Barrel of iron lumps raised from 16th c. shipwreck

A wooden barrel full of wrought iron lumps known as osmonds has been raised from a 16th century shipwreck off the Baltic coast of Sweden. The discovery of a large amount of osmond iron is rare, with only three other wrecks known, and this is the only shipwreck ever found in Sweden laden with one of its greatest exports.

On Friday, May 24, the barrel with osmotic iron was lifted out of the water for the first time in nearly 500 years, in front of a mass media gathering. The barrel, which is partially broken and where the load is visible, will now be taken care of by a conservator and further examined. Among other things, they hope to find out what the Osmunds were used for and where they were going when the ship sank.

“Now that the barrel is up, it’s very nice. It was incredibly difficult to get it out and get it off – the barrel is so heavy and [the wreck is at] a great depth,” says museum wreck marine archaeologist Jim Hansson, project manager.

The ship, dubbed the Osmond Wreck after its cargo, was discovered in 2017 by maritime archaeologists from Vrak, Museum of Wrecks, north of Dalarö in the Stockholm archipelago. The wreck was a clinker-built ship of a design characteristic of medieval construction. It was in unusually good condition for a clinker built vessel, its mainmast still standing, all the rigging intact, cargo still in place. It was clear from the first dive that most of the cargo was a rare find: barrels full of fist-sized lumps of iron. Out of the 30 visible barrels at the site, 20 of them contained osmond iron lumps averaging 300 grams each. There were also barrels of tar, ash and butter in the ship’s hold.

Dendrochronological analysis of the wreck’s timbers and the wood of the barrels date the ship’s construction to the 1540s in Stockholm. The deck was repaired around 1553 with wood felled in southern Finland. It did not sail long after the repair, so archaeologists believe it sank in the 1550s or 1560s.

Osmond iron was the first furnace-cast iron produced in Europe, and Sweden was the early center of production. It was one Sweden’s most important exports from the 14th century until 1620 when King Gustavus Adolphus prohibited the export of unfinished iron so he could turn it into field artillery and weapons for Sweden’s new and much stronger military.

Despite the immense significance of osmond iron to Sweden’s industrial and economic history, very little is known about the practicalities of the trade, the ships that were used, the maritime routes, the production process and the quality and composition of the iron itself. Vrak is working with Jernkontoret, the Swedish iron and steel producers’ association, to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to study 16th century iron.

The purpose of the new project is, among other things, to find out more about the cargo’s history: Do all osmunds come from the same place? Is it true that all osmunds should be the same size, as historical sources indicate? Through the salvage, the researchers hope to get many more clues to the early Swedish iron handling and how it worked. 

Napoleonic Wars soldiers’ graffiti found on Dover Castle door

A wooden door covered in more than 50 carvings from soldiers garrisoned there from the wars of the French Revolution through the mid-19th century has been discovered at Dover Castle. Graffiti include initials, surnames, dates, a large single-masted sailing ship and nine men hanging from gallows.

First built shortly after 1066 to defend the Strait of Dover, the shortest sea crossing between England and mainland Europe and therefore an inestimably valuable strategic position, Dover Castle took its permanent form under Henry II. The great keep, towers, inner and outer baileys were completed by 1188. St. John’s Tower was added under Henry III after 1217.

The castle’s fortunes declined in the Civil War period (1642-5), and it began to be used as a prison for captured French and Spanish soldiers in the wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They passed the time carving graffiti on the walls. Dover Castle was revived as a defensive fortress in the Georgian period as tensions rose between Britain and France.

A new construction program restored the crumbling buildings and erected new barracks to house infantrymen in the 1750s. Come the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, military engineers completely redesigned the outer defenses to protect the castle from modern artillery and converted the Great Tower into a massive magazine for gunpowder, shot, shells and other supplies. Thousands of soldiers were garrisoned there.

The door with the carvings was originally on an upper floor of St. John’s Tower. During Dover Castle’s revival, it was guarded at all times by six to 12 men, one or two of them manning the top room repurposed as a watchtower because of its a commanding view of the exposed northern flank of the castle. The guards were armed with knives, perhaps bayonets, and they put their sharpened ends to good use decorating the old door.

The plank door was rediscovered several years ago. It had long been inaccessible without using a ladder to reach the base of a spiral staircase. Covered in several thick coats of paint, the graffiti were not immediately evident. It was only when the door was removed for conservation and the old paint layers stripped that the engraved treasure they were concealing was revealed.

