Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Denmark’s heaviest hoard of Viking gold found in Jutland

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Three metal detectorists have discovered a group of bangles which add up to the greatest amount of Viking gold ever found in Denmark. Last week Marie Aagaard Larsen, her husband Christian Nedergaard Dreiøe and their friend Poul Nørgaard, aka Team Rainbow Power, were scanning a field in Vejen, south Jutland, where a gold chain from the Viking era had been discovered in 1911. Ten minutes after they started, Poul struck gold. They unearthed a gold bangle that they recognized was old, but it was bigger than anything quite they’d encountered before.

Team Rainbow Power emailed a photograph of the artifact to the Museum Sønderskov in nearby Brørup. Curator and archaeologist Lars Grundvad was amazed to see what they’d found. He and his colleagues had discussed returning to that field to explore it further because of the gold chain weighing 67 grams that had been unearthed there in 1911, but in his wildest dreams he hadn’t imagined there would be multiple finds of such quality and size.

Within 15 minutes, they found another gold piece. Then they found another. In the final tally, Team Rainbow Power discovered six gold and one silver bangle. The total weight of the gold bangles is 900 grams, just shy of two pounds. The previous record holder for the greatest amount of gold from a Viking treasure was the hoard found in Vester Vedsted, Southwest Jutland, in 1859. That hoard contained two gold neck rings, five gold bangles, a fragment of gold chain, two filigree pendants and two gold beads which totalled 750 grams. The Vejen find beats it by a lot in just six bangles, which goes to show just how big these pieces are. The sole silver bangle is a hefty one too at 90 grams (3.17 ounces). The bangles were likely buried together with the previously unearthed chain in the 10th century.

It’s not unusual for objects from the same hoard to be found at different times, even a century apart. Buried hoards could be broken up and scattered over a wide area by centuries of agricultural activity, and since metal detectors only began to be used in Denmark in the 1980s, even archaeological excavations were unlikely to find every artifact.

“Finding just one of these bangles is massive, so finding seven is something very special,” said Peter Pentz, a Viking expert and curator from the National Museum of Denmark.

Pentz went on to explain that silver was the most used metal during the Viking Age, which makes the golden find even more audacious.

One of the gold pieces is decorated in the stylized animal figures characteristic of the Jelling style, as is the chain discovered in 1911. The Jelling style in particular is associated with the elite of Viking society and considering the richness of the find, the Vejen area was likely home to a person of great wealth and position. The bangles could have been gifts for allies, rewards for his best men or oath rings. The style also helps date the hoard because it was in vogue for a short period from the first half of the 10th century until the year 1000 when it disappears from the archaeological record.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret for now as Team Rainbow Power, in collaboration with the Museum Sønderskov, is still searching the field. Lars Grundvad is working on raising funds now for a full archaeological investigation of the find site to take place as early as this fall. The museum hopes to display the finds before they are transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen, where they will be studied and evaluated as treasure trove. Team Rainbow Power will receive treasure trove compensation based on the National Museum’s assessment.

The rediscovery of a Pictish silver hoard

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

In 1838, a Pictish hoard of silver was unearthed on the grounds of Ley Farm near Fordyce, Aberdeenshire. Two prehistoric stone circles, Gaulcross North and Gaulcross South, were located a few hundred yards from the farmhouse, and the hoard was discovered a few feet south of the north circle. Maybe. Found by labourers clearing the land for agricultural use by the new tenant, the silver pieces were poorly documented at the time. The precise find spot was not recorded, nor were the pieces themselves. There were vague, conflicting accounts of what was found. Some said a silver chain four feet long, assorted buckles, pins and brooches; others reported just a silver chain, pin and armlet. The stone circles were all but destroyed during the brutal clearing process (dynamite was involved), leaving just one stone standing by 1867 when the first account of the hoard was written by John Stuart. He said the artifacts were buried inside the stone circle.

The fate of whatever pieces were found was also unclear. The property owner, Sir Robert Abercromby, 5th Baronet of Birkenbog, was said to have kept the hoard. He was also said to have given some pieces to the Banff Museum (his maternal grandfather was Alexander Ogilvie, 7th Lord Banff) in Aberdeenshire or to the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. The three surviving pieces of silver were in fact at the Banff for a while. They are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 2013, the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts project and National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project combined their efforts to investigate the site in the hopes of finding out more (anything, really) about the context of the original Gaulcross Hoard. Since they didn’t know exactly where the first pieces of the hoard had been found in the 19th century, the team had to cover a great deal of ground. A geophysical survey of the site was followed by metal detector enthusiasts scanning the Gaulcross site.

