Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Staffordshire Hoard helmet band, pommel pieced together

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Anyone who has ever done a large jigsaw puzzle knows how essential it is to put like with like. When your puzzle is 4,000 pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and gem-festooned objects, sorting out which are part of the same artifact is essential. Thus one of the most important and complicated labours in the first phase of conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard was the grouping together of fragments according to their physical and stylistic characteristics. From the grouping exercise, researchers identified more than 1,500 fragments of silver gilt foil they believe were part of an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon helmet.

Only four other examples of Anglo-Saxon helmets have been found, including one unearthed in the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939, so it’s imperative that the puzzle be pieced together. It’s a painstaking job, figuring out how 1,500 sheets and strips of foil, many of them no larger than 10mm (.4 inches) across, fit together. So far they’ve been able to piece together a zoomorphic frieze and many of the fragments making up the helmet band that runs around the circumference of the object. The helmet band designs are die-stamped warriors armed and kneeling.

Here’s a glimpse of the tiny pieces of a zoomorphic frieze from the helmet conservators are negotiating:

The Sutton Hoo helmet is silver. The Staffordshire Hoard is gilded. That suggests that whoever donned this elaborate and expensive helmet was of extremely high status, perhaps a king or prince.

Another object conservators have pieced back together from fragments is a pommel. There are more than 70 pommels in the Staffordshire Hoard, but this one is unique. Reassembled from 26 fragments, the gold, gold filigree, garnet, niello and inlaid glass pommel has a rounded piece on the shoulder called a “sword-ring.” Although only one of the pommel’s sword-rings has been found in the hoard, the construction indicates there were two originally, one on each side. This is the first pommel ever discovered to have two sword-rings, making it an entirely new type. It is also lavishly decorated in a combination of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish motifs. It may even have a combination of early Christian and traditional polytheistic decorative themes — the garnet and glass inlaid disk could be a stylized Christiana cross, while three serpents on the back of the pommel are pagan.

Chris Fern, project archaeologist, said “The Staffordshire Hoard links us with an age of warrior splendour. The gold and silver war-gear was probably made in workshops controlled by some of England’s earliest kings, to reward warriors that served those rulers, when multiple kingdoms fought for supremacy. The skill of the craftsmen is equally thrilling to behold, with many of the finds decorated with pagan and Christian art, designed to give spiritual protection in battle.”

“The newly recognised pommel is truly exciting. It combines multiple different styles of ornament, much in the same way as the earliest 7th century illuminated manuscripts do, like the Book of Durrow. It suggests the coming together of Anglo-Saxon and British or Irish high cultures.”

The second stage of conservation and research has been funded to the tune of £400,000 by Historic England, but they need to raise another £120,000 to complete the project. This phase will entail the conservation and physical joining of the fragments that have been matched to each other, a comprehensive study of the exquisite cloisonné cellwork seen on so many pieces from the hoard (see the gold and garnet Bible bindings in the video below for an example), a microscopic analysis of materials that are as of yet unidentified, contextual research of the practice of hoarding and the creation of an online database of the complete hoard by 2017.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can make an online payment here. You can also download this donation form (pdf) to contribute by check.

If you’re in the Birmingham area today, hustle on over to the museum to meet the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team. You’ll get to ask them questions and you’ll even have the chance to clean a piece of the hoard and examine it under a microscope. The event is free and open between 11:00AM – 1:00PM and 2:00 – 4:00PM.

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Icon of the Madonna restored to former splendor

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

The 13th century icon of the Madonna in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis on the Aventine Hill has been restored to glowing golden splendor. The restoration by experts at the Superior Institute for Conservation and Restoration (ISCR) took three years. The surface was cleaned, pollutants and paint from past retouchings removed.

This isn’t the first time the ISCR has worked on this icon. In 1951 it was restored by Cesare Brandi, ISCR founder and pioneer art restorer. The icon was in dangerously bad condition due to the decay of the wood panel on which it was originally painted. Brandi transferred the work to canvas and filled in areas of missing paint using a thin watercolor cross-hatching technique he had pioneered in the restoration of the frescoes in the church of Saint Mary of the Truth in Viterbo after they were reduced to rubble by an Allied bomb in 1944.

