Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

St. Cuthbert’s treasure is back and better than ever

Friday, August 4th, 2017

The Treasures of St. Cuthbert, a collection of relics of the saint and his medieval sanctuary, have gone back on display at Durham Cathedral after six years out of public view. The exhibition is part of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure project, an ambitious £11 million redesign that transformed the display spaces in the 11th century masterpiece of Norman architecture to showcase its exceptional collection including Anglo-Saxon carved stones, original copies of Magna Carta and the Forest Charter and illuminated gospels dating as far back as the 7th century. The new exhibition also opens to visitors previously inaccessible areas of the former monastery like the Monk’s Dormitory and the Great Kitchen, grand medieval rooms that managed against all odds to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the organizational, spiritual and iconoclastic upheaval of the Reformation, Cromwell’s suppression of the church and use of the cathedral as a POW camp for Scottish prisoners during the Civil War and a number of destructive architectural mutilations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Open Treasure experience has been delighting visitors since July 2016, but St. Cuthbert’s treasures are so delicate they require stringent conservation conditions. Conservators waited a full year, monitoring climactic conditions in the new permanent home for the saint’s relics to ensure they were ideal for their long-term preservation. On Saturday, July 29th, the Treasures of St. Cuthbert reopened in their new abode: the Cathedral’s extraordinary Great Kitchen, a massive space with an octagonal ceiling glorious enough to make numerologist angels weep. For centuries the kitchen produced food for hundreds of Benedictine monks and for the deans and canons that followed them after the Reformation. It was still in use as a kitchen well into the 1940s. That continuous use saved it for posterity and it is now one of exactly two surviving medieval monastery kitchens in the UK. (Thanks again for reducing all those monasteries to rubble, Henry VIII!)

Henry VIII’s dissolution minions are also responsible for the current condition of one of the most important relics on display. The Commissioners ordered that Saint Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral, one of the richest and most beloved pilgrimage sites in the country, be destroyed. The employed a local goldsmith sledgehammer Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, carved by the monks of the famous Lindisfarne Priory at the end of the 7th century A.D., open because they were sure there were treasures to be looted inside the wood of the coffin. There weren’t. All they got for their brutality was whatever satisfaction they derived from busting the greatest example of Anglo-Saxon woodwork in Britain to bits.

Saint Cuthbert was Prior of Lindisfarne when he died on March 20, 687. His cause of death is believed to have been tuberculosis. He was buried in the priory and slumbered peacefully for 11 years until the monks reopened the coffin and found his body had not decayed. The discovery of the incorrupt body launched the cult of Cuthbert and garnered him a sainthood. Unprepared for an intact body (they likely had planned to transfer his bones into a small ossuary only to find a fully enfleshed corpse instead), they hastily scared up a new coffin made of oak and carved with simple but elegant linear drawings of the Evangelists and their symbols, Christ, saints and angels. The figures are labelled in both Latin and Anglo-Saxon runes. These are the earliest carvings depicting Christ found outside of Rome.

When the Viking raiders struck the priory in the 9th century, the monks took Cuthbert’s coffin and his relics with them when they fled in 875. The traveled extensively, stopping at major cities along the way so pilgrims could flock to see the saint’s miraculous body. Cuthbert’s posthumous itinerancy came to a close in 995 when his remains were settled in Durham. Just over a century after that, his body, still in the Lindisfarne coffin, was placed into a new coffin and installed in a new shrine in the Norman cathedral.

After Henry’s pillage crew came away empty-handed from the destruction of the shrine, Cuthbert’s remains, still undecayed and still inside the damaged coffin, were placed inside yet another coffin and reburied in the cathedral. The tomb was opened again twice in the 19th century, mainly out of sheer curiosity. It was the first of these reopenings in 1827 that discovered the saint’s gold and garnet pectoral cross deep in the folds of his garments (turns out Henry’s Commissioners sucked at looting, despite their extensive experience in the field), a silver portable altar and Cuthbert’s elephant ivory comb in the coffin.

After the second reopening in 1899, the remains of the Lindisfarne coffin, now in fragments, were removed. Restoration attempts, one as recently as the 1980s, used damaging methods that today’s conservators eschew. Still, the coffin was on display for many years in Durham Cathedral, set high up so the carving was all but impossible to see in any kind of detail. The fragments have been re-conserved now, puzzled together using a non-invasive, reversible approach and put on display in a bespoke, climate-controlled case at eye level so visitors can revel in the unique decoration of the most important surviving wooden artifact from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Also on display in the Great Kitchen is the pectoral cross, one of the greatest and most significant examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork marking the transition from their traditional iconography and decorative style to Christianity and bearing the wear and tear of Cuthbert’s constant use of the piece. The comb, which looks a tad on the grubby side but must have been quite a fancy thing in the saint’s day because it was likely manufactured in North African in the 4th century, and the portable altar.

