Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Makeup heir buys rare medieval panel for National Gallery

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

An extremely rare early 14th century panel painting by Giovanni da Rimini has been purchased by the National Gallery with funds donated by cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. The work is an oil and tempera painting on gilded wood depicting Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints by Giovanni da Rimini, an important artist in turn of the 14th century Rimini. It is the left panel of a diptych and is the only work by Giovanni da Rimini in the UK. In fact, there are only two other easel paintings conclusively attributed to Giovanni da Rimini: the right panel from this diptych in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini) and The Virgin and Child with Five Saints in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Faenza.

Giovanni was the leading artist in a group of artists from the northern Italian city of Rimini whose innovative approach combined the devotional intensity and symbolism of Byzantine iconography with the more naturalistic figural depictions that would follow. The works of the Rimini school are therefore important transitional pieces that bridge the gap between late medieval fresco masters like Giotto and the early Renaissance.

This left panel of the diptych is the greatest of the three known works by Giovanni da Rimini. The right panel is more traditional, divided into six squares of equal size which depict scenes from the life of Christ in chronological order. The left panel takes a more creative approach in composition and subject. The top two thirds is divided into two vertical quadrants with the right quadrant divided into two again. That bottom third is divided into two scenes but the border line between them is further to the right than the centered vertical of the top section. This gives the panel a more dynamic design and allows the artist to introduce variety of composition. The double-height section in the upper left depicts the Apotheosis of Saint Augustine. Since there’s so much space, Giovanni was able to create a temple-like empty tomb for Augustine with a heavenly host of angels above and a crowd of astounded onlookers around it. Augustine is in the middle of the angels wearing the mitre.

The two scenes to the right of the Apotheosis are the Crowning of the Virgin up top and a celebratory crowd of saints and angels beneath, a sort of flipped version of Augustine’s scene. Notice the angel with his back to the viewer in the center of holy crowd. Those wings are an early example of foreshortening in medieval art. The left of the bottom third of the panel is dedicated to the Dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, when the Emperor Maxentius deployed 50 of the greatest philosophers in Rome to defeat her in debate. She won and a bunch of the philosophers converted. The last scene on the bottom right shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in front of John the Baptist with a seraph above them.

The panel arrived in England from the collection of 19th century Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini. Considered one of the greatest academic painters in Rome during his lifetime, Camuccini was showered with portrait commissions, appointments and titles during his lifetime. He spent his fortune collecting the 16th and 17th century Italian masters he used to copy when he was a student, accumulating more than 70 highly praised pieces before his death in 1844. In 1853, his heirs sold the entire Camuccini collection to Algernon Percy, 6th Duke of Northumberland, who installed the artworks in the family seat of Alnwick Castle.

Giovanni da Rimini’s panel remained on the walls of Alnwick Castle adorning the boudoir of the duchess until July of last year when the current Duke put it up for auction at Sotheby’s London. The pre-sale estimate was £2-3 million ($3,428,000 – 5,142,000) and the hammer price including buyer’s premium was £5,682,500 ($9,739,237). When the anonymous buyer asked for an export license, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey placed a temporary export bar on the work to give UK institutions a chance to raise the purchase price and keep the one-of-a-kind piece in the country.

Aidan Weston-Lewis from the [Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest] said:

This jewel-like, exquisitely preserved, seven hundred-year old panel is by a good margin the most important example in the UK of the seminal Riminese school of painting. Although this country can boast impressive collections of early Italian art, there is nothing comparable to this in any British public collection.

With the clock ticking, Ronald S. Lauder, son of beauty industry mogul Estée Lauder, struck an unusual deal with the National Gallery: he’d donate the £4.919 million necessary to for them to buy the painting as long as the museum agreed to loan him the panel for his lifetime. He would then loan it back to the museum for display, first in 2017, then up to once every three years after that. After Lauder’s death (he’s 71 years old), the painting would physically join the National Gallery’s permanent collection. The NG took the deal with alacrity.

This isn’t the first time one of the Camuccini paintings from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection was saved for the nation after a sale that would have taken it out of the country. In 2003 the National Gallery had to scramble to raise a crazy £34.88 million ($54 million) to acquire Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks after the Duke accepted an exorbitant purchase offer from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A temporary export bar that was extended several times gave the museum a year to raise the huge sale price from grants and private donations. The hard-won masterpiece has been on loan to the Minneapolis of Arts from the National Gallery since March. The exhibition ends on August 16th, so if you’re anywhere near Minneapolis you should hustle to catch the $50 million Raphael before it returns to London.


Gilded Late Viking sword found in Norway

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

In 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo unearthed a unique sword from the late Viking era in a grave in the town of Langeid, southern Norway. The grave was unusually large, the largest of the 20 graves found in the burial ground, with postholes in the corners indicating that it had once had a roof. So prominent a tomb must have belonged to a person of high status who would likely have been interred with valuable objects for the afterlife, but when the coffin was excavated archaeologists found no grave goods except for the remains of two silver coins. When the team dug outside of the coffin, they found two metal objects on either side. One was a sword, the other a large battle-axe.

