even more precious metal surfacing than the Sutton Hoo helmet.

The main structure of the helmet is lost and the hundreds of surviving relief fragments are so thin and delicate that they cannot all be puzzled back together. Small sections to be carefully jigsawed together during an extensive study project dedicated to identifying the helmet fragments amidst the 4,000-plus pieces in the hoard. The project ran from 2014 through 2017.

In order to get a full picture of what the helmet looked like when it was intact, researchers dedicated another 18 months to creating a painstakingly detailed reconstruction using a combination of the latest technology and traditional crafts. Two copies were made.

It will never be possible to reassemble the original physically. Instead, the project explored how the original may have been made and what it looked like, enabling archaeologists to understand its construction better and test theories about its structure and assembly.

The reconstructions were created by a team of specialist makers. The School of Jewellery at Birmingham City University (BCU) led on the fabrication of the precious metal elements of the helmet. Laser scanning of the original objects was used to ensure the replica pieces are as close to the surviving original parts as possible.

Other specialists, including Royal Oak Armoury, Gallybagger Leather, Drakon Heritage and Conservation and metalsmith Samantha Chilton, worked collaboratively to bring the helmet to life, advised by the archaeologists.

Steel, leather and horsehair elements were created, as well as the wood and paste, that scientific analysis of the original has revealed were used in its construction.

The reconstructions went on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery Friday, November 23rd.

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7th c. textile before and after

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Excavations in the historic center of Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark and the hub of maritime trade network that operated in the North and Baltic seas starting in the 7th century, unearthed a section of textile on July 25th of this year. It was preserved in water-logged soil and even folded up and coated in dirt the finely woven fabric was clearly identifiable as diamond twill.

This kind of high quality woolen cloth played an important role in the growth of trade in the area. In the early Middle Ages, cloth production was centered primarily in coastal areas where the sheep farms were. Southern Jutland, where Ribe was located, had a significant population of Frisians who specialized in creating wool fabric with an international reputation as the best in the business. Charlemagne gifted colorfully dyed Frisian wool cloaks to the Caliph of Baghdad and star of several One Thousand and One Nights Harun al-Rashid when he sent emissaries in 799 to offer friendship and alliance.

It’s a testament to how important the cloth was to the economy that early medieval codes imposed greater fines on people who harmed Frisian wool weavers. Only goldsmiths and harpers were granted the same distinction. The latter two professions were exclusively male. The weavers were largely women, so this law afforded them additional protections that other women did not enjoy.

Experts have been cleaning, conserving and studying the piece since it was discovered. They dated it to the first half of the 8th century, just a century after Ribe was settled. It is a z/z diamond twill woven on an A-frame loom with a thread count of 21 x 15 per centimeter. Researchers believe it’s a weave known as the Spong Hill type after the Anglo-Saxon cemetery type site where textile remains were found attached to brooches and other accessories. More research needs to be done to confirm the identification, to determine if it was dyed and find out other details about the piece.

But really it’s all about the before and after pictures.

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Last looted apostle mosaic returned to Cyprus

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

A 6th century mosaic of St. Mark torn from the walls of Panagia Kanakaria church in northern Cyprus in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion has been repatriated. The monastery church, originally built in the 5th century, was renown for its early Byzantine mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and the apostles. They were extremely rare, stylistically unique and some of the most important early Christian art in the world by virtue of having survived the Iconoclastic orgy of destruction during the 8th and 9th centuries.

In the late 1970s, they were plundered and sold in pieces to unscrupulous dealers who sold them all over the world to equally unscrupulous buyers. With a great deal of work by heritage organizations, police and committed individuals, almost all of the mosaics have been found in the decades since the brutalization of Panagia Kanakaria. Most recently, the medallion of the apostle St. Andrew was repatriated this April after four years of negotiation with a recalcitrant owner. It was the 11th of the 12 stolen apostle mosaics to be located and returned to Cyprus, leaving only St. Mark still on the lam.

Arthur Brand, who runs a firm that specializes in the recovery of looted artworks and stars in a Dutch TV program called The Art Detective which follows his cases, joined the hunt for the Mark mosaic three years ago. With the support of the Church of Cyprus and the Cypriot government, he was able to follow the trail thanks to tips from informants and his own detecting skill. Finally Brand found St. Mark in Monaco.

“It was in the possession of a British family, who bought the mosaic in good faith more than four decades ago,” Mr Brand said.