Original 12th c. sanctuary knocker. Photo courtesy Durham Cathedral.Then there are the artifacts associated with the shrine that aren’t directly connected to Saint Cuthbert in person, for example an incredibly rare group of embroidered silk and gold vestments donated to the shrine in the 10th century by King Athelstan and a magnificent 12th century knocker from the door of the sanctuary in the shape of the head of a leonine hellbeast complete with a little guy’s legs sticking out of the fearsome creature’s mouth. The legs are each devoured by the mouths of the double-headed snake which form the knocker itself.

There’s even a dragon-slaying sword, the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword that legend has it was used by Sir John Conyers to kill the Sockburn Worm. This is the story that inspired Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Decorated with the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire on one side of the pommel and that of England on the other, the falchion was for centuries ceremonially presented to the new bishop of Durham when he first crossed the boundary into his diocese. The last bishop to be so fortunate is the current one, Bishop Paul Butler, who crossed the River Tees into his new diocese in 2014. From now on, the dragon-slaying sword is staying put in the Great Kitchen. Future bishops will have to make do with a replica.

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Coptic murals found in Egyptian monastery

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

Medieval Coptic murals have been discovered on the walls of the Monastery of Saint Bishoy at Wadi El Natrun in the Nitrian Desert of northern Egypt. The monastery was damaged by flooding in 2015 and experts from the Ministry of Antiquities have been working since then to restore it. The frescoes were discovered under a layer of modern mortar. They were painted between the 9th and 13th centuries and depict saints and angels. Some of the frescoes have Coptic inscriptions underneath them.

“The most distinguished paintings are those on the western and eastern walls of the church,” [Ministry of Antiquities scientist Ahmed El-Nemr] said, describing the painting on the western wall as showing a woman named as Refka and her five sons, who were martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Roman empire.

The painting on the eastern wall depicts three saints and an archangel, and features Coptic writings below.

El-Nemr explained that when restorers removed the modern additions they stumbled upon the ambon, an elevated platform that is a feature of many orthodox churches.

The newly discovered ambon is made of mud-brick covered with a layer of mortar and decorated with a red cross.

Some geometric drawings, crosses and lettering were also found in various parts of the church.

The age of the paintings, inscriptions and the ambon are of particular significance because they date to a period when the monastery church was undergoing extensive alterations. Historical and religious records document extensive changes to the architecture and decoration of Saint Bishoy’s in 840 AD, during the Abbasid era, and in 1069 AD, during the Fatimid caliphate. Archaeologists hope the newly discovered features may elucidate some the church’s original design and fill in some of the blanks in the timeline of its construction phases from antiquity into the modern era.

The monastery was founded in the 4th century by Saint Bishoy (320 – 417 A.D.), a deeply devout monk who, like many of his time, emulated the ascetics and lived in the desert wilderness. His humility, dedication to prayer, hard work and the poor earned him a following of thousands who flocked to live in mountain caves surrounding his cave in what is now Deir el-Surian, about a third of a mile from the Monastery of Saint Bishoy.

According to Coptic hagiographies, Bishoy’s humbleness netted him at least two personal meetings with the risen Christ. The first time he was washing the feet of passing strangers, as was his wont, when he spotted crucifixion scars on the feet of one of them and realized he’d just washed Jesus’ feet. Another time he offered to carry an old ailing monk up the mountain on his back only to find the ailing old man was Jesus in disguise (again). Jesus told him then that because he had kept his body pure through his asceticism and used it only to serve the poor, lowly and God, including carrying God on its back up a mountain, Bishoy’s body would never decay.

Jesus kept his promise. When Bishoy’s body was moved to the Wadi El Natrun monastery in 841 A.D. by order of Saint Joseph I of Alexandria, 52nd Pope of Alexandria, it was indeed found to be incorrupt. The saint’s body lies in the monastery church to this day, and according to witnesses is still incorrupt.

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Longhouse, Anglo-Saxon coin found at destroyed Pictish fort

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Burghead Fort near the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, northeastern Scotland, was a major power center in the early Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. Between 6th and 9th centuries, the promontory fort at the site of the modern town of Burghead dominated the region. It was the largest of its time, three times larger than any other fort in Scotland. It is also the oldest known Pictish fort.

Its true origin and great historical significance wasn’t understood in the early 19th century. The fort was believed to be Roman, “the Ultima Ptoroton of Richard of Cirencester and Alta Castra of Ptolemy,” as Major-General William Roy labelled it in his drawing of the floor plan and sections of what was left of the fort in 1793. You might think that its purported Roman origin and association with the 2nd century writer Ptolemy who was believed to have described it in his Geography would be sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation, but you would be wrong. More than half of the fort’s surviving remains were destroyed when the town of Burghead was built between 1805 and 1809.

Burghead Bull, British Museum. Photo by Ealdgyth.The orgy of destruction was entirely undeterred by the exceptional discovery of as many as 30 symbol stones engraved with realistic line art of bulls. Now known to be rare Pictish stones, most of them were casually reused as construction materials in the quay wall of the new harbour and are considered lost. Today only six of the Burghead Bulls survive, two in the Burghead visitor centre, the rest in the Elgin Museum, the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum. All that’s left of the Pictish fort above ground are some lengths of the earth and rubble inner ramparts and a snippet of one of the outer ramparts on the southern side. A subterranean ritual well in a rock-cut chamber discovered during utilities work in 1809 is the most intact remnant of the fort.