Archaeologists expected to find no more than a few fragments of silver here and there, just enough to pinpoint the find site, but on the second day metal detectorist Alistair McPherson found three Roman silver siliquae (a type of 4th century Roman silver coin that was widely cut up for use in the 5th century when fresh Roman currency was no longer imported into Britain), pieces of folded hacksilver, the endpiece of a silver strap and a silver bracelet fragment. With the tantalizing prospect of greater finds than they had expected and the daunting prospect of the field being ploughed and planted soon, the team got cracking with metal detectors and two trenches.

They ultimately unearthed more than 100 pieces of hacksilver chopped up from Roman and Pictish coins, jewelry, dishes, flatware, between the 4th and 6th centuries. It is the northernmost hoard of pre-Viking hacksilver ever discovered. The finds also included intact artifacts: a crescent-shaped pendant with double-loops at each end, a double-link chain, and two silver hemispheres that may have originally been part of a single piece.

Compared to other two other hacksilver hoards found in Scotland — the Traprain Law hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard — the discovery of so much material left in the ground after the 1838 find gave researchers new insight into the evolution of silver in Scotland since its introduction during the Roman era.

Silver was not mined in Scotland during this period, instead it had its origins in the Hacksilber from the late Roman world, as exemplified by the Traprain Law hoard. The differing compositions of individual objects in the three Scottish Hacksilber hoards will show how, through time, late Roman silver was recycled and re-cast into high-status objects that underpinned the development of elite society in the post-Roman period. During the process of recycling, the Roman silver was remade into new objects, but its origin may not have been entirely forgotten. Some of these later objects may have also directly referenced the late antique world, with items such as hand-pins showing the adaptation of late Roman military styles, both in terms of design and decorative techniques. As Gavin notes, the use of Roman models may have been intended to evoke military prowess and ostentation amongst elites in early medieval Britain and Ireland.

You can read the full report of the investigation and discoveries in the journal Antiquity.

Bones in Trondheim well confirm Norwegian saga

Monday, June 13th, 2016

On November 17th, 2014, archaeologists from The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research unearthed a skeleton at the bottom of a well on the grounds of Sverresborg, the castle of King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway (r. 1177–1202). Bones had been found there before in 1938, but they weren’t removed or studied. The well was refilled to preserve the remains. Then World War II and the German occupation of the area blocked further archaeological investigation. The 2014 dig was the first time archaeologists returned to the spot in the hope there was still something left to excavate. There was.

The location of the remains was notable because it matched a story in the Sverris Saga, one of a series of sagas that recount the lives of historic kings of Norway. There are few other sources for the history of this period, so any evidence that might corroborate one the accounts in the Kings’ sagas is exciting.

From 1130 to 1240, Norway was gripped by civil wars in which pretenders and puppets of various factions vied for the throne. Sverre claimed the throne on the grounds that he was the illegitimate son of King Sigurd II Haraldsson who was killed by his brother in 1155. Magnus V Erlingsson had been installed as king in 1161 when he was five years old. His father Erling Skakke held the real power when his son was a child and after he’d reached his majority, fighting off pretenders with even more tenuous claims than Sverre’s.

Supported by Swedish earls and a Norwegian rebel party known as the Birkebeiner (birch bark shoe-wearers), Sverre challenged Magnus and in 1177 declared himself king. The king and his father begged to differ, however, and it took another seven years before Magnus was finally defeated and killed in the Battle of Fimreite on June 15th, 1184, and Sverre was elected king.

Sverre and the Birkebeiner were proponents of a strong centralized monarchy that brought the Church to heel as well as secular potentates. His choice to build Sverresborg on a plateau in the city of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim), see of the archdiocese and center of Christian Norway, was a pointed one. The Archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson, had fled to England in 1180 and remained there until 1183. Sverre took advantage of his absence to build the castle. Conflict between the archdiocese and the king was abated for a few years only to flare up again in 1188 with Eysteinn’s death and the appointment of Eirik Ivarsson as his replacement.

