Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

From Ming China to Persian princess to Shah Jahan to Sotheby’s

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, ca. 1420. Image courtesy Sotheby's.The Mahin Banu Grape Dish is a serving vessel 17 inches in diameter made during the Ming Dynasty’s Yongle Period in around 1420, and that’s just where the story begins. Its voyage would take it to the royal courts of Persia, the palace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan during the time when he was building the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the modern era to New York where it starred in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and now to Sotheby’s where it is set to go up for auction at the Important Chinese Works of Art sale on March 17th (short video covering the dish’s design and history here).

Persian traders were key middlemen in the trade between east and west, so much so that Persian became a common tongue along the Silk Road. As early as the 13th century Chinese porcelain was imported into Iran, and by the early 14th century Chinese kilns were manufacturing porcelain specifically for export to Persia. The demand was great enough that Persian tastes influenced the production of porcelain in China, particularly after the chaos and violence of the Mongol invasions severely inhibited the local market for expensive porcelain goods. Kilns started to produce larger plates than would be used in Chinese food service and included more geometric decorative elements like those seen in Islamic art.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish, side view. Image courtesy Sotheby's.Chinese potters also used Persian raw materials. The cobalt blue that is now so characteristic of Ming porcelain was imported from what is today the Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. When the foreign blue underglaze first began to be used to paint the prized pure white porcelain, in fact, the Chinese elite turned their noses up at it as vulgar and barbarous. Over time they realized it was extremely kickass, and Ming blue-and-white porcelain came to be considered the sine qua non of refinement and elegance.

The dish probably made its way west to Persia under the Timurid dynasty, founded by famed Timur (aka Tamerlane) in 1370. The Timurid aristocracy loved blue and white porcelain and amassed large collections of pieces from China. The Safavid dynasty, founded in 1501 by Shah Ismail I, carried on the practice of collecting blue-and-white porcelain and it was one of Ismail’s daughters, Princess Mahin Banu Khanum, who put her stamp (figuratively and literally) on the grape dish.

Born in 1519, Mahin Banu was a highly educated, politically savvy, devout woman. She earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, architecture and religious centers. With her own money derived from her properties in Shirvan, Tabriz, Qazvin, Ray and Isfahan, Mahin Banu supported holy shrines and founded charitable organizations, including one dedicated to funding dowries for orphaned girls who would otherwise have been destitute. Her father died in 1524 when she was just five years old, and her 10-year-old brother Tahmasp I came to the throne. A chaotic regency followed which Tahmasp put an end to with the execution of the regent in 1533.

Mahin Banu was Tahmasp’s youngest full sister and his favorite, so much so that she became his right hand, not just socially or in the arts or in a religious context, but politically as well. Mahin Banu was one in a line of unmarried royal Safavid women who became trusted counselors to their brothers and fathers. Without conflicting loyalties, husbands or children to deal with, they could put all of their talents to work helping their relatives. Safavid women of wealth and rank were educated as thoroughly as their brothers. They were tutored in reading, writing, fine art, calligraphy, religion and even martial arts like archery and horseback riding.

Mahin Banu accompanied her brother in the thick of the hunt and sat on horseback by his side during ceremonies when all the other royal women watched from a distance. According to chronicler Qumi’s Khulasat al-Tavarikh, Tahmasp was so dependent on his sister’s counsel that he wouldn’t make a move without seeking her approval first. She was his top advisor in all affairs of state and acted in an official capacity, engaging in diplomatic discussions with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s powerful wife, Hurrem Sultan. She became known as the “Queen of the Age, the Mistress of the time.”

That unmarried status was not happenstance. Tahmasp jealously guarded his sister’s celibacy, chasing off all suitors until he found a permanent solution: a ritual betrothal to Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Twelve Imams revered in Shi’a Islam who had died 600 years earlier in the 10th century. Tradition had it that the Mahdi would return again any day — a saddled white horse was left at the palace gate every night just in case — but this engagement wasn’t based on the premise that he’d actually come back and marry the princess. It was a device to prevent her from marrying anyone else and leaving her brother’s side for her husband’s.

Rudaba Makes a Ladder of Her Tresses, Folio 72v from Shahnameh of Shah TahmaspTahmasp shared his sister’s love of art (initially; towards the end of his reign he lost interest). His court created one of the most lavishly illuminated and calligraphied copies of the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, an epic poem recounting the mythical history of the Persian empire written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi, on which the top artists worked for two decades. After the masterpiece was complete, Tahmasp gave it to the Ottoman sultan Selim II as a diplomatic gift on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Contemporary sources record it was part of a train of 34 camels laden with luxurious presents including brocades and other textiles, silk carpets, books and prized porcelain from the far east.

One of the artists who contributed to Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh was painter, master calligrapher and head of the royal library Dust Muhammad who also taught the young Mahin Banu calligraphy, some samples of which have survived and are now in the fabulous wonderland known as the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He left the Safavid court in the late 1530s, traveling to Kabul which was ruled by Kamran Mirza, brother of the embattled Mughal emperor Humayun, and then in 1555 went to India by invitation of Humayun himself.

