Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Richard III’s Cornwall accounts for fiscal year 1483 found in 1930s royal souvenir trinket box

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

An antiques dealer has discovered the yearly income records for the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III in a box of 1930s royal memorabilia he acquired as a single lot in an estate sale. The compotus rolls, the accounts of the monarchical estates in the Duchy of Cornwall under King Richard III (and for a brief window nominally under his nephew Edward V who was never crowned and whom Richard deposed two months after his ascension), were drawn up for Richard after he took the throne and covered the period from Michaelmas (September 29) 1482 until Michaelmas 1483.

Written in Latin on 11 thin parchment membranes by a scribe with an elegant hand for calligraphy initials, the rolls record that profits were handsome in the Duchy of Cornwall in 1483. The annual income from the Cornish manors, burghs, courts and tin mines, plus a handful of Devon manors totalled around £500. A labourer made about £2 a year.

The accounts show detailed showing totals for rents, sales and court receipts for manors within the Duchy and in Devon.

Also detailed are the names of bailiffs who supervised work on the each manor and would act as a link between the serfs and their feudal lord. The amounts raised from each manorial lord amounted to between £12 and £30 per annum.

Overall, the Duchy of Cornwall’s seigneurial records have survived unusually well, retained for generations by manorial archives, county archives and by duchy management. Today almost all of the accounts between 1300 and 1500 and beyond can be found in the county Public Records and the Duchy of Cornwall Office. This scroll is one of only a handful to survive in private hands.

The owner didn’t know exactly what was now in his private hands until a medieval manuscripts expert from Bonhams examined the parchment. He has now put it up for auction in Bonhams upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on March 21st in London. The pre-sale estimate is $5,500 – 8,300.

Peter Hammond, president of the Richard III society, said: “It is a very important record and we don’t know how many of these 15th century documents still exist.

“It gives us a handle on the kind of income that was coming in to keep the country running. The bureaucracy was alive and well in the 15th century – they kept amazing records.”

Historian hope the document will remain in Britain following the sale and be made available for public research.

Mr Hammond said: “It would be good if it was bought by the Cornwall Record office or the National Archives and it would be great if people were then able to see it.”

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Discovering the British Library’s medieval literature

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

The British Library’s Discovering Literature project, a website with selections of exceptional works from its collections digitized, explicated by experts with multimedia aides and resources for teachers, has added a new subsection dedicated to its medieval literary treasures. Discovering Literature: Medieval submits for your approval/devouring 50 digitized manuscripts and early printed books dating from the 8th to 16th centuries. These rare volumes are some of the most influential works in the history of English literature.

There’s The Wycliffite Bible, the first complete translation of the Bible into English, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, the first work written by a woman in English, the first autobiography in English (The Book of Margery Kempe) and the only surviving Old English manuscript of Beowulf which somehow avoided the fate of so many priceless works of literature in the Robert Cotton collection that burned to ashes in a devastating October 23rd, 1731, conflagration at the aptly named Ashburnham House. William Caxton’s illustrated early print edition of The Canterbury Tales may not have the color and beauty of the hand-illuminated The Book of the Queen by Christine de Pizan (the first woman author to actually make a living on the income from her writing), but it was a groundbreaking advance for the dissemination of literature and literacy.

Digital technology puts all of these rare or unique masterpieces, some of which aren’t even available to scholars, at our fingertips. The sole surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, one of the greatest works of Middle English poetry, is so fragile after having barely escaped the same fire that almost incinerated Beowulf, that our grubby hands wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it. Now we can enjoy its glories while smearing inches of caked Cheeto dust on our mice without a care in the world.

If your ability to read manuscripts and early print of Old and Middle English is a bit rusty, allow the more than 20 articles written by academics, poets, authors in their own right, to help you understand what you’re seeing and the impact it had on its time and ours. Or rifle through the associated collection items. There are some fantastic maps. The Beatus World Map with its remarkably modern abstract graphic is a particular favorite of mine.

When you’re done getting your Gawain and Beowulf on, you can lose more hours, days, weeks of your life perusing the Romantics and Victorians section. It features more than 1,200 items from the BL’s collection from first edition published books to diaries, advertisements, penny dreadfuls, illustrations, manuscripts, pamphlets, letters and so much more. On top of the period items, you can enjoy more than 150 articles written by scholars about the works in the collection and 25 documentary films. For the educators among us, there are 30 teachers’ notes good to go. It’s like college, seriously.