Conflict between the Church and its supporters and the king and his supporters continued throughout Sverre’s reign. In 1197, a pro-Church faction that would later become known as the Baglers attacked Sverresborg when Sverre was wintering in Bergen after a successful but costly assault on Oslo. The small garrison of about 80 men held the castle thanks to its excellent defensive position, but their commander turned coat and let the enemy into Sverresborg.

The event is described in the Sverris Saga:

The [Baglers] seized all the property in the castle, and then they burnt every building of it. They took a dead man and cast into the well, and then filled it up with stones. Before they left the castle they called upon the townsmen to break down all the stone walls; and before they marched from the town they burnt all the King’s long-ships. After this they returned to the Uplands, well pleased with the booty they had gained in their journey.

The skeletal remains found at the bottom of the well in 2014 were indeed covered with stones, just as the saga said. A fragment of bone recovered from the site was radiocarbon dated and found to be about 800 years old, so just the right age to match the story of the Baglers poisoning the castle’s water supply with a dead body. Analysis of the bones indicated they belonged to a man of about 30-40 years of age when he died.

Now the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research has returned to the site to fully excavate the well and the entire skeleton.

The excavation of the stone debris down to the very first stone that hit the Birkebeiner’s body has given the archaeologists additional insight into the nature of events in 1197. In addition, it exposed the timber posts and lining for the large castle well. [...]

“This is truly astonishing. As far as I know there is no known example of the discovery of an individual historically connected with an act of war as far back as the year 1197. And the fact that this actually corroborates an event described in Sverre’s saga is simply amazing,” says lead archaeologist at the site, Anna Petersén.

The Dragon has Newfoundlanded!

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

For the first time in a thousand years, a Viking longship has crossed the North Atlantic. The Draken Harald Hårfagre reached port of St. Anthony in Newfoundland on June 1st. It was not an easy voyage. There’s only a short window in late spring and early summer when crossing the frigid waters of the North Atlantic is possible, and even then conditions are challenging, to put it mildly.

After setting sail from Haugesund, Norway, on April 23rd, the Draken made its first unplanned stop just three days later on Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. One of the ship’s shrouds (rigging connected to the mast) had parted a day after departure so the crew stopped at Lerwick to make the repairs. They had to take down the mast to do it, which is a harder job now than it would have been for the Vikings because they didn’t have electronic equipment on their masts.

On April 27th the Draken set sail again, making for Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands. They arrived May 2nd and had to stay until May 6th waiting for propitious winds. The crew took advantage of the longer stop to examine the 3,200-square-foot silk sail for damage. You can see highlights of the trip from the Shetlands to the Faroes in this video. It’s damn hard going.

The next leg of the voyage took them to Reykjavik, Iceland. The landed in Reykjavik Harbour on May 9th and were again compelled to wait out the wind, this time for a full week. This amazing video features the Captain of the Draken Björn Ahlander in Iceland, talking about how the difficulties of the voyage only strengthened his crew’s bond and pointing out the commonalities between their experience navigating the longship and the Viking’s. There is footage of them sailing in a storm with waves battering the clinker-built ship. In the beginning he’s holding up a piece of Iceland feldspar, the stone his seafaring Viking ancestors used to find the sun even through thick cloud cover. He’s being filmed in Tingvallir, by the way, the place where Iceland’s Althing, or parliament, first met in 930. Tingvallir remained the site of the Icelandic Parliament until 1798. It is now a national park.

The northeasterly wind they were waiting for finally graced them with its presence on the 16th and off the Draken went to Greenland. On May 21st, the reached the harbour of Qaqortoq, southwest Greenland, navigating the same waters Leif Eriksson navigated when he founded the first European settlement on Greenland in around 1000 A.D. The crew made good use of their time there, too. Captain officiated at the wedding of two crew members in the ruins of the early 12th century church in Hvalsey. The last record we have of the Norse settlement in Greenland was a wedding held in that same church between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir on September 14th, 1408.

On May 27th, the Draken set a course for North America. The final leg from Greenland to Newfoundland proved the most difficult. Icebergs, dense fog, harsh and unpredictable winds put the Draken‘s crew of 32 volunteers to the test. Modern water-repellant clothing could not keep them dry, and layers of thick knit sweaters could not keep them warm, but the elements could not break them either. On Wednesday they reached Newfoundland, landing near L’Anse aux Meadows where the remains of a Viking settlement were discovered in 1960.

Soon the valiant Draken and its riders will head inland for Quebec City and its summer tour of the Great Lakes and canals. No more icebergs for the forseeable future.