The sword is just over a three feet (94 centimeters) long, and while the iron blade of the sword is heavily corroded, the hilt is in excellent condition and of exquisite quality. The guard and pommel are silver engraved with swirls, crosses and what appear to be letters, all filled in with gold and edged with copper alloy thread. The grip is tightly wrapped with silver thread in a herringbone pattern. Conservators found fragments of wood and leather on the blade, likely all that remains of the sheath.

The letters are from the Latin alphabet, but they’re not in a legible arrangement and some are backwards or look like two or more letters were combined.

“At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man,” added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found in one of the postholes dates the burial to 1030 A.D., a date confirmed by one of the two coins found inside the coffin. It’s an English silver penny minted during the reign of King Ethelred II, aka Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1016), and is the only Anglo-Saxon coin ever found in Langeid.

The battle-axe found next to the coffin also has an association to early 11th century England. The shaft was coated with brass, a very rare find in Norway, but very similar to numerous axes that have been discovered in the Thames in London. The Thames axes date to the same time as the Langeid axe, a period when more than one Scandinavian king — Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, his son Cnut the Great, King Olaf II of Norway — fought to conquer England. London was raided repeatedly. The axes may have been left in the Thames by Norse raiders, lost or sacrificed after a victory.

It’s entirely possible that the man buried with the weapons may have fought under one of those kings. There’s a rune stone in the Setesdal valley just south of Langeid inscribed in Old Norse “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute ‘went after’ England. God is one.” Norway was under Danish sovereignty when Cnut invaded England in 1015. There were Norwegian fighters from noble families in his army who would have been required to arm themselves with the best weapons.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

The sword find is being announced now, four years after it was made, because it’s going on display for the first time. It is part of the Museum of Cultural History’s Take It Personally exhibition which examines the history of adornment, with this sword being an example of how the precious metals and decorative details of women’s jewelry were used on weapons and armour to telegraph the bearer’s wealth and power. The exhibition opened on June 12th and will run until June 1st, 2016.


Original floor of Coventry Cathedral revealed

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

For the first time since Luftwaffe all but destroyed the medieval city of Coventry in the Second World War, the original floor of the Gothic cathedral of St. Michael’s has been revealed.

Coventry, an important industrial center that manufactured everything from bicycles to munitions, was the target of many bombing raids during the Battle of Britain, the most damaging of which struck on November 14th, 1940. German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive devices, intended to destroy infrastructure like water mains and roads, and 36,000 incendiary bombs, intended to burn down industrial targets (and pretty much everything else) in the city center.

St. Michael’s suffered multiple direct hits from incendiary bombs. Volunteer Firefighters were only able to put out the first of the fires before finding themselves overwhelmed by the inferno raging all over the Coventry’s historic center. The Cathedral was soon engulfed in flame. When the dust settled the next morning, St. Michael’s was a smoldering ruin, only the tower, spire and outer wall still standing on the scorched pavement. Thankfully the precious Gothic stained glass windows had been removed in 1939 to spare them from just this fate and have survived to this day.

After the war, a new cathedral was built next to what was left of the old one. Because the ruins of the medieval cathedral were exposed to the elements, the original floor was covered with rubble and concrete and topped with flagstones. Because it had been so pitted and scarred by the bombing and fire, the new pavement varied in depth from 50 centimeters (20 inches) to a meter (3’3″). In 1955 the ruins were added to England’s National Heritage List with a Grade I designation.

Listed structures cannot be altered without special permission, permission that was granted to the ruins of St. Michael’s because the floor is in danger from water damage. A new watertight membrane and drainage system will ensure the original floor doesn’t crumble underneath the mid-century concrete and pavers. The first step in the process was to lift the post-World War II flooring to expose the floor as it was before the bombs fell.

Although the church was built in the 14th century, much of the floor that has been uncovered consists of memorial stones laid down in the 18th century and later. The wooden base of the choir stalls were also found, carbonized by the fires.

Also uncovered is a wall of the 13th century Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the cemetery. While archaeologists expected to find parts of it, they can now confirm that it was a two storey building – the top floor of which was removed as the cathedral was expanded over it.

The cathedral team had hoped to discover a third concealed crypt similar to the Wyley Chapel. Although no crypt was discovered, there was a small space containing rubble from the interior of the ruined cathedral. Most of it was broken down after World War Two and the carved masonry is seen as a ‘time capsule’ of stonework from the time.