The St John’s Tower door contains around 50 pieces of carved graffiti. These include: three dates: 1789, the date of the French Revolution; 1798, a period of rebuilding in the castle; and 1855, when changes were planned to the tower. There are also many sets of people’s initials and two surnames: Downam and Hopper/Hooper. At least nine contain gruesome illustrations of hangings, a strange and macabre repetition, including one example where a man wears a military uniform and a bicorne hat. It is possible that this could be a depiction of a real hanging, as hangings were known to take place in Dover and did serve as morbid entertainment, or perhaps even a representation of Napoleon himself. Also present is a detailed and accurate carving of single-masted sailing ship, most likely an 8-gun cutter which was a fast vessel used by the Royal Navy, the Revenue Service, smugglers and privateers. Another curious symbol which depicts a glass or chalice for wine, surmounted by an elaborated cross, may be a representation of Christian holy communion.

The door was removed from its original location for conservation and stabilization. Old coats of paint, added after the graffiti was carved, were removed. The wood of the door was cleaned and treated for long-term preservation. It will go on display in July at Dover Castle’s new exhibition, Dover Under Siege. In addition to viewing the door, visitors to the exhibition will have the chance to walk the castle’s northern defenses, casements and its medieval and Georgian underground tunnels.

Walker steps on 2,150 medieval silver coins in Czech Republic

A woman taking a walk through a field in Kutnohorsk, a city 50 miles southeast of Prague, stumbled on a few silver coins that turned out to be the advance guard of one of the largest early medieval coin hoards ever found in the Czech Republic. She reported the find to heritage authorities and archaeologists were dispatched to scan the field with metal detectors and then excavate the areas of interest. They ultimately unearthed more than 2,150 silver deniers minted by Bohemian rulers King Vratislav II. and princes Břetislav II. and Bořivoje II, between 1085 and 1107.

Archaeologists believe the hoard was buried in the first quarter of the 12th century, a turbulent period characterized by various members of the Přemyslid dynasty, rulers of Bohemia, fighting each other over the ducal throne. Duke of Bohemia Vratislaus II was granted the royal title of King of Bohemia by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1085, but it was not an inherited title and his brothers, nephews and sons squabbled constantly over who got what title. After his death, the throne of Bohemia was a carousel of expulsions, assassinations and competing claims from Přemyslid cousins, brothers and uncles.

The hoard was originally buried in a ceramic container, but over the centuries the vessel was destroyed by plowing. Archaeologists were only able to find the bottom of it, but it is evidence that this fortune in coins was amassed and buried in one deposit, even though the deniers were later scattered.

“The coins were most likely minted in the Prague mint from silver that was imported to Bohemia at the time ,” says Lenka Mazačová, director of the Czech Silver Museum in Kutnohorsk.

The deniers were made from a mint alloy, which, in addition to silver, also contains copper, lead and trace amounts of other metals. Determining this particular composition can also help determine the origin of the silver used.

“Unfortunately, for the turn of 11th-12th century, we lack data on the purchasing power of the contemporary coin. But it was a huge amount, unimaginable for an ordinary person and at the same time unaffordable. It can be compared to winning a million in the jackpot ,” explains Filip Velímský.

Due to the frequent battles for the Prague princely throne, the armies of individual rival princes repeatedly marched through today’s Kutnohorsk Region. Experts do not rule out the possibility that the found depot represents cash for paying wages or war booty.

The coins are now being examined by experts from the Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, and the Czech Silver Museum in Kutnohorsk. Each coin will be recorded, cleaned, photographed and assessed for any conservation needs. The coins will also be X-rayed and subjected to spectral analysis to determine their metal composition. Once all the work has been completed and a full catalogue of the hoard created, the hoard will be exhibited to the public in the Czech Silver Museum, hopefully by the summer of 2025.

Remains of saint’s reliquary found in church crypt

The remains of the reliquary of St. Svithun, long believed to have been sent to Denmark and melted down 500 years ago, have been found in the crypt of the church dedicated to him in Stavanger, Norway.

The find consists of a gilded copper plate measuring five by ten centimeters with small holes along the edges which indicate that it has been attached to a larger object, for example a wooden plate. The archaeologists see this in connection with a gilded silver medallion with an animal motif, and several decorative glass gems.

“We were very surprised when we carried out an X-ray examination of the copper plate. The image clearly reveals a church building with tower and roof, columns and windows,” says conservator Bettina Ebert.

According to the archaeologists, all these finds can be connected to the reliquary of St. Svithun.

St. Swithun was the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester from 852 until his death in 863. His remains were translated to a shrine inside the new cathedral at Winchester a century later, and so many miracles occurred during and after the move that the Winchester monks lodged a protest at having to drop everything and go to church to celebrate every time a miracle happened, even multiple times a night. They gave up when Swithun appeared in a dream and told them they had to go to church or he’d stop doing miracles. He was thereafter canonized a saint by popular acclaim.