The next time the icon left the church was in 2012 for an exhibition of 14 of Rome’s medieval icons at the Palazzo Venezia. That’s where it became clear that Brandi’s retouchings had become problematic over the six decades. ISCR restorers removed paint from Brandi’s and previous interventions. The small gaps were then filled by being covered with tissue paper and painted with watercolor, the larger gaps by stucco and cross-hatch paintings. The technique Brandi used is still a staple of art restoration today; it’s the materials and analytic technology that have improved by leaps and bounds.

Cesare Brandi also restored other famous icons in Rome, including the Madonna of Ara Coeli, an 11th century tempera on wood panel which replaced a masterpiece by Raphael on the high altar of the church of Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill, and the Madonna of San Sisto, now at the monastery of Santa Maria del Rosario in the Monte Mario neighborhood, which dates to the 7th century and is the oldest icon in the city.

The Madonna di Sant’Alessio icon was painted by an unknown Roman artist in the mid-13th century in the style of the Advocate Madonna, an iconographic type emphasizing Mary’s intercessionary role on behalf of humanity that was very popular in medieval Rome. For a few centuries before and after the first millennium, the Advocate Madonna type, depicted without the Christ child, her right hand raised, her left against her chest, was considered the quintessential Roman Madonna.

The church, originally dedicated to Saint Boniface of Tarsus alone, was expanded to include Saint Alexius in the masthead by Sergius, the Greek metropolitan bishop of Damascus who had fled the advancing Islamic forces and settled in Rome in 977 A.D. According to his legend Alexius was born and raised to a wealthy senatorial family in 4th-5th century Rome, but the cult venerating him started in Syrian where the saint was said to have lived as a beggar after abandoning his youth of privilege and comfort. After a church sexton had a miraculous vision of the Madonna which pointed to him as a holy man, Alexius fled his newfound fame and returned to Rome where his parents, who did not recognize him, let him live in a cubby under the staircase out of Christian charity. It wasn’t until his death 17 years later that his autobiography was found clenched in his hand and he was finally recognized as their long-lost son.

Sergius brought the cult of Saint Alexius to Rome with him where it found fertile ground since Romans love a native son. The site of the church on the Aventine even garnered an apocryphal association with Saint Alexius: it was said to be the location where his father Euphemianus’ home stood, the stairs under which he had lived in humility and poverty incorporated into the walls of the church. While he’s still a saint in the Latin Church, his cult has faded. It’s in the Eastern Church, particularly in Russia, where Alexius is one of the most venerated saints, a frequent subject of poems and stories and the reason Alexei was such a popular name for Tsars.

The newly restored icon plays into the legend of Saint Alexius as well. In the sexton’s vision where Mary identified Alexius as true holy man, she spoke through her icon. According to this tale, Sergius brought the icon from the church in Edessa with him when he went to Rome.

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Medieval panels looted from Devon church found

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Two 15th century painted oak panels ripped out of Holy Trinity Church in Torbryan, Devon, almost two years ago have been recovered by police. A sharp-eyed and damn decent collector spotted them in an online sale and notified the authorities who traced them in a property in south London. The place was raided by detectives from the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit in January and the panels recovered. A 50-year-old man from Wales has been arrested for the theft.

The panels were part of a rood screen, a tracery partition separating the nave from the chancel, built between 1460 and 1470. Inset in Gothic arches that mimic the design of the church’s stained glass windows are a series of 40 oak panels painted with figures of God, Mary, the Apostles and a panoply of saints. They are of extremely high quality, “cathedral quality,” according to the art historian Dr. Neil Rushton of the Churches Conservation Trust. Painted by a top artist of the period at the same time the church was constructed, the rood screen panels are colorful evidence of how much money, mainly from the wool trade, was in the area in the second half of the 15th century. They are the country’s best surviving examples of this kind of art from the late Middle Ages, almost all of which was destroyed in the Reformation, and therefore of national importance.

The panels that were stolen depict St. Victor of Marseilles and St. Margaret of Antioch, lesser known saints which make them rarer than the panels with more common iconography. Because of their rarity, there was speculation at the time of the theft that it may have been commissioned by an underworld collector who coveted these specific pieces, but the commissioned theft idea always gets deployed after these sort of crimes and it usually turns out to be a lot more Keystone Cops and a lot less Thomas Crown. This case is no different. Commissioned thefts don’t wind up for sale online.