Shah Tahmasp I and Mughal Emperor Humayun meet, fresco on the wall of Chehel Sotoun Palace Isfahan.Humayun had had a tough go of it, empire-wise. He became emperor after his father’s death in 1530, but there were disgruntled parties who sought to place his uncle on the throne. He had the armies of two kings looking to reclaim the territory his father had conquered. His brothers, including Kamran Mirza, betrayed him and fought against him repeatedly. He lost much of his Hindustan territory to the forces of Sher Shah Suri and in 1543 retreated to his brother’s lands in what is today Afghanistan. Again his brother was less than supportive, leaving Humayun to seek refuge in Persia where Shah Tahmasp welcomed him with open arms and gave him the royal treatment.

When in 1545 Kamran offered to give Shah Tahmasp Kandahar in exchange for his brother’s body, dead or alive, Tahmasp refused and instead gave Humayun military support against his traitorous older brother. Mahin Banu played a major role in establishing this alliance. Tahmasp had threatened to kill Humayun at one point if he didn’t convert from Sunni to Shi’a Islam, but Mahin Banu convinced her brother to support the Mughal emperor in his attempts to reclaim his territories.

Humayun took Kandahar and Kabul, lost them (he was an awful battlefield general), took them again, and ultimately in 1555 reclaimed Hindustan in large part thanks to the thousands of Persian troops Tahmasp had loaned him. Finally returned to the Mughal throne in Delhi, Humayun invited the Persian artists and craftsmen to do for his empire what he had seen them do during the months he spent traveling in Persia and becoming enamoured with its art and architecture. The Persian influence on Mughal art would long outlast his reign.

Mahin Banu Grape Dish base, vaqf in the middle. Image courtesy Sotheby's.We know that Mahin Banu still owned the grape dish when she died in 1562 because there’s a circular cartouche (vaqf) on the base of the plate that identifies it as having been donated to the Shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the Twelve Imams, in Mashhad, as a pious gift. It reads: “Endowed to the Razavid Shrine, By Mahin Banu, the Safavid (princess).” According to 16-17th century chronicler Qazi Ahmad-e Qomi, all of her jewels and her porcelain collection were endowed to the shrine which she had been a dedicated patron of in life.

The next time the Mahin Banu Grape Dish appears on the historical record is at the Mughal court of Shah Jahan in 1643. Even though Mughal history intersected with Safavid Persia during the period of Mahin Banu’s ownership of the dish and even though she was so closely involved in her brother’s dealings with Humayun, the Ming vessel did not make its way to Agra through the kind of diplomatic channels that had directed 34 camels’-worth of precious objects to Selim II.

Inscription of Shah Jehan on the side of the dish's foot. Image courtesy Sotheby's.So how did the grape dish make its way from a holy shrine to Shah Jahan 80 years later? Probably as war booty that was then traded. The Shrine of Imam Reza was sacked by the Uzbek troops of Abdolmomen Khan in 1590. They picked it clean of all its many treasures, and 17th century Safavid court historian Eskandar Beyg specifically mentions “Chinese vessels” being among the precious objects stolen by the Uzbek soldiers who traded them amongst themselves “for the price of cheap ceramic shards.” Mashhad was reconquered by Shah Abbas I, grandson of Shah Tahmasp, in 1598. (Related factoid: there is only one collection of blue-and-white Ming porcelain from the Safavid dynasty still in Iran today, and it’s that of Shah Abbas I, on display in the National Museum in Tehran.)

It was probably during this period before Jahan acquired the piece that someone tried to erase the vaqf from the bottom of the dish. The inscription marked the vessel as having been endowed to the shrine. Owning it was a violation of Islamic law. Knowing that religiously observant buyers would not purchase the piece because of that, whoever was trying to unload it tried to scratch off the vaqf. Abrasion marks marred the surface, but the inscription was too deep to destroy it completely.

Instead it seems they came up with another cunning plan: cover it up. There are mysterious drill marks on the bottom of the plate that could have been used to add a mount that obscured the incriminating markings. Also, Shah Jahan inscribed his name and the year the dish was acquired on the outer edge of the foot ring. Other Shah Jahan plates have his inscription on the base, which strongly suggests there was something attached down there that made it necessary to move the standard position.

After that, there are no more handy inscriptions on the dish that might illuminate its travels back west. Sotheby’s has a lovely map tracking its known movements like unto Indiana Jones in Raiders which indicates it stopped in Quebec in the late 19th century, but this stop is not referenced in the provenance information. It goes from Shah Jahan to an art dealer in New York and thence into the hands of Alastair Bradley Martin’s and his wife Edith Park Martin’s Guennol Collection in 1967. They loaned it to museums for many years and are now selling it. The pre-sale estimate is $2.5 – 3.5 million. Considering the unbelievably rich history of the piece, its unique version of the grape pattern, its beautiful condition and the sheer madness of the Chinese antiquities market right now courtesy of lots of newly minted Chinese billionaires keen to reclaim cultural heritage scattered by war, trade, looters and time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that estimate was left in the dust.

