Unique medieval seal matrix found in Norfolk

Gilded silver seal matrix, late 13th-early 14th c. Photo courtesy Andrew Williams/Norfolk County Council.A metal detectorist has discovered a medieval gilded silver seal matrix with several unique features in a field north of Norwich, southeastern England. It was discovered in April near Horsham St Faith and dates to the late 13th or early 14th century.

The circular seal is .9 inches in diameter and the central motif is a crowned Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. A monk on his knees prays to her right. A scroll running upwards from the tips of his joined hands reads AVE * MA (Hail Mary). The scene is set in a quatrefoil frame. Set in a beaded circular border around the edge of the die is an inscription in medieval Latin that reads TE: ROGO: IVSTICIE: SOL: PIVS: ESTO: VIE. That translates to “I beseech thee, holy sun of righteousness, be the way.” This inscription has never been found before on any other seals or objects.

Dr Geake, Norfolk’s find liaison officer, said: “It’s completely unique, we don’t have anything to compare with this inscription.

“The ‘sun of righteousness’, appears in the Old Testament, towards the end of a set of prophecies, and became a relatively common way of referring to Jesus Christ in the Middle Ages.”

The iconography of Virgin and Child with a kneeling monk is relatively common on seals, both private ones and ones used for official ecclesiastical documents, but there is no directly comparable example of this imagery on a circular seal. This matrix has another very unusual feature: the reverse is a recessed socket with a notched border that suggests it had a detachable handle that could be inserted and turned to lock it in place. Seals with sockets for handles are known on the archaeological record, but the handles were permanently mounted, not interchangeable.

[Dr Geake] believes it must have been owned by a monk and he would have exchanged the die with others, one of which was personal and another to reflect his official role in the monastery.

“It’s unique in two different ways – it’s interchangeable and it has this little, private prayer,” Dr Geake said.

“It’s a window into someone’s personal, emotional or spiritual world in the years before the Black Death.”

Cores reveal age of Leaning Tower of Delbrück

Core samples have determined the exact age of the spire of the St. Johannes Baptist church in Delbrück, East Westphalia, for the first time. Dendrochronological analysis of wood samples taken from the spire found they were felled in the winter of 1479/1480, which means the spire was built in 1480.

Frank Högg, a building researcher of the Westphalia-Lippe Regional Association (LWL), drilled thin cores out of the oak beams in the interior of the spire. It’s that same oak that gives the spire its moniker: “leaning tower of Delbrück.” Its characteristic tilt that defines the city skyline is caused by the wood frame construction warping over time and exposure to the weather.

“The elaborate construction of this octagonal pointed helmet is an impressive example of medieval craftsmanship,” explains Högg. The imperial stem, which extends from the base of the roof to the top, consists of four timbers mortised together and has a total length of over 30 meters. “The construction of the rafters and struts follows the tradition of Westphalian carpentry and represents a constructive masterpiece,” says Högg.

St. Johannes Baptist is a Catholic parish church in the Paderborn district of Delbrück. There were several iterations of the building, with the earliest surviving sections — the central nave and lower part of the tower — built around 1180. The southern aisle of the old Romanesque three-aisled basilica was replaced with a much larger Gothic nave and choir in around 1340. Neogothic elements were added to the north side in the 1860s.

Little is known about the pre-modern architectural history of the church as there have been no archaeological investigations and there are no surviving records. The approximate dates of construction come from stylistic comparisons with other churches. Up until now, the spire was thought to have been built around 1400.

Lost pieces of Golden Tree of Lucignano found

Pieces of the Golden Tree of Lucignano, a monumental reliquary that is a masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing and widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian goldsmithing of any era, have been rediscovered 109 years after they were stolen. The pieces were found in a cave in the Arezzo area of central Tuscany after a tip from an elderly man. The region of Tuscany has now funded a full restoration of the Golden Tree to reintegrate the recovered elements into the original.

The Golden Tree is 8’10” high and more than three feet wide at its widest point. It was crafted of gilded copper, silver and enamel, and its branches decorated with corals, rock crystals and miniature illuminations on parchment. It was inspired by the Lignum Vitae (“wood of life”), a treatise written by Saint Bonaventure in the 1260s to aid Franciscans in devoting themselves to Christ by contemplating his life, passion and glorification. The structure of the tree served as a mnemonic device for monks to pursue the works of Christ in their daily meditation. Like Christ “nailed to a tree,” the Tree of Life ultimately bore the fruit of salvation. The lignum vitae concept took root (pun intended) in Franciscan communities and among lay readers, and it became a popular motif in medieval art.

