Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Maya council house found in Guatemala

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Archaeologists have discovered a 700-year-old council house, a space dedicated to political and religious purposes, in the ancient site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala. The house is a square about 164 feet by 164 feet. The interior has two collonaded halls that were once decorated with animal sculptures — the carved heads of a reptile (snake or crocodile) and a parrot were found in the home — built next to each other, and two altars.

A Mayan group called the Chakan Itza would have used this council house as a place to hold meetings, worship gods, make alliances and officiate marriage ceremonies.

“Basically almost every political and religious ritual would have been held there,” [Queens College professor Timothy] Pugh told Live Science in an interview. The leaders who gathered there would have held power in the community and perhaps the broader region. Among the artifacts is an incense burner showing the head of Itzamna, who was the “shaman of the gods,” Pugh said.

The house was devoted to its role between 1300 and 1500, after which it was deliberately destroyed by the Chakan Itza and the seat of power moved. This was part of the process of transition from one calendar period to the next. The ritual required that the altars be demolished and the house covered with a thin layer of ceremonial dirt representing burial.

The city of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ was a thriving metropolis when the council house was built. Its importance was confirmed by the discovery of a vast Mayan ball court, the second largest ever found. The first largest is at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The Chakan Itza people claimed the Chichen Itza builders as their ancestors (hence the name), that they had migrated from what is today Mexico and settled in Guatemala.

They only had a few centuries to enjoy their new surroundings. In the 17th century, the Spanish conquered Petén, bringing death from war and disease to the Chakan Itza who were close to extermination. There are still Itza people today, but their language is almost extinct. Only a handful of surviving people still speak it. The rest speak Spanish.

 

Share

Register of St. Osmund misplaced for 34 years

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Register of St. OsmundThe Register of St. Osmund, a 12th century manuscript recording the foundational documents of Salisbury Cathedral, has been returned to the Cathedral after 34 years. It was a filing mishap that saw one of the Cathedral’s most important historical records leave its home to spend almost four decades in the County Record Office. The book belongs to the Cathedral Chapter under the purview of the Dean of Salisbury, but somehow wound up in the archives of the Diocese, under the purview of the Bishop, instead.

In 1978 the General Synod of the Church of England passed the Parochial Registers and Records Measure which stipulated that non-current parish records should be transferred to the records offices of local authorities where they could be properly cared for by experts. The measure protected the records, ensuring they would be kept in proper archival conditions and handled by professionals rather than church employees who may or may not have any special knowledge in this area, and made church documents accessible to the public for historical and genealogical research.

West Front of Salisbury CathedralIn keeping with the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, in 1980 the Diocesan archives were moved from Wren Hall in the Cathedral Close offsite to the County Record Office, now the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. The misfiled Register of St. Osmund went with them, nestled amidst the parish’s collection of baptismal records and historical wills from 1540 to 1858.

It was archivists at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre who finally recognized that the Register belonged in the Cathedral Library and Archives.

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said “I am delighted to see this ancient document, which somehow got confused with my predecessors’ records, returned to the cathedral. One of the glories of Salisbury Cathedral is the integrity and continuity of its ancient records and it reflects great credit on Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre that they recognized this particular document’s true home and encouraged its return.”

St. Osmund sculpture on the West Front of Salisbury CathedralThe Register of St. Osmund was not, as its name implies, compiled by the Saint himself. It’s named after him because it’s a compendium of charters, rules, statutes and rites that he instituted when he was Bishop of Salisbury from 1078 until his death in 1099. Salisbury was called Sarum in his day, and the Sarum Use, the practices regulating the Divine Office, mass and liturgical calendar that Osmund put together from pre-existing Norman and Saxon sources, became hugely influential. It was in widespread use in churches all over the country. Even after the Reformation, the Sarum Use was with some modifications employed in Church of England practices and in fact still is to this day.

