Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Rare 13th c. tile floor on display under new shelter

Monday, April 11th, 2016

An extremely rare surviving 13th century tile floor at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset is now back on display under a new, state-of-the-art shelter. The oak shelter will protect the 40 x 16-foot section of pavement from the elements, something its predecessor, a tent, could not do.

Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, in 1198. Populated by only 12 monks in the beginning, by the mid-13th century there was a cruciform church, a cloister, chapter house, sacristy and dormitory. The refectory was constructed in the second half of the 1200s, probably around 1270, and it was paved with expensive polychrome encaustic tiles nine inches square. Each tile is decorated with heraldic designs. The arms of several aristocratic benefactors of the monastery were kiln-baked into the floor tiles, including the chevrons of the earls of Gloucester from the de Clare family, the lion rampant of the earls of Cornwall, the double-headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John of Magna Carta fame, who bribed his way into election as King of the Romans (ie, King of what would become Germany) in 1257, and the three white lions of the Royal Coat of Arms representing monastery patron King Henry III, Richard’s brother. Archaeologists believe they were manufactured by a tilery in Gloucestershire and installed to celebrate the marriage of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, to Margaret de Clare in 1272.

In the 15th century, the old refectory was demolished and a new, larger refectory was built just to its north. The old tile floor was not reused elsewhere (the usual practice when dealing with luxurious features like these tiles), but buried, keeping it in situ in its original configuration virtually undamaged for 400 years. Thanks to its hiding place, the floor made it through the Dissolution of the Monasteries unscathed while the abbey church was demolished. Henry VIII sold the abbey property and other structures, stripping any valuable architectural features for individual sale. The abbey became a farm, and most of the buildings are still standing today because of it.

The Cleeve Abbey tiled pavement is the only large example of a decorated medieval refectory floor in Britain. The fact that it survived with its original placement still intact makes it a rarity of international significance. A smaller piece of the 13th century church floor was also discovered at Cleeve Abbey, and while it too is made of colorful encaustic tiles, they have been relain and look like a patchwork quilt now.

The old refectory floor was rediscovered in 1876. To protect it for future generations, the floor was reburied until 1951 when it was again exposed and displayed to the public. It was covered each winter to save it from inclement weather and uncovered during the summer months so tourists could view it.

In the 1990s, tests by English Heritage found that the tiles were dangerous deteriorating from their exposure to the elements. Thermal stress was damaging the protective glaze surface and eroding the detailed patterns in the clay, while microbes and high salt gnawed away the priceless pavement. In an attempt to prevent further damage, English Heritage installed a marquee tent over the floor tiles, which helped keep the sun’s rays from hitting the tiles directly but was only a temporary solution while they worked on a permanent one.

Last year construction began on a new shelter made of louvred oak slats which allow light to enter the space for optimal viewing, but keep direct sunlight from beating down on the tiles. There’s a ventilation system which keeps the temperatures inside the enclosure stable at all times. Visitors can enjoy the floor comfortably from seating and viewing platforms.

The new shelter opened on Good Friday, March 25th, 2016, and will be open daily through October 21st, 2016, which is when Cleeve Abbey closes for the winter. It will open again next spring.

Tiny Arabic chess piece found in museum dig

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the back yard of the Wallingford Museum on High Street in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, have unearthed a tiny medieval chess piece. At first museum curator thought it was a figurine of a cat, but once it was cleaned, they recognized the artifact as an Arabic chess piece carved from the tip of an antler.

[Curator Judy Dewey] said: [...] “It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7mm high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country.

“The chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and is highly decorated with traditional roundels – most other such pieces are at least double the size.

This is a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny – it may have been part of a travelling set.”

The museum’s main building was once Wallingford Priory, a Benedictine abbey that was suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey and of which only the foundations remain today, all of them underground. Wolsey secured a papal bull ordering the dissolution of Wallingford and 30 other small monasteries deemed to be rife with corruption. Funds raised from the dissolution would go to one of Wolsey’s pet projects: the construction of Cardinal College at the University of Oxford. The priory was surrendered in 1525 to notary John Allen, as witnessed by Thomas Cromwell, then Wolsey’s right hand man. It took three more years before the priory was finally suppressed for good. On July 6th, 1528, the monastery and its lands were formally transferred from the crown to Cardinal Wolsey for the construction of his college at Oxford.