If you’d like to see the parts of Coventry Cathedral that have been hidden for 60 years or so, the project’s lead archaeologist will give two half-hour talks in the ruins, the first on Wednesday, July 15th, the second on Friday, July 17th, both from 1:00-1:30 PM. If there’s enough interest from visitors, the Cathedral will host more such events.


The great find and great loss of Childeric’s treasure

Monday, July 6th, 2015

Childeric I was the king of the Salian Franks from 457 until his death in 481/2 A.D., and the father of Clovis I, the man who would unite the Frankish tribes under his rulership and become the first of the Merovingian kings of France. Childeric established a capital at Tournai on lands he had received as a foederatus (a military ally who received money and lands in exchange for fighting for Rome) in what was then the province of Belgica Secunda.

Clovis moved the capital to Paris and over time the location of his father’s tomb was lost. It was rediscovered on May 27th, 1653, by one Adrien Quinquin who was doing some work on the church of Saint-Brice when his shovel suddenly turned up a cache of gold coins. Further excavation revealed a tomb full of treasures, among them a throwing axe, a spear, a long sword called a spatha and a short scramasax with scabbard, both richly ornamented with gold and garnet cloisonné, a solid gold torc bracelet, part of an iron horseshoe with nails still in it, belt and shoe buckles and horse harness fittings also decorated in cloisonné gold and garnets, a leather purse containing more than a hundred gold and silver coins, the most recent bearing the image of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474-491 A.D.), a gold bull’s head with a solar disc on its forehead, a crystal ball and a gold signet ring.

The signet ring was the proverbial smoking gun that identified the tomb as Childeric’s. It’s a heavy gold ring 27mm (one inch) in diameter (Childeric had some large fingers). On top is an oval bezel bearing the effigy of a beardless man with long hair parted in the center. He wears a paludamentum (a draped cloak fastened at one shoulder worn by Roman military leaders and emperors in statuary and on coinage) and holds a spear in his right hand. Around the head is the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric King).

More than 300 golden bees with red glass wings were also found that are thought to have adorned Childeric’s ceremonial cloak. Centuries later, when Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned Emperor of the French, he turned to the most ancient French monarch for iconography that would connect him to royal history while bypassing the still-loathed Bourbons and their fleur-de-lys. Napoleon adopted Childeric’s heraldry as his own. His coronation robe was embroidered with 300 gold bees and bees became the symbol of the new French Empire.

When Childeric’s treasure was discovered, Tournai was part of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, younger brother of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The bulk of Childeric’s grave goods (there was much pilfering, apparently, during the dig) went to the Archduke who had the great good sense to order his physician Jean-Jacques Chifflet to document every piece thoroughly. Chifflet’s meticulous study, complete with extremely detailed engravings of the artifacts, was published in 1655 as Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai of the Nervians). Dependant on ancient sources and comparisons with other artifacts, Chifflet made some errors and misidentified some of the pieces, but his careful recording of every object is today considered the first scientific archaeological publication before there was such a thing as archaeological science.

Archduke Leopold brought Childeric’s treasure with him to Vienna when he left the Spanish Netherlands in 1656. Upon his death in 1662, he bequeathed his extensive gallery of art and artifacts, including Childeric’s grave goods, to his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In 1665, Leopold I gifted the Childeric treasure to King Louis XIV in gratitude for his military aid against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary the year before. Louis, reportedly unimpressed by the 5th century version of luxury goods, had them stored in his Cabinet of Medals in the Louvre palace. After the French Revolution, Childeric’s treasure became part of the Cabinet of Medals of the Imperial Library, later the Royal Library, now the National Library.

During the night of November 5th 1831, thieves broke into the Cabinet of Medals of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 gold objects for a total weight of 80 kilos, including all of Childeric’s treasure. Accounts of what happened afterwards differ because many of the records were destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. Either a couple of suspects were arrested within a few days of the theft and refused to talk leaving the police to search for the treasures for 8 months, or the police searched 8 months before finding the culprits and what was left of the treasure. Whichever way it went, the theft was a huge scandal and the police were under great pressure to come up with results. They even enlisted the aid of the legendary Eugène-François Vidocq, head of the Sûreté, Paris’ first-of-its-kind plainclothes detective bureau that he had founded in 1812. Vidocq had quit in 1827 but was reappointed head of the Sûreté in early 1832 and he and his team were on the Childeric case.

(They were on a lot of other cases at the same time, like ruthlessly suppressing the June Rebellion in Paris after the death from cholera of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was set against the backdrop of this rebellion and Vidocq was the inspiration for Javert. He was the inspiration for Valjean as well, believe it or not, because he had been a criminal in his youth, done hard labour in the galleys of Brest, escaped, been caught, escaped again, got caught again, did more time before finally turning his particular set of skills to the aid of law enforcement by becoming an informant. He parlayed that into undercover detective work. Under him, the Sûreté was staffed by convicts operating under the it-takes-one-to-know-one premise. It was highly effective. Crime rates in Paris dropped 40% after the Sûreté began doing its thing. Vidocq was also the inspiration for the character of C. Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first detective story.)