The original manuscript drawn up by Osmund (he was a dedicated bibliophile and did a great deal of copying and book binding personally, so he could have literally put the first register together himself, or he could have ordered it put together by scribes) was lost. The Register includes the earliest surviving copy of Osmund’s Consuetudinary (a book containing the forms and ceremonies of a particular church or monastery), written around 1222-1240 for use in the new Salisbury Cathedral built on the property of Richard Poore when he was Bishop of Salisbury.

Salisbury Cathedral library and archivesThe influence of the Sarum Rite inspired a movement to canonize Osmund as a saint and father of the English church. The first papal bull establishing a preliminary inquiry into Osmund’s potential sainthood was promulgated on May 30th, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX. The inquiry took another 250 years, the repeated interventions of at least two kings of England (Henry V and Henry VI), and the Salisbury chapter to come to fruition. Osmund was canonized on January 1st, 1457.

Given the major historical import, therefore, of the Register, it’s kind of crazy that they ever lost track of it. Let’s just be grateful it wandered into the county archives for all those years and that it’s back in the Cathedral library now.

 

Share

Gilded female figurine illuminates Viking garb

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Revninge Woman figurine, ca. 800 A.D.A metal detectorist scanning a field near Revninge in eastern Denmark discovered a rare gilded figurine of a woman. Experts from the Østfyns Museums confirmed that the figurine is of Viking manufacture and dates to around 800 A.D. She is a petite 4.6 centimeters (1.8 inches) high and made of solid silver under a top layer of gold. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun around a three-dimensional head. The body, on the other hand, is two dimensional. This is a very rare combination, as most figures from this period are flattened 2D in their entirety.

It’s the clothing and jewelry on the body that is of particular interest to archaeologists. She wears an ankle-length gown with long sleeves and elaborate decoration. Each part of the dress has a different pattern illustrating different textile-making approaches: nesting V-shapes at the neck, radiating lines or furrows on the torso, horizontal cuts on the sleeves, lines of raised squares on the left and right of the skirt, stamped circles in between them. Around her neck hangs a necklace made out of circles that could represent pearls or a gold chain. Two long strands that may be pearl ribbons fall down the skirt from a three-lobed jewel in the center of the waist.

Trefoil brooch carved with geometric shapes, late 8th/early 9th century A.D.Trefoil shaped brooches have been found before in Viking burials and settlements (see this example from a slightly later period unearthed in Zealand), but they’re usually placed on the chest. The figurine testifies to the fact that these artifacts were worn at the waist during life, or at least worn there on occasion. She holds her hands on her abdomen, thumbs out on either side of the trefoil.

Revninge Woman, side viewSilver valkyrie found in central Denmark in 2013There’s a hole between the ear and the bun which indicates the figurine was worn as a pendant. Her facial features and the piercing underneath her bun are strongly reminiscent of the gilded silver 3D valkyrie found in central Denmark last year. Both figurines date to the same period and feature prominent women, but unlike the valkyrie, Revninge Woman is not carrying any weapons or a shield. It’s possible she’s a representation of Freya, the fertility goddess. The position of her hands at her abdomen and the lobed brooch/buckle may be references to pregnancy or fertility.

Revninge Woman went on display at the Viking Museum of Ladby on May 28th. She will remain on display at least through the end of the summer.

 

Share

Henry VII’s tomb yields silk cloth 10 feet long

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Henry VII's coffin raised from the tomb in the Cathedral of PisaLast October, researchers from the University of Pisa opened the tomb of Henry VII of Luxembourg (1275-1313), King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, in Pisa Cathedral to study the remains and grave goods. Inside the coffin they found his bones wrapped in a silken shroud. On top of the bundle were a crown, aHenry VII's bones wrapped in a shroud with crown, scepter, and globe scepter and an orb, the classic trappings of imperial power, all in gilded silver.