Before the demise of the abbey, visitors to the castle of Wallingford were sometimes housed in the priory. Chess was deemed a game for the nobility and educated classes. Any one of those visitors might have owned a portable set, or the monks themselves may have played.

Chess was introduced to Europe from Persia by the Islamic Arabian empire, likely through Spain. The Norman French brought it with them to England after the Conquest in the 11th century. Within a hundred years the original Arabic designs and names of the pieces were altered to forms more recognizable to the elite players of northern Europe. The Vizir became the Queen, the Fars (horse) became the Knight and the Al-Fil, the war elephant, became the Bishop. The look of the pieces shifted from the non-figural representation of the Islamic tradition to the people and characters we know today.

The piece discovered at Wallingford is a war elephant, aka the future Bishop. The round protrusions represent tusks. To Christian European eyes those bumps were reminiscent of a bishop’s mitre, which is how the war elephant became a high-ranking clergyman. The piece likely dates to before the mid-12th century when the figural designs set in, increasing the game’s appeal and popularity across Christendom.

The chess piece is now on display at the Wallingford Museum. Digging is scheduled to resume this July, and archaeologists are crossing their fingers and toes that they might find more pieces from the set. It’s a long shot, however.

Medieval copper scourge found at Rufford Abbey

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating Rufford Abbey, a country estate in Nottinghamshire, England, that was once a Cistercian monastery, have discovered the remains of a vicious-looking copper scourge. Nottinghamshire County Council community archaeologists were digging under a meadow on the property in 2014 when they saw a green stain in the soil. The stain surrounded pieces of wire copper strands that had been braided together in tubular form.

They weren’t certain what the fragments were, but archaeologists Emily Gillott and Lorraine Horsley thought it was reminiscent of a copper scourge unearthed in the dormitory area of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. Testing of the artifact and consultation with experts has now confirmed that Gillot and Horsley were correct. It is one of only four monastic copper scourges known in Britain. The other three are at Rievaulx, Roche Abbey and Grovebury Priory. The exact date of manufacture and use is unknown, but it’s from the late medieval period.

These were personal items, likely used in the privacy of a monk’s own cell. He would beat himself with the scourge in voluntary penance, to mortify his flesh for his sins and the sins of everyone he prayed for as Christ voluntarily sacrificed his body for the sins of mankind. There was a long and controversial tradition of self-flagellation in the Catholic Church, particularly in monastic life. St. Peter Damien introduced the practice as part of a new, stricter interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict at the Camaldolese priory of Fonte Avellana in the 11th century. His self-flagellation rule was that it should be performed accompanied by the recital of psalms, 100 strokes of a leather thong on the bare back per psalm. The entire psalter would take 15,000 strokes to get through. Peter Damien suggested 40 Psalms and 4,000 stripes at a time should suffice, under normal circumstances, but the practice caught on like wildfire in the monastery and many monks outdid each other to pass that mark.

One of the monks at Fonte Avellana under St. Peter Damien’s leadership was St. Dominic Loricatus, whose moniker was a reference to the chain mail he wore next to his skin to torture himself harder than by wearing a mere hairshirt. He committment to self-flagellation was so extreme it seems impossible to be true. It got him a mention in Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It is a maxim of the civil law, that whosoever cannot pay with his purse, must pay with his body; and the practice of flagellation was adopted by the monks, a cheap, though painful equivalent. By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

That’s 50,000 stripes a day. St. Peter Damien offered different figures in the biography he wrote of St. Dominic Loricatus. He said Loricatus did 12 Psalters without a break until he died of exhaustion in 1063. One Psalter = 15,000 lashes, so 12 = 180,000. Either way it’s horrifying, and that was with leather whip, not a copper one.

Self-flagellation became a regular part of monastic disciple for other rules as well, and spread far and wide during times of crisis, most notably when the Black Death tore through Europe in 1349. Flagellants would travel from city to city, naked from the waist up, whipping themselves while reciting psalms. They hoped their brutal public voluntary penance in imitation of Christ would persuade God to have mercy on the towns they visited and spare them from any further horrors of the plague. They probably helped spread it instead.

It’s possible that the copper scourges found in the English monasteries were used during the plague years as well. They’re certainly mean enough to suggest they were a response to a situation requiring extraordinary countermeasures.