 

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25 tons of pigeon poop cleaned out of 14th c. tower

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

In the Middle Ages, Rye was one of the towns of the Cinque Ports Confederation providing ships to the crown for coastal defense. Located at the tip of an embayment of the English Channel, Rye was an important shipping center for the iron bloomeries (smelting furnaces) of the Weald and other trade goods. Its tactical importance and close links to the monarchy made Rye a target for French attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. One of those attacks in 1339 during the reign of King Edward III saw French troops burn down 52 houses and one mill. In response, the city began to build permanent defenses, among them the Landgate Arch, a fortified entrance into the medieval city center over the only road that connected Rye to the mainland at high tide.

Landgate was a masonry structure with two towers on either side of an arched gateway. One of four fortified entrance gates to the city, it is the only one still standing today. Today it is still the only through-way for light vehicular traffic to reach the medieval city, but the tower itself is not open to the public. The floors and roofs of the towers are long gone leaving them open to the elements. Said elements include the excrement of pigeons and lots of it.

The fact that pigeons were converting the Landgate Arch towers into massive poop silos was noticed last month by members of the Rother District Council. Since guano is acidic and can eat through stone over time, the council contracted CountyClean Environmental Services to clean out the monument. CountyClean used a combination tanker truck that provides a high pressure jet while vacuuming up the sludge.

Mike Walker, Managing Director for CountyClean Environmental Services said: “Whilst we’ve removed other massive blockages such as giant fatbergs in sewers, we have never seen such a monumental mass of festering faeces before.”

“The build up of pigeon poo behind the doors was so big we had to force the them open. Once inside, it was like walking on a giant chocolate cake and the smell was awful – even through a facemask.”

“The floors of the towers and the steps leading to the top were swamped with 25 tonnes of pigeon poo. We filled our tanker several times over.”

The bird crap was almost three feet deep.

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Lead coffin inside stone coffin from Richard III dig opened

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

When the skeletal remains of King Richard III were found under a Leicester parking lot in two magical weeks September of 2012, the excavation team encountered another four graves in Trench 3 (Richard was found in Trench 1, see map here) on the site of what had once been the Grey Friars’ church. One of them stood out thanks to its limestone sarcophagus which was the first complete medieval stone coffin excavated in Leicester using modern archaeological methods. The other bodies had no surviving caskets, although evidence was found of two of them having been buried in long-decayed wooden coffins. Since the University of Leicester excavation team was under extreme time constraints, there was no question of exploring any other graves than the potential Richard’s at that time.

In July of 2013 the team returned to the Grey Friars site to excavate more of the church and, if possible, lift the stone sarcophagus found in the presbytery. The limestone box was cut in a tapered shape from a single block of limestone. The wider end was carved into a curve on the inside to create a niche for the head. The lid, also carved from limestone, didn’t quite fit and the mortar sealing it to the coffin was damaged. Water was able to get inside the coffin and over the centuries the unbalanced but very heavy lid fractured the sarcophagus extensively.

While they had hoped to lift the sarcophagus whole, archaeologists realized once they’d chiseled away the dirt caked on the sides of the coffin that the stone was too cracked to remain intact during the lifting process. They decided instead to lift the lid and remove it separately first. Nine people used lifting straps to manually raise the lid to ground level. Inside the sarcophagus they found a second coffin, this one made from lead. It was intact except for a hole at the feet where the lead had collapsed inwards.

Now the team had to lift the lead coffin before they could remove the fractured sarcophagus. They did this by dismantling one end of the limestone box, taking it apart piece by piece according to the existing fracture pattern. When they made enough space for it, they slid a wooden board underneath the lead coffin and two people lifted the lead coffin out like they were carrying it on a stretcher. The coffin was then transported to an infirmary so the insides could be explored with an endoscope to make sure there were no preserved soft tissues requiring special conservation conditions. There weren’t any; the remains were fully skeletonized.

Armed with the endoscope data, the team’s next step was opening the lead coffin. There were still intact solder joints that researchers did not want to damage because they could contain information about the construction of the coffin, so instead they decided to cut an opening all around the base of the coffin, lift the lid and sides and leave the skeleton on the lead base. In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists found some hair, small fragments of a fragment that looks like linen and a piece of cord. The fabric is probably what’s left of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in while the cord is a piece of the rope used to secure the shroud by tying around the legs.

When the stone sarcophagus was first unearthed, experts thought it might have contained the remains of Sir William de Moton of Peckleton, a knight and former mayor of Leicester who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362. Its location in presbytery of the friary church near the high altar was extremely prestigious, and a stone coffin with a lead coffin inside was an ultra deluxe burial package, a combination only someone with a great deal of wealth and position would be able to secure. Sir William seemed the likeliest candidate at first glance. Documentary research discovered two other possible candidates: leaders of the English Franciscan order Peter Swynsfeld (d. 1272) and William of Nottingham (d. 1330).

Well, throw all of that out because surprise, the skeleton inside the lead coffin is female! She was a woman of means, as confirmed by stable isotope analysis of her bones which found that she ate a high-status, protein-rich diet — game, meat and a great deal of sea fish — only just below Richard III’s adult diet in quality. She was over 60 at time of death and radiocarbon dating found she died in the latter half of the 13th century or in the 14th.

