Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Faces of medieval Scotland

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

In 2009, preparatory work for the Edinburgh Trams project unearthed approximately 400 medieval and early modern burials under Constitution Street. The site had once been part of the South Leith Parish Church graveyard in the port town of Leith (incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920) but had fallen into disuse centuries earlier and was quickly forgotten. In 1790 the Church Council declared they knew of no bodies buried in that location when Constitution Street was built to provide better access to the harbor. The archaeological survey was done because the Constitution Street area was close to the city center of early medieval Leith and to the town’s defenses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The discovery of so many human remains outside the wall of the existing graveyard, therefore, was an unexpected and potentially important source of information about how people lived in died in medieval Leith.

A comprehensive study of the bones ensued, complete with forensic examinations, isotope analysis and facial reconstructions of all the bodies where there were sufficient remains to make it possible. In the final tally, there were 302 complete burials with partial remains of at least 100 more people discovered. Thirty-three of the bodies were dated. They all pre-date 1640 with the earliest dating to 1315. The South Leith Parish Church was founded as St Mary’s Chapel almost two centuries later in 1483, and 33% of the burials happened before that date, which means this church was built on the site of a pre-existing one.

The 1640 cut-off may be related to the Plague of 1645 which killed 2,700 people, half the population of Leith. The South Leith Parish Church played an important role in implementing sanitary measures and in the care of the sick during the plague, but its graveyard couldn’t handle the burial of half the city nor would the center of town be an ideal location for large plague pits. Then the Civil War happened. The church was occupied and used as a powder magazine by Parliamentary troops from 1650 until 1657. It was subsequently restored to ecclesiastical use, but the one-two punch of plague and war may explain why the burials stopped and were all but erased from memory.

Researchers determined that the people buried in this part of the churchyard were shorter than the UK average of 164cm for women and 171cm for men. The average height of the women was 155cm (5’1″) while the men averaged 169cm (5’5.5″). The overwhelming majority (90%) died before the age of 35 and 32% of the deceased were children, particularly older children aged 7-12. Isotope analysis on the remains of 18 bodies found that 80% were very much local having been raised in the Leith/Edinburgh area. The rest were only slightly less local, having been raised within a radius of 15-30 miles.

Most were buried in single graves, interred in wooden coffins or wrapped in shrouds. Three communal graves were found in which women were buried with children. One woman was found buried with a neonate across her pelvis, which means she probably died late in her pregnancy or in childbirth.

The facial reconstructions done by post-graduate students at the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art course personalize all these facts and figures.

By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.


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Intact Merovingian necropolis found in Normandy

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Archaeologists have unearthed 300 intact Merovingian-era graves at Saint-Aubin-des-Champs in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy. The presence of a necropolis on the site was first recognized during a preliminary survey last year in anticipation of construction of a housing development. Excavations began this March. They found the cemetery was complete — the enclosure delineating the full perimeter of the grounds was identified — and undisturbed with 300 burials of men, women and children from the 5th through the 7th centuries.

The burials were found at different depths up to five feet below the surface. The deceased were buried in wooden coffins (all of them now decayed into nothingness leaving only the shape behind) and almost all of the graves contain the remains of clothing and some artifacts. A third of the burials contain a particularly rich array of grave goods. These date to the 5th century, as identified by the artifacts.

One burial stands out for its fabulous accouterments. The skeleton of adult male was found buried with 20 objects, among them ceramic vessels, glassware, a bronze bowl, an intact wooden bucket with bronze strapping, an axe, a spear, a dagger at his waist, shoes on his feet and a silver coin in his mouth. The later the tombs the fewer the artifacts (a side effect of the growth of Christianity) and the 7th century tombs have no grave goods at all, solely bronze or iron belt buckles.

Initial osteological analysis confirmed that the burials include people of all ages and genders, with the exception of very young children. This could be the result of smaller, shallower graves having been disturbed over the centuries, or it could be a cultural practice. Infants and small children in antiquity and the early Middle Ages were sometimes buried within the boundaries of the home property rather than in the town cemetery.

Archaeologists believe the necropolis was the cemetery of a small village. Burials ceased at the end of the 7th century and the cemetery was abandoned, probably in favor of new Christian cemeteries. In the 7th century a monastery was built on the site of the current church of Saint-Pierre Évrecy. It is likely to have had an associated cemetery that may have supplanted the former community burial ground.

The necropolis is a very important find. There are no historical sources that refer to it and looters were blessedly unaware of its existence as well, leaving the grave goods in stellar condition and giving archaeologists the rare opportunity to study three centuries of undisturbed burials in context. This is a very thinly documented period of history, so the discovery is an invaluable resource.