Space archaeologist finds potential Viking site in Canada

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

A test excavation in the peninsula of Point Rosee in southwestern Newfoundland, Canada, has unearthed evidence of a Viking settlement. If the site is confirmed as Norse, it will be the second of its kind and history books will have to be rewritten because Point Rosee is significantly more to the west than the Vikings were thought to have traveled.

Two Icelandic Sagas — the Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders — recount how Leif Eriksson discovered a land to the west called Vinland and how Thorfinn Karlsefni followed in his footsteps and attempted to found a settlement in Vinland. Very little archaeological evidence has been found to support the oral and literary tradition (the sagas were written down 250 years after the events they describe). In 1960, the first and so far only verified North American Viking site was discovered in L’Anse aux Meadows, a coastal settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, 300 miles northeast of Point Rosee.

Since then, a great many searches have turned up very meager evidence, none of it confirmed, of Norse settlement, but people keep looking. The Point Rosee site was pinpointed on satellite images by space archaeologist Sarah Parcak who has made the news recently because a) space archaeologist is probably the greatest job description of all time, and b) she won the $1 million TED prize last year for her work in locating ancient Egyptian sites and tracking looter activity from the skies. Parcak was enlisted by the PBS science program NOVA to scour satellite images from Baffin Island to Massachusetts in the search for Viking settlements in North America. She found hundreds of possibilities and one stand-out that appeared to have rectilinear structures hidden under vegetation.

Parcak and Canadian experts explored the site this summer. A magnetometer survey found a spot with high iron readings that according to the satellite images was surrounded by those buried straight-line features. The team dug exploratory trenches on the spot. They unearthed turf walls and a shallow pit. In front of the pit was a fire-cracked boulder. There also found ash residue, 28 pounds of slag and lumps of roasted iron ore. The evidence points to this being a hearth used to process bog iron, ore carried by rivers to wetlands where it forms metal deposits. The Vikings weren’t miners, but they needed a great deal of iron to maintain their ships. A replica longship in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has 7,000 iron nails keeping it together. That converts to 30 tons of raw ore just to supply enough nails for a single ship. That’s a lot of bog iron.

Only one other bog iron smithy has ever been found in North America: L’Anse Aux Meadows. Native Newfoundlanders did not practice this kind of metallurgy, nor is there any other evidence (flint, pottery) of indigenous or later European settlers present at the site.

It doesn’t look like much …, [b]ut lead archaeologist Sarah Parcak says the site is almost certainly only one of two things:

“Either it’s … an entirely new culture that looks exactly like the Norse and we don’t know what it is,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Or it’s the westernmost Norse site that’s ever been discovered.”

The excavation team will return to Point Rosee this summer to dig for more history-making treasure. Vikings Unearthed, the NOVA episode that documented their work last year, premiers on Wednesday, April 6th, on PBS in the United States. UK viewers get it two days earlier, Monday, April 4th, on BBC One. It will also be available streaming on PBS’ website starting Monday at 3:30 PM.

Here’s a preview of the episode:

Export bar placed on Robert the Bruce seal matrix

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

A unique double seal matrix commissioned by Robert the Bruce that is one of very few surviving objects linked directly to King Robert I has been sold to an overseas buyer and is in danger of leaving the UK. The seal sold at auction on December 4th, 2015, for £151,250 ($217,450), well above the pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000 ($115,140-172,710). The buyer is American and applied to the Culture Ministry for an export license. The Art Council’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended that Culture Minister Ed Vaizey block export to give UK museums or collectors the opportunity to raise the purchase price and keep the artifact in the country.

In 1315, Robert the Bruce granted the Abbey, with which he had a longstanding relationship and where he would be buried after his death, a royal charter.