Documentary research found the names of seven women closely associated with the friary. The radiocarbon dating results eliminated three names of women who died in the 16th century. Of the four remaining, the biggest shot was Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who was a dedicated patron of the friary. She died in France, however, and as far as we know was buried there as well. Of the three remaining women on the list, only one is specifically recorded as having been buried in the church: Emma Holt. All we know is her name and that she was buried in the friary church in 1290 because in September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence shaving Purgatory sentences off by 20 days for anyone who would say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester.” There’s no way to confirm is our leaden lady is Emma Holt. There are no known descendants for DNA matching. We don’t know her age at death, her looks or anything else about her that could link her to the skeleton.

Although the identity of the woman who had such significance to the Franciscan order that she was buried in the fanciest casket in the fanciest part of the friary’s church is likely to remain unknown, it is worth noting that she was not the only woman granted the honor of being laid to rest under the feet of praying monks. In the two Grey Friars digs, archaeologists found 10 graves. Five were left undisturbed in place. Five were excavated and the remains examined. One of those five proved to be King Richard III. The other four were all women.

Two of them were inside the choir on the opposite side of it from where Richard was found. They were between 40 and 50 years old at time of death and radiocarbon dating shows indicates they died between 1270 and 1400. One of them had what seems to be a congenital hip dislocation which would have required her to walk with a crutch. The other lived a life of physical labor. Her arms and legs bore the tell-tale sign of regular use in lifting heavy weights. Like the woman in the lead coffin, these ladies also ate a high quality, varied diet rich in proteins.

The fourth female skeleton had been disturbed — note for RM: these were the disarticulated female remains mentioned in the first press conference — so there’s limited information on her, but she too appears to have done hard physical labor in her short life before dying in her early to mid-20s. Since the choir and presbytery would be reserved for important, wealthy people, the fact that two women who did hard labor for years were buried there may suggest the friary’s top donors were not just aristocrats and clerical leaders, but members of the burgeoning middle class of merchants and tradespeople who had money in their pockets but made it by working hard with their hands.

As for the ratio of men to women being so lopsided, as unexpected as that is, it could very well just be a coincidence.

Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.

“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.”

Here’s a brief documentary video of the lead coffin’s removal from the stone sarcophagus in situ and its opening in the laboratory. You can see how they took apart the stone coffin, how they cut the lead with what look like pruning shears and the fragments and remains inside in the lead coffin.

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200 bodies found in mass graves under Paris supermarket

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have discovered the skeletal remains of more than 200 individuals buried in eight mass graves under the basement of the Monoprix Réaumur-Sébastopol supermarket in Paris. The team was doing an archaeological survey in advance of construction and expected to encounter human remains because the building was known to have been constructed on the site of Trinity Hospital cemetery. The cemetery was in active use from the 12th century through the 17th and was destroyed at the end of the 18th. Its graves were excavated and bones transferred to the Paris catacombs in the second wave of transfers in 1843, then the Félix Potin grocery store was built on the site in 1860. That building was demolished and reconstructed in 1910. The current Monoprix store occupies the ground and first floor of that 1910 Art Nouveau building by architect Charles Lemaresquier.

So after centuries of disuse, revolution, a dedicated municipal program of bone collection and two buildings erected on the site, archaeologists had little expectation of discovering anything more that a few scattered bones. Instead they found well-organized and carefully laid-out mass graves. Seven of the graves contain between five and twenty bodies laid down in two to five layers. The eighth grave is much larger. So far the remains of more than 150 individuals have been unearthed in this one pit. They were deposited with exacting precision in five or six layers. At least two rows of the dead are placed head to toe. A third row appears to continue beyond the perimeters of the current excavation.

“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archeologist Isabelle Abadie.

The bodies appear to have been buried all at the same time, which she said suggested they might have been the victims of the plagues which struck Paris in 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Whatever mortality crisis struck — plague, other epidemics, famine — it struck wide. There are adults and children of all ages and both sexes buried in the largest mass grave. Initial examination of the bones has found no specific evidence of disease or injury. INRAP archaeologists will attempt to extract DNA samples for the bone which may reveal the presence of fatal pathogens. Other tests on the bones will determine their physical condition at death, if they were malnourished, if they had repetitive strain injuries from hard labor, etc. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to sort out which layers were deposited when.

Researchers hope this excavation and the subsequent study will result in a more thorough understanding of how the living managed bodies in mass-death crises, a clearer picture of the spatial and temporal organization of the cemetery. The team will also study period sources and maps of Paris to find out more about the Trinity Hospital and its cemetery. It’s a rare opportunity to study such a site; fewer than a dozen mass burial sites in France have been subject to a thorough archaeological study, so there isn’t much scholarship on the subject and there is a great deal that remains unknown about funerary practices at cemeteries associated with medieval and early modern hospitals.

Once the study is complete, the state will claim the remains and arrange for reburial.

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Possible joust casualty found at Hereford Cathedral

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

In 2009, Hereford Cathedral began an extensive restoration of the cathedral close. As part of the project, the area around the cathedral including a graveyard was excavated. More than 700 skeletons dating from the Norman Conquest through the 19th century were unearthed between September of 2009 and May 2011, their bones providing a treasure trove of information about the lives and deaths of people from all walks of life over the course of nearly 1,000 years.