Anyway, eight months after the theft, the police busted a gang of thieves and found 20 ingots of gold in their hideout. Upon interrogation the thieves admitted they had melted down the pure gold objects into ingots while those with inlaid stones or that were harder to melt down for whatever reason were put in sacs of leather and immersed in the Seine either at the Pont Marie or the Pont de la Tournelle. (The bridges are in the same spot on the Seine. The Pont Marie connects the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank; the Pont de la Tournelle is its mirror, connecting the island to the Left Bank.) When the police dragged the river, they found eight bags holding around 1,500 pieces of the 2,000 stolen, 75 of the 80 kilos. Added to the ingot weight, the recovered objects were determined to be the entirety of the burgled treasure and the case was closed. In January of 1833, three of the thieves were convicted of the crime. One was sentenced to 40 years in prison, one to 20 years, one to 10.

Devastatingly, Childeric’s treasure was almost entirely lost. Authorities recovered two coins, two bees and the gold and garnet cloisonné fittings from Childeric’s sword and scramasax. The signet ring was gone, only surviving as reproductions made by the Habsburgs and in imprints taken of the seal. Chifflet’s recorded data and illustrations are virtually all that remains of this historic treasure

One of the recovered artifacts from the 1831 theft at the Bibliothèque Nationale is actually in the United States right now. The Rennes patera, an early 3rd century Roman shallow libation bowl made of no less than three pounds of very pure solid 23-carat gold, somehow survived being melted down in the thieves’ initial orgy of ingot production. It was loaned by National Library to the Getty Villa in Malibu for the Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibition and will be in California through August 17th before returning to Paris.


Lost chapel found in Mike and Mary Hudd’s yard

Monday, June 29th, 2015

In June of 2014, Mike and Mary Hudd of Bincknoll Cottage, Bincknoll, Wiltshire, were doing some landscaping in their garden, employing a machine to pull out the roots of a fallen tree, when they unearthed stonework remains. Mary, an avid amateur archaeologist, stopped the landscaping and started excavating, carefully exposing enough of the upper layer of chalk block walls to indicate there might be the remains of a larger structure under the Hudd’s yard. They called in the Wiltshire County Archaeologist to determine how to proceed.

They had good reason to believe the stonework might be of archaeological significance. Bincknoll is a tiny hamlet with a few houses and a farm that is part of the civil parish of Broad Town today, but it first appears in the Domesday Book as Bechenhalle, a manor of Norman lord Gilbert de Breteuil. Just south of the garden is an escarpment overlooking Bincknoll Cottage where the remains of an early motte and bailey castle stand as an earthwork ridge. Other archaeological features in the hamlet include enclosure boundaries, ridge and furrow plough patterns visible in earthworks when surviving and in the path of lanes and hedgerows when not and a ridge thought to be the remnant of a medieval fish pond. There has been very little in the way of archaeological exploration of these features, so all that’s known is what’s visible to the naked eye from the ground and air.

The Wiltshire County Archaeologist and the Hudds decided on a plan to excavate the yard further with the goal of determining the full measurements of the structure, finding datable artifacts and architectural remains that would help them identify what kind of building it was. The planned called for four trenches (later increased to six to further investigate features found during the excavation), to be dug across the stonework Mary Hudd had partially exposed. Because the chalk block walls were visible at ground level, all the trenches would have to be dug by hand.

Events kicked off in late July with a geophysical survey of the front and back yards of Bincknoll Cottage. The front yard was found to have underground features that were likely to be more buried walls. In August the excavation began in earnest, and what a glorious team was there, my friends. Because the trenches had to be dug by hand, many hands were needed. Broad Town Archaeology, a non-profit organization dedicated to community archaeology in the Broad Town area, got involved and ultimately more than 60 volunteers worked the site supervised by professional archaeologists from, among others, the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, English Heritage, the Wiltshire Museum and Wessex Archaeology. Volunteers ranged from organized amateurs like the North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club to members of the community who were excited to get their hands dirty in the history of their town.

Excavations ran from through August through September 2014 and were remarkably productive. They revealed three sides of a chalk block and rubble structure 20 feet wide with walls three feet thick. The walls were in generally good condition except for the very tops which have been exposed to the elements for a very long time. The building is aligned perfectly along the east-west axis.

Artifacts found include roof tiles, mortar, nails, carved chalk from the 14th century and a range of pottery types dating from the 11th century through the 17th. The team found chunks of whitewashed plaster, some decorated with red lines painted across them, some plain white, some small pieces with residue of other colors that could be green and black. The excavation of the south wall in trench four unearthed ten voussoirs, a wedge-shaped stone used in arches, that were probably part of a doorway or window.