Archaeologists plan a comprehensive study the cemetery in the hope that it will illuminate the life of the community as well as the burial practices of the region during the transitional period between traditional Roman religion and Christian dominance.

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British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

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13th c. frescoes in Rome monastery opened to public

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

The Augustinian monastery complex of Santi Quattro Coronati on the north slope of Rome’s Caelian Hill has a rich history dating to the earliest days of the Christian city. Construction of the first church was begun by Pope Miltiades in the 4th century on top of an aristocratic villa. It was one of the earliest Christian churches in Rome and its location made it one of the most important.

Miltiades was pope from 311 to 314 A.D., a short but incredibly pivotal time in Church history since it saw Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius under the sign of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312. It was Pope Miltiades who first moved into the Lateran Palace after Constantine gave it to him around 313. The basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati is a five minute walk from the Lateran Palace, so by the time construction was complete in the 6th century, the church was closely associated with the papacy.

It was expanded and renovated by subsequent popes over the centuries, with more buildings added including a palace for the basilica’s titular cardinal. Much of the church was burned down in the 11th century during the Norman sack of Rome, but the original apse still stands and was incorporated into the new church built by Pope Paschal II. In the 13th century the cardinal’s residence was enlarged and reinforced by Cardinal Stefano Conti, Vicarius Urbis, so it could provide protection for the princes of the Church during the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

It was during that 13th century renovation that some artistically and historically significant frescoes were painted. On the ground floor of the fortified side of the basilica, the Chapel of Saint Sylvester was adorned with legendary scenes from the life of Pope Sylvester I and one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Donation of Constantine. On the second floor is a large hall that became known as the Gothic Hall because of the arch vaulting of the roof. It was decorated with 800 square meters of primarily profane topics like the Zodiac and Constellations, the Four Seasons, the Twelve Months, the Ages of Man, a seascape, the Liberal Arts and a panel of saints with the Virtues on their shoulders and the Vices under their feet. King Solomon, the wise judge, in the center position suggests the hall may have been used as a court of law as well as for feasting and banqueting.

The basilica and the cardinal’s palace in particular were nearly abandoned when the papacy moved to Avignon in the 14th century. The buildings were restored by Cardinal Alfonso Carillo when the pope returned to Rome during the papacy of Martin V starting in 1417, but when the Papal Court moved from the Lateran Palace to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in the mid-15th century, Santi Quattro Coronati never recovered its former importance. In 1564, the complex was given to Augustinian nuns and became the monastery it still is to this day.

Damaged by earthquakes, neglect, refurbishment that knocked holes in the walls and painted layer upon layer of plaster and solid color over the frescoes, the great Gothic Hall lost its magnificent frescoes. In 1995, a chance discovery revealed that parts of the 13th century frescoes were still there underneath the overpaint. It took a full decade of restoration by Rome’s Superintendence for Cultural Heritage to repair the damage that could be repaired. In 2007, 300 square meters of the original 800 were restored as close to their former glory as possible. Very few frescoes from this period have survived in Rome, so their rediscovery and restoration is a big deal. (See this article for a wonderful description of the frescoes.)

They couldn’t be opened to the public, however, because it’s still an active cloistered monastery. In order to make the Gothic Hall accessible, parts of the cloister needed to be restored and all the public traffic areas closed off so the presence of tourists would not violate the sisters’ religious isolation. That took another seven years and 150,000 euros donated by Arcus.

Now for the first time in its existence, the Gothic Hall can be seen by members of the general public. The hall will be open two days a month, with one group of no more than 20 visitors allowed in every hour from 8:30 – 12:30 and 2:30 – 4:30.

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Medieval longstone in Norway felled by grass edger

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Northern Norway’s tallest stone monolith was knocked down and broken into three pieces by a grass edger last month. The stone had stood in a field on the island of Engeløya in the municipality of Steigen for more than 1,000 years, towering 10 feet above the ground. Its exact date is unknown, but burials found at the site of other phallic stones date them to the Scandinavian Iron Age, 200-600 A.D., significantly before the Viking era.

Located 550 yards south of the picturesque 13th century Steigen Church, it marked the boundary line between two of the village’s biggest farms, Laskestad and Steig, although it long predates the existence of both farms. It may have been a grave marker originally, local legend says to an ancient king. It’s one of the area’s top tourist attractions and claims to fame.