It was created for the church of Saint Francis in Lucignano in two distinct phases, first in 1350 by an unknown goldsmith which recent studies suggest was from Arezzo, then expanded and completed in 1471 by the pre-eminent goldsmith of 15th century Siena, Gabriello D’Antonio, famed as the creator of the gilded silver reliquary containing the right arm of John the Baptist.

Medieval aesthetics privileged symbolic expressions of the divine. Precious materials — gold, silver, gemstones — were seen as expressions of God’s hand in creation. Their beauty mirrored the supreme beauty of God; the way they reflected light mirrored God’s radiance; they were closer to the divine, pure and incorruptible, unlike humble materials. Vivid colors and the shine of metal were considered lit by the incorporeal light of God. That’s why the gold-painted decorations in Bibles and liturgical books are called illuminations.

Ecclesiastic tradition held that objects of religious veneration like reliquaries and the Communion chalice and plate should be made of precious metals as metaphors for the divine. From the Carmina Ecclesiastica by the 7th century English abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury:

The gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.
(Song 3, Lines 72-5)

The Golden Tree took the metaphors of divinity in the precious materials even further. The entire tree was a metaphor for Christ. Its roots represented his birth, the trunk his Passion and the branches his resurrection. Its tripartite design was also symbolic of the Trinity. At the top of the tree is a depiction of Christ crucified on a branching tree that is a small version of the whole reliquary. Above the cross is a figure of a pelican in piety, also symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.

It was Lucignano’s greatest treasure, and for centuries residents took their vows of marriage in front of it. In 1914, the Golden Tree was stolen and broken into pieces by the thieves for ease of transport and, presumably, resale, since the huge and iconic reliquary was obviously highly recognizable when intact. The pieces were cached in various hiding spots in the country around Sarteano, near Siena. A number of them were found and recovered between 1927 and 1929, but several of the most important elements — the crucifix, the pelican, a whole branch, four circular medallions, five silver plaques, three miniatures, several sprigs of coral — were not among them.

The recovered elements were reintegrated into the Golden Tree. The Royal Superintendence of Florence entrusted the complex restoration to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. More than 100 fragments had to be reattached, and replicas of the parts that were still missing were made based on old photographs taken in the 19th century. The illuminated parchment miniatures were unreproducible and were replaced with empty parchment rounds. The restoration was completed in 1933 and the reconstituted Golden Tree has been on display ever since.

After they were tipped off to the possible location of pieces of the Golden Tree earlier this year, the Carabinieri Art Squad recovered:

  • Five plaques of gilded copper and silver, engraved and enameled, that were originally mounted on the back of branch medallions. They depict saints and angels. Much of the enamel is lost, unfortunately, with only a few traces remaining.
  • One parchment illuminated with portrait of a prophet, about half of the portrait remaining.
  • One polished rock crystal with traces of gold and pigment that once covered a miniature. Its convex shape enlarged the portrait, functioning like a magnifying glass.
  • 16 figures of saints in silver foil made in the 17th century that decorated the base.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure has again been tasked with the challenge of reintegrating the newly-rediscovered pieces. The Golden Tree will be dismantled in batches so that the main part of the reliquary can remain on display throughout the process. If all goes well, Opificio restorers hope the work will be completed by the end of next spring.

Noble couple buried on 10th c. palace grounds

The skeletal remains of a woman with missing face bones and a hollowed out skull were unearthed at the site of the 10th century Royal Palace of Helfta in Eisleben in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The woman’s grave was next to that of a high-status man believed to have been her husband. While both skeletons were found at the same depth less than a foot beneath the surface, the man’s skull and facial bones are intact.