Churches have increasingly been frequent targets of thieves, often for the scrap value of their architectural materials like lead roof tiles or even paving stones and grave markers. Art is a riskier proposition since it’s more likely to be recognizable, but that hasn’t stopped thieves from taking the chance before at the Holy Trinity Church. Four of the original 40 panels were stolen in the 1990s and three more were taken in 2003. Those seven panels are still missing which makes the recovery of the two most recent thefts even more significant.

West Mercia Police are now leading the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, which has also recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles. The police are appealing for help in identifying the artefacts, which include the misericords from St Cuthbert’s Church at Holme Lacy in Herefordshire, also in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust.

In response to the original theft, The Churches Conservation Trust conducted a thorough audit of security at Holy Trinity, Torbryan and a new alarm system is now in place at the church to protect its contents in future. A new scheme of interpretation is also being developed to explain the artworks and the history of this unique Grade I listed church to visitors. A service at the church on 30th May will give thanks for the return of the panels.

The 45 cm (17.7 inches) by 15 cm (6 inches) panels were stolen between August 2nd and 9th of 2013 when the church was open to the public. They are believed to have been pushed out of their casing from the front, but a panel of an unknown female saint to the immediately left of the stolen pieces was seriously damaged in the process. It was punched through and a large shard from the top of the panel to the saint’s legs broke off. Now that the missing panels have been recovered, it’s clear there was damage done to them as well during the theft. The restoration is expect to cost £7,000 ($10,843) and the Churches Conservation Trust has launched a campaign to raise the funds.

Click here to donate online. Your title (I recommend His Tremendousness), name, email and street address are required fields. You have to type in the amount you wish to donate and check the boxes to opt out of them spamming you via email, post or phone. The last field asks you to confirm or deny whether you’re an UK taxpayer and then when you click donate you’ll be taken to a secure credit card donation form. The amount is already fixed so if you change your mind about how much you want to give you have to go back to the previous page.

You can also donate by calling 0800 206 1463 or you can quickly donate £20 by texting TORB15 £20 to 70070.

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13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

From the dig that brought you the barrels full of 14th century human excreta in the city center of Odense, Denmark, the latest find is a small wooden stick inscribed with runes in the early 13th century. Excavations were already complete (the last day was August 29th, 2014) when archaeologists picked out three small pieces of wood while processing the large number of finds. The three fragments fit together to form a stick 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long, 1.2 cm (.47 inches) wide and a few millimeters thick. Archaeologists saw there were lines on the front and back and recognized them as runes.

Lisbeth Imer, a rune expert from The National Museum of Denmark was called in to examine the stick. Preserved for 800 years in the anoxic, water-logged environment, the wood was soft with the texture of cold butter. After conservation — a long soak in water-soluble wax — the wood will firm up, but it might also obscure key details of the runes making them harder to interpret accurately. Imer therefore had to work with the soft piece as it was. There’s also a divot missing in the middle and at some point in its long life the stick was gouged by a root growing against the back.

She was nonetheless able to extract key words. The runes are in Latin (the runic alphabet can be used to write in any language, just like the alphabet I’m using right now). There’s the word salu, which can mean “good health” and the back is inscribed t = umi or t = ume famulum suum which together can be read as “Tomme his servant,” Tomme being the stick’s owner and the “his” referring to God. It seems, therefore, that this rune stick was an amulet meant to keep its bearer healthy. A broken hole at one end suggests it may have been worn on a string.

It’s the first runic inscription on a wooden stick found in Denmark in 50 years, but we know these sorts of objects were widespread in medieval Scandinavia despite their relatively poor survival rate because a stash of 670 rune sticks were discovered during excavations at the Bryggen commercial buildings in Bergen, Norway, after a 1955 fire. This rune stick was also found in a commercial milieu. It was unearthed in a layer containing the remains of trade stalls from the 1200s when the area is known to have had a fish market before it was moved just north to a site still known today as Fisketorvet or Fish Square.

The rune stick was displayed to the public on April 25th at Møntergården, Odense’s cultural history museum, as part of Research Day, but it won’t be exhibited again until conservation is completed.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Runes shmunes. What about the poop?! I’m delighted to report there is an update on the barrels of 700-year-old poop excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Square in 2013, and it may be the greatest update of all time.