It was the shroud that proved the biggest surprise. When it was carefully unfurled, the rectangular cloth was just shy of 10 feet long and four feet wide. Woven out of silk in the 14th century, the shroud has horizontal bands about four inches wide in alternating colors of orangey Silk cloth before it was opened and spread outbrown (originally red) and blue. Embroidered on the blue strips with silver and gold thread are lions facing each other. The formerly red bands have some kind of decoration as well, but it’s in the same tonal range and can’t be identified with the naked eye. At the top of the textile is a dark red band with thin borders of golden yellow. There are traces of an inscription on the red band, but it’s not decipherable yet.

Silk cloth unfurledTo top it all off, the edges along the length of the entire cloth are finished with selvages and the top and bottom edges are finished with checkered bands. That means this textile is complete, the full width of the loom on which it was woven. For such an exceptionally delicate textile to survive complete for 701 years is incredibly rare, unique even. It will be an invaluable source of information on the silk-weaving industry in the early 14th century, and if the inscription and decoration can be fully deciphered, it will also add to our understanding of Henry and his reign.

Embroidered lion detailBand at the top with possible inscription and checkerboard edgingThis isn’t the first time Henry VII’s tomb has been opened. It was opened before in 1727 and again in 1921. Researchers found a lead cylinder in the coffin with a parchment that was left behind in 1727, and the report from the 1921 intervention is extant. It describes the cloth as “a fine shroud woven in bands,” rather a dramatic understatement considering what a treasure it is. Archaeologists today have a much higher estimation of textiles than they did a century ago.

Henry enters Pisa, Balduineum picture chronicle, 1341Celebrated as the “alto Arrigo” (high Henry) in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Henry is best remembered for his struggle to reestablish imperial control over the city-states of 14th-­century Italy.

He was crowned King of Germany in 1308 and two years later he descended into Italy with the aim of pacifying destructive disputes between Guelf (pro-papal) and Ghibelline (pro-imperial) factions. His goal was to be crowned emperor and restore the glory of the Holy Roman Empire.

After meeting strong opposition among anti-imperialist Guelf lords, Henry entered Rome by force, and was indeed crowned Holy Roman Emperor on June 29, 1312.

“He who came to reform Italy before she was ready for it,” as Dante described Henry VII, died just a year after his coronation, having failed to defeat opposition by a secular Avignon papacy, city-states and lay kingdoms.

Henry's funeral, miniature from the Balduineum picture chronicle, 1341Henry died on August 24th, 1313, 16 days after launching a campaign against his greatest enemy Robert of Anjou, King of Naples. He is thought to have died of malaria, but the timing is obviously suspicious and there were immediately rumors that he had been poisoned. There was no time to preserve his corpse, so his people took drastic measures to skeletonize it. His body was burned until the flesh was incinerated, then the bones were soaked in wine for preservation. The head was removed and boiled leaving a clean skull. There were ashes in the coffin and signs of charring on the bones.

Henry VII's skeletonThe rough beginning was compounded over the centuries by multiple moves of the coffin to different locations inside the cathedral. The face area of the skull was badly damaged. An anthropologist on the team reconstructed the skeleton and cranium, which allowed researchers to estimate Henry’s height and age. He was about 1.78 meters tall (about 5'10") and around 40 years old when he died. His knees showed signs of having been used extensively in genuflecting prayer. A high concentration of arsenic was found in his bones, and the symptoms of arsenic poisoning — nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, convulsions — could be confused for a number of natural illnesses, including malaria. Arsenic was a very popular poison in medieval and Renaissance Italy, especially among the upper classes. It even earned the monicker “the poison of kings.”

Henry VII's skullThat doesn’t necessarily mean Henry VII was deliberately poisoned, however. Arsenic was a common ingredient in medications. Hippocrates himself used an arsenic compound to treat ulcers and abscesses, and once Albertus Magnus isolated arsenic in 1250, the pure element was used to treat everything from skin conditions to venereal diseases to fevers and malaria.