One of the skeletons may be a unique discovery: the remains of a man with wounds that strongly suggest he was fatally wounded in a joust. If that is indeed the case, this skeleton is the first of its kind that we know of ever unearthed in the United Kingdom. He was found buried in the churchyard very near the east end of the Cathedral, prime spiritual real estate due to its proximity to the high altar.

The skeleton is of a well-built adult man 5’10″ tall which puts him in the top 5% of men of his era in terms of height. He was at least 45 years old when he died sometime in the late 12th, early 13th century. Stable isotope analysis of his teeth found he was raised in Normandy. He was buried in a grave partially lined with stones, a sort of half-cist burial.

His medical history is writ large on his bones. He had a badly fractured right shoulder blade which had fully healed by the time of his death and a serious break in the lower left leg that had also healed. It’s a twisting fracture, possibly the consequence of a blow to the right side of the body (maybe that shoulder hit?) while on horseback. The twisting may have happened when, in reaction to that blow, the body spun around violently while the left foot remained caught in the stirrup.

Recovery from such serious breaks doubtless took a long time. It suggests that he fought in tourneys for years before his eventual death. There is no fatal blow that osteologists could find, but there are injuries potentially connected to one. He sustained at least nine rib fractures on two different occasions. The second occasion was the bad one as the rib fracture only shows signs of several weeks worth of healing. The blow to the ribs wasn’t fatal per se, but it was delivered along with the injuries that shortly thereafter claimed his life.

Why couldn’t these wounds have been inflicted during actual combat, you ask? Good question. They could have been, but there are no blade or arrow injuries to the bone. No sharp-force trauma of any kind is extant, although of course he could have been stabbed, speared, shot a million times in his soft tissues without that showing up on the bones.

[Regional Manager of Headland Archaeology] Andy Boucher said “obviously we can never be sure how people came about their wounds, but in this case there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting this man was involved in some form of violent activity and the locations of his injuries do match quite closely what might be expected from taking part in mock battles. The fact that he was still doing this after he was 45 suggests he must have been very tough.”

If he did die as a result of tourney combat technically he was not allowed church burial. Jousts and its participants had been sternly condemned in the Second Lateran Council of 1139.

We entirely forbid, moreover, those abominable jousts and tournaments in which knights come together by agreement and rashly engage in showing off their physical prowess and daring, and which often result in human deaths and danger to souls. If any of them dies on these occasions, although penance and viaticum [communion] are not to be denied him when he requests them, he is to be deprived of a church burial.

Perhaps burial just outside the physical structure of the church was the loophole used to see that the Hereford knight got a proper Christian burial in a location near the high altar as would suit a man of status despite his death from abominable jousting. Anyway it’s always easier to ask forgiveness after the transgression than permission before so the church’s prohibition had little effect in practice.

The Normans had introduced tourneys to England after the Conquest as bona fide war games. The use of heavy cavalry armed with lances to charge in formation developed in the second half of the 11th century, and those formation charges required a great deal of practice to work in a combat situation. These early tourneys were mock battles, not one horseback lancer against another Ivanhoe-style, staged on large fields and fought by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men at arms. They were dangerous, sometimes fatal, and inflicted more injuries on knights than actual battlefield combat did.

There were prizes to be won, however — ransom money, weapons, armour, horses — and there was always a steady supply of younger sons of nobility with skill at arms but no prospect of inheritance willing to fight their way to wealth and status. Richard the Lionheart attempted to regulate tourneys by issuing a charter on August 22nd, 1194, authorizing them in only five locations and requiring participants to pay hefty fees according to their titles (an earl had to pay 20 marks of silver, a baron 10, a landed knight four marks, a landless knight two) before receiving a license to fight in the tournament. This served the king’s purpose in several ways. It dangled the prospect of profit to the knights, keeping them in the country and available to defend the realm while at the same time keeping them from constantly injuring each other in tourney after tourney. It also made the assembly of large numbers of heavy cavalry subject to monarchical approval, a mechanism that would only grow in importance after Richard’s death and the subsequent clashes between crown and barons that famously resulted in Magna Carta. Last but certainly not least, it put significant coin in the king’s pocket.

The charter could not quench the thirst for tournaments which were still held outside of the crown’s rules. One famous joust was held at Chepstow Castle on the Welsh side of the border 35 miles south of Hereford in 1227. The castle (called Striguil Castle by the Normans) had been home to William Marshal, dubbed “the greatest knight that ever lived” by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his eulogy for William after his death in 1219. His son, also named William, succeeded his father as Earl of Pembroke and Lord Marshal of England to King Henry III. It was the younger William who hosted the 1227 tourney without permission from the king. Knights attached to eight earls, including the Earl of Hereford, fought in the tournament, and at least one of them, Reimund de Burgh, relative of Hubert de Burgh, Henry’s regent during his minority who the king had just that year made the 1st Earl of Kent, was heavily fined for his participation. Thus the king profited financially even from the illicit tourneys.

Given its proximity to Hereford and the date range of the cathedral’s knight, it’s conceivable that he could have fought in that very tournament. It could even have been the one to fell him, for that matter. I doubt we’ll ever know.