First about the barrels themselves: dendrochronological analysis found that the trees used to make the barrels came from Kolobrzeg, Poland, and were felled from 1348 to 1352 and 1346 to 1358. They were used to transport salt from Poland to Denmark and once the contents were removed, the barrels were repurposed. The poop dates to the 1360s, so the turn-over was quite quick. The staves of used barrels loosen up leaving gaps between them, a bug if you’re trying to carry salt, but a feature if you’re using them as latrines. The loose staves allowed liquid to slowly seep out into the ground leaving the solid waste to compact in the barrel. Studies have shown that with proper seepage, a single barrel can remain usable for one person for 20 years.

The compacted poop was removed from the two barrels and is being kept in plastic bags in refrigerators at the Odense City Museums. Researchers take out a teaspoon at a time, run it through a sieve and look at the particulate matter under the microscope. Grains and seeds can be identified by their cellular structure to give us a comprehensive picture of people’s diets in medieval Odense. So far they have found the remains of a variety of lovely fruits — apples, figs, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries — and mustard seed which would have been used as a flavoring spice. They also found miller’s bran and corn cockle seeds from a weed that grows alongside edible grains. The seeds are actually poisonous, but because they are difficult to separate from the grain during harvest and processing, a few seeds make their way up the food chain and down the poop chute. Corn cockles are most commonly found in rye fields, so it was likely rye bread or porridge.

Regarding the moss discovered in the barrels, moss has been found in medieval latrines in England as well. Several species of moss make excellent toilet paper, it seems, and sphagnum moss, aka peat moss, not only provides a comfy wipe, but it has additional hygienic properties as well. There are two kinds of cells in the leaves. The larger of the two can hold water much like a sponge, so it acts as a wet wipe, washing the business area instead of just drying it. In the Middle Ages it was also believed to have antiseptic properties. Interestingly, peat moss is a common additive to modern composting toilets because it encourages the absorption of liquid, encourages aerobic action and helps block odor.

Speaking of odor, Odense City Museums invited Kouki Fujioka from Tokyo’s Jikei University to take a whiff of their medieval poop. He is a scent expert, you see, and has developed a system to detect, isolate and categorize scents. He took odor samples from the barrel excrement and will measure the proportions of acids and alcohols in them which will indicate the level of spoilage. He will also work to replicate the various hearty aromas of 700-year-old human excrement which may sound less than enjoyable, but the museum is excited about the possibilities of recreating the smells of the past. Imagine a museum exhibition in Smell-O-Vision. What an intensely immersive connection to history.

Human excrement isn’t the only scatological gold unearthed at this site. Archaeologists also found a perfectly formed dog crap from the 12th century, a very rare survival, which they are analyzing for pollen and seeds to discover what dogs ate in medieval Denmark.

Oh and they found some gold gold too — a 14th century cross pendant and a delicate 13th century ring with a cabochon garnet — if you’re the kind of weirdo who’s into that sort of thing.

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Viking blacksmith grave even greater than expected

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Last fall, farmer Leif Arne Nordheim borrowed his neighbor’s backhoe to remove some pesky flagstones from his garden in Sogndalsdalen on the southwestern coast of Norway. Lifting the last flagstone revealed tools — a hammer and tongs — which Nordheim first assumed were of relatively recent manufacture. When he found a bent blade, he realized it was likely archaeological and called in the county Cultural Department. Archaeologists from the University Museum of Bergen soon followed and an excavation of the find site ensued.

The find turned out to be far greater than originally realized, and the ancient blacksmith tools were impressive enough already. Archaeologists unearthed a large collection of forging tools and weapons, including three hammers of different sizes, two anvils, blacksmith tongs, coal tongs, a rake to remove coals, a tray used to add coals, a chisel, a scythe, a sickle, a drill, pieces of grindstone, nails, a single-edged sword, an axe, two arrows and a knife. Underneath the tools and products of the blacksmith trade archaeologists found more personal items: a razor, beard trimming scissors, tweezers, a frying pan and a poker.

The deepest layer of excavation contained ashes, charcoal and small bone fragments. The pieces of bone haven’t been identified yet, but archaeologists believe they are human remains, likely the blacksmith owner of the marvelous tools above. Between the ashes and bones fragments, researchers found the objects that the deceased was probably wearing when his body was cremated: beads and a bone comb.

In total the excavation yielded about 60 artifacts and 150 assorted fragments. Forging tools have been found in graves before, but this is an exceptionally rich collection for a blacksmith burial. Indeed, it’s the richest burial, blacksmith or not, found in the area in years.