“They were horrified when they found out that it was in fact a priceless art treasure,” Mr Brand said.[…]

The family agreed to return it “to the people of Cyprus” in return for a small fee to cover restoration and storage costs, he added.

Arthur Brand recovered the mosaic from Monaco last week. On Friday, November 16th, he formally returned it to the Embassy of Cyprus in The Hague, The Netherlands. On Sunday, November 18th, St. Mark was home. That leaves only one piece of the Panagia Kanakaria mosaics still missing: the feet of Christ. Brand is on it.

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More than 100 funerary bundles found in Bolivia

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

The remains of more than 100 individuals and grave goods have been discovered in a quarry near the modern-day town of Viacha, Bolivia, 18 miles southwest of La Paz. Archaeological material was first found at the site by miners three months ago. They reported it to the authorities and Bolivian government archaeologists began official excavations.

They first encountered two tombs in an underground necropolis carved into the limestone. One chamber contained about 108 funerary bundles. It had been looted and the human remains had suffered significant deterioration, but many grave goods still remained. A small circular hole just 27.5 inches in diameter opened to a chimney nine feet deep. When archaeologists lowered themselves down, they discovered another two tombs, these intact and unlooted.

There were wood and pottery artifacts in the tombs, and more than 150 pieces of bronze jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, brooches, women’s hair ornaments and two rare u-shaped headbands worn by nobility. Also in the tomb with the bundles were 30 intact pottery vessels of a type used by the Inca for burial rites. Some of the skulls are elongated, evidence of intentional cranial deformation, a common practice in the Americas (and world-wide) that was often a signifier of high social status. The skulls and diverse artifacts indicate people on different rungs of the social ladder were all buried together in the communal graves.

The burials date to around 1100-1200 A.D. in the period after the decline of the Tiwanaku Empire which had been the dominant polity in western Bolivia between 600 and 1000. They belonged to the Pacajes people, part of the Aymara kingdom which spread over the Andean highlands of western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile from at least 1200. The area was conquered by the Inca during the reign of Huayna Capac (1493–1524) who expanded the empire to its greatest extent before dying of the smallpox the Spanish brought to America.

Little is known about when the Inca conquered the Aymara and exactly what the power dynamics were. It’s believed the Aymara had some level of autonomy. The discovery of Inca pottery in the Pacajes tombs is therefore of major historical significance as it is a unique find that attests to the blending of cultural practices after the Inca take-over in the 15th century.

The remains, especially the soft tissues, quickly began to deteriorate further when exposed to microorganisms, humidity and saline air, so archaeologist have removed the contents of the tombs to an archaeological center where they will be studied and conserved in controlled conditions. At this point, the remains and artifacts have not yet been declared national patrimony which means the local municipality of Viacha bears the responsibility of finding a permanent place for them that will provide the conditions for their preservation.

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9th century coin hoard found in bog

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptional group of more than 250 9th century coins in a bog near Ribe, Denmark. A metal detector hobbyist found the first coin earlier this year, an extremely rare piece known as a face/deer coin after the stylized face design on the obverse and the deer going nose-to-nose with a snake on the reverse. Only 11 face/deer coins were known to exist before this summer. The Museum of Southwest Jutland got wind of it on August 14th and contacted the finder the next day. That’s when they discovered there wasn’t just one more face/deer coin, but a whole bunch more, likely deposited in the wetland as a ritual sacrifice.

Obverse of the face/deer coin with a stylized face in the center. Photo courtesy Southwest Jutland Museums.With the help of the finder, museum archaeologists surveyed the site using metal detectors and precision GPS to document every discovery. Over two days, they found 174 coins, 172 of them face/deer coins, the last two with Viking ships adorned with shields on the obverse and deer on the reverse. The coins were spread over an elongated oval about 165 by 50 feet in area, a distribution typical of coin deposits that have been scattered by repeated passes with plows. The way they were spread out suggests they were not buried in the bog, but rather placed on the ground in a single deposit, likely in a bag that was torn apart and destroyed over the centuries.

The team returned to the site in late October to excavate it. This time they found another 78 coins, 77 face/deer, 1 ship/deer. The condition of all of the coins is excellent. They were in such great shape that many of them shone like new through the clods of peat when they were recovered by the archaeologists.

“This is an exceptional find that means a quantum leap in our understanding of minting. They are Danish coins and clearly minted for the purpose of being implemented in Ribe,” [Museum of Southwest Jutland’s Claus] Feveile told DR Nyheder.