“Robert, by the grace of God King of Scots, to all upright men in his whole land, greeting: Know ye that, for the safety of our own soul and that of our predecessors and successors, Kings of Scotland, we have given, granted, and by this our present Charter, have confirmed to God, the Blessed Mary the Virgin, the Church of the Holy Trinity, and St. Margaret, Queen of Dunfermlyn, and to the monks serving and to serve God for ever in the same, the right of patronage of the vicar Church of Inverkeithing, with the pertinents, as freely and quietly, fully, peacefully, and honourably as the predecessors formerly of Roger de Moubray, knight, who had forfeited it to us, have held and possessed the said right of patronage most freely, quietly, and honourably in all things, by rendering to us nothing therefore by only the suffrages of their prayers: Besides, we give and grant, and, by this our present charter, confirm to the foresaid monks, the whole of our new great Customs from all their lands within our kingdom, viz., the land of the burghs of Dunfermlyne, Kirkcaldy, Musselburgh, and Queensferry, and from all their other lands whatsoever; To also let the said monks have and use their own Koketa, according to the liberties of their regality, and our present concession in all their foresaid lands; and let this Koketa be acknowledged and admitted by all burgesses and our people, and foreign merchants throughout our whole kingdom, without obstruction from our chamberlains, or other servants of ours whatsoever for the time being, without petition from any other allocation of liberation, by finding for this our donation and concession of the said Customs for us and our successors, in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the aforesaid Blessed Margaret in the Choir in front of her shrine, one wax candle solemnly lighted, continually and forever. In testimony whereof we have caused our seal to be attached to our present Charter, these fathers being witnesses. William, and William, Bishops of St. Andrews and Dunkeld; Bernard, our Chancellor, the Abbot of Aberborthick; Duncan and Thomas Randolph, of Fife”

This charter granted the Abbey some lands and conferred the right to collect revenues from customs duties and taxes. The two-part bronze seal, known as a Cokete Seal, was commissioned by the Bruce for the Abbey to use on customs documents. We know the exact date it was made because there’s a record of it in the archives of Dunfermline Abbey: “The Cocquet Seal of the Regality Court of Dunfermline was engraven this year by sanction of King Robert the Bruce, by Chapter, dated at Scone, 10th July, 1322, along with letters patent to all who paid customs at Bruges, in Flanders, or elsewhere, notifying that wherever this Seal was in due form produced, it was to be recognised as the authority for collecting the customs granted to the Abbey by the King, &c.”

The two parts were pressed together over a large blob of wax to form a seal. The wax seal would then be attached to an official document with a piece of parchment (for a brilliant example of attached seals acting as signatures, see the letter to Pope Clement VII from the peers of England asking for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled). The obverse seal matrix features an image of Saint Margaret, Queen consort of King Malcolm III of Scotland, founder and patron of Dunfermline Abbey, and is bordered with the Lombardic Latin legend “+ S’COKETE REGALITATIS.DE. DVNFERMELYNN,” (Cokete Seal of the regality of Dunfermline). The reverse features the royal arms of Scotland bordered with the legend “+ROBERTVS DEI GRACIA REX SCOTORVM” (Robert, by the Grace of God, King of the Scots).

The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was of great value for the study of medieval goldsmith work and sigillography and the re-establishment of Scottish institutions under Robert the Bruce.

RCEWA Member Leslie Webster said:

“This remarkable and handsome seal-die is of national importance on several counts; it is closely linked to the charismatic figure of Robert the Bruce, and to the history and institutions of Scotland at a crucial time in its evolution as a nation; its association with the royal abbey of Dunfermline sheds light on how the king acted out his authority, delegating the powers of the crown; and its outstanding quality may suggest the influence of French craftsmen.”

The Scottish government has declared itself in support of all efforts that would keep the seal matrix in the UK, ideally in a Scottish museum, but there’s no official campaign that I could find. Here’s an Indiegogo campaign that’s been set up by a concerned individual who would use the funds to acquire the seal and donate it to the National Museum for Scotland. It’s less than 1% funded at this point, and I suspect the money is more likely to be raised by the institution itself tapping its private donors and launching a public campaign like the Victoria & Albert Museum did with Wolsey’s Angels. The National Museum already has an impression of the obverse in its collection. I imagine they’d be keen to have the original matrix pair.

Time’s awaistin’. The temporary bar expires on June 21st. If there’s a good faith effort to raise the money and it looks like they have a chance of reaching the goal, the deadline may be extended until September 21st.

Another Battle of Thermopylae found in palimpsest

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The leaves of books in the Middle Ages were made of parchment and vellum, created from animal skins in an expensive and time-consuming craft. It was so costly that scribes often recycled pages from earlier books, removing the ink to create a blank sheet. In the early Middle Ages, the ink was washed off and over time the shadow of former writing reappeared like a pentimento in a painting. In the later Middle Ages, they used pumice powder to scrape the ink away for good.