Archaeological digs at Burghead began in the late 19th century (less than a hundred years from “who cares?” obliteration to desperately seeking antiquity). They usually focused on the perimeter of the structure — the inner and outer ramparts, the defensive wall — and while the occasional artifact was found, the fort was generally considered to have been gutted beyond recovery by the construction of the town and harbour.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2015 and this season has seen remarkable discoveries: evidence of a Pictish longhouse and a late 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great. Pictish architectural remains are rare and there are major lacunae in our understanding of Pictish buildings. The longhouse gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study the Picts’ living spaces within a great fort. The coin not only helped establish the dates for the occupation of the longhouse, but it is from a key transitional period when Viking raiders began savaging Pictish territories and would ultimately bring about the demise of Pictish kingdoms.

Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

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New imaging approach reveals hidden text from two eras

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

In the Middle Ages, old manuscripts were recycled for their valuable vellum and parchment pages. The writing was washed or scrubbed off and the leaves filling with new content. Because so many ancient works have been lost, scholars have for centuries attempted to recover the original texts from these medieval palimpsests, often using caustic materials that damaged the pages in the long term. Nowadays researchers have much better options thanks largely to a panoply of imaging technologies that have been a godsend to the study of palimpsests, revealing erased and overwritten text that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Synchrotron imaging is better than Superman because it can see through lead boxes.

Some of the recycled parchments pose greater challenges than others. With the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 15th century, the demand for bookmaking materials soared. Not only were medieval manuscripts cannibalized for their pages, but the bindings were reused to bind newly printed books. This was a common practice well into the 18th century, so there are a lot of old printed books out there with fragments of medieval and ancient texts hidden in the binding. Scholars knew there might be literary treasures in there, but were stumped by the difficulty of accessing and reading binding materials.

Now researchers at Northwestern University have made a breakthrough. It was a book from the university library’s collection that inspired the new approach. It’s an edition of the Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod that was printed in Venice in 1537. Northwestern acquired it in 1870 and out of the 30 known surviving copies of the edition, this is the only one that still has its original slotted parchment binding, a widely used technique in Venice from 1490 to 1670 in which slots were cut into the binding parchment to match the shape of the book spine.

Slotted parchment bindings often used recycled parchments. The ink was usually removed for aesthetic purposes, to make the outside surface of the parchment a uniform color. In this particular book, the ink on the interior parchment surface was not removed. Iron gall ink is acidic and over time, speeds up the oxidation and decay of the parchment.

The Northwestern librarians noticed the slotted parchment binding in the Hesiod and realized its significance. They also saw the faintest hint of text on the book board. Researchers from the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS) examined the binding in greater detail and found evidence that the writing on the book board had been removed, likely by the bookbinder, by washing or scraping. His efforts weren’t entirely effective, much to our advantage. Over time the gall ink that wasn’t removed had degraded the parchment and the writing began to re-emerge. NU-ACCESS researchers found two columns of text plus marginalia were very dimly visible through the parchment on the front and back covers of the book.

The writing wasn’t legible with the naked eye, so scientists Marc Walton and Emeline Pouyet turned to imaging, starting with visible light hyperspectral imaging. The writing became a little clearer, but it still couldn’t be read. X-ray fluorescence imaging gave the team new information about the chemical composition of the ink, but again, it wasn’t able to bring the ancient text out of hiding. They were going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Jaws, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) was that boat.

[T]he bright x-ray source and fast detection system allowed for a full imaging of the main text and marginalia comments in the entire bookbinding. When the researchers sent the more clearly imaged writing to [Northwestern history and religion professor Richard] Kieckhefer, he immediately recognized it as sixth-century Roman Law code [the Institutes Justinian], with interpretive notes referring to the Canon Law written in the margins.

Walton and Pouyet hypothesize that the parchment originally might have been used in a university setting where Roman Law was studied as a basis for understanding Canon Law, which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The legal writing was then possibly covered and recycled because it was outdated as society had already struck down the Roman laws to implement church code.

It was an exciting find, but the NU-ACCESS team had greater ambitions. Synchrotrons aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and most researchers don’t have access to the powerful (and expensive) equipment. Even if they do, rare old books in delicate condition can’t always be shipped to a synchrotron facility. For conservation reasons, they often can’t be shipped anywhere at all. Walton and Pouyet turned to Northwestern’s computer scientists to seek a cheaper, more readily available technology that would be able to read challenging palimpsest texts trapped in bookbindings.

“There is a vast number of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, and each wavelength has its advantages and disadvantages,” said [Aggelos] Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of them can penetrate deeper into the specimen, some of them have better resolution, and so on.”