“This completely shifts our understanding of how we used to mint and the process of coin production.”

With no loops, perforations or clippings, it’s clear the coins were part of a money economy before their ritual deposition. The question of how much of a real monetary economy early Viking cities employed as opposed to a precious metal weight economy is a fraught one in the scholarship, and finding so many coins deposited in one place and preserved in perfect condition will give numismatic experts the unique opportunity to determine how many of these coins were minted and circulated. Initial examinations have already revealed that many different stamps were used to strike the coins, indicating a significant output that was in no way imaginable based solely on the two handfuls of coins known before this summer.

When these coins were struck in the first half of the 9th century, Gudfred and later his sons ruled as kings of the Danes. Gudfred is the first Danish king we have decently reliable evidence of in contemporary chronicles. He fought against Charlemagne and the Franks. His son Horik I (the only son whose name is recorded but not the only one to rule) carried on his father’s legacy by raiding the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious. We know little about Gudfred and his sons’ monetary policies or really much of anything about their reigns beyond their interactions with the Franks. The hoard may shed a whole new light on an obscure historical period.

The coins unearthed thus far were briefly on display at the Museum of Southwest Jutland for a week until November 4th before being removed for further study. The excavation at the find site continued through October 25th. Between August and now, a total of 252 coins have been recovered. Archaeologists don’t think there are many, or even any, left to find.

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I can’t believe I missed this

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

A famous medieval icon of the Madonna and Child traditionally held to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist has been conclusively identified as the work of late 13th century artist Filippo Rusuti, creator of the grand upper facade of St. Mary Major. That mosaic depicting Christ enthroned among angels, saints and the symbols of the Evangelists actually bears the artist’s signature in mosaic tiles. The facade is today mostly hidden by the 18th century loggia built over it, but the verisimilitude of the signature made it possible for experts to confirm the one on the icon.

Art historians had previously attributed it to the Master of San Saba due to some stylistic similarities to frescoes in the nave of the Church of San Saba. A restoration that began in 2017 used the latest technology to analyze the panel painting (canvas mounted on walnut). That’s how the previously invisible signature of the artist was discovered. Like the mosaic, the icon is Byzantine in style with rigid figures imbued with symbolism rather than naturalistic postures and affect.

The icon’s permanent home is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to which it has deep ties extending back to the 13th century. The church’s founding and early history is hazy — many church records were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome — but it does appear on a list of Roman churches from the late 1220s, early 1230s. The physical structure as it exists today is largely Baroque, an expansion and reconstruction designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century that drastically altered its 15th century predecessor. The greatest international claim to fame and tourist attraction of Santa Maria del Popolo today, the Cerasi Chapel with its two Caravaggio masterpieces, Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus, dates to the Baroque reconstruction.

Long before the Caravaggio pilgrims lined up on the church steps waiting for it to open, however, pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Madonna traveled to Santa Maria del Popolo to venerate the icon. Legend dates its miraculous reputation back to the earliest records of the church. The story goes that the icon of Virgin and Child was painted by the very hand of St. Luke the Evangelist and kept with the rest of the most important relics in Christendom in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, the Pope’s residence. In 1230, the Tiber overflowed its banks, as it was wont to do, and with the flood came plague. To cure the city of this pestilence, the Pope led the city in a procession carrying aloft the icon to Santa Maria del Popolo. The plague ended and the Madonna of San Luca became one the most venerated icons in Rome.

Several Popes and cardinals were passionately devoted to the icon. The high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo was commissioned, likely by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, in 1473 to showcase it. One of those popes, Sixtus V, put Santa Maria del Popolo on the list of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome in 1586, replacing the church of Saint Sebastian on the Appia outside the walls, solely because of the importance of icon.

I came so close to seeing the restored icon last week, darn it. It is currently on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo through November 18th. I didn’t even realize it was there and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if I had known because I’ve seen the icon at Santa Maria, albeit not within such close view. I did have the Castel Sant’Angelo’s exhibition of arms and armature on the short list, however, and saw the other half of that show at the Palazzo Venezia. Time got away with me is all, what with all the questing and wall walking.

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Rare 12th c. seal found at Lincoln Cathedral

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

A rare silver seal matrix from the 12th century has been found in the stores of Lincoln Cathedral. Collections and engagement officer Fern Dawson discovered the artifact in an uncatalogued box during an audit of the cathedral’s holdings. The box was full of seals, but they were all replicas. At first the 12th century piece was believed to be one of them, a Victorian-era reproduction, but experts examined it and identified it as the original matrix used by the medieval Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral to create the wax seals affixed to official documents.