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CT scan reveals mummy inside Buddha statue

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

A 11th or 12th century statue of a meditating Buddha with a perfectly posed mummy inside received a revelatory CT scan last September at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, central Netherlands.

The statue arrived in the country as part of the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, northeastern Netherlands. This was the first time the reliquary was allowed to leave China and it’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has ever been made available for scientific research in the West.

The exhibition ran from May to August, after which the statue was taken to the medical center for CT scanning by Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin. Under the careful supervision of Brujin, radiologist Ben Heggelman ran the statue on its back through the CT scanner and took samples of bone tissue for DNA analysis. Gastrointestinal and liver disease specialist Raynald Vermeijden used an endoscope to sample material of an unknown nature from the mummy’s thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Several news stories have incorrectly described the mummy as a shocking discovery, but it was known to be inside the statue all along. Not to state the obvious, but that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition. The research team did make one surprise find: the cavities where the organs once resided are stuffed with pieces of paper that have ancient Chinese characters written on them.

The mummy is believed to be that of the Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, or Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan) Buddhism. He died around 1100 A.D., which is the source of the date for the statue. The Drents Museum exhibited the statue as an example of self-mummification, a grueling, torturous, years-long process in which Buddhist monks gradually starved, dehydrated and poisoned themselves in the hope of attaining enlightenment and leaving an incorruptible corpse. It required an almost inconceivable degree of self-abnegation. For the first 1,000 days they ate only nuts and seeds gleaned from the area around the temple. The next 1,000 days the diet was whittled down to small portions of pine bark and roots until the end of the period when they began to drink a tea made from the sap of urushi tree. This sap is what lacquer is made of; it is toxic to humans. The tea induced the release of fluids and made the body unappetizing to insects and microorganisms that would otherwise be inclined feast on the corpse.

With no body fat or fluids left and poison in his tissues, the monk would then be walled alive in a room that gave him just enough space to sit lotus style. A tube let air into the tight space and the monk would ring a bell to let people know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the space sealed for another three years. When the 1,000 days were up, the tomb would be opened to see if the body was in fact mummified. If it wasn’t, and most of them weren’t, it was buried with due respect for the unbelievable toughness and devotion of the priest who made the attempt. If it was, the deceased would no longer be considered dead but in a state of eternal meditation, removed from the cycle of Samsara. He was elevated to the rank of Buddha, his mummy dressed and decorated and placed on an altar.

The practice as described above was codified by Kuukai of Mount Koya, Japan, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He is thought to have learned it while studying esoteric Buddhist practices in the T’ang region of China. Most examples of self-mummification have been found in the Yamagata Prefecture in Japan, but there are instances in China and India as well. The thing is, there is no removal of organs in this procedure. If the mummy in the Buddha statue did indeed self-mummify, his organs must have been removed after death, and I can’t see how it could have been done three years later. There’s a different process at work in the Buddha statue mummy.

I hope the scan and tests will get some answers about how he died and was mummified. The results of the research will be published in a monograph at an unscheduled future date. The exhibition is now in the Hungarian Natural History Museum where it will remain until May. After that it will travel to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden concluding in Wales in 2018.

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Objects from 1,500-year-old settlement found in Poland

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Skomack Wielki in northeastern Poland have unearthed numerous bronze, iron and pottery artifacts from a settlement dating to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Artifacts from this period in this area are rare, and most of the ones that have been found were discovered in cemeteries.

Among the most valuable finds are ornaments, brooches and buckles made of bronze, as well as toiletries (tongs) and knives. In one place, archaeologists discovered cluster of entirely preserved 7 ceramic vessels. They differ in size, finish (some carefully smoothed, some rugged), decoration in the form of plastic strips, ornaments made with fingers or engraved. “The whole deposit gives the impression of a specially selected set, although at this stage of research it is difficult to say what was the purpose of selection and of the pit, in which the vessels had been placed” – commented Dr. [Anna] Bitner-Wróblewska.

Although the population of the area in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages is generally associated with the Sudovian/Yotvingian tribe, archaeologists believe the community in this settlement was a West Baltic tribe called the Galindians who had established connections with peoples to the north, south, west and east of them going back as far as the 2nd century A.D. when Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, poet and geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned them in his Geographia. The range of the ancient tribe was whittled down to a central core in the wake of the upheavals of the late Imperial period. By the 6th/7th century Ptolemy’s Galindians survived as the Old Prussian clan of the Galindis. These artifacts, therefore, are from a significant transitional period in the history of the region.

The pottery vessels, still filled with soil, have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Warsaw where the contents will be examined under laboratory conditions. The museum is a partner in the Polish-Norwegian Modern Archaeological Conservation Initiative “Archaeology of the Yatvings” which seeks to explore the mutli-period settlements of Baltic tribes (the Yatvings of the title) in the early medieval centers of Szurpiły and Skomack Wielki in Poland’s Warmińsko-Mazurskie region. This is the first archaeological initiative in Poland to prioritize non-invasive methods of investigation like aerial exploration and geophysical surveys to locate and identify archaeological remains and determine how well preserved they are.