Using a machine-learning algorithm developed by his team, Katsaggelos discovered that not one imaging technique but a fusion of two would yield the best results. His team combined visible hyperspectral imaging, which includes wavelengths within the visible light spectrum to provide high spatial resolution, with x-ray fluorescence imaging, which provides high intensity resolution. The algorithm informed the researchers of the relative contribution of each modality to produce the best image.

“By combining the two modalities, we had the advantages of each,” Katsaggelos said. “We were able to read successfully what was inside the cover of the book.”

Katsaggelos’ data fusion image was so clear that it rivaled an image of the main text produced by the powerful x-ray beams at CHESS.

Walton and Pouyet plan to take this show on the road. They want to examine books in museums and other institutions using the combination of hyperspectral imaging and x-ray fluorescence to read hidden texts on pages and bindings. You can read the team’s publication of their results in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta here.

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Oldest part of Charlemagne’s canal is even older, dig finds

Monday, July 24th, 2017

The Fossa Carolina (Karlsgraben in modern German) is named after Charlemagne, King of the Franks, future Emperor of the Romans, who according to contemporary Carolingian sources commissioned its construction in 793. About two kilometers (1.2 miles) long, the canal was meant to link the Swabian Rezat river in Treuchtlingen to the Altmühl river in Weissenburg, Bavaria. The Rezat is in the Rhine basin and the Altmühl is a tributary of the Danube, so the ultimate idea behind the canal was creating a navigable water route that would allow easy boat travel between the Rhine and the Danube.

Whether it was a practicable solution in real life was a whole other ball of wax. According to the Revised Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne was “persuaded by self-styled experts that one could travel most conveniently from the Danube into the Rhine if a navigable canal was built between the rivers Rezat and Altmühl.” Reliable canal-linked fluvial transport was immensely important to Charlemagne in 793. He had been forced to end his 791 campaign against the Avars south of the Danube when his cavalry was stricken by the Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus. The deadly mosquito-borne illness killed 90% of Charlemagne’s horses and other equines — war steeds, travel mounts, pack animals — in a matter of days. The few equines that survived a bout of EEE would have been severely disabled, suffering from brain damage and neurological symptoms that made it impossible for them to perform their usual duties of combat and transportation.

This was a logistical headache of brain-shattering proportions. Without horses and mules, the army’s supplies, weapons, armour and assorted gear had to be carried by people, at least some of it by horseless cavalrymen, to the Danube where it was loaded on boats. Charlemagne’s forces were so hobbled by the mass death of its equines that he wasn’t able to go on campaign for two years, and Charlemagne fought every year of his kingship, missing only four in total.

If the canal worked as planned, fluvial transportation — faster, cheaper and not subject to epidemics — would make it possible for Charlemagne to get back to his military campaigns against the Avars and rebellious Saxons, a war on two fronts that would have been enormously facilitated by a canal linking the Rhine and Danube. He would have been able to use large boats, not pack animals, to move equipment and supplies down the Danube in a new campaign against the Avars the next year. In addition, the actual digging of the canal required few horses, a big plus in a time of such equine scarcity.

It was such an important project that Charlemagne took up residence in Weissenburg in the fall of 793 to oversee construction of the canal. He personally saw to the hiring of a large team of builders. Under his direct supervision, the crew dug a moat 2,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. Again according to the Annals, canal constructed ended abortively, defeated by the marshy ground and constant rainfall which caused “what the workmen dug during the day, fell back in at night.” Other chroniclers claim the canal was in fact completed. Either way, Charlemagne’s attention was diverted to more pressing matters: fresh revolts in Saxony and attacks on Narbonne and Carcassonne by Umayyad Emir Hisham I of Córdoba.

Today there is little left of the most important infrastructure projects of the Middle Ages. There’s a water-filled moat about 350 meters (1148 feet) long in Treuchtlingen. Earthen embankments almost 4,000 feet long and more than 30 feet high also survive, created by the soil dug out of ground during the early construction of the canal. Over the past five years or so, archaeologists have discovered the northernmost section of the structure which is not visible above ground.

That section, which was fortunate enough to be forgotten and/or ignored for 1,200 years, has proven archaeologically invaluable. A team of researchers from German universities and the Bavarian State Office for the Protection of Monuments have discovered that the canal is older than the Royal Annals recorded. The question of when construction of the Fossa Carolina began has been a fraught one among historians for a century. The Alemannic Annals claim that canal construction began in 792, which would mean that Charlemagne’s stay in Weissenburg was a visit to an ongoing building site, not a new one he was personally supervising.

In 2013, timber pilings were discovered in the northernmost section that were dendrochronologically dated to the late summer or early fall of 793. A follow-up excavation in 2016 went even further, digging two trenches across two of the northern canal sections. The team unearthed numerous structural elements, including large oak pilings lining the canal walls that were in an excellent state of preservation thanks to the high groundwater level and a deposit of sediments immediately after construction.

