Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Church, altar of Viking saint king found in Norway

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) have discovered the foundations of the church where the Viking king Olaf II is believed to have been buried after he was canonised. King Olaf II Haraldsson, credited with introducing Christian law to Norway, was killed in nebulous circumstances in 1030. The earliest chroniclers reported that he was assassinated either by his own men or in an ambush, but later accounts give him a more glorious death at the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29th, 1030.

He was buried in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and very quickly stories sprang up of miraculous occurrences at his grave site. A year after his death, Bishop Grimkell, one of several English missionary bishops reputedly brought to Norway by Olaf, exhumed his body and found it miraculously uncorrupted. Grinkell declared Olaf a saint and his body was translated to a place of honor above the high altar of St. Clement’s church, a wood stave church Olaf had built a few years before his death. The local canonisation was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164 and Olaf became an official Roman Catholic saint.

Olaf’s body was moved again some decades later to Nidaros Cathedral, a larger and more glamorous site that could accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims dedicated to the cult of Saint Olaf. Over time, St. Clement’s was destroyed and its location forgotten.

Now it seems it has been rediscovered during an excavation on Søndre gate street in Trondheim. The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research team discovered the stone foundations of a wooden stave church. Preliminary dating indicates the structure was built in the 11th century.

During its excavation, the archaeologists uncovered a small rectangular stone-built platform at the building’s east end. This is probably the foundation for an altar – probably the very same altar on which St. Olaf’s coffin was placed in 1031! In addition, a small well has been found here which may be a holy well connected with the saint.

In the words of the excavation’s director Anna Petersén:

“This is a unique site in Norwegian history in terms of religion, culture and politics. Much of the Norwegian national identity has been established on the cult of sainthood surrounding St. Olaf, and it was here it all began!”

NIKU has created a series very cool 3D models illustrating the progress of the excavation.

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/01/2016:

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/19/2016, the choir begins to take shape:

The Søndre gate excavation site 10/29/2016:

The remains of the church:

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Centuries-old dentures found in Lucca family tomb

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In 2010, archaeologists from the University of Pisa excavated the tomb of the powerful Guinigi family in the San Francesco Monastery at Lucca. Scions of the wealthy family of merchants and bankers had ruled the city of Lucca from 1392 until 1430 as capitani del popolo (captains of the people, ie, dictators), and even after the family was overthrown and the Republic reinstated, the Guinigi remained one of the most prominent families in Lucca for centuries.

In 1358, the Guinigi Chapel was built near the convent of San Francesco. The bodies of family members were buried in the private chapel through the first half of the 17th century. Instead of being interred in separate areas, the remains were laid to rest in two large collective tombs. Over the years the bones were shifted around to make room, so when archaeologists excavated the chambers, the remains of more than 200 people were disarticulated and commingled making it impossible to reconstruct the skeletons of individuals.

Mixed in with the jumbled skeletal remains in the lowest stratigraphic layer of the south tomb, the team discovered a unique archaeological treasure: a centuries-old dental prosthesis. It is made of five human teeth — three central incisors and two lateral canines — joined by a gold band running through the root ends of the teeth. The teeth all came from different, let’s just say, donors. (Shoutout to Fantine from Les Miserables.) Examination under a microscope and CT scans found that the roots of the teeth were cut and abraded to relative evenness. Then the a thin cut was made across the bases of the teeth and a thin gold was inserted into the cuts. Two small holes were cut in each tooth and gold pins inserted to fix the tooth to the band. At each end of the device, the gold was bent into s-shapes and pierced with a hole. These ends were attached to the living teeth, likely with ties, as indicated in illustrations of similar dental prosthetics from the 16th and 18th centuries

Because it was found in the earliest layer, it may date to as early as the 14th century, but it would have been very easy for the dentures to fall through successive layers of bones, so stratigraphy is of no help in dating the piece. This was highly advanced dentistry in Early Modern Europe. The gold band technology was mentioned in period sources from Guy de Chauliac (ca. 1300-1368), the French physician who first recognized there were two kinds of plague, Bubonic and Pneumonic, to Pierre Fauchard (1678–1761), the father of modern dentistry.

Archaeologists were not able to match the dentures to any of the mandibles found in the tomb, but the presence of dental calculus covering the holes indicate the prosthetic was used for many years. Indeed, Fauchard’s description of such appliances emphasizes their longevity. From the 1746 edition of his treatise Le Chirurgien dentiste, ou Traité des dents:

“Teeth and artificial dentures, fastened with posts and gold wire, hold better than all others. They sometimes last 15–20 years and even more without displacement. Common thread and silk, used ordinarily to attach all kinds of teeth or artificial pieces, do not last long.”