“We think that the blacksmiths’ contemporaries wished to show how skilful he was in his work by including such an extensive amount of objects. He might have forged many of these tools himself.”

“The grave gives the impression that this was a local blacksmith and he enjoyed a high status in his society beyond being his trade,” says [co-leader the excavation Asle Bruen] Olsen.

The design of the axe and some of the other metal objects dated them to the 8th or 9th century A.D. Subsequent radiocarbon dating confirmed the date of the burial to be around 800 A.D.

The artifacts are currently being conserved by experts at the University Museum of Bergen. Once they’re stabilized they will go on display, possibly in a dedicated exhibition. Incidentally, the University Museum of Bergen has a neat Instagram account, incidentally. As always, I wish the pictures were bigger, but the highlights from the museum’s collection are fascinating.

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Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.

Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.

In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.

The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.

The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.

According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.

The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.

Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.

The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

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Family looking for broken sewer pipe finds 2,500 years of history

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

A family in Lecce, an ancient city on the tip of Italy’s boot heel, found a veritable historical complex under their feet when they began digging to find a faulty sewer pipe in 2000. Luciano Faggiano family had acquired the building at Via Ascanio Grandi 56 planning to use the first floor as a trattoria and live with his wife and youngest son upstairs. It was a historical property — part of the convent of Santa Maria delle Curti which was closed in the 17th century and the remains of whose cells are still visible in the first floor walls — but renovated with all modern conveniences. When one of those conveniences, the toilet, kept backing up, Faggiano enlisted his two older sons who no longer live at home to spend a week helping him dig underneath the house to find the broken sewer pipe causing the problem.

But one week quickly passed, as father and sons discovered a false floor that led down to another floor of medieval stone, which led to a tomb of the Messapians, who lived in the region centuries before the birth of Jesus. Soon, the family discovered a chamber used to store grain by the ancient Romans, and the basement of a Franciscan convent where nuns had once prepared the bodies of the dead.

Faggiano kept digging, removing the spoil in the trunk of his car, even tying a rope around the chest of his 12-year-old son to lower him into passages that were too small for the adults. Mrs. Faggiano was not informed of this. Eventually the neighbors got suspicious and called the cops. Since unapproved archaeological excavations are illegal, even when the original aim was sewer maintenance, the authorities blocked the dig for a year until making a deal with the Faggianos that they could continue under the supervision of archaeologists from the local Superintendence of Archaeological Goods and architects Franco and Maria Antonietta De Paolis.

All of this was done on the Faggianos’ dime and with their labor. The city just watched, ever more excitedly, as the Faggiano family’s excavations revealed the tomb of a Roman infant, other tombs and ossuaries, a deep pit that served as a charnel house where bodies were left to decompose before the bones were recovered and interred, water catchment cisterns, circular postholes cut into rock for Mesappian dwellings, grain silos, an ancient street, a well 10 meters (33 feet) deep that is still fed by the waters of the Idume, an underground river seven kilometers (4.3 miles) long that traverses the city of Lecce before emptying into the Adriatic, tunnels that may have been used by the religious orders — Templars, the Santa Maria convent and Franciscans have all inhabited the place at different times since the Middle Ages — to move around the city without being seen, a Messapian-era pavement (ca. 5th century B.C.), frescoed walls, ancient vases, an early episcopal ring, ceramics from the 1600s, an ancient altar among many other treasures.

More than 4,000 artifacts have been unearthed during the decade-plus of digging. They did find the sewer pipe after a few years, by the way, and it was broken. By then, of course, the trattoria idea was back-burnered and Luciano Faggiano rented one of the floors in the building to help fund this voyage of exploration through the layers of Lecce’s history. He’s still planning to open a trattoria, but in a new building. This one is now the Museum Faggiano where people can go down into the bowels of the structure to see the ancient history for themselves.

The museum’s website has a photo gallery which has sad little low res pictures, but the virtual tour is very satisfying as long as you click on the “View on Google Maps” link in the upper left corner which opens a lovely full screen navigation window with thumbnails to guide you through the highlights.

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UV reveals erased poetry in 13th c. Welsh book

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

The Black Book of Carmarthen is the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in the Welsh language. It was penned by a single scribe working at different periods around the year 1250. Its name refers to the color of the binding and to the Augustinian Priory of Saints John the Evangelist and Teulyddog in Carmarthen, west central Wales, which is reputed to have been the manuscript’s original home. It has passed through many hands over the years, several of whom have left their mark on the vellum pages and at least one of whom sought to erase those marks. Now thanks to an ultraviolet lamp and photo editing software, what was lost has been rediscovered.