The team was able to date more than two dozen timbers using dendrochronological analysis, an incredible bounty for high precision absolute dating. Tree ring analysis can pinpoint dates down to the year, sometimes even the month, and the youngest of the canal timbers tested date to the late spring or early summer (probably May) of 793. This was freshly cut wood. It hadn’t been stored for a few months before use in the canal.

This shows that the construction work at the Karlsgraben started several months earlier than was previously known. The description in the sources that the command for the construction of the canal has already taken place in 792 is thus significantly more likely. For the first time, the historical and political framework conditions of the decision to build the canal can now be clarified. The new dating also shows that Charlemagne visited a construction site, which had already begun several months earlier in the late summer/autumn of 793, and was by no means the “first spade”. […]

In the coming months, the new dates will be analyzed in detail and combined with numerous other results from the interdisciplinary research group. Due to the precise and different dates the researchers expect for the first time indications for the construction direction of individual channel sections and organizational details of the large construction site. New results are also to be expected regarding the completion or non-completion of individual construction sections.

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Mummy in Buddha statue goes to court

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Two years ago, a 1,000-year-old statue of the Buddha made headlines when a striking CT scan exposed the mummified monk within. The statue was scanned at a hospital in Amsterdam when it was in the country to take part in the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands. The exhibition proffered the Buddha statue as an example of the extreme practice of self-mummification, in which Buddhist monks spent years starving and poisoning themselves before having themselves walled into a constricted space to die. If three years later their bodies were found mummified, they were considered to have attained the rank of Buddha and their remains were venerated.

According to the information on the exhibition’s website and labels, the monk sealed in the statue was believed to be Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, aka Zen Buddhism, who died around 1100 A.D. There was no evidence offered in support of this surprisingly specific identification, nor were there any details about who owned the statue. The press materials alluded to this being the first time the statue was allowed to leave China and that it was the only Chinese Buddhist mummy made available for scientific study in the West.

Well, that may all be a big bunch of lies, or at least misinformation of the “Swiss private collection” variety to act as a smokescreen for some very shady dealings in stolen cultural heritage. A lawsuit currently in the Dutch courts presents an entirely different ownership history and identification of the statue and mummy. The plaintiff is the tea-farming mountain village of Yangchun in southeastern Chinese province of Fujian which claims the statue was stolen from a temple there in 1995. The defendant is a Dutch collector, who bought the statue and the human remains it contains in Hong Kong in 1996.

In March of 2015, one of the villagers saw a photograph of the statue on display at the Mummy World exhibition at Budapest’s Natural History Museum. He immediately recognized it as the Zhanggong Patriarch, a statue containing a mummified monk that he and his fellow villagers have venerated for centuries.

The lawyers will argue that according to Dutch law “a person is not allowed to have a known body in their possession,” Holthuis said.

“We also have enough evidence to prove that the statue is indeed the one that was stolen from the temple,” he added.

“The fact that it was sold a few months after it was stolen, that it contains certain texts referring to the name ‘Zhanggong’ and that its dating more or less corresponds to the period that the monk was alive,” were some of the arguments which will be presented, he said.

There are some pictures of it in the temple in 1989, and the village still has the clothes and crown the statue was wearing before the thieves stripped it. The picture alone isn’t as dispositive as you might think because of those clothes and crown. They obscure some of the identifying detail of the statue which has been displayed without its traditional accessories in the mummies exhibitions.

According to centuries of village tradition, the statue contains the remains of a monk named Zhang who moved to the village with his mother when he was a boy during the Song dynasty (960–1279). He went from cowherd to Buddhist monk to a gilded mummy worshipped by generations of residents. (There is no suggestion of self-mummification. He was mummified after his death as an indication of the great esteem in which he was held, an account that is consistent with the discovery that his organs had been removed and replaced with paper fill.) The villagers prayed to him at all major festivals and seasonal events. Each year the statue was transported through the village stopping at every house, and the monk’s birthday was celebrated every year with a grand festival. The village’s ancestral records seemingly confirm the oral history; they document the presence of the Patriarch as early as the Song Dynasty.

Villagers in Yangchun, China, pray in front of gray replica of the stolen statue. Photo by Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times.The theft of the Zhanggong Patriarch was devastating to the villagers. Some of the older residents had risked their lives to protect him from the iconoclastic marauders of the Cultural Revolution. The statue was kept constantly on the move for its safety, hidden in pits and people’s homes, sometimes moved twice in a night. They put a replica in his place, a rather rough grey version of the elegant gilded original, and the villagers still pray to it.

There’s one big problem. Nobody knows where the statue is right now. Apparently the collector, Dutch architect Oscar van Overeem, traded it with somebody in 2015 and he’s not saying who. The timing of this swap is curious, especially in the light of van Overeem’s strenuous denial that his mummy was the Zhanggong Patriarch. He insisted that he had easily disproven the village’s claim to the Chinese representative who contacted him to negotiate repatriation, but worked out a deal anyway to donate the statue to an unnamed Buddhist temple near Yangchun. He had struck this bargain, he said in May of 2015, “because he believed it deserved to return to its homeland ‘to be incorporated in truly Buddhist surroundings’ and worshiped ‘by those who love and appreciate him.'”