Discovering Literature is an unparalleled resource, a way of making an enormous collection like the British Library’s, a feast beyond any normal individual’s ability to ingest, never mind digest, accessible to everyone. It’s not dumbed down or meager. It’s just curated carefully to convey a wealth of information in concentrated form. Already so successful in its aims, this project is still just revving up. More content is added all the time.

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Gardener in Galilee finds medieval St. Nicholas ring

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Dekel Ben-Shitrit was weeding a garden of a home in the Moshav Yogev (a moshav is a cooperative farming community similar to a kibbutz only not collectively owned), when he spotted an object in the vegetation. It was a ring with what appeared to be a human figure on it. Curious to know more about it, Ben-Shitrit posted a picture on Facebook where it caught the eye of Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef, director of the Israel Nature and Park’s Authority Lower Galilee Education Center and his neighbor on the nearby Kibbutz Hazorea. Dr. Ben-Yosef recognized its advanced age and uniqueness and recommended he report the find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The ring was examined by IAA Byzantine archaeology expert Dr. Yana Tchekhanovets whose preliminary identification indicates it is a representation of Saint Nicholas. The iconography of a haloed bald man wearing a mantle and holding a bishop’s staff points to him. It is a signet ring in excellent condition that makes a deep imprint that clearly shows the attributes of the Christian saint. Dr. Tchekhanovets dated the ring to between the 12th and 15th centuries. Crusader Jerusalem was conquered by the Islamic forces of Saladin in 1187, and the last Christian territory, Acre, fell in 1291. That broad date means the ring could have been crossing the Holy Land when it was under Christian or Muslim control.

You can get a look at the ring’s imprint in this IAA video at the 38 second mark:

Obviously the figure depicted on the ring bares no relation to the Jolly Old Elf so associated with the contemporary tradition of Christmas gift-giving. The Saint Nicholas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition was more akin to the Western Saint Christopher, patron saint of all travelers, including merchants, sailors and pilgrims. Wearing a ring or medallion with his image — his attributes are the bishop’s crook and vestments — was meant to confer his protection on the wearer.

The spot where the ring was found, in the Jezreel Valley just east of Megiddo near the Roman base of Legio, was a busy travel route for merchants, soldiers and pilgrims from antiquity onwards.

Dr. Yotam Tepper, an expert on the ancient Roman road system in Israel, points out that even after the last Crusader knights had departed, Christian communities continued to exist and Christian pilgrims continued to visit Jerusalem and the Galilee.[…]

“We know that the main road from Legio toward Mount Tabor passed by Moshav Hayogev,” says Tepper. “It seems the road also served Christian pilgrims heading for holy sites on Mount Tabor, and in Nazareth and around Lake Kinneret.”

It’s entirely possible that a medieval pilgrim lost his ring on his way to or from the coast. There’s no way of knowing for certain because the ring was not buried and found in situ during a rigorous archaeological excavation, but rather found nestled in weeds on the surface, so it probably wasn’t discovered where it fell hundreds of years ago.

According to hagiographical lore, Saint Nicholas was himself a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Born to a wealthy Greek family in Lycia (modern-day Turkey), Nicholas was raised by an uncle who was an abbot and became a monk at a very young age. One of the earliest miracles he is said to have performed — predicting a storm at sea, praying it away, raising a sailor who had died in a fall from rigging — was when he was a young man on his first pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. He returned to the Holy Land when he was in 40s, joining a group of ascetic monks and living in a mountain cave outside Bethlehem for several years. When he emerged, he again made a pilgrimage to all the main sites of the gospel accounts.

Pilgrims would carry his image with them even as they followed his example for many long centuries after Nicholas’ death in 343 A.D., but surviving pieces like this ring are very rare. They are easily overlooked, trafficked or kept by finders.

Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft inspector, who received the ring from Ben-Shitrit to place it in the National Treasures Collection, had high praise for the gardener: “We thank Ben-Shitrit for handing over this special artifact to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and we encourage others to do the same, When they do, they enrich and deepen archaeological understanding of the past that belongs to all of us. The Israel Antiquities Authority will be awarding Ben-Shitrit a good citizenship certificate in thanks for his action.”

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Medieval city found under high school gym in Finland

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Well-preserved remains of medieval buildings and roads have been discovered under the floor of the gymnasium of the Cathedral School of Åbo in Turku, Finland. When the gym’s floor was removed during renovations. Workers found the remains of two houses, vaults, staircases and a paved road from the 14th century.