The dentures found in the Guinigi predate Fauchard by at least a century, but they are notably more complex than the device he describes. The gold band runs inside the roots of the teeth, fastened with pins and the appliance is anchored to in situ teeth with those s-shaped ends. Fauchard just attaches a band to the lingual and buccal surface of the teeth using strings run through holes drilled into the teeth.

One member of the team, Dr Simona Minozzi, said: “Although there are descriptions of similar objects in texts from the period, there is no known archaeological evidence. The dentures found in the tomb are the first example of dentures from this historical period, and as such are a valuable addition to the history of dentistry.”

The study of the dental appliance has been published in the journal Clinical Implant Dentistry and Related Research. It is not, alas, freely available for perusal, but if you have an institutional subscription or six bucks to spare, you can enjoy some more detailed images of the holes, gold band and dental plaque.

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Rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery found

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

A rare early Christian Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been discovered in an extraordinary state of preservation in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. Funded by Historic England, Museum of London Archaeology experts excavated the site in advance of the creation of a conservation lake and flood defense system that will leave it fully submerged. The site is already quite soggy, thanks to the high water table of the river valley, which is why the graves in the cemetery have been so incredibly well-preserved. The alkaline water combined with the acidic sand of the area to create a perfect storm for the survival of organic remains.

There are six plank-lined graves, the earliest known examples in Britain, and an unprecedented 81 treetrunk coffins dating to the 7th-9th century A.D. Early Anglo-Saxon coffins and wood-lined graves very rarely survive. Usually all archaeologists have to go on are the stains left in the soil by the long-decayed wood. The plank-lined graves were lined with finely hewn timbers and the body laid within. More planks were then placed on top to create a coffin-like enclosure.

While treetrunk coffins have been discovered before, mainly in the 19th century, this is the first time they have been professionally excavated using modern archaeological methods. The coffins were dug out from oak trees cut in half lengthwise. Bodies were placed in the hollowed out center of one half, then the second half of the oak was placed on top to act as a lid. This was a labour-intensive process that would have taken one man an estimated four days to complete. Treetrunk coffins have been found in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon graves as well, so their presence in this early Christian cemetery may suggest a syncretic combination of old and new religious traditions.

There is considerable evidence pointing to this being a Christian burial ground. The graves each have wooden markers and are aligned from east to west, both Christian traditions that are not seen in pagan burials. They also lack grave goods which were an important part of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon funerary practices. Archaeologists discovered the remains of a timber structure on the site that they think may have been a church or chapel, an extremely rare find from this period.

When the cemetery was in use, the site was on a busy river crossing in the kingdom of East Anglia. There is virtually no documentary evidence from this period of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, so such a rich, well-preserved site is an invaluable source of information to archaeologists and historians.

The discovery is shedding light on a previously unknown religious site and the fascinating lives of this early Christian rural community. Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried and paint a picture of the people who lived here. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

The timber will be subjected to dendrochronological analysis to give us a more precise date range. Once the remains have been studied and conserved, they will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

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Rare Viking toolbox discovered at Borgring

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Excavations of the 10th century Borgring fortress discovered on the Danish island of Zealand in 2014 are still in the early stages. A few test pits were dug in 2014 in areas believed to be, based on initial laser and geomagnetic surveys of the site, the fortress gates. Large oak timbers, blackened by fire, confirmed that there had indeed been gates there and that the fort had had a catastrophic fire shortly after its construction. Few artifacts were found. Only a single axe head was reported, that I could find.

That record has changed dramatically thanks to the discovery of a rare Viking toolkit at the east gate. Volunteer metal detectorists Kent and Knuds scanned the area and got a loud signal from their machines. Archaeologists could tell there was something in the soil there, and since the signal indicated the metal wasn’t in the top layer (where it could easily have been a piece of modern farm equipment) but rather deeper down in the layers of archaeological interest, they decided to remove the whole block of soil encasing whatever had set off the metal detectors.

Wrapped in plastic to keep it together, the entire soil block was transported to the Zealand University Hospital in Køge to get a CT scan. The hospital scanner confirmed that there was a group of iron objects inside that looked like they might be tools including spoon drills (used to drill holes in wood) and a drawplate (used to produce thin wire for jewelry). The pieces appeared to be laid out in careful order, suggesting they weren’t dumped or lost. They were likely kept in a toolbox whose wood has now decayed.

Archaeologists spent two days excavating the soil block and found 14 iron objects. There were pieces that were not visible on the scan because they were too corroded or their iron content was too low to register. The more corroded objects cannot be identified at this time; conservation may help make it clear what their original purpose was, and now that they’ve been removed from the soil block, the objects will be individually X-rayed to get a better idea of their design. Archaeologist Nanna Holm suspects one of the spoon drills may actually be a pair of tweezers or pliers, for example.