Excavations also revealed some organic remains, oyster shells and animal bones. The articulated skeletal remains of a large animal were found in trench four. In order to excavate the skeleton fully, the team opened a new trench, trench six, and found a cattle burial. The beast was interred in a pit with some difficulty as the head is bent back and the left foreleg twisted up above its body. The burial postdates the ruin of the medieval structure. A clay pipe unearthed in the same layer was identified as the work of John Greenland of Marlborough which dates it and the burial to the late 17th, early 18th century at the earliest.

Four more trenches were dug during this season’s excavations from April through June, exploring the east side of the structure. While conclusive dates are still elusive, archeologists believe they’ve found the remains of a chapel that documents attest once stood in Bincknoll from at least the early 13th century. A 1209 record notes that the Prior of Goldcliff had a holding Bincknoll that paid a yearly tithe of £1. A 1291 document refers to a chapel at Bincknoll Manor whose tithes were granted to the Priory of St. Denis in Southampton. The chapel comes up a couple of more times in church records from the 13th and 14th century. The last record of it is in a Bond from 1609 which describes it as “that decayed Chapell with appurtainment situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll within the parish of Brodehinton in the above said County
of Wilts and all that rectory parsonage and manor house called the parsonage house of Bincknoll alias Bynoll situate and being in Bincknoll alias Bynoll aforesaid.”

The east-west alignment and dimensions suggest this structure is the chapel rather than the parsonage house which probably was more of a wooden affair than one made out of large blocks of chalk stone.

[Archaeologist and president of the town historical society Bob] Clarke said: “There may have been an early cell around which a larger structure was built later. We found fragments of painted plaster from the building’s interior, painted red lines depicting borders, pinks and green and black possibly from wall paintings. The excavation and post-ex work has taken about 18 months so far and we are now pretty convinced this was the lost chapel of Bincknoll, of which the last recorded mention was in the early 17th century.”

The remains of a small inner wall is thought to be of late Saxon origin, which is surrounded by a later massive Norman structure. The clearly defined site, with the remains of substantial walls almost a metre wide with foundations over a metre deep, internally the building measures 4.4 metres by 13 metres and would have been an impressive sight when still standing. Nearer to the surface of the site the team discovered the remains of two cows and a pig, buried in later years over the ruined building.

You can read the preliminary report written after the first season of excavation here (pdf). The final report is expected to be published at the end of the year. Broad Town Archaeology has tons of pictures of both seasons of excavations on their Facebook page. The North Wiltshire Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) put together a great online dig diary documenting their work over two weekends this season. It’s amazing how much they accomplished in just four days. Community archaeology is the best.


Artifacts found on 700-year-old Swiss battle site

Friday, June 26th, 2015

November 15th marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Morgarten, a historic clash between the militia army of the nascent Swiss Confederation and a highly trained troops of Habsburg Duke Leopold I of Austria. Fought on the banks of Lake Ägeri near the Morgarten Pass in the central Switzerland Canton of Schwyz, it was the first battle of the Confederation and their victory helped cement the cantons’ unity to form the kernel of what would become Switzerland.

The three cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden first joined in the Eternal Alliance in 1291, just 24 years before the Battle of Morgarten. The Federal Charter of 1291 united the rural valley communities of the central Alps for the purposes of trade and defense of their property and trade routes. This was necessary because the Hapsburgs, newly risen to princely power in what is today Germany, were putting increasing pressure on the territories of the Forest Cantons. The cantons had been granted Imperial immediacy, technically the right to be ruled directly by the Holy Roman Emperor rather than by a long line of feudal lords but in practice a form of political autonomy within the empire, by the Hohenstaufen emperors and in 1308 by Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Germans, but the Habsburgs wanted to annex the cantons with their valuable lands and Alpine passes outright.

Territorial conflicts with the Habsburgs generated constant skirmishes and raids in the area from the 12th century until the mid-14th. One of those raids — Schwyz militia attacked Einsiedeln Abbey, a Habsburg ally, in a dispute over pasture and forest land — gave the Habsburgs the pretext to attack the cantons they coveted with a force of thousands (estimates vary from 3,000 to 22,000) including armoured cavalry. The cantons only had from 1,000 to 3,000 men in their combined militias, farmers and tradesmen who while likely experienced in fisticuffs hardly seemed a match for the mounted knights of Duke Leopold of Austria. The cantons had the advantage of intimate familiarity with the terrain, so when they found out which direction the Habsburg forces were taking, they blocked the Morgarten Pass and ambushed the Austrians from the surrounding hillside, raining rocks, boulders, tree trunks and assorted projectiles on the army trapped between a steep wooded slope on one side and the marshy lake shore on the other. The Swiss then swarmed down upon them and fought hand to hand, felling knights with halberds and taking no quarter.