It is not an unexpected find. The oldest city in Finland, Turku was founded in the 13th century, and while the medieval center of the city around the cathedral had to be rebuilt after it was levelled by fire in 1827, excavations in the 1990s unearthed the foundations of 13th and 14th-century stone and brick houses, and numerous artifacts. At that time Turku was the site of the bishopric and Turku Cathedral, consecrated in 1300, which is just down the street from the school. Aboa Vetus next door to the school has integrated the medieval remains under its floors into only archaeological museum in Finland.

Even though it is houses in a 19th century from the post-fire reconstruction, the school itself has been in existence since the 13th century and given its location in the heart of the medieval monastery district, it is unsurprising that medieval remains have been found on school property before, including in a dig of the schoolyard just last year, a dig that it still ongoing.

“What was surprising is how well preserved these are. Traces of these were noticed by the archeologist Juhani Rinne when the gym was built at the beginning of the 1900s, but now the picture has come into focus,” says the leader of the dig team, Kari Uotila. […]

Hundreds of cubic metres of fill have been hauled out of the dig site, revealing the walled ruins and vaulted cellars. Now down a metre and a half into the soil, the team has reach floor level in parts of dig.

According to Kari Uotila, some of the cellar vaults collapsed after the great fire of 1827.

“These are 2.5 metre high vaults that were broken during the reconstruction of the city. Right now, we’ve uncovered about a dozen different vault structures, as well as staircases and hallways belonging to two buildings.”

Excavations will continue for another month. The archaeological team is hoping to reach the floor level of the houses. The really thorny problem is what to do after that. The whole point of tearing up the gym floor was to build a new one with fresh supports. Those support pilings as currently planned cannot be constructed without largely destroying the ruins. Uotila is hoping the remains will be left in place and that the shoring supports issue will be sorted out so that the remains can still become integrated into the building as a display.

Installing a transparent floor with magic carpet supports that would make the medieval city visible as the kinds runs around and dunk basketballs would be awesome, no question, but may not be possible or be the best solution for the long-term preservation of the structures. Local architect Benito Casagrande thinks they should go another way altogether.

Casagrande says that there are construction alternatives that can be used to straighten the school structure and build a floor that would not require pilings. The floor could be raised and a false ceiling in the gym removed, leaving plenty of space and air for student activities.

“This is a terrible significant find. I think all of these well preserved ruins are unbelievable treasures which should be put on public display for people to experience. Gradually, we are understanding what a large and handsome city Turku was in the 14th century,” argues Casagrande.

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Inscription found on medieval spindle whorl in Poland

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

The small, purplish spindle whorl was unearthed by archaeologists in Czermno, Poland, in 1952. What the people who found it didn’t realize is that the biconical slate piece was inscribed, making it a unique find in the Polish archaeological record. It was Iwona Florkiewicz from the Institute of Archeology of the University of Rzeszów who discovered how precious this little piece really during an inventory project of materials discovered at Czermno over the course of decades.

Palaeographic research (on the form of writing) carried out by Dr. Adrian Jusupović, historian from the Institute of History PAS in Warsaw, shows that the inscription was made in the second half of the 12th century or in the 13th century.

The spindle whorl bears an inscription composed of 6 letters in Cyrillic, which can be transcribed as Hoten\’. It is a masculine name that means a lover, volunteer or master. It is also possible that the inscription was a toponym. In that case it should be associated with the name of a town or village. But researchers find this second possibility is less likely.

It is the only spindle whorl with a text inscription from this period ever discovered in Poland. It’s likely not of Polish origin, in fact. The slate itself is a non-native material. It is Volhynian slate, recognizable from its characteristic shades of pink to purple, found in the Ukraine. From the 11th century through the mid-13th, craftsmen in the nearby town of Owrucz produced inexpensive spindle whorls from the slate that were sold throughout the Kievan Rus and in what is now Poland. This trade came to an abrupt end in the 1240s when the invading Mongols destroyed the spindle whorl workshops.

While it’s possible the spindle was an import that was then inscribed in Poland, the lettering and indeed the inscription itself suggest it came to Poland with the inscription already done. Not only is it written in Cyrillic, but a number of inscribed spindle whorls have been found in the former territory of the Kievan Rus (Ukraine, Russia and Belarus), whereas this the first found in Poland.