Huge medieval cemetery found under Cambridge College

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating under the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge, have discovered one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Britain. The first remains on the site were found during renovations to the college’s Victorian building from 2010 to 2012. The discovery was kept under wraps until 2015, when Cambridge announced that archaeologists had unearthed the intact skeletal remains of 400 individuals, plus the disarticulated remains of close to 1,000 more people. The bodies were interred in the cemetery of the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist, the college’s namesake. It was in use between the 13th and 15th centuries and is one of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds ever discovered in Britain.

Historians have known since the mid-20th century that there was likely a cemetery under St John’s College, but they had no idea it was so massive. The hospital was founded by the community in 1195 to care for the indigent. It was a small structure in its infancy, but grew into a large institution that cared not just for the poor, but also for other residents and Cambridge University scholars. While the hospital did have support from the Church, the cemetery was a lay institution and the burials reflect this status in their simplicity. There is very little evidence of clothing or grave goods. A few artifacts have been found but it’s not clear from their positions that they were interred with the bodies. The vast majority of burials were done without coffins, many without even a shroud, likely because of the majority of patients at the hospital were poor.

The intact skeletons were found neatly buried in rows, but they were just the last group buried in those plots. Archaeologists discovered six “cemetery generations” on the site, meaning six complete turnovers of the space. Older remains would be taken to the charnel house or the bones removed to make room for new bodies to be buried in the newly vacated areas. Despite the turnover, archaeologists also found gravel paths, a well and seeds from a number of flowering plants in the cemetery. This indicates the graves were tended to by the community, and the cemetery was less of a boneyard and more of a park-like space where people could pay their respects and grieve their dead. That’s not something you find often in cemeteries of hospitals for the poor.

Also unusual for a medieval charity hospital graveyard is the lack of young women and infants. Out of the identifiable remains, half of them were women, most of them between 25 and 45 years old. Given the high rates of death in childbirth of both mothers and babies at the time, you’d expect to see more of the former and at least some of the latter. Historic research explained this imbalance. In 1250 the hospital promulgated an ordinance that prohibited the care of pregnant women. Its focus was to be “poor scholars and other wretched persons,” as long as said wretched were not carrying future wretches.

The hospital of St John the Evangelist was long said to have been in active use during the Black Death (1348-1350), but archaeologists found no evidence of this. There were no osteological indications of plague on any of the bones and no mass graves of the types most commonly used to dispose quickly of the infectious dead. The dead of St John will nonetheless be of aid to scholars researching the effect of the Black Death on Cambridge. The University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has just received a £1.2 million grant from the Wellcome Trust to study how the plague affected the city.

A spokesman said: “This collaborative project, with Professor John Robb as PI and collaborators Dr Toomas Kivisild, Dr Piers Mitchell, and Mr Craig Cessford, explores the historical effects of major health events such as epidemics.

“It will combine multiple methods (archaeology, history, osteoarchaeology, isotopic and genetic studies of both human and pathogen aDNA) to study the people of medieval Cambridge.

“It will use the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods.

By comparing samples from before and after the Black Death epidemic of 1348-50 for a wide range of social and biological indicators, this new research aims to reveal how the plague changed human well-being, activity, mobility health and the genetic constitution of Europe.

Rare image of Jewish man found on 13th c. pottery fragment

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

A fragment of 13th century pottery unearthed in Teruel, Aragon, eastern Spain, has been identified as a rare depiction of a Jewish man. The fragment was discovered in 2004, one of thousands that were squirreled away for later documentation. It was catalogued in 2011 but the image was only recognized as a Jewish figure this year by archaeologist Antonio Hernandez Pardos. This is a very rare find. Most surviving images of Spanish Jews from the Middle Ages are illuminations in Haggadot or Christian prayer books.

Unusual for pottery decorations from that period, which mostly featured geometric shapes or depiction of flowers, the Teruel fragment shows the lower part of the face of a bearded man wearing a frilled gown that Pardos was able to trace back to Jewish iconography from the period. [...]

The research by Pardos suggests the fragment was part of a work performed by the earliest known potters of Teruel, who were possibly commissioned by a Jewish resident of the area.