The first remains of the Helfta palace of Otto the Great, King of Germany from 936 until 973, and Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until his death in 973, were discovered in 2009 by geophysical investigations. When the palace was built, kings of Germany did not rule from a single permanent capital. They traveled throughout the year from palace to palace. Saxony was Otto’s home duchy, however, and the palace at Helfta was of particular importance. The geophysical study revealed there was an extensive complex of residential and commercial structures and fortifications covering 12 hectares on the Kleine Klaus hill at Helfta just west of the modern city of Eisleben.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology (LDA) began excavations at the site in May 2021. That summer they uncovered the foundations of a church built by Otto before 968, previously only known from historical accounts. Huge at 98 feet long and 66 feet wide, it was dedicated to 6th century Thuringian princess Saint Radegund. Chroniclers report that Otto was personally present at its inauguration. A cemetery associated with the church containing 70 graves and several stone tombs from the 10th through the 15th centuries was also uncovered. This is where the members of the region’s aristocratic families were buried, as evidenced by the fine jewelry, knives, coins and accessories found in the graves.

The 2022 excavation unearthed the remains of the main building of the royal palace, the so-called Palatium, where Otto the Great and his son and successor Emperor Otto II resided. It was a stone building constructed on a high point on a hill near the church. It was approximately 66 feet long 40 feet wide and had two floors with plastered walls and a basement. It even had a central heating system. The team also discovered evidence that the site had been a power base predating the Ottonian Palatinate, including the remains of a large sections of wall and a fortification ditch from the early Middle Ages.

This year’s excavation revealed fortified homes like small castles. The graves of the woman and man were found next to the castles. There are no grave goods or adornments in the woman’s grave. The man’s grave was replete with grave goods emblematic of his status as a military leader: a knife, a belt set and the metal fittings of an official staff like those carried by generals. Archaeologists believe he was the manager of the castle.

The bones are currently being studied in a laboratory where they will be radiocarbon dated and analyzed for potential causes of death. Researchers hope to determine what happened to sheer off the woman’s face and the top of her skull, whether it was agricultural equipment interfering with the burial or something else. If her head was damaged by an encounter with the business end of a plough, for example, there is no clear evidence of it in the soil around her, nor was her companion damaged by the same equipment.

Another mystery is the disparity between their grave goods. It’s very unusual for the women in the couple to be buried without a single grave good while the man is fully accessorized. It’s possible she was Christian and he was not. Christians deliberately rejected the accoutrements typical of pre-Christian burials as articles of faith.

Medieval skeleton with prosthetic hand found in Bavaria

The skeletal remains of a late medieval man with an iron prosthetic hand have been discovered in Freising, Bavaria. There are only about 50 comparable prostheses known from Central Europe in the late medieval and early modern periods. They range from immobile shaped devices to articulated ones with mechanical elements. This one is immobile.

The grave was unearthed in 2017 during pipeline work near the 17th century Baroque parish church of St. Georg in the central square of Freising’s old town. Examination of the remains at the conservation workshops of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD) found the deceased was an adult male between 30 and 50 years of age. Radiocarbon dating revealed he died between 1450 and 1620.

The corroded lump of metal at the end of the skeleton’s left arm was given a rough, preliminary cleaning and stabilized so it could be X-rayed and studied for any traces of leather or textiles. X-rays taken in 2021 revealed that the hand prosthesis was hollow with four fingers — the index, middle, ring and pinky. They were fabricated from sheet metal and are immobile. The fingers are parallel to each other and appear to be slightly curved.

A thumb bone from his left hand is inside the corroded prosthetic hand. BlfD conservators believe it was covered with leather and tied to the stump of the left hand with straps. Traces of a wrinkled, gauze-like textile inside the fingers are probably the remains of a fabric used to cushion the stump. An iron prosthetic like this, even without articulating elements, was expensive, and given how many men of soldiering age were mercenaries or pledged fighters for the endlessly squabbling aristocracy of late medieval Germany, the deceased may have lost his hand in battle. So far, researchers have not been able to determine how the wound was inflicted.

One well-known amputee with a prosthetic hand from this period was the Imperial Knight Götz von Berlichingen, also known Götz of the Iron Hand. He fought for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and later sold his sword to a long list of princes, dukes and margraves in the wars of the late 15th and 16th century. He lost his right hand at the wrist in 1504 when a cannon ball struck it during the siege of Landshut, a Bavarian city just 25 miles from Freising. His first prosthetic was made by a local blacksmith out of iron. Later he upgraded to a high-tech model with fingers that could curl up, allowing him to hold reigns, weapons, even a quill pen. Both of the Götz’s iron hands are on display in his ancestral home, today the castle museum of the Götzenburg in Jagsthausen.