Now its great height is halved and prostrate on the grass, while its stump alone is still vertical, buried in a hole, the glacier blue of the stone’s interior, once modestly covered by grey weathering and yellow lichen, lies exposed in the open wound. The subcontractor hired to cut the grass near the roadside where the monolith stood bumped into the stone and it broke at the base. He told the mayor that the stone was so delicate even the vibration of the edger was almost sufficient to topple it.

Obviously it was an accident, not a deliberate act of vandalism, but the longstone is a protected monument and damaging it is a violation of Norway’s Cultural Heritage Act. The stone was specifically described in the contract, however, so there’s a negligence element here. Mesta AS, the state-owned construction and civil engineering company who employed the subcontractor, is now in the legal cross-hairs. Egil Murud, culture protection chief of Nordland county, announced Wednesday that her office has written a report to be delivered Thursday, July 17th. Mesta AS will have to account for itself in court.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and conservators from the Tromsø University Museum have documented the broken pieces and wrapped them to contain any chipping. The question of what to do next is still open. Theoretically it is possible to join the sections by drilling holes in the stone and inserting stainless steel bolts into them. It’s a very invasive solution, however, and the stone is quite thin compared to its height and it’s very heavy, so the bolts may not even work. Other options are being considered, including creating a copy to stand in the original location while the pieces are moved to the Steigen village square where they would lie flat, or putting the pieces on display at the Tromsø Museum.

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Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

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Welsh Castles from the Clouds

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Cadw, the Wales’ Historic Environment Service, has launched a neat new initiative as part of its Time Traveller campaign to inspire interest in Welsh history and encourage tourism to Welsh historic sites. It’s a video series called Castles from the Clouds, so named because some of Wales finest castles are filmed by a remote controlled drone carrying high resolution cameras. The videos are short but sweet, providing sweeping bird’s eye view vistas of the castles.

So far there are four videos uploaded to the Cadw YouTube channel, with more to come.

Laugharne Castle:

Laugharne Castle was built in the 13th century on top of a 12th century Norman earth and timber fortification by the de Brian family. It was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last sovereign prince of Wales. Most of what stands today are the remains of a Tudor-era mansion built by Sir John Perrot who was reputed to be one of Henry VIII’s bastards. In 1644, it was besieged for a week and captured by Parliamentary troops. Already severely damaged by cannon fire, after its capture the castle was slighted (deliberately destroyed in whole or in part) leaving it in ruins. Those ruins inspired Dylan Thomas who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in the castle’s garden gazebo overlooking the estuary of the River Tâf.

Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle was watershed (no pun intended) in the history of castle construction. Built by Gilbert de Clare in the 13th century, the castle is encircled by a series of concentric walls and is surrounded by elaborate water defenses, artificial lakes and moats created by the damming a local stream. It’s the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor is number one). By the late 15th century the castle was in decline. By the 18th several towers had collapsed and the waters receded. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the castle was given to the state that the water defenses were re-flooded. One tower still standing today leans even more than a certain tower in Pisa.

Kidwelly Castle:

Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle that began as a ringwork castle in the 12th century. The stone castle was built in the mid-13th century by the de Chaworth family with the outer defenses added in the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Henry VII gave it to Rhys ap Thomas who had fought for him ably at the Battle of Bosworth. You might recognize it from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

St Davids Bishop’s Palace:

St Davids Bishop’s Palace began life as a monastery in the 6th century. The Norse raiders made a meal of it at least 10 times over the next four centuries. The Normans built a motte and bailey fortification to protect the holy site which held the relics of St. David, patron saint of Wales. A succession of bishops in the late 13th and 14th centuries built the stone structures. Bishop Henry de Gower built the cathedral in the 14th century, including the Great Hall with its beautiful wheel window.

Another bishop, Bishop William Barlow, is largely responsible for its ruin. Initially a Augustinian prior, he became prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation and an active participant in the Dissolution of Monasteries. In 1536, he stripped the Palace’s lead roof to raise money for his daughters’ dowries. Without a roof, the palace began to fall apart. By the 17th century it was considered a derelict hulk unfit for repair.

Subscribe to Cadw’s channel to see new Castles from the Clouds videos as they’re uploaded.

As a dedicated aficionado of coloring (no, I never grew out of it and never will), I must point you towards another aspect of Cadw’s Time Traveller campaign, the printable coloring sheets of Welsh heroes and (there’s one heroine but she’s a rather passive, tragic one). They’re very simple line drawings suitable for crayon work and young colorers. I’d love to see them add more intricate examples.