So in May of 2015, the collector believed that the mummy deserved to be home among those who love and pray to him, but I guess that belief wasn’t all that strongly held because the statue and mummy are not in any Buddhist temple near Yangchun. It’s nowhere to be found. Whoever the third party is has little incentive to come forward, so even if the village wins in court — which would be a landmark decision for Chinese cultural patrimony repatriation because it would be the first time a heritage object is returned due to the courts rather than through diplomatic channels — it could still be left bereft of its beloved Zhanggong Patriarch.

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Breakthrough on the dating of Borgring

Friday, July 7th, 2017

The ring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014 seemed from the first geophysical surveys of the site to fit a very rare and important type of fort built by King Harald Bluetooth (r. 958 — ca. 986). The circular design, the imposing size (475 feet in diameter), the four gates placed at the cardinal compass points, thick inner ramparts encircled by a spiked wooden palisade are all characteristics of Trelleborg-type fortresses, a network of powerful ring forts built by Harald in around 980 A.D. to form a defensive line against Germanic incursions. Only eight Trelleborg-type forts have been found in what is now Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden.

The 2014 excavation was limited in scope. Only a few trenches were dug revealing small sections of what archaeologists believed to be the north and south gates and some of the ramparts. The geophysical data was significant, but open to interpretation. Scholars were reluctant to accept that the Zealand structure, dubbed Borgring, was a fortress of the Trelleborg type based solely on these initial discoveries.

In order to conclusively identify it as one of Harald’s Trelleborg-type forts, archaeologists needed to narrow down the date of its construction as accurately as possible. These forts were built during a short window of a few years at the end of his reign, so pinpointing its age was essential. In the initial excavation, large oak timbers were unearthed at the north gate, charred in a fire that had engulfed the gate after its construction. Preserved by the flames, the wood could be radiocarbon dated, and because the timbers were so large, archaeologists were optimistic that they could be tree-ring dated as well. Carbon-14 testing can only return a date range, but dendrochronological analysis can, in the best case scenario, pinpoint the precise year in which a tree was felled.

Two samples taken from the north gate timbers were radiocarbon dated and produced pleasingly consistent dates. The oak logs dated to between 895 and 1017 A.D. Those dates fit squarely within the hoped-for range, but there was still too much wiggle room to prove that Borgring was a Trelleborg fortress. Archaeologists hoped the timbers could be dated dendrochronologically as well, but the charring impeded the analysis.

That was three years ago, and while excavations have been ongoing, the radiocarbon dating results from the north gate timbers have remained the only absolute dates on the table. That changed on June 26th, 2017, when the archaeological team from the Museum of South East Denmark and Aarhus University dug new trenches in the field next to the fortress. Just over eight feet below the surface, the team unearthed a piece of wood about three feet long. The carved oak plank was drilled with holes, some of which contained wooden pegs still in place. There is evidence of wear, but it’s unclear what exactly the plank was used for before it wound up discarded just outside the south gate.

Getting discarded was the best thing that could have happened to it, archaeologically speaking, because that field is composed of layer of peat, that blessed substance, preserver of organic remains large and small. The peat kept the wood from rotting and kept its rings in counting order.

Leading specialist in dendrochronological dating, Associate Professor Aoife Daly from the University of Copenhagen and the owner of dendro.dk, has just completed his study of the piece of wood and says: “The plank is oak and the conserved part of the tree trunk has grown in the years 829-950 In the Danish area. A comparison with the material from the Trelleborg fortress in Sjælland shows a high statistical correlation that confirms the dating. Since no splints have been preserved, it means that the tree has fallen at some point after year 966 “.

Research leader Jens Ulriksen says: “The wood piece was found on top of a peat layer, and is fully preserved as it is completely water-logged. We now have a date of wood in the valley of Borgring, which corresponds to the dating from the other ring fortresses from Harold Bluetooth’s reign. With the dendrochronological dating, in conjunction with the traces of wear the piece has, it is likely that the piece ended as waste in the late 900s, possibly in the early 1000’s. ” […]

Søren M. Sindbæk, professor in Archaeology at Aarhus University and part of the excavation team says: “This find is the major break-through, which we have been searching for. We finally have the dating evidence at hand to prove that this is a late tenth century fortress. We lack the exact year, but since the find also shows us where the river flowed in the Viking Age, we also know where to look for more timbers from the fortress.”

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Touch a 1,000-year-old Viking palisade

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

The town of Jelling in Jutland, Denmark, was the seat of the earliest kings of Denmark in the 10th century. Today the Jelling complex consists of two large burial mounds, two monumental runestones and a small church built on the site of three earlier wooden churches going back 1,000 years. The combination of tumuli, runestones and church capture the transition from the traditional Norse religion to Christianity. King Gorm the Old, the first king of Denmark, dedicated the smaller and older of the runestones. The inscription translates to: “King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” His son Harald Bluetooth had the second, much larger stone raised and its runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

Within the perimeter of Jelling, the massive cultural shift from the reign of Gorm (936- ca. 958) to that of Harald (958– ca. 986) is documented in language, funerary and religious architecture. That’s why the Jelling mounds, runestones and church are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and why the site is one of the most important in Danish history.