One month after the Battle of Morgarten, the cantons signed the Pact of Brunnen, expanding the defensive alliance into a broader confederacy by adopting a common foreign policy. The treaty ushered in the era of the Old Swiss Confederacy as more cantons joined the Pact over the next few decades. Until the late 19th century, the Pact of Brunnen was widely considered by historians the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Federal Charter became seen as Switzerland’s founding document.

As important as the Battle of Morgarten was in Swiss history, the medieval chronicles documenting it, most notably that of Franciscan monk Johannes of Winterthur written in the 1340s, are thin on factual accuracy. The exact location of the battle is unclear and no confirmed archaeological remains from the battle have been found. This Spring, archaeologists did an intensive excavation of one likely site and discovered for the first time weapons and other artifacts from the period of the Battle of Morgarten.

The cantons of Schwyz and Zug authorized the excavation with celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the battle on the horizon and out of concern for a recent spate of would-be looters scouring the site. The dig unearthed 12 silver Pfennigs dating from 1275 to the early 14th century minted by the diocese of Basel, the Fraumünster Abbey of Zurich and the cities of Solothurn and Schaffhausen. The coins were found next to two 14th century dagger blades. Archaeologists also discovered a knife scabbard, two projectile points from an arrow or crossbow bolt and an iron spur, all from the 14th century. Other artifacts like a knife and a horseshoe, can’t yet be dated with certainty but could also be from the 14th century.

These workmanlike finds are so exciting they eclipse the more precious objects — the gold head of a brooch from the 7th century and an openwork bronze disc brooch with central glass insert from 10th century — unearthed at the site. They could well prove to be the first archaeological evidence of the Battle of Morgarten. The problem is archaeologists can’t be certain the artifacts were left on the field during that specific battle. Because of all the fighting that went on in the area during the period (and before and after), the objects may have been used in another encounter or encounters.

That won’t stop the artifacts from being celebrated as significant in this anniversary year. A selection of the 14th century finds is currently on display at the Museum Burg Zug through July 31st. From August 22nd to September 30th they will be on display at the Federal Charter Museum in Schwyz.


Plunderer of Swedish Churches arrested, plunder returned

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Spanish police have arrested an infamous cultural heritage thief known as “el expoliador de iglesias suecas,” or “the plunderer of Swedish churches.” The 63-year-old Spanish man was arrested last month at his home in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where police found 46 artifacts stolen from Swedish churches and museums. Twelve of those pieces — 11 carved wooden statuettes and one wood chest — have now officially been returned to the Swedish embassy in Madrid.

The bust was a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Swedish police, German police and Danish authorities. The Spaniard was a target of the Swedish police first who suspected him of being responsible for a rash of thefts from churches and small museums in Sweden over the past two years. He had already been convicted of similar property crimes in Sweden and served a five-year prison sentence, so when stuff started to go missing again, the police zeroed in on him. Swedish authorities alerted the Spanish police and they investigated the case together.

In May, the Spanish National Police searched the suspect’s Tenerife home and found 43 objects including candlesticks, metal and wood vessels, four carved wooden figures from the 15th century, a 15th century wood chest, an 18th century bible and an oil painting of canvas of unknown age but significant cultural interest. Another four carved figures part of a matched set with the four found in the home were recovered after being sold at auction in Madrid.

Then the investigation found that the suspect had a storage unit or warehouse in Denmark. The Swedish police and judicial authorities contacted the Danish authorities to discover the location of the warehouse and any records they might have of it. Danish police found two storage units connected to the suspected. Searches of both locations and found more carvings and religious objects stolen from Sweden. Based on information from the material recovered in Denmark, the Spanish police returned to the man’s Tenerife home and searched it again, finding three more carved wooden figures of the Holy Family that were part of a 15th century altarpiece.

The 12 objects returned were the eight 15th century wooden statuettes, the three carvings from the 15th century altarpiece and the 15th century wooden chest. Presumably the rest of the plunder will be returned as well, perhaps after they’re used in court against the plunderer. Meanwhile, Sweden is delighted to have halted the remorseless advance of the Plunderer of Swedish Churches and to have gotten their religious treasures back. They may look a little rough-hewn, but they’re historically and culturally significant. Sweden’s ambassador to Spain, Cecilia Julin:

“I think people will be celebrating in some parts of central Sweden. It is a fantastic story. Sometimes justice is done,” she said.

“It is not possible to put a price on the items.”


Magna Carta copied by church, not royal, scribes

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

The peace treaty that has gone down in history as Magna Carta was negotiated over 10 days at Runnymede in June of 1215. The rebel barons and King John came to an agreement on terms on June 15th, 1215, which is why yesterday we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter even though the formal copies were issued on June 19th. Only four of those original 1215 copies, called exemplifications, are known to have survived. Two of them are in the collection of the British Library; one belongs to Salisbury Cathedral and the last to Lincoln Cathedral.