The artifacts from the tomb are being kept in the Museum of the Cathedral while researchers continue to study the contents. Small fragments of bones have been sent to specialized labs for analysis. Hopefully the results will reveal more about Henry’s life, death and the treatment his body received after death.

Henry VII's funeral crownHenry VII's globeHenry VII's scepter

 

Share

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

The British Museum’s consistently fascinating blog has an entry decoding the complex iconography of Anglo-Saxon art. If you’ve ever found yourself following the intricate interlacing lines and curves of an Anglo-Saxon design, trying to identify a highly stylized animal or face mask, then you’ve doubtless wished for a labeled map. British Museum curator Rosie Weetch and illustrator Craig Williams have made that wish come true.

They select three pieces from different periods to decode. The first is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch that was unearthed from the grave of a woman on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was cast in silver and gilded on the front surface, a technique influenced by southern Scandinavian metalwork. Created in the early 6th century A.D., the brooch is a beautiful example of Style I art, characterized by a jumble of interwoven figures art historians amusingly call “animal salad.”

Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch, early 6th c. A.D., and interpretive map

The next example is from a century later, the great gold buckle from the early 7th century Sutton Hoo ship burial. It’s a Style II piece, characterized by more fluid intertwined animal figures. There are 13 animals on the buckle surface: snakes and four-legged creatures on the plate and tongue shield, snakes biting themselves on the loop, two animals biting a smaller animal on the top of the buckle, and two bird heads on the shoulders of the buckle.

Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

Great buckle from Sutton Hoo and interpretive map

The last piece skips ahead to the 9th century Trewhiddle Style, named after the town in Cornwall where a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins and decorated artifacts were discovered in a tin mine in 1774. The style is distinguished by enlaced animals, birds and humans, leafy scrollwork and a particular emphasis on using silver rather than gold and brass. The Fuller Brooch features the classic Trewhiddle humans, animals and plants along the border, but the central iconography is unique.

At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Fuller Brooch and map of the five senses

The metaphoric significance of these figures, its best-in-class quality and the unique vision of the piece may suggest a connection to the court of King Alfred the Great, who was not only a successful military leader but also had a deep and abiding passion for learning and education. The long period of Viking raids had decimated centers of learning. Alfred made it a mission to reinvigorate Latin education and, for the first time, to advocate learning in the English vernacular. He put his money where his mouth was, personally translating four major works from Latin into Old English: Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms.

Chapter XXXIV of his translation of Boethius uses the senses as a metaphor for enlightenment and understanding:

But gold and silver stones and every kind of gem and all this present weal enlighten not at all the eyes of the mind nor at all whet their sharpness for beholding true happiness but they rather blind the eyes of the mind than sharpen them For all the things which please us here in this present life are earthly and are therefore fleeting But the wonderful Brightness which enlighteneth all things and ruleth all things willeth not that souls should perish but willeth to enlighten them If then any man can see the brightness of the heavenly light with the clear eyes of his mind then will he say that the brightness of the shining of the sun is darkness beside the eternal brightness of God.

Since the motif is unique, the work of the highest caliber and the dating consistent with Alfred the Great’s reign (which ended in 899 A.D.), it’s entirely possible that the Fuller Brooch was crafted by artisans at Alfred’s court, likely for someone of great wealth and rank.

Sadly the article stops at just these three pieces, only whetting my appetite for more mapping of Anglo-Saxon designs. Weetch and Williams should go through the entire collection of the British Museum and decode every artifact in this way. Then they should animate the creatures untangling themselves from each other and make it interactive so we can select to follow one line at a time. Make it so.

 

Share

Richard III’s spine recreated by 3D printer

Friday, May 30th, 2014

3D printed recreation of Richard III's spine; pictures used to create the animation copyright the University of LeicesterFor those of you who are over all this Richard III malarkey (hi anja!), I hope you understand why this post has to be. There’s a rotating spine gif here, people. How can I be expected to resist that? I’m only human. Besides, the question of Richard’s spinal deformity, its existence, nature and extent, has been the subject of many histories and even more theatrical performances for more than five centuries.