Founded in 1170 by Alfonso II of Aragon on the border between his kingdom and Muslim Spain, Teruel flourished during the second third of the 13th century after King James I of Aragon conquered Xarq-al-Andalus, the Levante or eastern region of the Iberian peninsula. Under James I’s relatively enlightened rule, Jews and Moors moved from less tolerant climes and settled in Teruel. The earliest documentary evidence of Jews living in Teruel dates to 1258 when James I confirmed the Jewish community’s tax obligations to the crown. The first written reference to actual members of Teruel’s Jewish community comes 11 years later. It mentions Dueña del Cano and her late husband Samuel Najarí, an important money lender who was one of the crown’s top creditors.

Jews in Teruel thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, engaging in a variety of trades, particularly weaving and dealing wool. Several prominent Jewish scholars lived in Teruel. Things took a dark turn at the end of the 14th century. A delator (informer or denunciator) arrived in 1385, presaging the pogroms and riots of 1391 which spread through Spain like wildfire and resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews and forced conversions of thousands more. That bloody year was a turning point for Jews in Christian Spain. More and more laws were enacted against them, prohibiting money-lending, commerce with Christians, wearing the same clothes as Christians and forcing them into walled Juderías. Many Jews fled south to the more tolerant areas of al-Andalus. The Jewish community of Teruel was diminished but survived until 1492 when the last bastion of Muslim Spain, the Emirate of Grenada, fell and all of Spain’s Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity or expelled from the realm.

The small fragment of pottery is of outsized significance because despite the distinctiveness of the Jewish community in medieval Spain, with its unique legal status, designated living areas and particular religious/cultural traditions, there are few clear markers of Jewishness in the material culture. There’s no immediately identifiable Jewish architecture like there is Islamic architecture, no immediately identifiable ceramic tradition distinct from Christian or Islamic crafts. The exception is in objects of religious meaning and ritual purpose, but everyday things with an unmistakable Jewish identity are very rare in any period, all the more so in the first few decades of Jewish presence in Teruel.

This lacuna widened into a chasm during the Spanish Civil War when Teruel was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Fought over three months from December of 1937 through February of 1938, the Battle of Teruel devastated the city, subjecting it to constant artillery barrages and aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands of people died before the Nationalists finally won. Large sections of the medieval center of the city were destroyed, and what had once been the Jewish Quarter was all but leveled.

The war-damaged areas were extensively developed in subsequent decades. The Jewish Quarter was rediscovered in 1978 when the ruins of a building abutting its central square and three menorahs were unearthed. The structure was built in the mid-14th century when the neighborhood was going through a third phase of improvement. The large cellar built on powerful masonry arches discovered in 1978 was initially believed to be a synagogue because of its impressive size and strength. The Jewish Quarter wasn’t fully explored archaeologically until 2004 when a major urban renewal project in the plaza area provided the first opportunity for a proper archaeological survey of the site. The excavation revealed several layers of pottery fragments which gave archaeologists new insight into the evolution of the neighborhood in the 13th century, from the perspective of both use and production of ceramics.

There are boxes full of fragments from this excavation that haven’t been studied yet. Pardos expects there are more happy surprises to be found in there. His study of the fragment has been published in the journal Sefarad and can be accessed free of charge here (Spanish language pdf).

Lost Boethius songs played again after 1,000 years

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

Music that hasn’t been heard in hundreds of years was performed for the first time in almost a milennium at Pembroke College Chapel, University of Cambridge, on April 23rd. The concert was the culmination of years of research into medieval music notation which reconstructed lost melodies in a collection of songs drawn from philosopher Boethius’ great work The Consolation of Philosophy.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a senator and consul of Rome born in the late 5th century to a patrician family, young Boethius was given an exceptional education, rare at that time even among the scions of wealthy, noble families. He distinguished himself at an early age, holding a number of important offices under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. In 523, it all came crashing down when he was arrested for treasonous conspiracy with Byzantine Emperor Justin I against Theodoric. He was jailed for a year during which he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. He was executed in 524, but his work far outlived him and became a seminal influence on medieval philosophy.

Boethius also happened to be an accomplished mathematician and musician, and wrote another hugely influential treatise on the subject, The Principles of Music, which was still consider the essential text on the mathematics of music as late as the 18th century. Setting the Consolation, Boethius’ most famous work, to music, therefore, was a natural pursuit for medieval scholars. An 11th century manuscript in the Cambridge University Library known as the Cambridge Songs is a collection of texts that were in use at the Canterbury Cathedral Priory at the time. At the back of the book are some Boethian texts and a few of the famous Carmina Burana poems set to music.