The obverse of the seal depicts the Virgin Mary, crowned and enthroned, holding the Christ child in her lap. The reverse features the enthroned adult Christ. Mary is the patron saint of Lincoln Cathedral, aka Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln. The seal matrix was made in the early years of the cathedral’s long life. The first wood church was completed in 1092. It was rebuilt in the second quarter of the 12th century and then again after a massive earthquake in 1185.

Lloyd de Beer, Ferguson Curator of Medieval Europe at the British Museum, said: “Institutional seal matrices like this are extremely rare, especially in silver and from such an early date. The Lincoln seal is a joy to behold. It is a masterpiece of micro sculpture made by a truly skilled goldsmith. What’s more, the reverse contains beautiful swirls of niello surrounding an enthroned Christ.”

Its prior existence was known of, and “the Great Seal of the Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral” had a world-wide reputation as a rare piece of 12th century craftsmanship, but until recently no one in living memory had seen or handled the real object.

“Since 1893, important Cathedral documents have been sealed using an electrotyped copy while the true matrix has lain hidden and unrecognised within the Cathedral store,” explained expert in medieval ecclesiastical treasures, Dr Lesley Milner FSA.

“It was a hugely exciting moment for us all when this forgotten art work was rediscovered and put into the hands of Professor Sandy Heslop, an authority on 12th century metalwork. For a moment there was silence and then he said ‘Wow!’, realising that Lincoln had re-acquired a supreme piece of Norman art.”

Two other original medieval seal matrices were found next to the 12th century one in the box full of replicas. There was also a 13th century one of the Vicars Choral and a 14th century Sacrist’s Seal, a personal seal matrix for a cleric named John. The three seals went on display in the Lincoln Cathedral treasury on September 15th. They will remain on public view in the treasury until they are moved to the new visitor center when it opens in 2020.

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Gold treasure illuminates 6th c. darkness

Monday, September 17th, 2018

A treasure of gold artifacts from the German Iron Age has been discovered on the island of Hjarnø in the Horsens Fjord area off the eastern coast of Jutland. The first pieces of gold, small pendants were found by dental assistant and metal detectorist Terese Frydensberg Refsgaard and her fellow amateur archaeologist Brian Kristensen in 2017. They brought their finds to the museum in nearby Vejle where the experts told her to keep her discovery and its location under wraps to prevent treasure hunters from despoiling the place. Archaeologists followed up with a full excavation.

They were not disappointed. Between Refsgaard’s initial find and the professional dig, 32 different precious objects were unearthed. They include gold beads, pendants, a needle, and a number small gold fragments, clippings from larger pieces, usually coins, that were used as a currency. All of the artifacts are tiny, some of them more detailed than expected with designs the archaeologists have not seen before. They had to have been the product of highly advanced goldsmithing.

Mads Ravn, head of research at Vejle Museums, said the gold was thought to date from just before the Viking period and was likely buried around 500 CE.

The find suggests that people from Hjarnø had contact with the Roman empire, Ravn said.

“They probably took part in raids there, so our find is a small legacy from a turbulent time in world history in which gold speaks its own clear language” Ravn told DR.

The newly-found designs and craftsman skills will shed new light on a chaotic period when even the break-down of the Roman Empire paled in comparison to natural cataclysms that wracked the continent and beyond after a massive volcanic eruption in Llopango, El Salvador. The ash cloud spread from Central America to Europe, Turkey, Mongolia, China and Africa, blocking the sun and creating a mini ice age a decade long. Widespread famine and loss of human and animal life was the result.

Archaeologists hope their analyses will discover where the gold was originally mined, how the objects were made, where they made and how and why they wound up on Hjarnø facing the sea to south. It’s possible the objects were deliberately laid as a sacrifice to petition the gods for survival during the long, cold darkness.

The artifacts will be going on temporary display at Vejle’s Museum of Cultural History in an exhibition dedicated to the upheaval of the post-volcanic 6th century, after which it will go to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen for further study.