With the exception of a handful of Welsh triads about the legendary horses of Welsh heroes, the contents of the Black Book are poems dating from the 9th to the 12th century. They’re a varied lot, with religious verses, odes of mourning and praise and some of the first written versions of Arthurian tales rubbing shoulders in the 54 folios. The first poem in the book is Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin (A Conversation Between Merlin and Taliesin), a dialogue between the legendary mage and the great Welsh poet who, like Merlin, was reputed to have the power of prophesy. Two of the pieces later in the manuscript are prophetic poems ostensibly authored by Myrddin during his “wild man” phase.

The first owner of the Black Book whose name we know was Sir John Price of Brecon (ca. 1502-1555) who had been tasked by King Henry VIII with searching dissolved monasteries for loot. He got it from the treasurer of St. David’s Cathedral on the westernmost tip of Wales almost 50 miles from Carmarthen which is where he learned of its origins at the priory. It next appears on the historical record in the hands of 17th century Welsh book collector Robert Vaughan, but there are notes on the pages of the book that identify owners between the two. Scholar, book collector and warden of Ruthin Hospital Jasper Gryffyth (d. 1614) wrote his name in Hebrew and a note about the poems on one of the pages. William Salesbury (ca. 1520-1584), polyglot author of a Welsh-English dictionary and translator of the New Testament into Welsh, left a note on the bottom of a page as well. Also, Vaughan wrote in another manuscript that the Black Book had been owned by poet Siôn Tudur (d. 1602) at some point.

One of those 16th century owners — researchers believe it was probably Jasper Gryffyth — took it upon himself to clean up the Black Book and erase the notes and drawings his predecessors had left in the margins. University of Cambridge PhD student Myriah Williams and Professor Paul Russell noticed there were shadows on some of the pages and thought they might be able to see what was erased using ultraviolet light and playing with the spectrum using photo editing software. They spent three years examining the fragile volume — it’s so delicate can’t be opened at more than a 90 degree angle — and last year found two ghostly faces staring back at them. The little drawings, dated to the 14th or 15th century, were accompanied by an inscription that indicates the book was donated to a family member.

[T]he 16th century owner’s penchant for erasure has been partly reversed to reveal snatches of poetry which are previously unrecorded in the canon of Welsh verse. Currently, the texts are very fragmentary and in need of much more analysis, although they seem to be the continuation of a poem on the preceding page with a new poem added at the foot of the page.

Williams said: “It’s easy to think we know all we can know about a manuscript like the Black Book but to see these ghosts from the past brought back to life in front of our eyes has been incredibly exciting. The drawings and verse that we’re in the process of recovering demonstrate the value of giving these books another look.

“The margins of manuscripts often contain medieval and early modern reactions to the text, and these can cast light on what our ancestors thought about what they were reading. The Black Book was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century, and the recovery of erasure has much to tell us about what was already there and can change our understanding of it.”

The new poem has no known match in Welsh verse, so it was probably the original work of the annotator. Williams and Russell will give a lecture about their discovery at the National Library of Wales on Wednesday and will emphasize the importance of this research which has the potential to reveal so much about medieval Welsh literature.

The National Library of Wales has digitized the entire manuscript. You can browse through it page by page. There are no transcripts or translations, but the notes from previous holders are eminently legible in the first few pages.

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Anglo-Saxon eye salve kills MRSA superbug

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Since Alexander Fleming first noticed that the Penicillium mold that had accidentally contaminated his petri dish was lethal to the Staphylococcus bacteria inside it in 1928, humans have become accustomed to a world where infections can be cured with no more effort than having to swallow a few uncomfortably large pills for a week. The days when a scraped knee could kill seem like ancient history, but they’re not. Bacteria have become increasingly resistant to the antibiotics in the medical arsenal and with very few new antibiotics discovered over the past two decades, the prospect of a world of infectious microbes we cannot kill has become a terrifying reality. According to the CDC, 23,000 people a year die from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Even Fleming knew the antibiotic gravy train ran on unstable tracks. He noted in the official Nobel Lecture (pdf) he delivered in the days leading up to the ceremony awarding him the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.” The bacteria that survive the antibiotic onslaught and their descendants develop resistance to that antibiotic. If any survive the next antibiotic deployed against them, they become resistant to that one as well and on and on through the entire pharmacopoeia.