Now we have some real answers courtesy of the University of Leicester team which has published a brief paper on Richard’s spine in The Lancet. You can read it free of charge if you register on the site.

When a body decomposes, different parts break down at different rates. Ligaments that hold the spine together are some of the last ones to decompose, so usually the way the spine is found in the grave is how it was in life. The curvature in Richard’s spine could not have been a function of how he was placed. This was confirmed by examination of the bones, which found that the vertebrae of the curve are slightly different shapes and sizes. The only way those bones would fit together in life was in a spine with scoliosis.

The skeleton laid out on a flat surface, however, only shows the sideways curvature of the spine. It takes a 3D model to see the full picture of the condition. The bones were scanned on a multi-detector CT scanner which takes high resolution images from every side, allowing them to be viewed as a whole 3D structure or in slices across any plane. The bones obviously were not joined, since the soft tissue is all gone and there is no software that will take the disconnected bones and put them back together the way they were in life. Usually that work is done by creating models.

Richard III's skeleton laid out in the labThe team was able to use the imaging data to generate a model which was printed out in a polymer using the advanced 3D printing equipment of the Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. This produces a near identical copy of the bones, only the model is durable, light weight and easily passed around, giving scientists the opportunity to study the skeletal structure without having to handle fragile human remains. Even after the king has been reburied, therefore, experts will still be able to examine his bones.

The bones of the spine join at three places: the gap between two vertebrae where there’s a disc and two facet joints at the back. With the plastic model, experts drilled a small hole in the center of each vertebra and ran a wire through them, separating each bone with a felt pad standing in for the disc. They then joined the facet joints using a similar technique. They saw that while the lumbar vertebrae in the lower spine appeared quite normal and fit together in a standard way, as they rose in the spine the osteoarthritic degeneration in the facet joints that was caused by the scoliosis increased markedly, deforming the joints. That deformity meant the bones fit together in a very specific way, an enforced thoracic curve that is the s-shaped bend in the spine we saw in the photographs of the skeleton in situ and in the lab. The measurement of the extent of the spinal curvature, called a Cobb angle, is 65-85 degrees. In today’s scoliosis patients that would be considered a large curvature to be corrected by the surgical implantation of metal rods. Once they reached the upper thoracic vertebrae, the facet joints returned to normal and the spine straightened out.

In addition to the sideways s-curve, the 3D model illuminates the spiral twist of the spine that you can only see when the spine is rotated. (You could see it even more clearly if the ribs were attached, but they haven’t 3D printed any ribs yet and probably won’t because many of them were broken when unearthed.) The model shows that the ribs on Richard’s back would have stuck out significantly on the right side, while they were sunken on the left. When he leaned forward, the prominent ribs on the right side of his back would have formed a hump. This would not have been visible, however, when he was clothed and in most any other position than leaning over, so all those pillows stuffed under costumes are way off.

The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this. A curve of 70—90° would not have caused impaired exercise tolerance from reduced lung capacity, and we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp, because the leg bones are symmetric and well formed.

He may or may not have had back pain. If his spinal curvature had been magically straightened, he’d have been 5'8" tall, about average for a man of the period. With the scoliosis he was two to three inches shorter.

The polymer model was photographed from 19 angles and the images used to create an interactive 3D model. You can click on it and drag it from side to side to examine the recreated spine from any perspective.

 

Share

Court rules Richard III to be buried in Leicester

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

After more than a year of legal wrangling, a High Court has ruled that the remains of King Richard III will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral as originally planned. The claimant in this case is The Plantagenet Alliance, an organization created by Stephen Nicolay, 16th great-nephew of Richard III, specifically to contest the burial plans. He and 14 other people descended from Richard’s siblings (the king himself has no direct descendants) wanted Richard’s remains to be interred in York Minster because they believed that to have been wish in life, so they contested the exhumation license granted by the Ministry of Justice to the University of Leicester Archaeological Service (ULAS).