This box of tools would have been extremely valuable in the Viking era. Only a few of them have ever been discovered. If a tool was broken or became unusable for any reason, they were melted down and made into something else practical, not thrown out. The discovery of a fully loaded toolbox by the east gate is highly significant within the context of Borgring itself, because it’s the first evidence that people actually lived there.

The craftsmen presumably lived very well, whether he used the east gate as a home or a workshop. It was 30 to 40 square metres of space and had its own fireplace–and of course, the toolbox with the valuable iron tools.

So why did he leave the premises and his toolbox?

Perhaps because at some point, the gate simply collapsed, says Holm.

“We found the tools under the posts, so there’s some evidence that the gate collapsed, and it probably did so because they were rotten, old, and unstable. We only discovered the outline of the posts, suggesting that the rest simply rotted away. Then the tools got buried until we discovered now,” she says.

It seems that the fire that struck the east and north gates did not destroy the fort. It was put out before the gates could collapse and the fire spread to the rest of the fortress. After the fire, two layers of clay were built up inside the gate. There was a fireplace in each layer, and the toolbox was unearthed from the newer of the two clay layers. That means the craftsman who lived or worked at the east gate did so after the fire.

The tools are being studied and conserved now. Next year, conservation should be complete and the toolkit will go on public display.

Timelapse of the excavation of the toolbox:

A journalist joins in the excavation:

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Stolen illuminated manuscript leaf to return to Italy

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

A stolen page from a 14th century illuminated manuscript that has been in the Cleveland Museum of Art since the 1950s is now in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division in preparation for its return to Italy. Codex D is an antiphonary, a book of chants used by liturgical choirs in the Middle Ages, which was once held by the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, a town about halfway between Florence in Pisa, and is now kept in a Castelfiorentino museum. It’s not certain exactly when, but two illuminated leaves were stolen from the manuscript. One of them was bought by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952. It was attributed to a different illuminator at the time and the museum put it on display without realizing there was anything shady about its ownership history.

ICE only got involved recently when the second leaf from Codex D appeared on the art and antiquities Swiss market. That leaf was repatriated to Italy, but the investigation into its theft and recovery led to the leaf in Cleveland.

Working collaboratively with HSI to research the history of the leaf and after evaluating the information provided by the Italian government, the Museum agreed the leaf should be transferred to Italy to be reunited with the Antiphonary.

“Once we were able to substantiate the information provided, we decided that the best place for the leaf was back with the Antiphonary. We feel the leaf has greater significance if it is reunited with the other illuminations in the manuscript. Along with the recovery of a second leaf, the Antiphonary will now be complete” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The antiphonary was illuminated by one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 14th century. His name has yet to be discovered, but he is known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies. He was given his moniker by art historian Richard Offner after his magnum opus, a panel painting in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, entitled Christ and the Virgin Mary Enthroned, Attended by Seventeen Dominican Saints and Beati (beatified or blessed ones). His panel paintings were smaller triptychs and tabernacles characterized by complex narratives rendered on a miniature scale. He was one of a group of Florentine artists in the 14th century classified as painters of the “miniaturist tendency” who sought to capture the dynamism and emotion of life in the details of small scenes.

Many of the miniaturists, the Master of the Dominican Effigies prominent among them, were also manuscript illuminators. Indeed, their illumination skills played an important role in the artists’ approach to panel painting. Panels by the Master of Dominican Effigies, for example, have exquisite freeform decorative details created with a stylus rather than the metal rods with patterns on one end, known as punch tools, that were frequently used by Tuscan painters from the early 14th century to stamp decorations onto the work. He did it by hand with what was basically a pen, just like he did in his manuscripts.

The Master was one of the preeminent illuminators of his age and was commissioned by secular and religious patrons to illuminate antiphonaries, hymnals, even copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Laudario of Sant’Agnese, a hymnal he illuminated together with his friend and the other preeminent illuminator of their time, Pacino di Bonaguida, is widely considered one of the most important illuminated manuscripts made in early 14th century Florence. Its pages are scattered in 16 collections in Europe and the United States, four of them in J. Paul Getty Museum.

Because of their rarity and art historical importance, individual pages from manuscripts illuminated by the Master of Dominican Effigies are highly prized and found in a number of top US museums, including the National Gallery of Art as well as the Getty. Even small fragments of his illuminations are considered museum quality and can be found in museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the Getty’s Laudario holdings is a fragment, a cutout of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Pacino di Bonaguida.

Only one leaf from of The Laudario of Sant’Agnese is still in Italy, so the return of both stolen leafs from the Codex D antiphonary is a rare and precious thing. ICE and the Italian government are working out the details of the repatriation now.

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St. Anne’s Well rescued from oblivion

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oldest library in the world renovated, digitized

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The library will reopen to the public in May 2017.

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40+ ancient shipwrecks found in Black Sea

Monday, October 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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






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

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy 950th anniversary, Battle of Hastings!

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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





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