That’s how Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria came to set up shop particularly in hospitals because MRSA laughs at our puny human doctors with their losery old penicillins and amoxicillins. The rate of MRSA infections at US academic hospitals doubled between 2003 and 2008, and since there hasn’t been a new class of antibiotics discovered since the 1980s, MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria are only getting stronger.

The potential disaster here is so far-reaching it’s hard to grasp. It’s not just pneumonia and injuries that used to be easily treated that will become many times more fatal. Cancer treatment, organ and device (mechanical knees, hips, etc.) transplants, dialysis, open-heart surgery, any surgery at all, for that matter, including plastic surgery, even getting tattoos all rely heavily on antibiotics to keep patients alive. See the World Health Organization’s Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance (pdf) to learn more about the post-antibiotic apocalypse we’re facing.

Scientists all over the world are looking for new drugs to combat the rise of superbugs, among them a team from the University of Nottingham who have taken an approach so old it’s new again. The brain child of Dr. Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the University’s English department, the study tested the efficacy of a recipe for a salve to treat eye infections found in Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of remedies for illness written in Old English around 950 A.D. in Winchester that is now in the British Library. Here is a translation of the recipe in volume two of Oswald Cockayne’s outstandingly titled Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, published in 1864-6. (I need to integrate “wortcunning” into my daily vocabulary.)

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel and let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.

No disrespect to Oswald Cockayne and his mastery of the catchy book title, but his translation needed updating for use in a scientific context. Dr. Lee translated the recipe from the original manuscript, researching ambiguous words for optimal accuracy. Researchers, led by microbiologist Dr. Freya Harrison, were meticulous in recreating the recipe as faithfully as possibly, even securing the wine from a vineyard that is known to have been in use in the 9th century. They made four batches of the salve and a control batch without any of the vegetable ingredients, then applied Bald’s salve to well-established MSRA cultures (with a dropper, not a feather) and waited for 24 hours before counting the surviving bacteria.

The team made artificial wound infections by growing bacteria in plugs of collagen and then exposed them to each of the individual ingredients, or the full recipe. None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

The team then went on to see what happened if they diluted the eye salve – as it is hard to know just how much of the medicine bacteria would be exposed to when applied to a real infection. They found that when the medicine is too dilute to kill Staphylococcus aureus, it interfered with bacterial cell-cell communication (quorum sensing). This is a key finding, because bacteria have to talk to each other to switch on the genes that allow them to damage infected tissues. Many microbiologists think that blocking this behaviour could be an alternative way of treating infection.

Bald’s onion and bile salve, it turns out, is an MRSA-killing machine.

Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them. But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”

It worked in vivo, too, on mice with MRSA-infected skin wounds at Texas Tech University.

As promising as this study is, it’s still in the early stages. The AncientBiotics program is crowdfunding to hire a summer intern to help them move forward briskly with this incredibly exciting research. They just reached their goal of £1,000 so they’ll definitely get funded, but given the modesty of the original goal and the global importance of this project, I’d love to see them raise a lot more than that. There are 26 days left in the fundraiser. Donate!

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Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed a rare 14th century devotional panel dedicated to the death of rebel-turned-martyr Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The team was excavating the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge in advance of construction in 2000 when they found the rare piece in a medieval land reclamation dump. The waterlogged soil of the Thames riverbank is an outstanding preserver of artifacts, and this lead alloy panel with its delicate openwork has survived in excellent condition along with organic artifacts like timber revetments from the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the remains of plants used for cloth dyeing and a medieval leather knife sheath.

The panel was originally a mass-produced object sold at a pilgrimage site dedicated to the earl. People bought them as devotional objects, often for use in small home shrines. Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, would not at first glance seem to be the ideal subject for religious reverence. A holy man he was not. What he was was a powerful baron, the holder of no fewer than five major earldoms (Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester, Derby) that made him the second wealthiest man in England after the king, the paternal grandson King Henry III of England and a thorn in the side of the unpopular King Edward II, his cousin.