As part of a project of extensive study of Magna Carta in anticipation of the 800th anniversary, scholars from the University of East Anglia and King’s College London compared the handwriting of the original copies. They have identified the scribe who wrote the Lincoln charter and probably the one who wrote the Salisbury charter as well. They were not scribes of the royal chancery, as long thought.

The Lincoln charter was written by a scribe who produced several other documents for the Bishop of Lincoln. The Salisbury charter was probably produced by a scribe working for the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

It makes sense that Magna Carta would be copied by cathedral scribes rather than the royal ones because the bishops, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, were in favor of the charter which guaranteed their rights as well as the barons’, while John had to be forced into it and had no real intention of living up to the agreement. If it had been up to John, Magna Carta would never have gotten nation-wide distribution.

A recent study of one of the British Library’s two copies, Cotton Charter XIII 31A, which was damaged in a 1731 fire and then damaged even harder by a botched restoration attempt a century later, has found that it too had an ecclesiastical origin. Multispectral imaging has made it possible to view text invisible to the naked eye and comparison of the charter text with transcriptions in a cartulary (a manuscript of transcribed documents relating to the foundation and rights of the church) from Canterbury Cathedral found that this exemplification was the one sent to the cathedral for its records in 1215. Since Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton played a pivotal role in the Runnymede negotiations, the discovery of a Canterbury Magna Carta that may well have passed through his hands is of major historical import.

King’s College London professor of medieval history David Carpenter:

“We now know, therefore, that three of the four surviving originals of the charter went to cathedrals: Lincoln, Salisbury and Canterbury. Probably cathedrals were the destination for the great majority of the other original charters issued in 1215.

“This overturns the old view that the charters were sent to the sheriffs in charge of the counties. That would have been fatal since the sheriffs were the very people under attack in the charter. They would have quickly consigned Magna Carta to their castle furnaces.

“The church, therefore, was central to the production, preservation and proclamation of Magna Carta. The cathedrals were like a beacon from which the light of the charter shone round the country, thus beginning the process by which it became central to national life.”

We know later reissues of Magna Carta were sent to cities and counties as well as churches, even more extensively than first realized, as the recent discovery of the Kent copy indicates, but by then the reissuing of Magna Carta was almost a given. Every king for 75 years did it whenever he got into disputes over taxes and forests and whatnot. It’s those original 1215 iterations that appear to have been primarily supported and preserved by church authorities. Church officials wrote them, distributed them, kept them safe in their archives.

Because nothing is ever simple, the Church in the person of the Pope was no fan of Magna Carta. After clashes over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury led to his excommunication, King John had submitted to Pope Innocent III in 1213 and become his vassal. This secured him the pope’s consistent political support against enemies foreign (France) and domestic (the barons, the bishops) and, just 10 weeks after Runnymede, garnered him a Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.” The result was the First Baron’s War.

There are piles of events and resources out there right now because of the anniversary. The British Library has put together an excellent website dedicated to Magna Carta. There are articles, a zoomable image and translation of one of the original 1215 exemplifications and more than 150 other artifacts related to Magna Carta and King John in the library’s collection. If you can get to the library in person, they have a rich exhibition on the history of the charter and its evolution in meaning from a treaty between warring factions whose terms were regularly ignored by all parties to the foundations of democratic principles like trial by jury and due process.

One of the more unusual objects on display is entirely modern, an artwork by Cornelia Parker called Magna Carta (An Embroidery). It is a 13 meter-long embroidery of the Magna Carta Wikipedia page as it was last year on June 15th. More than 200 people were involved in this project, from lawyers to barons to 40 prisoners who embroidered the word “freedom.” Every color, image, table, bullet point, reference and footnote is duplicated in embroidery.

For a cool look at the history of Magna Carta scholarship, check out the English Historical Review‘s special online Magna Carta issue which is available for free on its website. It’s a selection of articles about the charter published in the EHR over its 130 history, which makes it as interesting from a historiographical perspective as it is a study of Magna Carta.

This video is a nice overview of the history and significance of Magna Carta featuring experts from King’s College London.


Medieval ships found in Tallinn construction site

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Construction workers building a new apartment complex in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, have discovered the remains of two medieval ships. Workers were digging the foundations on May 22nd when the bucket of the excavator encountered large pieces of very old wood. The construction company stopped work and alerted the National Heritage Board (NHB) who sent experts to examine the find. On May 26th the crew unearthed another shipwreck at the other end of the construction site. The area was then scanned with ground-penetrating radar and a third likely shipwreck was located.

Construction has been suspended and this week NHB archaeologists began excavating the first shipwreck. The bones of the ship are now clearly visible and can be seen by members of the public who care to glance down. It’s 15 meters (50 feet) long, four meters (13 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (five feet) deep at the deepest point. Archaeologists tentatively date it to between the 14th to 17th century.