The symbols representing the musical notation, called neumes, recorded the melody, not the pitch, and instead of having a one-to-one correspondence between notation and sound, the neumes relied on the aural traditions and memories of the musicians to fill in the details of a melodic outline. Those traditions died off in the 12th century and without the essential contribution of musicians’ knowledge, the music recorded in early medieval manuscripts became unreadable.

Cambridge University’s Dr. Sam Barrett has spent 20 years studying neumes and reconstructing the lost knowledge that made the songs playable. An important piece of the puzzle was a leaf from the Cambridge Songs with Boethius songs that was cut out of the manuscript by a German scholar in the 1840s. He donated it to a Frankfurt library where it remained unremarked upon until 1982 when it was recognized as purloined by historian Margaret Gibson and returned to Cambridge. This rediscovery of this one page was of major import to Barrett’s work because its density of notations allowed him “to achieve a critical mass that may not have been possible without it.”

“After rediscovering the leaf from the Cambridge Songs, what remained was the final leap into sound,” [Barrett] said. “Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem. The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.”

After piecing together an estimated 80-90 per cent of what can be known about the melodies for The Consolation of Philosophy, Barrett enlisted the help of Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia — a three-piece group of experienced performers who have built up their own working memory of medieval song. Bagby, co-founder of Sequentia, is also a director of the Lost Songs Project which is already credited with bringing back to life repertoires from Beowulf through to the Carmina Burana.

Over the last two years, Bagby and Barrett have experimented by testing scholarly theories against the practical requirements of hand and voice, exploring the possibilities offered by accompaniment on period instruments. Working step-by-step, and joined recently by another member of Sequentia, the harpist-singer Hanna Marti, songs from The Consolation of Philosophy have now been brought back to life.

Alas, there is no recording of the April 23rd performance online that I could find. I’ll update the post when there is. Meanwhile, here are two all-too-short excerpts of the reconstructed music. The first piece is played by all three members of Sequentia, from left to right Benjamin Bagby, Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen, the second by Hanna Marti and Norbert Rodenkirchen.

Ethiopia’s oldest wall paintings to be conserved

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

The church of Yemrehanna Kristos in northern Ethiopia was commissioned by and named after a priest-king of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled from about 1087 to 1127. The church was built in the early 12th century in the late Azumite style inside a cave facing northeast on the side of Mount Abuna Yosef in the Lasta Mountains, the church is as beautifully situated as it is remote. The town of Lalibela, later capital of the Zagwe kings of Ethiopia and famous for its rock-hewn churches, is just 12 miles away, but until 15 years ago, Yemrehanna Kristos took a day’s hard ride on a mule to reach. Recently a dirt road was built from Lalibela making the church accessible to 4WD vehicles. Even with a proper Jeep it still takes an hour and a half to get there.

Yemrehanna Kristos was a major site of pilgrimage, especially for people on the verge of death. Inside the cave behind the church are the bones of an estimated 10,000 people who journeyed from everywhere around Ethiopia and as far as Egypt and Syria to die at the holy site. Monks and priests live in the cave, some in a second building beyond the church, others sleeping on woven cots in the open cave.

The building itself is one of the best-preserved late Axumite churches in the country. The walls are made of timber beams alternating with white plastered stone which give them a striped look. The windows are covered with intricately carved wooden lattices. The design of the church’s interior is a simple central nave with an aisle on each side, divided by masonry pillars and arches. Every piece of wood on the inside of the church is painted. The ceilings are decorated with polychrome painted geometric designs. Scenes from the Bible are painted on the walls.

These murals are the oldest surviving wall paintings in Ethiopia, but they weren’t even published internationally until 2001 because between the layers of dirt on the surface and the darkness of the interior of the cave, they’re hard to see.

The figurative images are mainly New Testament scenes, many of which are now barely legible because of an accumulation of dirt. They include a depiction of the arrival in Egypt of the Holy Family, who are welcomed by an angel. Mary rides a donkey, with Joseph walking behind, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. The wooden ceiling is decorated with 17 painted medallions of animal motifs: wild beasts, birds, an elephant, a winged creature, a scorpion and a dragon. Other wall paintings have geometric designs.