His relics were translated again when the new Norman cathedral was built in 1093, and while most of the core set remained there, some of his bones were shared with other parishes and shrines in the Middle Ages. The Winchester shrine and St. Swithun’s remains were destroyed in the frenzy of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1538.

Stavanger got the saint’s arm bone because its first bishop, Bishop Reinald, came to the newly-established bishopric from Winchester and began construction of its cathedral in around 1100. Contemporary sources say Reinald already had the arm in Stavanger in 1112. The cathedral was completed in 1125.

The excavation of the basement of the church was triggered by the chance discovery of a 700-year-old ivory figurine of Melchior, one of the Three Kings, kneeling before the Christ Child. The follow-up investigation unearthed an ivory of the Virgin Mary. They were parts of two different altarpieces.

Many precious objects followed the discovery of the ivory figurines: gilded fragments of liturgical objects, hundreds of pieces from the old stained glass windows, a burial chamber, likely of a bishop, a woven gold band from the fine vestments of a church official, the papal seal of Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303), and an enameled metalwork fitting with an intricate geometric decoration. Also found in the excavation were 160 coin and bracteates plus 60 fragments of coins and bracteates. This is Stavanger’s largest ever medieval coin discovery. More utilitarian objects from daily life were uncovered as well, like a tablespoon and an ear spoon.

While there is no detailed description of the reliquary that held the holy humerus (or ulna, or radius), reliquaries shaped like churches studded with colorful gem-like stones were popular in medieval Norway. That means somebody defied the Reformation zealots who busted up the cathedral’s stained glass windows for their idolatrous Catholic imagery and secreted the saint’s relics under the North Tower to keep them from being destroyed.

“In terms of quantity and significance, the finds in the basement have exceeded all expectations and reflect more than 1,000 years of Stavanger’s history. They demonstrate the cathedral and city’s clerical wealth and contact with Rome in a way not previously seen in the archaeological material,” [excavation leader Sean] Denham says.

Visitors will be able to see these treasures and more in the museum’s 2025 exhibition celebrating the cathedral’s 900th anniversary.

The Stone of Destiny was a doorstep

The Stone of Destiny, the oblong block red sandstone used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs until it was snatched by King Edward I in 1296 and used in the coronation of English and British monarchs thereafter, started out as a step or threshold. A recent analysis of the 335-pound stone found the wear pattern on top of the stone was likely caused by many a foot treading upon it rather than by many royal butts perched upon or over it.

The first historical record of the Stone of Destiny being used for a coronation is Alexander III’s in 1249. It was reportedly covered in gold silk cloth, so its heavily worn surface was obscured from view. When Edward Longshanks pillaged it, he had it built in to his throne at Westminster, so again the stepped-upon surface was not visible. It was officially returned to Scotland in 1996 and displayed in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle with other Scottish regalia.

It left Scotland again last year for a very brief stint back inside Edward’s throne for the coronation of Charles III. Before its departure, researchers examined the stone in detail using digital technology to scan the surface, revealing the wear pattern of steps that can’t be seen at a glance. This indicates it had a long history of non-coronation use, perhaps as the step to a monumental structure like an early church or maybe even a Roman building.

Dr Nicki Scott, Senior Cultural Significance Advisor at HES, said: “While we know some inauguration rituals did involve the individual being inaugurated to step onto the stone, such as at Dunadd Hillfort, the level of wear on the Stone of Destiny doesn’t support such use.

“Even several hundred years of such a ritual wouldn’t create the level of wear we see. It’s more likely that the stone had earlier served as a step, although we don’t know the context for this.”

Professor Dauvit Broun, Chair of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, who contributed to the new interpretation at Perth Museum, said: “The evidence is quite compelling. It means that, at some point, the Stone was repurposed as an inaugural throne.

Unfortunately there are no surviving origin stories with a plausible kernel of truth that could help explain the scientific findings. The legends about the Stone of Destiny all claim exotic provenance and quasi-miraculous journeys from distant lands. One of the myths about the stone is that it was “Jacob’s pillow,” the stone Jacob laid his head on when he dreamt about the ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:10-18). Another says that it was transported to Tara in Ireland by the daughter of a pharaoh and then brought to Scone by Kenneth MacAlpin, the legendary founder of Scotland.

After the coronation of Charles III, the stone returned not to Edinburgh, but to its ancient homeland in Perth for the first time in 700 years. It is now the centerpiece of the new Perth Museum.