Volumes with the ghostly memories of previous texts still impressed in the pages are called palimpsests and researchers have been trying to read the vanished writing for centuries, either by careful sight-reading of whatever could be discerned or, starting in the 18th century, by the use of chemicals like tincture of gall which is high in tannic acid and badly damages the manuscript. Nowadays we have new options courtesy of spectral imaging technology.

Researchers Gunther Martin of the University of Bern and Jana Grusková of Comenius University in Bratislava enlisted the aid of Los Angeles-based organization the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) to examine a palimpsest in the Austrian National Library in Vienna using brand new multi-spectral technology. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.

The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.

With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century.

Martin and Grusková published several of the passages into German in 2014. Now Oxford University’s Christopher Mallan and the University of Queensland’s Caillan Davenport have translated one of the fragments into English. It’s a splendid description of a battle at Thermopylae, probably the most famous battle site of the ancient world where in 480 B.C. King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors and other Greek forces took their brave last stand against the far larger army of Persian King Xerxes.

I find it a tremendous bummer when news stories about this kind of discovery do not include the full text, even when it’s a bit dry or appeals only to the nerdiest history nerds, and in this case the lack of the complete quote in the press accounts is unforgivable because it’s pure awesome. All killer, no filler.

[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which...] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry. The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time. It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows: ‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…

It’s the content and style of the writing that identifies it as the work of Dexippus. The Scythica was known to include several siege narratives and long speeches (likely fictionalized) by military leaders. The details about the engagement at Thermopylae — the geography of the site, the weapons of the militia, the names and origins of the generals — indicate this passage was part of a far larger narrative history of the period. No other history written in Greek during the 3rd century goes into such detail about events in the reign of the emperor Gallienus. Only Scythica fits the bill.

There are other characteristics that mark it as Dexippus’ history. The author uses no Roman terms, titles or Latinisms. The focus is on regional figures — Dexippus the Boeotian and Philostratus the Athenian — working in tandem with Roman authorities — Marianus — and on the valor and achievements of Greeks. Even the Roman general makes a point of admiring the history of Greeks’ fight for freedom.

On these points Mallan and Davenport agree with Martin and Grusková, but there are significant areas of disagreement as well. For example, Martin and Grusková believe this battle happened during the Herulian invasions (267/8 A.D.), when the barbarian invaders defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, but Mallan and Davenport make a strong case, in my opinion, for the battle taking place during an earlier Gothic invasion in around 262 A.D. The Herulian invasions were predominantly seaborne, but there’s no mention of naval engagements in any of the newly discovered fragments, nor do any other sources on the Herulian invasions mention a battle at Thermopylae, which, given its iconic status, is an unlikely oversight. Also Thessaloniki was successfully besieged by the Heruli. This passage describes the Thessalonian defenders as victorious.

Another area of disagreement is the identity of the Roman general Marianus. Martin and Grusková identify him as dux Aurelius Marcianus, one of Gallienus’ generals who fought against the Goths in the late 260s and conspired to kill the emperor in 268. Mallan and Davenport posit that he is a previously unknown general named Marianus, a senator and proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. (In keeping with his rejection of Latinisms, Dexippus’ reference to Achaia is a geographical region of Greece, not the Roman province. The Greeks called the Roman province “Greece inside the Gates.”) Since proconsuls had limited garrisons at their immediate disposal, he would have had to turn to local militias to help defend the pass.

The reference to the generals being “elected” suggests the defensive forces were assembled by a Greek political body, probably the Panhellenion which was the only body in the 3rd century that covered the regions of Greece represented by the three generals: Boeotia (Dexippus), Athens (Philostratus) and Marianus (Achaia). No other sources mention the Panhellenion appointing military leaders, but the invasion was an extraordinary circumstance which required a speedy military response.

Mallan and Davenport therefore propose a new reconstruction of the Gothic invasion of the early 260s. In late 261 or early 262, the Goths invaded Greece and laid waste to the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia. They besieged Thessaloniki, but it was ably defended by the residents so they moved on to the Roman province of Achaia. The Greeks, likely through the Panhellenion, quickly organized a defense of the province under three generals with Marianus, Roman proconsul of Achaia, at the lead. The Goths invaded Achaia by late 262, early 263, but were turned back by Marianus and Greek militia at the pass of Thermopylae. They didn’t leave empty-handed. On their way out they sacked the rich temples and sanctuaries of Greece before moving on to the Roman Asia province at the end of 263. The threat to Greece was over (for a few years).