The project began last year with non-invasive analysis of the sites followed by targeted excavations. It is scheduled to continue through 2016. The ultimate objective, in addition to learning more about the little-known settlement structures of ancient and early medieval Yatvings, is to develop a usable model of heritage protection coupled with archaeology that will give local communities a fuller understanding of their rich history and a preservation-based approach to cultural tourism.

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Codex Calixtinus thief sentenced to 10 years

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

On Wednesday the Provincial Court of La Coruña convicted former electrician José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras of stealing the Codex Calixtinus, an invaluable 12th century manuscript that contains the first travel guide for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the theft of the codex, ongoing burglaries of cash and other items and money laundering, Castiñeiras was sentenced to 10 years in prison (three for the codex, five for the burglaries, two for the laundering) and a 268,000 euro ($304,000) fine. His wife Remedios Nieto was sentenced to six months for money laundering and got her own 268,000 euro fine because she had to have known her husband’s wealth was ill-gotten. His son Jesus Fernández Nieto was acquitted as the court considered him a patsy used by his father who bought two apartments in his son’s name to launder some of the stolen money.

The court concluded that the electrician had taken keys to, among other locations, the office of the Dean and of the administrator, and used them to gain access to the Cathedral safe that regularly held large quantities of cash from sales of tickets to the Cathedral museum and roof, rent from Church properties and donations of the faithful. The total amount Castiñeiras stole in cash alone is 2.4 million euros ($2,735,000) in currency from 59 countries.

Defense counsel Carmen Ventoso tried the “this whole courtroom is out of order” defense, calling the trial a “procedural Guantanamo” in which the defendants’ rights had been trampled from before they were even on trial. She claimed police had broken into the house and installed monitoring devices a month before the arrest, that the official police search exceeded the parameters of the warrant, that the first interview in which Castiñeiras admitted he had stolen the Codex at 12:00 AM on July 4th, 2011, was full of errors and invalidated by the interrogator’s hardball tactics (“suggestive,” “argumentative” and “repetitive” questioning verging on duress), and that the Cathedral’s security camera footage showing the defendant shoving stacks o’ cash into his pockets was altered after the fact to incriminate her client. She wanted the search thrown out and all the evidence gathered as a result of it.

The court, unsurprisingly, was not persuaded by this argument or by Ventoso’s repeated imprecations against Judge José Antonio Vázquez Taín who, according to her, is a sterling example of “what shouldn’t be done.” The judge didn’t buy her next defense — that Castiñeiras had OCD and was a hoarder — either, on account of he somehow managed to overcome this compulsion just fine when he invested his filthy lucre in property.

On the stand last month, the first time he spoke publically about the theft, Castiñeiras admitted he had “probably” stolen all that cash (different news stories put the amount at anywhere from 1.7 to 2.4 million euros) from the Cathedral safe before he had a stroke in 2004, but he stopped keeping his accounts after the stroke and couldn’t remember if he kept stealing. When the magistrate asked him if he had stolen any other artworks or valuables from the church (a number of antiquities were also found in his home), the defendant replied that he woke up every day at 6:00 AM to work hard for the Cathedral. Because apparently early mornings and work entitle you to stuff millions in cash, art, church documents and whatever else into your pockets, seems to be the implication.

That fits with the disgruntled employee theory of the crime. He was let go in 2011, officially due to restructuring, but possibly because he was suspected of theft. That can’t have been the source of his cleptorage, however. He may have stolen the Codex Calixtinus in July of 2011 out of pique, but he’d been making off with huge fistfuls of cash regularly for something like a decade by then. In his confession he said he was acting against the institution that had failed to offer him permanent employment, but he also hinted darkly that the lack of poverty and chastity from certain Cathedral personnel his poor, traumatized eyes had witnessed during his many years on the job drove him to a decade of thievery. The lack of chastity was homosexual, gasp, and the lack of poverty consisted in staff taking money out of the offering bag and helping themselves to the best donations of silverware, hams and fine wines.

The Codex is now back at the Cathedral. It was returned on July 8th, 2012, four days after it was found in a garbage bag under some newspapers in Castiñeiras’ garage. It was on public display in the chapter house for the day, after which it was put in a safe location while the Cathedral looked into improving its obviously faulty security systems.

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Video reveals Richard III’s fatal blow

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The University of Leicester has released a video of the forensic examination of Richard III’s skull that revealed the blow that is likely to have been the coup de grâce. The video captures the moment (in real time, this is not a reenactment) when Professor Guy Rutty of the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit working with University osteologist Dr. Jo Appleby traced the trajectory of a penetrating wound from a sharp weapon that would certainly have been fatal.

Out of the nine injuries to the skull, there are two candidates for wounds that caused Richard’s death: a big hole on the right side of the occiput at the base of the skull caused by sharp-force trauma from a large bladed weapon like a halberd, and a smaller penetrating wound with radiating fracture to the left side of the occiput caused by the pointed tip of an edged weapon like a sword or the spike of a polearm weapon like a halberd or bill. (For more details about Richard’s wounds and the weapons that may have caused them, see this article from the Royal Armouries.)

At the time of the press conference announcing the early results of the study of the skeleton, the larger injury seemed the likeliest fatal wound. The smaller one of the two wasn’t even mentioned, that I recall.