At first Thomas supported Edward, but the bloom was soon off the rose, in large part thanks to Edward’s lavishing of titles, monies and power on his low-born favorite Piers Gaveston. By 1311, three years after he’d carried Curtana, the sword of St. Edward the Confessor, at his cousin’s coronation, Thomas was the leader of the Ordainers, a group of barons, earls and bishops demanding, among other things, that Gaveston be exiled. When Gaveston returned less than two months after this his third exile and Edward gave him all his lands and titles back, the Ordainers went to war. He was captured, tried and beheaded. Lancaster was one of the judges and Gaveston was executed on his property.

From then on it was one fight after the other between the royal cousins. For a while Lancaster had the upper hand in a big way, becoming the de facto king after Edward’s army was defeated by the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but in 1318 he was ousted and the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, took over as power behind the throne and Edward’s favorite. Lancaster marshalled his private army, struck up a deal with Robert the Bruce and rebelled against the crown.

On March 16th, 1322, Lancaster and the King’s allies went head to head at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster lost. He was taken prisoner and tried for treason in a sham court (the judges included both Despensers and the King) in his own castle at Pontefract where he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. He was convicted, of course, and on March 23rd, he was executed by beheading (Edward had commuted the traditional sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering on account of Lancaster’s royal blood).

Within weeks after Lancaster’s execution, shrines dedicated to him began to crop up, at the site of his execution at Pontefract Castle, his tomb in Pontefract Priory and at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Rumors of miracles at the priory tomb and execution site abounded and soon Thomas was venerated as a popular saint. He was so popular Edward II put an armed guard around the priory to keep the crowds away. In response money was raised from all over England to build a chantry chapel on the site of his execution.

His saintliness rested not in his personal piety or holy behavior (there certainly wasn’t much of the latter), but in his rebellion against a despised king. This was a thing in Medieval England: make saints out of fallen political/military heroes. Simon de Montfort received similar devotions after his death in 1265. What better way for Edward III to distance himself from his father after Edward II’s murder than to side with the cult of St. Thomas of Lancaster? In 1327 petitioned Pope John XXII that Thomas be canonized as an official saint of the Church, but it never happened.

Notwithstanding his lack of a Church-sanctioned halo, Thomas continued to be revered locally at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His relics were believed to hold specific healing properties — his belt helped women in labour, his hat cured migraines — and a hymn called the Lancaster Suffrage was included as part of the daily prayers in the psalters and Books of Hours of wealthy Lancastrians. Here’s the one from Manuscript 13 (ca. 1330) in the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University:

Antiphon: Oh Thomas, Earl of Lancaster,
Jewel and flower of knighthood,
Who in the name of God,
For the sake of the state of England,
Offered yourself to be killed.
Versicle: Pray for us, soldier of Christ.
Response: Who never held the poor worthless.
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, you who wished to honor your holy soldier Thomas of Lancaster through the lamentable palm of the martyr for the peace and state of England just as he is lead through the sacrament for God’s own exceeding glory [and] through your holy miracles. Bestow, we pray, that you grant all faithful venerating him a good journey and life eternal. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

For people who could not afford to have French illuminators make them their own personal prayer books, devotional panels provided a less expensive entre into the private veneration of St. Thomas. Although they were very popular in the 14th century, few of these panels have survived. The British Museum has two examples, one smaller and one larger, neither of them are in great condition. The figures on the smaller piece are crudely designed and while the larger panel has an elaborate Gothic cathedral-like structure and more people in it than the MOLA panel, they aren’t as finely crafted and the piece is fragmented. You can see in the picture that it’s being held together with wires.

The MOLA piece is five inches high and 3.5 inches wide and divided into four scenes that are to be read clockwise from the top left. In scene one, Thomas is captured. The caption in French reads “Here I am taken prisoner.” In scene two he is put on trial. The caption reads “I am judged.” In scene three he is convicted and conveyed by horse (the quality, or lack thereof, of this horse was a big issue in some of the chronicles) to the site of execution. The caption: “I am under threat.” In the last scene Thomas is beheaded by sword. The caption states simply: “la mort” (death). These shenanigans are presided over by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, perched atop the sun and moon, waiting to welcome Lancaster’s saintly soul to heaven.

This is the only Lancaster devotional panel known to have French labels explaining each scene. It’s also the only one known with surviving gilding which highlights the sun and moon.

Up until now the panel has only been known by Museum of London experts, but the riverbank excavation, including detailed information about the panel, has just been published (Roman and Medieval Revetments on the Thames Waterfront) so the museum is putting the panel on display for the first time. The exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Galleries will run from March 28th to September 28th of this year.

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