It was found close to four meters below modern ground level, in the sediments of what was once the seabed. Although the site is 200 meters (ca. 220 yards) from the water today, for centuries it was a port. In the late 1930s the area was infilled with ash and household refuse. It’s not clear if the ships sank there are were gradually buried over time by siltification, or if they were deliberately sunk after reaching the end of their natural lives. They were certainly stripped of all usable parts — metal fittings, rigging and masts — before being abandoned.

Estonian Maritime Museum archeologist Vello Mässi believes it was a short-haul transport vessel, used to move cargo from the shore to the large ships in the deeper waters of the bay. Archaeologists are excited to have the opportunity to study such old ships in detail. This is the first time multiple historic wrecks have been found so close together. The last time the remains of a wreck were found in Tallinn was 2009 when road construction unearthed a 13th century ship. They are keen to examine these finds to learn about how they were built and when and what wood was used.

Archaeologist Priit Lahi admits the find was an important discovery to shed light on possible shipbuilding methods from centuries before.

“At the time, shipbuilders used their own methods — it wasn’t very scientific. There weren’t project drawings like we have today,” he told the Associated Press.

Excavations are scheduled to continue at least through July 8th. While the developers building the apartment complex have expressed interest in display the find in some way, construction won’t be delayed much longer or halted. It would be too expensive and time-consuming to keep the wrecks in situ, so they will be raised, documented and studied before their ultimate disposition is decided. They may be reburied in sand at another location for their own preservation, which would allow future examination of the wrecks by scholars and make them easy to retrieve for future conservation and display.

For more pictures of the ship and site, check out the photo galleries here and here.


Merovingian wine jug found in Denmark cemetery

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the oldest cemetery in Ribe, southwestern Denmark, have discovered an intact Merovingian-era pitcher. It is the only vessel of its type ever found in Denmark and because Ribe, founded in the early 8th century, is not only the oldest extant city in Denmark, but the oldest in Scandinavia, this teapot-sized jug is of disproportionately large historical significance.

The pitcher was found underneath a large upside-down vessel which was cracked and broken. It may have been deliberately placed over the little treasure to protect it, but if it wasn’t, it performed that function anyway, keeping the jug from being damaged or broken over the centuries. When the archaeologists removed the pieces on top of it, they immediately saw they had something special. Danish pottery from the early Middle Ages is black, brown or red. The bright color of this ceramic marked it as imported. When they excavated it fully they were amazed to find a complete piece of such high quality and great age.

Unsure of what exactly they had unearthed, the team consulted with experts who identified it from its features — the clover leaf spout, the shape of the handle — as a trefoil pitcher made during the Merovingian dynasty (circa 450-750 A.D.) in France or Belgium. Unlike domestic ceramics, this pitcher was made on a turntable and fired in a kiln.

Merovingian vessels have also been found in the late 8th century trading settlement of Hedeby, also on the Jutland peninsula but today just across the border in Germany about 80 miles south of Ribe. They are very rare. Out of 2,000 graves excavated in Hedeby, only three of them included Frankish pitchers, none of them of the trefoil type.

“It is a unique find,” said Morten Søvsø, the head of archaeology at Sydvestjyske Museum.

“The pitcher is an example of the finest pottery produced in northern Europe at the time, and it has never been seen before in Denmark. The vessel reveals information about the vast trading network that put Ribe on the map during the Viking era.” [...]

“The jug is a masterpiece from the French or Belgian workshops, and its elegant form is a direct legacy from ancient Roman potters. No pottery at home could technically produce such a thing at the time,” said Søvsø.

Archaeologists couldn’t narrow down the precise date it was made or when it was buried. It was certainly interred more than 1,000 years ago and most likely when Ribe was still new. Archaeologists have long thought that Ribe grew gradually into a city of import, but the discovery of the pitcher suggests there were early connections with the Franks. It could have been traded or the person with whom it was buried was of Frankish origin. According to lead archaeologist Søren Sindbæk, the grave goods found in its cemetery are useful objects that had meaning to the people buried with them, not exotic objects like this pitcher would have been to someone native to the area. If he was a Frank, he must have been well-enough known in Ribe society to garner a formal burial in the cemetery.

The archaeological team is hoping to be able to answer some of the questions about the origin of the pitcher and the person whose grave it adorned by studying the bones found in the grave. Stable isotope analysis of the teeth and bones can narrow down where someone lived in early childhood.

The burial ground has a wide variety of graves from different periods: pre-Christian cremation burials, urn burials, boat burials, Christian inhumations, animal burials. Last year the team unearthed the unique grave of a fully outfitted warhorse and rider from the earliest days of the city. Elite mounted warrior burials have been found before, but they date to the 10th century, the end of the Viking period, while this grave is from the early 8th century almost a hundred years before the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne (793 A.D.).





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