On August 24th, 2012, the first day of excavations under the Leicester Council parking lot that researchers believed was the site of the Greyfriars church, archaeologists uncovered human bone. They stopped digging immediately in accordance with the Burials Act of 1857 and on August 31st team leader Richard Buckley applied for an exhumation license. The application proposed to exhume “up to six sets of human remains for scientific examination” with any excavated remains to be kept in the Jewry Wall Museum with the exception that “in the unlikely event that the remains of Richard III are located the intention is for these to be reinterred at St Martin’s Cathedral, Leicester.”

The license for “the removal of the remains of persons unknown” from the Greyfriars site was granted on September 3rd, 2012. Once they had the license, the ULAS team excavated the bones fully and found two skeletons, one of which had the tell-tale curved spine and sharp force injuries of Richard III. Then came the DNA analysis and other tests that confirmed they had indeed discovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England. The announcement of the discovery was made on February 4th, 2013, an unforgettable day here on the blog.

On May 3rd, 2013, The Plantagenet Alliance filed for a judicial review of the exhumation license. Their legal argument was that the Ministry of Justice should have consulted more widely with other interested parties (ie, the descendants) and the public once they realized that the “persons unknown” cited in the license included a king of England. The Secretary of State would seek the consent of relatives of an identified exhumed person in other circumstances, so they should have in this case as well.

The High Court ultimately disagreed. They ruled the MoJ had no duty to consult, that there is no established practice that would require the Justice Secretary to consult with collateral relatives of someone who died 500 years ago. The uniqueness of the circumstances — the excavation of a king of England — is no basis for expanding the law since there could be all kinds of exceptional circumstances that don’t involve kings. The people and institutions who needed to be considered were.

This case undoubtedly has unique and exceptional features which arguably call for special consideration. It is why the claim has reached this Court. The archaeological discovery of the mortal remains of a King of England after 500 years may fairly be described as “unprecedented”. The discovery touches on Sovereign, State and the Church. To the extent that these unique features call for special consideration, it may well be that the decision-maker is required by law to ascertain at least the views of Sovereign, State and the Church. In our view, however, at all material times in this case the Secretary of State was sufficiently aware of the views of Sovereign, State and the Church to be able to make an informed decision.

You can read the entire decision here (pdf), and it’s very much worth it. The court lays out the whole history, from Richard’s life and death at the Battle of Bosworth to how the excavation came together to the discovery, the reburial politics from Council to Parliament and of course the legal challenge. Fun fact: Philippa Langley was talking to the Ministry of Justice about what to do in case Richard’s remains were found starting in January of 2011, believe it or not. She even touched base with the Private Secretary of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, grandson of King George V, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and patron of the Richard III Society to see where the Royal Household stood on the question. They supported the excavation in a distant sort of way, with the only locus of concern being that the remains were handled with respect.

The Plantagenet Alliance has not commented on the decision yet but they do have a three week window in which to lodge an appeal. Richard Buckley and the University of Leicester spokesperson are delighted, as is the Dean of Leicester who said at a press conference that they’re aiming for a burial ceremony in spring of 2015.

Share

Lewes skeleton dates to Norman Conquest

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Skeletal remains previously thought to date to the 13th century have been re-examined and found to date to the time of the Norman Conquest. The radiocarbon dating results and the evidence of his violent death makes this skeleton the only one ever documented that could have been killed in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

Skeleton 180 was unearthed in 1994 at the site of the cemetery of the medieval hospital of St. Nicholas. It was one of 103 skeletons excavated at the site, only a few which showed signs of a violent death. Those were of particular interest to archaeologists because the hospital was adjacent to the field where the Battle of Lewes was fought on May 14th, 1264. The Battle of Lewes saw the defeat of King Henry III by the baronial faction led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry was forced to cede his power to a council led by Montfort, making Montfort de facto king of England for a year (he would be killed in battle with Prince Edward, the future King Edward I, in August 1265), a momentous year for parliamentary democracy since Monfort called the first parliament with elected representatives.