The murals and church are in dire need of the tender attentions of conservators. Earthquake tremors have weakened the structure, putting cracks in the walls and damaging the priceless decoration. Previous inexpert and undocumented attempts at restoration have coated the murals with a layer of varnish, now darkened, and a rough cleaning attempt left brush marks on the surface.

Last fall, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to fund an 18 month-long structural analysis of the church, interior and exterior. Laser scanning and motion monitors will hopefully pinpoint the source of the movement in the building and identify areas of top concern. The WMF will work with the Ethiopian Heritage Fund (EHF) on the project.

The initial investigation will include in-situ microscopy, along with ultra-violet and infra-red examinations. Paint samples will be tested, partly to determine the original pigments and media used and to identify added materials. There will be small-scale cleaning trials, to test which materials should be used. Monitoring sensors will be installed to record temperature and humidity changes. A separate team from the University of Cape Town will undertake a laser scan survey to create a three-dimensional data model of the church and cave, to map structural movement.

Once they have the data, they will conserve the paintings for the first time under contemporary professional conditions. If all goes well, conservation will begin by October of this year and continue through early next year. The objectives will be to stop the paint from flaking and to clean the murals thoroughly.

Viking longship sets sail for North America

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Draken Harald Hårfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair, named after the first King of Norway), an ocean-worthy Viking longship, set sail early this morning from Norway on a daring voyage that will retrace the steps of great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, the first European to cross the Atlantic and set foot on the American continent.

Sponsored by Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase, construction on the vessel began in 2010 in Haugesund, Norway. It isn’t an exact replica of an extant Viking ship. While replicas of excavated ships have been made, they don’t work very well on the ocean because the originals were burial ships. They could be rowed, but they weren’t meant for the ocean voyages that took the Vikings across half the world. So instead of relying exclusively on archaeological remains, the builders of the Draken Harald Hårfagre combined traditional Norwegian boatbuilding knowledge, a living craft with deep roots going back to the Viking era, with archaeology — the 9th century Gokstad ship was one particular inspiration — and descriptions in the Norse sagas. It is an open clinker-built ship with an oak hull, Douglas fir mast, hemp rigging and a silk sail. At 115 feet long, 27 feet wide with 50 oars and a 3,200-square-foot sail, the Draken Harald Hårfagre is largest Viking ship built in modern times.

The aim from the beginning has been to create an operating Viking ship. That means roughing it in a serious way. There’s no under deck where the crew can rest and take shelter from the elements, just a large tent where 16 people at a time sleep in four hours shifts. The only space underneath the deck is a shallow space just large enough to carry ballast and food. The food is cooked is an open air kitchen on the deck, the ancestor of the galley discovered on the 15th century Dutch cog that was raised earlier this year.

The ship was completed in 2012. The first sea trials were held in the fjords of Norway and after some adjustments were made, it set sail on its maiden overseas voyage in July of 2014 to Wallasey, in Merseyside, northwest England, which has a strong Viking history. The mast broke and the crew had to replace it in Wallasey, but they made it work. After three weeks of repairs, the ship sailed back to Norway via the Isle of Man, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland without a hitch.

All of this was essential practice for the big show: the transatlantic voyage to North America. On April 23rd, the epic voyage was inaugurated with a Dragon’s Head Ceremony in which the dragon head so associated with Viking ships was mounted for the first time.

The dragon’s head is traditionally not mounted until departure for longer journeys and its purpose is to protect the ship and the crew from sea monsters, bad weather, evil creatures and unforeseen raids. The ships mythological head is uncovered in the ceremony, and the great adventure of sailing the historical route from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the USA will be wished fair winds and following seas.

The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube to the delight of history nerds everywhere.

The America Expedition is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Captain Björn Ahlander and a crew of 32 damn hardy men and women selected from 4,000 applicants have embarked on a voyage of 6,000 miles that will taken them to Iceland, Greenland, through the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, then to Quebec City, Toronto and into the US via the Great Lakes. The first US port of call will be Fairport, Ohio, and then on to Tall Ship festivals in Bay City, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. Then it will head back east again through the Great Lakes, the canals of New York State to the Hudson River. Yes, a Viking longship will be going through canal locks. The sail is coming down for that part, obviously. After a stop in New York City in September, the Draken Harald Hårfagre will winter at the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

You can follow the voyage in real time on the expedition’s website and get updates from its Facebook page. If you’re interested in the construction and operation of the ship, check out its fascinating YouTube channel.

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

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