In 2006, archaeologists were able to explore a previously inaccessible area: the bed of a pond across from Gorm’s Mound. Before a planned renovation, the pond was pumped dry giving archaeologists the opportunity to excavate the mucky bottom looking for remains of the large wooden stockade that once encircled the royal estate at Jelling. Postholes from the stockade had been found before, but no physical remains. The stockade was known to have intersected part of what is now the pond, and therefore there was a chance the thick clay and mud on the bottom of the pond had preserved the organic remains of the stockade’s timbers. Viking-era reports suggested there had been a body of water in the area when the stockade was built, so conditions for preservation of wood may have existed on site since the 10th century.

Excavation along what was believed to be the stockade line hit the jackpot almost immediately. Just over two feet under the pond bed surface, archaeologists unearthed four large oak posts. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken from three of posts found that all samples were approximately 1,000 years old. In later excavations (2012-3), archaeologists found vertical stakes also made of oak. They are 4-5 inches thick and were driven directly into the clay of the pond bed two-by-two. There was no ditch dug into the soil first as in evidence elsewhere along the palisade line. This could only have been accomplished if the site was already watery when the stockade was built in the 10th century by Harald Bluetooth who greatly enhanced the Jelling defenses.

King Harald’s stockade was a huge, kite-shaped fence measuring around 1180 x 1180 feet, totaling just under a mile of wooden palisades at least 10 feet high. There’s evidence of some sort of superstructure at the top of the fence, perhaps a parapet for defenders to patrol. It is by far the largest Viking fenced-in space ever discovered in Denmark or Scandinavia. It’s also the only kite-shaped palisade known. The discovery of the timbers has been a boon to research on the architecture and layout of Jelling. Excavations also unearthed evidence of three different longhouses and a boat burial, although no boat remains have survived.

So far, the oak posts and vertical stakes are all of the physical remains archaeologists have found of the stockade. One of their dearest wishes came true when they found a timber large enough among the thick, square planks to be dated with dendrochronological examination (i.e., tree ring counting). The wood posts and stakes were recovered from the pond site and transported to the National Museum’s Conservation Department in Brede. They were dendrochronologically dated to between 958 and 985 A.D., with 968 A.D. the likeliest year for the felling of the oak tree.

Vertical oak planks from the defensive stockade at Jelling, 10th century. Photo courtesy the National Museum of Denmark.Even if the widest dates prove accurate, these years fall squarely into the reign of Harald Bluetooth, confirming the timbers found were part of Harald’s defensive expansion. After four years, the timbers have been stabilized and will go on display starting June 29th at the National Museum’s Jelling branch. The exhibition will explain to visitors the challenges in building such a huge structure in Jelling a thousand years ago. Just securing enough large oak trees for a palisade a mile long would have been enormously difficult; cutting them down, processing them and carrying them to Jelling added exponentially to the level of difficulty.

The surviving wood planks and posts will be displayed in custom cases, protected from light, heat, fluctuating moisture levels, humans and the wide variety of damaging microorganisms we take with us wherever we go. All except for one small fragment from the palisade that would have disappeared compared to the larger pieces behind the glass. Curators therefore decided to allow guests to touch a piece of a 10th century Viking stockade that once enclosed the royal compound of kings Gorm and Harald. Since it was Harald Bluetooth who ordered this stockade built, it’s eminently possibly that he even touched that same sliver of wood that Jelling visitors will now get to touch.

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Late medieval longsword found in Polish peat bog

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Museum director Bartłomiej Bartecki holding the 14th century sword found in Mircze. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.An intact late medieval longsword has been found in a peat bog in Poland. It was discovered in late May by excavator operator Wojciech Kot during drainage operations at the bog in the municipality of Mircze, 12 miles south of the town of Hrubieszów in southeastern Poland. The next day, Kot contacted the Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów and the day after that he brought the sword to the museum in person. Then he took the museum experts to the peat bog where he showed them the exact find spot which is not being revealed to keep treasure hunters from despoiling it.

Detail of the handle missing its hilt. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.The cruciform-handled sword is corroded from centuries spent in a wetland and is missing the original hilt which would have been made out of wood, bone or antler, but it is otherwise intact from pommel to tip. Its original weight is estimated to have been just 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs) which is light as a feather for a weapon that today is 120 centimeters (four feet) long. The elongated grip was intended for two-handed use which coupled with its long reach and light weight made the sword an agile weapon for armoured knights in battle. This design is typical of the 14th century.

On the back of sword is a symbol, an isosceles cross inside an heraldic shield, that Bartecki thinks is a maker’s mark engraved by the blacksmith. This was a very fine piece of craftsmanship. It is still well-balanced, in excellent condition and does not show any signs of having been deliberately discarded due to damage.