Last year, with the 750th anniversary of the battle coming, the Sussex Archaeological Society commissioned University of York battlefield expert Tim Sutherland and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst to take a fresh look at the most notable of the St. Nicholas skeletons: skeleton 180. There have been significant advances in battlefield and forensic archaeology since 1994. The society’s hope was that new analysis would determine whether 180′s wounds were received in battle rather than as a result of, say, violent crime or a personal dispute.

As part of the re-examination, the University of Edinburgh radiocarbon dated the skeleton and found to everyone’s surprise that it dated to 1063 with a 28-year margin of error. If skeleton 180 did die in battle, therefore, it wasn’t the Battle of Lewes. The fatal blows are on the back of his skull, six sword injuries inflicted from behind.

Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York, who was commissioned by Sussex Archaeological Society to examine the skeleton, said: “The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw. This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.”

However she has discovered much more which helps build up a picture of the individual. Malin said: “He ate a diet particularly rich in marine fish, and was at least 45 years old but may have been older. He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses. He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable. He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.”

His final injury wasn’t the first time he sustained a dangerous head wound. A wound to his left temple incurred up to two years before his death caused a blot clot. It was thoroughly healed by the time he died, however.

There’s still no confirmation that skeleton 180 was killed in battle. He could have been attacked by brigands who slashed at his head until he fell. Further research is necessary and it may not ever be possible to determine whether he was a victim of civilian violence or a battlefield fatality. At the very least it’s a window into the violent period the followed the Norman Conquest.

Share

Bones of man killed on the wheel found in Germany

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Last October, archaeologists surveying the site of planned road work on federal highway 189 in Groß Pankow, Brandenburg, Germany, unearthed human remains. They had already found some Bronze Age materials on the site — fragments of pottery, a stone axe — from the 1st millennium B.C., but nothing of great note. The rounded grave pit at first glance looked much like the pits from the Bronze Age settlement, but the skeletal remains, on the other hand, were immediately arresting. The bones were oddly positioned, the arms angled sideways up to the neck, the thigh bones turned backwards. They were also brutally broken, all the long bones shattered with many pieces missing.

It was clear the person had died far more recently than 1,000 B.C. An iron belt buckle found in the grave provided a general date of between the 15th and 17th centuries. Further examination revealed the deceased was a man in his mid to late 30s who had been executed on the wheel. His bones are in more than a thousand pieces. This is the first time a skeleton of someone broken on the wheel has been found in Germany, even though judicial execution by wheel was employed in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

This is not a coincidence. The whole point of the wheel was to display the broken bodies until they rotted away entirely, leaving the bones for carrion birds to enjoy. The punishment was reserved for the worst criminals — serial killers, murderers who killed someone during the commission of another crime, killers of kin — and the destruction of the body in a slow, public fashion did double-duty as the most gruesome retribution and as a stern warning to the public.

Death by wheel was usually a two-stage process. First a large spoked wagon wheel would be slammed onto the large bones of the arms and legs, breaking them in two places each. Then the wheel would strike the spine, breaking it. With the body’s skeletal structure in pieces, the condemned was then tied to the wheel, his limbs woven in and out of the spokes. Finally the wheel was raised on a pike and planted into the ground. If the man wasn’t dead yet, and he usually wasn’t unless he was fortunate enough to have been deliberately struck with fatal blows to the chest and abdomen as an act of mercy, he would die in slow unspeakable agony over the course of hours, often days.

In the dead of Groß Pankow for the first time the torture could be accurately documented: A big blow for example, had torn away half his face, as can be seen on the damaged skull.

This could mean that the offender previously received the fatal coup de grace by the executioner. However, this happened rarely. More often the delinquent – before he was dead – fell off the wheel. This was then as God’s judgment, the delinquent was then free.