As Czermno was a border town, it was yanked and forth between Poland and the Kievan Rus for centuries. The Kievans took it in the 10th century. Bolesław the Brave of Poland’s Piast dynasty took it back in 1018. After his death in 1025, Czermno’s fortunes shifted again and Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Rus, reconquered the town and region in 1031. There it stayed until the 14th century when Casimir III the Great reclaimed it for Poland. So at the time this spindle whorl was made, Czermno was firmly in the ambit of the Kievan Rus.

“We are not sure whether the spindle whorl was used for its original purpose – spinning – or had a secondary function as an amulet. The latter possibility should not be ruled out” – Florkiewicz believes. She adds that according to the researchers, similar inscriptions could be signs of ownership. There are known spindle whorls that bear the names of women and men. “It is also possible that in this case it is the name of the object’s maker” – she concludes.

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Medieval carved Gonzo demon found in Lincolnshire

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Archaeologists excavating the route of the Lincoln Eastern Bypass highway in Washingborough, just outside of Lincoln city, Lincolnshire, have discovered a stone sculpture of the Muppet Gonzo that dates to the Middle Ages. Technically it’s a corbel, carved in the shape of a grotesque of the beakhead type, terminology that I’m sure is deeply offensive to members of the Gonzo species, whatever that might be.

The Romanesque style dates it to the middle of the 12th century when it was probably used to adorn a church or chapel. The bug eyes, long, downward-facing beak or nose, not to say the human face between its jaws, were intended to strike fear in the heart of the congregants, to avoidance of sin and failing that, repentance so as to avoid being devoured by beaked demons from Hell.

Beakhead corbels were particularly in vogue in the century or so after the conquest of Britain by the Norman French in 1066.

Before then, most village churches were simple wooden buildings, but William the Conqueror’s invasion force and their descendants set about rebuilding in stone, driving home the message that they were now the new landowners. Our example is particularly finely sculpted.

The exact source of the Gonzo-faced corbel is unclear. It’s possible that there was a carving workshop there instead and our cruelly and unfairly maligned Muppet friend was made on site but intended for another destination. The Network Archaeology team has found evidence there was an extensive medieval monastic grange nearby that was active from the Norman Conquest until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was sure to have had a chapel and the corbel could have come from the grange’s early years.

The contract archaeology firm has been digging along the bypass route since September 2016 and they have unearthed an unprecedented wealth of artifacts and human remains from every major time period — Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, Post-Medieval. The team has recovered 40,000 objects and pieces of archaeological material, including flint weapons and tools going back as far as 12,000 years ago, Bronze Age barrows, pottery, intact and in fragments, the foundations of several stone buildings, lime kilns, pottery kilns and wells from the Roman period, and more than 150 skeletons dating to the Middle-Saxon period (700-900 A.D.) given a Christian burial.

The Lincolnshire County Council has a big photo album of the discoveries on their Facebook page.

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Footballers take tax break, leave chateau to ruin

Monday, February 12th, 2018

The Château de Tancarville, a historic castle near Le Havre in Normandy largely built in 18th century incorporating remnants of earlier structures going back to the 11th century, is in a parlous state. The current owners, an association of a dozen footballers chaired by midfielder Rémi Gomis, now a member of the Swiss team FC Wil, acquired it in 2013, receiving a tax exemption from the government premised on the stipulation that they would see to its renovation. The idea was to convert the remains into rental apartments.

It didn’t happen. Nothing has happened. The town hasn’t heard from these guys since early 2017 when a law firm representing them made contact. Since then, it’s been complete radio silence as the castle falls to pieces.

The silence of the owners worries the mayor even more as the site is gradually deteriorating: wild vegetation, unsecured wells, stones that gradually break from the medieval ruins … [Mayor] David Sablin had to take measures to ensure the safety of places.

“The town hall has filed a prohibition order to the site, with its main access. We also contacted the prefect of Seine-Maritime, to consider a danger and order the owners to act quickly on this listed building.”

Left without maintenance, the remains dating back to the 12th century deteriorate. Below the rocky outcrop, the parking of a carpool area is threatened by falling rocks. Finally, regular intrusions on the site have been noted. Sometimes devastating for this heritage at risk.

Jean-Loup Diviné, president of the association of the Friends of the Castle of Tancarville, is also in constant fear at the deterioration of the site.

“On the weekend of January 30, people again got into the castle and tore stones off the ruins. The association has repeatedly placed locks to close access to the castle, but they are regularly demolished. There is a complete lack of reaction from the owners and if we do nothing, there will be nothing left of the site in a few years.”