Viking hoard in Carolingian pot revealed

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Historic Environment Scotland has released the first images of the objects found inside the Carolingian pot that was part of a Viking hoard discovered in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in September of 2014. Archaeologists took the unusual step of CT scanning the rare silver alloy vessel shortly after it was unearthed because they were concerned it was too fragile to just take the lid off and see what it contained. The scan identified at least one Anglo-Saxon openwork brooch, four other silver brooches, some gold ingots and ivory beads coated in gold, each wrapped in an organic material.

Armed with a CT roadmap of the vessel’s contents, conservators painstakingly excavated the interior, taking care to preserve every fragment of organic material they could to prevent it from crumbling into dust when exposed to the air. In addition to the ingot and silver-encased ivory beads detected on the scan, they found a total of six Anglo-Saxon silver brooches, one penannular brooch likely made in Ireland, a richly decorated gold pendant which may have held holy relics, several mysterious gold and crystal objects and, breaking the precious metals trend, two large seeds of nuts. The nuts have yet to be identified, but obviously they came from a very special plant that probably wasn’t indigenous to the area.

The hoard was found in two layers: a top one 24 inches under the surface with silver armbands, ingots, a gold bird pin and a silver and enamel cross wrapped in a silver chain, and underneath it the pot. It’s the largest Carolingian pot ever discovered and there are only six known. Scholars believe it may have had been used for important Christian ceremonies and was raided during a Viking incursion on a monastery or church in Germany or France. By the time it was buried, it could well have been a family heirloom.

The levels appear to have been arranged according to the their importance. The pieces on top were valuable, but most of them were the kind of thing that was cut up for currency, ie, hacksilver before the hacking. The pot, on the other hand, and its contents, must have been deemed of greater significance to their owner. Each object was wrapped in a textile and placed inside the vessel which was topped with its lid and then it too was wrapped with cloth or leather. Textile experts studied the fragments from inside the pot and identified several of them as silk samite, a super deluxe fabric woven in Byzantium, North Africa, or southern Spain. This fabric was exclusively the province of monarchs, the highest ecclesiastical officials and the remains of venerated saints buried in churches.

The style of the artifacts in the hoard date them to the 9th and 10th centuries, which means the hoard was likely buried in the 10th century, a period when the Vikings in the British Isles had suffered setbacks after more than a century of successful raids starting in the 790s. In the 9th century there was extensive Norse settlement of Scotland and the their military victories continued even as the country unified under Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Picts and first King of Scotland (Alba). Several of his successors — Constantine I, Indulf — died fighting the Norse. Then there were the English to deal with. In 937 King of Scotland Constantine II allied with his once and future enemy Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking king of Dublin, to defeat the invading army of Æthelstan, King of England. They lost. It was a one-battle alliance anyway, and the conflict between the Scots and Norse continued throughout the century.

Galloway itself had a strong Viking presence from the 9th until the 11th century. It’s in southwest Scotland, with Norse-heavy Cumbria just to the south and the Norse-dominated Irish Sea to the west. The people who lived there in the 10th century were mostly Vikings in language and culture. The person who buried the hoard was likely trying to protect his savings rather than burying it as a religious offering. That’s why he was so very careful about how the valuables were buried. He planned to recover them but never did.

The ultimate fate of the hoard has yet to be determined. Its market value will be assessed by Scotland’s Treasure Trove Unit and the hoard will be offered to Scottish museums. Whichever museum wants it will have to raise the value of the hoard as a reward which will be split between the metal detectorist who discovered it, Derek McLennan, and the landowner, the Church of Scotland. The value is sure to be very high. No other Viking hoard has been found with such a wide variety of objects — gold, silver, glass, enamel, textiles — from such a wide geographic area. Preliminary estimates put it at between £500,000 and £1 million, closer to the latter than the former.

Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

It’s been a year since the mortal remains of King Richard III were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester are ushering in the anniversary with a 3D reconstruction of Richard III’s grave as it was when it was first fully excavated in September of 2012.

Photographs from the excavation were run through Agisoft PhotoScan software which processes images photogrammetrically to generate a 3D digital model. The software looks for shared elements in overlapping photographs which are then plotted onto a 3D point cloud. The cloud is converted into a polygon mesh and the photos applied to it so the topographic layout has a photorealistic surface.