Obviously that’s not what happened here. He died in a horrific fashion. Why this wheeled man had his bones collected and respectfully buried, we do not know. The place where he was found was an old military road. It could have been a place used for a mobile execution rather than a permanent gallows or regular killing zone. With no police presence, a family member of the deceased or just someone with an ounce of compassion could have removed the broken body and buried it.

Share

Artifacts found under London Bridge rail station

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

As part of an extensive redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the city’s oldest rail station (opened in 1836), archaeologists have had the unique opportunity to excavate underneath the station and its viaduct. The station has a vast footprint and since it was constructed long before archaeological surveys were invented, this is the first chance archaeologists have had to explore the site. Other excavations in the London Bridge area have revealed a great deal about the growth and development of the city from the Roman era on, but the station site was thought to have been either very marshy or fully underwater for much of its history that archaeologists weren’t sure what they’d find.

They found that although the area was certainly marshy and waterlogged it may have been, but it was still extensively developed. Excavations have gone as deep as 20 feet below street level in the massive arches of the station foundations. The earliest finds were traces of the Roman military occupation followed by evidence of the Boudican rebellion and the Roman civilian settlement. The remains of three previously unknown Roman structures were found: a bathhouse, a large waterfront building and what may have been a boat landing platform. Thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged ground along the Thames, rare organic elements have survived, like 17 timbers piles from trees felled between 59 and 83 A.D. which were part of the foundations of the large waterfront building. The landing platform consists of a timber baulk packed with rocks and wood.

Later discoveries include the remains of Saxon defenses and the floors and walls of large townhouses on Tooley Street which the historical record identifies as the abodes of important medieval clerics like the Prior of Lewes. (The remains of other such homes owned by non-London religious orders can be found today at Winchester and Lambeth Palace.) From the late Middle Ages on, the marshy land was extensively reclaimed for industrial and residential purposes. The remains of floors, walls and cellars testify to dense, closely-built buildings packed along a network of small streets.

Hundreds of artifacts were also found mirroring the changing phases of the London Bridge station area. A Penn Tile, made in Penn, Buckinghamshire, between 1330 and 1390, was used as flooring in an expensive building. These glazed patterned tiles became popular in London after the Black Death obliterated local tile producers. Also from the 14th century is a rare white clay flagon, probably made in Cheam, that archaeologists believe was used to serve ale in the townhouse of the Abbot of Waverley. Now it’s on display at the Wheatsheaf Pub in Stoney Street.

Starting in the 16th century in the wake of the introduction of tobacco from the New World there was a bustling business of clay pipe manufacturers in the neighborhood. These were mainly small backyard workshops. Archaeologists found the remains of a pope kiln that had been demolished centuries ago which proved fortuitous from an archaeological perspective because it allowed the excavators to find pieces of the superstructure. They also found many pipes, some whole, some discarded and broken after a failed firing. One pipe is marked with wording that identifies its maker. “JOINER STREET” is written on one side of the stem and “TOOLEY STREET BORO” on the other, indicating it was made by James Minto between 1809 and 1811. That means the clay pipe industry was still producing a couple of decades before the construction of the station.

In the fun category, archaeologists found a rare cribbage board made out of animal bone in the 17th or 18th century. The game was invented in the 17th century, so this piece could be a very early example. I love those concentric circles down the middle. They look just like the marks on much earlier dice, like this one from 13th or 14th century Ireland.

My favorite find is a set of three pewter tankards from the 18th century. They were discovered in a cess pit, possibly because the bends and twists around the lip made them hard to drink from, but they still look great. Two of them are inscribed with the names of the hostelries where they were once used to quaff lukewarm brews. One says “Mary Jackson, Kings head, Tooley Strt,” the other “J main, St Johns Coffee house, Bermondsey Strt”. The best part: the The Old Kings Head is still open for business today, not on Tooley Street but very close by on Borough High Street.

Share