This Dutch-language video is worth viewing even if you can’t understand a word they’re saying because you get an idea of the minuscule size of some of the pieces that the photographs can’t convey. If any of our Dutch speaking readers would care to post a summary or highlights of the discussion, I would be ever so grateful. :thanks:

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Likely home where Henry VII was born found

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a house on the grounds of Pembroke Castle that is probably the house when the future King Henry VII was born. Previous aerial photography and a geophysical survey had found evidence of a possible building on the site and this two-week excavation was an exploratory dig to see if there really was something there worth pursuing. That question has been answered loud and clear.

Just days into an initial dig, archaeologists have uncovered up to half a metre of the building’s walls – and they are yet to reach the main floor levels. One wall is a metre thick.

They have also unearthed so many slates and tiles that they are concluding it had a slate roof. Green-glazed ridge tiles have also been found, which suggest a particularly imposing building, while other finds include a curving stair from a spiral staircase.

James Meek, who is heading the excavation for the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, said such finds are already suggesting “a fairly showy building” inside of the outer walls of the castle.

It is about the size of two tennis courts, while the scale of the walls suggests a structure of a considerable height.

The thick walls also map out a floor plan characteristic of a late medieval hall house you’d find in the later 15th century. That’s when the castle was granted to Jasper Tudor, Henry’s uncle. According to legend, little Henry Tudor was born in the 13th century tower of the 11th century castle, but then again, the arch-rival for the throne he would defeat so soundly, Richard III, was said the have been born with a full set of teeth and a tail, so yeah, there’s a lot of tall-taleism to sift through in accounts of rulers’ lives. Documentary evidence confirms that he was born at Pembroke Castle, but it’s far more likely he was born in a large, comfortable mansion on the grounds of his uncle Jasper’s castle than in the guard tower.

Expressing surprise over how much of this structure has survived, Meek said: “It tells a very different story for how we think outer walls of castles were used in that later medieval period … it was always the thought that they [castles] were full of smaller timber buildings of lesser status than the rest of the court rooms and the administrative functions of the castle itself. Whereas here, you’ve got one high-status residential structure.”

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Study the Book of Kells in free online course

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

The Book of Kells, the 9th century illuminated Gospel manuscript that is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval calligraphy and illumination (if not the greatest), is on display at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, but you can’t check it out or leaf through it, for obvious reasons. As Ireland’s best known and beloved cultural treasure, it is kept in a secure, climate-controlled display case.

The Book of Kells exhibition is artfully curated with large blow-ups of key pages of the manuscript so people can get a good look at some of the book’s contents in replica form. Visitors get an information leaflet and can rent audio tours. There are no guided tours and no photography is allowed.

Trinity College Dublin has created an online course for the many, many people around the world thirsty to see more of and learn more about the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece is a four-week course offered through FutureLearn free of charge to all comers.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has been designed by academics from the School of Histories and Humanities, the School of Religion and staff from the Library. Using the Book of Kells as a window the course will explore the landscape, history, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland and explore how that past is understood in modern Ireland. Rachel Moss, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture, and one of the course designers, commented: “Every year the campus of Trinity fills with expectant visitors, keen to see the world famous Book of Kells for themselves. There are few experiences to beat the experience of gazing on these precious pages, and imagining who else has shared that privilege over the past 1,200 years. The longer you dwell, the more detail reveals itself, and the more intriguing the manuscript becomes.”

“In this course we look forward to being able to share the manuscript with those who have yet to see it for themselves, and share it again with those that have. The course will bring the learner beyond that initial encounter to explore its minute and intricate art, how it was made and what it might have meant to its makers. The course will not just dwell in the past. The manuscript is extraordinary in the way in which it has managed to grip the public imagination up to the present day. Despite centuries of scholarship, new research continues to disentangle some of the enigmas that it presents.”

A different aspect of the book will be the focus of each week, exploring how it relates to the wider context of Irish art. The course will cover the illumination and calligraphy as well as the substance of the Latin Gospel text and the physical object of the book itself. I hope some of the new research addressed in the course is the study of parchment that was able to extract DNA from Staedtler Mars eraser crumbs. Trinity College Dublin was part of the research team.

At the end of the course learners will be able to explain the function and meanings of medieval Irish art; understand how medieval manuscripts were made and engage critically with methodologies and scholarly debates which have shaped interpretations of the period. The course will also equip learners with knowledge of the distinctive features of the Irish Church in this era and an understanding of the visual, theological and historical characteristics of medieval material culture.

The course starts on my birthday, October 8th. Is that not the best present a history nerd could ask for? Downright auspicious, I call it. Register for The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece here.

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