Mathew Morris, Site Supervisor for University of Leicester Archaeological Services was the man who first discovered the remains of King Richard III on the first day of the dig under the Leicester car park. He said: “Photographs and drawings of the grave, whilst dramatic, are only two-dimensional and do not always best show nuances in spatial relationships that a three-dimensional model can.

“Photogrammetry provides a fantastic analytical tool that allows us to examine the grave from angles that would have been physically difficult or impossible to achieve during the excavation, and gives us the ability to continue to examine the king’s grave long after the excavation has finished.”

It also artfully conveys how shoddy a grave it was. It’s too short for one, which is particularly half-assed when you consider that Richard’s spinal curvature made him shorter than average. (Without the scoliosis, he would have been 5’8″ tall, about average height for the time. The S-curve in his spine knocked a couple of inches off his height.) The sides of the grave were not dug straight, but with sloping sides. The bottom of the grave was uneven. You can see on the 3D model just how restricted the space was, how the body leans towards one side like when you’re way too old to have to sleep in a twin bed and the head is propped up uncomfortably.

The interactive model has been uploaded to the 3D sharing platform Sketchfab. There are five points of note marked out — his skull with its war wounds, his curved spine, his missing feet, lost when a pit intersecting with the unknown grave was dug centuries later, the titled head indicating the grave was too short for the body and the sloped sides emphasizing how carelessly the grave was dug. There’s very little content, but when you click on one of the numbers, the view shifts in a neat way. It’s fascinating to see the grave from every possible angle, as if you were lying underneath it, above it, inside it or next to it.

King Richard III's grave
by Archaeological Services (ULAS)
on Sketchfab

“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

Monday, March 21st, 2016

The ring purported to have belonged to Joan of Arc that was sold at auction last month for $412,845 is back in France. Its new home is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of western France where the ring was unveiled with great pomp on Sunday by the park founder Philippe de Villiers before a crowd of 5,000.

The theme of Puy du Fou is French history through the centuries. Visitors can enjoy gladiatorial combat and real live quadriga races at the Gallo-Roman stadium, the traditional crafts in the medieval city, the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table complete with dragon slaying and enchanted lake, a Viking longship attack on a wooden keep, a working mill and musicians in the 18th century village, the bird of prey show in a ruined castle, a joust and tricks from horseback knights, the vicissitudes of a French naval officer fresh from the Revolutionary War in America to the French Revolution, a swashbuckling 17th century adventure of the dastardly Richelieu versus the King’s Musketeers, a Belle Epoque city ca. 1900, a fire fountain show on the lake at night and much more.

This party-time version of the past is a fitting setting for the ring because there are widespread doubts as to its authenticity. An Oxford University laboratory dated the ring to the 15th century based on its style, wear and engraving, but that’s as close as it gets to any actual facts linking this jewelry to the Maid of Orléans. They share a century. That’s all we know for sure. The long track record of ownership history included with the ring is entirely speculative. It’s based solely on the fact that Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ancestry can be traced back to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was present at the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. There are no references in archives or histories that mention the ring being owned by anyone in the family at any time between 1431 and when it first appears on the historical record in 1914.

On the advice of experts, neither the town of Orléans nor the Joan of Arc Historical Exhibition in Rouen bid for the ring. There are many fake Joan of Arc relics out there, and the association of this particular piece with Joan only dates to the early 20th century when there was a revival of Joanmania. Philippe de Villiers is no museum curator, however, and he insists despite the lack of evidence that the ring is unquestionably authentic. As a politician, leader of the conservative Movement for France party, he is keen to claim Joan and there’s a hefty portion of nationalism underpinning this acquisition. At Sunday’s unveiling he said “It’s a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here,” then launched into a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.

He was putting Britain on notice there. Appropriately enough, the export of the ring has sparked a war, of words this time, between the British and French. When the auctioneers gave the ring to park lawyers, they informed them that an export license would have to be secured before the ring could leave the country. Any antiquity worth more than £39,219 that has been in the UK for more than 50 years requires a special export license issued by the Culture Minister. The license is only issued after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) gives the Minister its recommendation, and in the case of this ring, it’s highly unlikely that they would have let it walk away without temporarily blocking export to give British institutions the chance to raise the purchase price and keep it in the country.