The first castle built on the picturesque and easily defensible site, a spur overlooking the Seine, belonged to Raoul de Tancarville, chamberlain of William the Conqueror. All that remains today of that castle is the square tower. Subsequent Lords of Tancarville rebuilt it and added to it. A 15th century chapel survives, but the bulk of what remains today was the new castle built on the ruins of the medieval one from 1709 to 1717 for Louis Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Count of Évreux. (A few years later Louis Henri would have a Paris crash pad built then known as the Hôtel d’Évreux and now known as the Élysée Palace, official residence of the President of France.)

The castle’s revival was cut short by the French Revolution. It was pillaged and sacked to the point of near-destruction. By 1793, it was in ruin. With the restoration of the monarchy in the 19th century, the castle’s fortunes took a positive turn. It was restored for the Count Leonce of Lambertye, a preeminent gentleman botanist whose books were widely read in scientific circles, in the mid-1800s. It was listed by the French government as a historic monument in 1862.

Staring in the 1990s, the castle passed through numerous hands. It has at various points been a private home, an art gallery and a restaurant. The sale to the association was a Hail Mary pass, a less than ideal plan for the preservation of the architecture, but the only option left that would keep the walls up in some form. Now that those hopes have proved vain, the Friends of the Castle of Tancarville have reached out to journalist, television and radio presenter and expert in royal families Stéphane Bern who has recently been charged by President Macron with creating a list of monuments and historic structures in France that are in particular peril and helping to secure financing for desperately-needed repairs. Inclusion on that list, or even just getting the word out on a national stage, might spur the owners into actually keeping to the terms they agreed to when they bought the property.

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Anglo-Saxon bed burial cross gifted to museum

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

The gold and garnet pectoral cross found in a bed burial of a wealthy young Anglo-Saxon girl has been donated to University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). Landowners Gosvenor gifted the rare and valuable piece to the museum under the terms of the 1996 Treasures Act, forgoing the ex gratia reward the landowners of a treasure find are entitled to. In this case, the reward for the cross along was likely to be more than £80,000, so this is a significant donation for a company to make on a purely pecuniary level.

That’s nothing compared to its historical value. The 7th century grave was discovered in 2011 by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in the village of Trumpington Meadows just three miles south of Cambridge during a survey excavation of a site slated for development. The teenager had been laid to rest on a bed, probably the one she had slept on in life, adorned with her most precious gold and garnet jewels. While most of her bed was gone, its wood frame and straw mattress decayed to nothingness, the iron brackets did survive to bear witness to what had once been her final resting furnishings. This was only the 15th bed burial ever found in Britain.

At her neck, archaeologists found a gold and garnet pectoral cross. Intricate in design with the highest quality craftsmanship, the cross is only the fifth of its kind ever found. The finely worked gold and cut garnets are reminiscent of several pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard and archaeologists believe they were reserved for the wealthiest, most important people, which would make the young lady one of the elite of Anglo-Saxon society, perhaps even royalty.

The early date of the find is also immensely significant because the cross marks the girl as one of the earliest Christian Anglo-Saxons known. Christianity spread throughout Anglo-Saxon society from the top down, so it’s eminently possible that she was an early convert. The presence of additional grave goods characteristic of pre-Christian funerary practices underscore what a transitional time. Those grave goods, including another splendid piece of gold and garnet jewelry (a pin), an iron knife, glass beads and a chain which hung off her belt, are also part of the MAA collection now.

The cross and other grave goods from the very rare bed burial will be put on temporary display while a new bespoke display case is created to show off the cross to its full advantage.

The Museum also hopes to host public lectures at which the context and significance of the cross will be explained.

“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that the importance of this magnificent and mysterious cross is recognised locally, nationally and internationally through research, exhibition and publication,” added [MMA Senior Curator Judy] Joy.

“The Trumpington Cross offers unique insights into the origins of English Christianity and we feel very lucky to be able to put it on display at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology just a few, short miles away from where this beautiful artefact was discovered.”

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Rare 14th-16th c. shipwrecks found in Stockholm

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the wrecks of two ships in the Baltic Sea off Stockholm. That’s not unusual because the Baltic is a) really cold, and b) so saline that shipworm (and other assorted wood-eating critters), which can devour a wooden wreck in a matter of months, find it distinctly inhospitable. There are at least 100 intact ships on the Baltic Sea bed around Stockholm.