“The place where the discovery was made is a wetland and a peat bog. It is possible that an unlucky knight was pulled into the marsh, or simply lost his sword” – told PAP Bartłomiej Bartecki, director of Fr. Stanisław Staszic Museum in Hrubieszów. […]

The area is first appears on the historical record in the 13th century where it’s mentioned as the site of a few hunting lodges surrounded by forest. The region was part of Ruthenia (aka the Kievan Rus) then and was absorbed by the Kingdom of Poland in 1366 century after the disintegration of the Rus. The Polish governor built a castle in Hrubieszów in the late 14th century. So at least the second half of the century offered good employment opportunity for knights. Or he could have just been riding through and made a wrong turn into the bog.

Archaeologists plan to return to the find site to do a limited excavation. They’re hoping to find additional artifacts or information related to the sword, perhaps even other pieces of the knight’s equipment.

Top of the sword with engraved characters on the blade below the handle. Photo by Wojciech Pacewicz/PAP.The sword is now in Warsaw where it will be stabilized and conserved. Experts will analyze it for any marks that might help identify the owner. Engraved characters on the top of the blade beneath the handle, for example, may be associated with a particular knight or family. After conservation and study, the sword will return to Hrubieszów where it will go on display at the museum. They expect it to be back around November.

“This is a unique find in the region. It is worth pointing out that while there are similar artefacts in museum collections, their places of discovery is often unknown, and that is very important information for historians and archaeologists” – [Bartecki] noted.

Information nobody would have if it weren’t for the quick thinking and responsible actions of Wojciech Kot. Because the finder was so diligent in giving the sword to the museum and noting the find spot, museum staff will apply to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to grant him a reward or at least official thanks and recognition of his “exemplary attitude.”

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Major Islamic trade center found in Ethiopia

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating in Harlaa, eastern Ethiopia, have discovered the remains of a major Islamic city dating as far back as the 10th century. Local farmers have been finding archaeological remains and artifacts for years — pottery, coins, some from China, and masonry structures whose large stones inspired legends that a race of giants once lived there and built appositely giant buildings for themselves. Even with this evidence that there was something of historical significance in Harlaa, the site was neglected by archaeologists. The area has such an extraordinarily rich prehistorical fossil record, particularly as regards early hominids, that its later history has been overshadowed.

An international team of archaeologists from Britain’s University of Exeter, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the University of Leuven in Belgium stepped into the breach two years ago, working with the residents who have a wealth of previously untapped knowledge. The excavation has unearthed the remains of a 12th century mosque, Islamic graves and headstones, a wide variety of beads made of glass, rock crystal and carnelian and fragments of glass vessels. The Chinese coins found by the farmers turned out to be just scraping the surface of how far ancient Harlaa’s trade networks reached. Archaeologists found imported cowry shells, coins from 13th century Egypt and pottery from Madagascar, the Maldives, Yemen and China.

Professor Timothy Insoll, from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: “This discovery revolutionises our understanding of trade in an archaeologically neglected part of Ethiopia. What we have found shows this area was the centre of trade in that region. The city was a rich, cosmopolitan centre for jewellery making and pieces were then taken to be sold around the region and beyond. Residents of Harlaa were a mixed community of foreigners and local people who traded with others in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and possibly as far away as the Arabian Gulf.”

Harlaa is 120km from the Red Sea coast and 300km from Addis Adaba. The architecture of the mosque is similar to those found in Southern Tanzania and Somaliland, showing connections between different Islamic communities in Africa.

Remains found in the dig suggest jewellers were making high-quality, delicate pieces in silver, bronze and semi-precious stones and glass beads. They used some technology usually associated in that period with jewellers in India, suggesting trade or immigration from that country to Harlaa.

The Islamic-era settlement as excavated thus far appears to have been populated between the 10th and 15th centuries and is about 500 meters (.3 miles) by 1,000 meters. The use of large stone blocks to build walls and structures is consistent throughout the site, hence the giants idea. The locals, by the way, aren’t convinced that the giants theory is wrong. They think the 300 bodies found in the cemetery may have been the giants’ children. Samples of the remains are being studied to determine the diets and health of the ancient residents of Harlaa.

The archaeological team will return next year to continue excavating. They want to dig deeper and cover more sites to discover more about the earlier history of the area.

Professor Insoll said: “We know jewellery was being made here for trading into the African interior, and materials to do this came in from the Red Sea, East African Coast and possibly India, but we don’t know what was given in exchange for that jewellery. During the next stage of our archaeological research in this era we hope to examine this by working on other sites up to 100km away.”

The Harlaa excavation was done in partnership with the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage and many of the artifacts will be go on public display at a local heritage center. It will provide jobs for the community and, the hope is, bring tourist money and a new understanding and appreciation for the Islamic history of the area and of Ethiopia in general. A selection of artifacts will be exhibited at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa where they will be in most illustrious company. The skeletal remains of the internationally famous Australopithecus afarensis Lucy are kept there (although the display version is a plaster replica).

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