Philippe de Villiers has no intention of returning the ring, illegally exported or no, a position he made very clear at Sunday’s ceremony.

“The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London,” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. [...] “Is the ring part of England’s national heritage?,” he asked the crowd, which booed loudly. Cheers erupted, however, when he asked whether it was part of France’s heritage.

Mr De Villiers claimed that he had checked the rules and found they only apply if the object is taken out of the European Union. In a mocking nod to Britain’s upcoming referendum over whether to remain or leave the EU, he told the crowd: “It is not at all our intention to have a Puy de Fou exit.”

In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating: “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it’s too late.” “The ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back.”

So much ado about a very questionable artifact. I have to admit, though, as theme parks go, even with its inherently inaccurate, sanitized, kid-friendly, way too clean version of history, it’s pretty cool. I am all over that quadriga race.

Update: St Eric’s wounds consistent with legend

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

On April 23rd, 2014, researchers from Uppsala University opened a reliquary casket in Uppsala Cathedral to study the bones of King Eric IX of Sweden, the patron saint of Stockholm. The primary goal was to compare medieval remains to modern ones looking for changes in bone density for an interdisciplinary osteoporosis study, but while they were in the neighborhood, the research team examined the skeletal remains in the hopes of answering some questions about his national origins, health, diet and violent death.

The University has now released the first results of the study of Eric’s bones, and so far the osteological evidence is remarkably congruent with the stories told about him at least a century after his death. Since no contemporary writings about him have survived and the later histories are hagiographies that frame him as a saint in life, a martyr in death and a miracle-worker after death, it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s legend. The study attempted DNA extraction and analysis, performed stable isotope analysis of his teeth, did a forensic examination of the bones looking for ante-mortem and perimortem wounds, radiocarbon dated the bones and enlisted orthopaedists and radiologists to determine his vital statistics and state of health.

There are 24 bones in the casket, 23 of them from the same person, plus one random shinbone. The group of 23 are the bones of a man about 35-40 years old who was 171 centimeters tall (5’7″). CT scans found no medical conditions evident on the bones. He did not have osteoporosis or suffer any kind of bone loss. On the contrary, his bone density was 25% greater than the average young man today. Eric was strong and very physically fit. Radiocarbon dating results are consistent with his having died in 1160.

Stable isotope analysis found one reason for his excellent health: he ate a great deal of freshwater fish. Kings had access to a great quantity and variety of animal protein, thanks to plentiful game and freshwater fish available on great estates. Eric ate both land animal protein and fish but emphasized the latter.This conforms to accounts of him in the hagiographies which describe him as fasting often out of religious devotion. Fasting in the Middle Ages didn’t require abstention from all food. It was usually meat that was excised from the diet, sometimes extended to animals products — butter, milk, cheese, eggs — during penitential seasons like Lent. The more extreme strictures were primarily observed by monks or individual ascetics. For lay Christians over most of the liturgical calendar, there were three fast days: Wednesday (the day Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ), Friday (the day Christ was crucified) and Saturday (the day dedicated to the Virgin Mary). Game birds like swan and peacock that only the aristocracy had access to were exempt from the no-meat rule.

Wounds on his bones also seem to fit the stories about Eric. His cranium had one or two healed wounds, possibly inflicted by sharp weapons. He fought a war, some call it a crusade, against pagan Finland, which would have afforded him plenty of opportunities for this kind of injury. The unhealed wounds inflicted at the time of his death match his story even better.

The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that the victim lay on his front.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was an interlude, as described by the taunting in the legend, between battle and decapitation. At no point do the documented wounds gainsay the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

One thing that contradicts the hagiographies was an isotope analysis finding that suggests he spent the last decade of his life not in Uppsala, but in the southern province of Västergötland. This is only a preliminary finding, however, since stable isotopes have to be compared to previously recorded values in order to determine geographic locations and there’s still a lot of comparing to be done.

DNA analysis is still pending as well. Researchers were able to extract DNA samples successfully, which is a major hurdle to leap when dealing with 900-year-old bones. The DNA analysis is expected to take another year. They have DNA from King Magnus III of Sweden (reigned 1275-1290) who was descended from Eric IX through his mother Ingeborg. They will be compared to confirm the bones are indeed Eric’s.

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