What is unusual about the two that have just been discovered is their age. One is a medieval cog believed to date to the 14th or early 15th century. The other is from the 16th century. Most of the ships that sank in Stockholm’s waters date to the 17th and 18th centuries when Sweden’s naval fleet was in its fullest fulgor.

Swedish National Maritime Museums (SNMM) divers found the wrecks just before Christmas while photographing and surveying the seabed for a new museum dedicated to the maritime archaeology of the Baltic Sea.

The wreckage from the Middle Ages is mostly submerged in mud and its details indicate that it is a cog, most likely from the 14th or 15th century. The ship is 23–25 meters in length and seven meters wide. It is likely to have had a mast with a square rig. More shipbuilding details indicate it being from the Middle Ages, such as protruding deck beams with unusually high knees and a simple anchor wheel. When cog ships were introduced on the seas they were a brand new, large and powerful type of ship that came to dominate large parts of the trade around the Baltic Sea for centuries.

The other shipwreck is estimated to be from the 16th century and still stands with the mast straight up and fully equipped. Some of the discoveries onboard include 20 barrels of osmond iron, kitchen utensils and tools. The extent of the iron found is unprecedented in previous maritime findings. Osmond iron has largely built Sweden, but also supported countries around the Baltic Sea. Gustav Vasa wanted to ban the iron, and this happened later in 1604 when osmond iron was replaced with wrought iron.

The SNMM is working on a ground-breaking new approach to shipwreck archaeology and display: leaving them where they are. Instead of investing in the risky, time-consuming and prohibitively expensive recovery of shipwrecks as was done with the incomparable Vasa, known wrecks and ones still to be discovered will stay on the Baltic Sea floor where they will be explored by marine archaeologists. The new maritime archaeological museum, to be built next to the Vasa‘s museum home in Stockholm, will display artifacts and fragments of wrecks recovered in the dives rather than the ships themselves. Visitors will still get a chance to see them, not in person after decades of conservation and restoration (always precarious), but as if they had been part of the diving team. The wonders of computer graphics and virtual reality technology make it possible to experience marine archaeological remains in their original context, in virtual situ, if you will.

The Treasures of the Baltic Sea museum is scheduled to open in 2020.

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Rare Arabic-inspired chess piece found in Norway

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Medieval chess piece of Arabic-inspired design. Photo by Lars Haugesten, NIKUArchaeologists have unearthed a rare medieval chess piece in the remains of a 13th century house in Tønsberg, Norway. It was discovered just before Christmas by a team from the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) who were excavating the Anders Madsens gate area of Tønsberg.

The cylindrical piece is 30 mm high (1.2 inches) and 26 mm in diameter (1 inch). There’s a wedge jutting out from the top front and it as well as the rest of the body are decorated all over with circles with dots inside. It was carved out of antler and archaeologists believe the maker inserted a piece of lead in the middle of the cylinder to ensure it would hold firm on the chessboard.

Its unusual design suggests it was at least inspired by Arabic art, but that doesn’t mean it was manufactured by Islamic artists or in an Islamic country.

“The design of the piece has an abstract shape, and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” says project manager for the excavation in NIKU Lars Haugesten. […]

“No previous archaeological finds from Tønsberg have such details, which emphasizes that this chess piece is a unique object,” says Haugesten.

Researchers determined that the this piece is a knight. The piece was called an “asb,” meaning horse in Persian in the early form of chess that spread throughout Europe after the Islamic conquest that ended the Sasanian Persian Empire in the 7th century. The game under its Arabic name, shatranj, was brought to Europe via Islamic Spain in the 10th century and from there spread to the far reaches of the continent over the next couple of centuries.

The oldest known chess piece in Scandinavia was found in Lund, Sweden, and dates to the 12th century. It too is of Arabic design and is not dissimilar to the one recently unearthed at Tønsberg. Similar pieces have been found in Bergen, Norway, as well, where more than a thousand game pieces have been discovered in multiple excavations. The Arabic-influenced abstract knight design is very rare. There are only six examples of them among the Bergen pieces, and they have different dimensions and decorative motifs.

The Anders Madsens dig started in the fall and has so far discovered the remains of streets and houses from the Middle Ages. Artifacts found include a panoply of daily use objects like combs, pottery and antlers. The excavation has been the subject of much interest because Tønsberg is the oldest city in Norway, its founding traditionally dated to 871 A.D. based on the account of 13th century chronicler Snorri Sturluson, and the dig site is located in a key position near Slottsfjell Castle, the royal estate and St. Laurence Church, now no longer standing.

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