In the video Professor Rutty, who was a Home Office forensic pathologist for 19 years, and Dr. Appleby slide a thin metal rod through the smaller penetrating wound. They align it with a cut mark on the left posterior arch of Richard’s first cervical vertebra to determine the angle of the blow and finds that the rod culminates at a small flap injury that looks like a tiny divot on the inner surface of the cranium. The three aligned injuries strongly suggest that the point of an edged weapon was driven up through the back of his head up into the brain and penetrated the skull opposite the entry wound. That’s a distance of 10.5 centimeters, or just over four inches.

The audio is rough and there is no closed captioning option, but it’s still neat to see the moment when all the wounds aligned. If you’d like to get a fuller picture, read the paper on the examination of Richard’s perimortem wounds published in The Lancet.

The video is one of 26 shot by a University videographer to document the discovery, study and reburial of Richard’s bones. Ten others are currently available for viewing on the University’s dedicated Richard III website. The set won’t be complete until the funerary cortege on Sunday, March 22nd, the lying in state and finally the reinterment ceremony on Thursday, March 26th, are recorded.

While I’m on the subject, I am compelled to recommend the episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead in which a young man with scoliosis very similar to Richard’s in degree and shape of spinal curvature volunteers to be put through the paces of medieval combat to study how effective the last king of England to die in battle would have been as a fighter. It is fascinating to see what he can and can’t do. Spoiler: he can do an amazing amount, and unlike Richard, he only got broadsword and horseback training for a couple of weeks in his adulthood. The best part is the extremely badass custom suit of armor a blacksmith makes for him. It needs some modification from the standard template because of certain anatomical peculiarities caused by his scoliosis (mainly the lack of a usable waist for armor purposes), but once he’s in it you wouldn’t know there’s anything at all unusual about that knight.

If you have any questions about how a man with Richard’s disability could perform on the battlefield, watch this show. I’ve already watched it twice it’s so good. I might have to make that thrice now that I’ve reminded myself of how awesome it is.

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England’s oldest cannonball found on battlefield

Friday, February 13th, 2015

A lead ball discovered on farmland that is part of the English Heritage-registered historic site of the Battle of Northampton is believed to be the oldest known surviving cannonball in England, fired at the War of the Roses battle on July 10th, 1460. The ball was first discovered near Eagle Drive, Northampton, some years ago by Stuart Allwork, the late owner of the farm, but was thought to have been lost. Mr. Allwork died in 2013; last year the cannonball was rediscovered in his house. Since then, the projectile has been analyzed in detail by Dr. Glenn Foard, the battlefield archaeologist who led the successful search for the true location of the Battle of Bosworth.

Lead shot is disproportionately valuable to historians because it doesn’t corrode as quickly as steel and iron and can therefore be subjected to forensic ballistic examination that tells its story. The ball is about three inches in diameter and bears the scars of its use in battle. It is misshapen and gouged, impact damage from at least two bounces after it was fired. It may also have hit a tree. Particles of Northampton Sand (a subterranean geological formation that was once a shallow sea) and ironstone were found inside one of the deep gouges, evidence of how deep into the field the ball was driven and that it was used in the Northampton area.

[Dr. Foard] said: “It is highly likely that the projectile was fired during the battle in 1460″.

“I have worked with all the lead and lead composite (i.e. lead balls containing a piece of iron or stone, or many fragments of stone) round shot from battlefields of the 15th and 16th centuries that have, as far as I know, been reported from any battlefields in the UK and also those from several siege sites.

“With this knowledge I can say that this lead round from Northampton is indeed a ‘cannonball’ and that it has been fired (there is distinctive firing evidence) and has impacted with stone in the ground.”

Historical accounts of the Battle of Northampton refer to the use of artillery on the field, or more specifically, the failure of artillery. It was raining hard when the Yorkists under Richard “Kingmaker” Neville, Earl of Warwick, advanced on the forces of King Henry VI. The Lancastrians attempted to fire cannons at their opponents, but the driving rain entirely disabled the artillery. If those sources are accurate, that would mean the Eagle Drive ball was shot from a Yorkist cannon. When Neville’s troops reached the Lancastrian defenses on the left flank, the Yorkists holding the line laid down their weapons by order of their commander Lord Grey of Ruthin who had cut a deal with Neville to betray the king in return for support in a land dispute.

The battle was over 30 minutes later, the king captured and thousands of his troops killed either by Yorkist hand or by drowning in the River Nene during their retreat. The result of this rout was the Act of Accord which made Richard, Duke of York, heir to the throne. Henry’s wife Margaret of Anjou had no intention of meekly acceding to the disinheriting of their son, so she rallied the troops and kept the war going. Richard died in battle in December of 1460, less than two months after the Act of Accord had made him Prince of Wales. His son would become King Edward IV, the first Yorkist King of England, less than three months after that in March of 1461.

The site of the Battle of Northampton was added to the English Heritage Register of Battlefields in 1995. Few artifacts from the fight have been discovered because the field is vast — 187 hectares — and hasn’t been archaeologically excavated. Just three possible lead shots have been found and the Eagle Drive cannonball is the only one to have been thoroughly studied so that its identity as a medieval cannonball could be confirmed.

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