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Rare 7th c. silver bowl found in western Netherlands

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Leiden University archaeologists have unearthed a rare and beautiful silver bowl from the from the early 7th century in Oegstgeest, a town in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands. It was discovered just over a year ago, on June 4th, 2013, during the excavation of village from the 6th and 7th century on the banks of the Rhine. The find wasn’t announced for a year to allow the team to complete the excavation without interference from treasure hunters and lookie-loos.

The silver bowl itself dates to late antiquity, probably around 300-500 A.D., and is decorated with plant and animal figures in gold leaf. On the inside, three large trees or plants go from the base of the bowl to a border frieze. The plants divide the frieze into three sections separated by rosettes. Each section features animal figures running, one set appears to be three deer, another is two bucks and a dog, the third is two mythological animals, one of which appears to be carrying a human leg in its mouth. These decorative motifs suggest the bowl was originally manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.

It’s the elaborate gold and garnet appliqués that date to the first half of the 7th century. The base of the bowl is inset with a central disc that has garnets inlaid in a cross pattern. Between the garnets are swirls made of knotted gold wire. Tiny versions of the swirls decorate the border of the disc. There are two mounts with suspension rings added to the outside of the bowl. They too are gold with garnet accents and swirls of knotted gold wire. The style of decoration is from the German Rhineland (except for the suspension rings which are more in keeping with English and Scandinavian styles), so someone took an expensive Eastern bowl and made it even more expensive by adding Germanic gold accents.

The rings are characteristic of hanging bowls and the handsome interior decoration would certainly be more effectively shown off if the bowl were suspended with the interior visible. However, in order to hang evenly the bowl would have needed a third ring and there’s no evidence of a third mount on the bowl, not even rivet holes. It’s possible the piece was in the process of being manufactured, which would make it a very rare artifact captured mid-production.

The bowl was presumably used as a drinking vessel or a wash basin initially, but at some point a small hole was made in the base of the bowl from the outside in. The hole would have made it impossible for the bowl to hold liquids without leaking and it seems to have been done on purpose.

The ancient village was criss-crossed by several small waterways leading to and from the Rhine. The bowl was found in one of those small waterways, and archaeologists believe it was deliberately deposited as a sacrifice.

Researchers are assuming that the bowl, which is 21 centimetres wide and 11 centimetres high, was buried as part of a ritual sacrifice. Such gilded discoveries are extremely rare. This one is exceptional because such bowls were usually made of bronze. In addition, they were not, as a rule, lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This means that we are dealing with an artefact that is unique, not only for the Netherlands, but for all of Western Europe. (Until the discovery of this bowl there were no indications of the presence of a local or regional elite on the Oegstgeest settlement. It may be that in this period some members of the elite lived on ‘simple’ farms.)

The was in pieces when it was first found. A full restoration funded by the Province of South Holland has returned it to its former glory. The bowl is now on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities as part of the Golden Middle Ages exhibition that runs through October 26th. After that, it will be exhibited in the museum’s permanent collection on long-term loan from the Province of South Holland.

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Runes confirm Thor’s hammer amulet is a hammer

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

This spring, metal detectorist Torben Christjansen found a small amulet in Købelev on the Danish island of Lolland. Just one inch long and wide, the piece is in a shape known as Thor’s hammer, a design thought to invoke the protective power of Thor and his dwarf-forged hammer Mjolnir. About 1,000 of these Viking-era amulets have been discovered in Scandinavia, the UK, Russia and the Baltic countries, often unearthed in women’s graves. There has been some debate, however, on whether they were representations of Thor’s hammer, even stylized versions. Skeptics point out that the shaft is disproportionately short to be a hammer, and the head too symmetrical.

Christjansen reported the find as treasure trove to the local Museum Lolland-Falster where curators dated it to the 10th century. The amulet was cast in bronze and has traces of the silver or tin plating and gold plating that once adorned it. One side of the hammer’s head is decorated with interlacing pattern, the other side with a runic inscription seven characters long. This is the first Thor’s hammer amulet ever found inscribed with runes.

Because the runes were so small — three to seven millimeters high — and the surface corroded from the centuries it spent in the ground, the Museum Lolland-Falster curators sent the amulet to the National Museum of Denmark for their experts to decipher. Examining it under a microscope, museum runologist Lisbeth Imer was able to translate the inscription and it resolves the hammer question in the bluntest terms possible: the runes read “Hmar is x,” or in modern Danish “Hammer is” (the x isn’t a letter but a delimiter between two words). Translated into English the inscription simply says “This is a hammer.”

There are two mistakes in the runes. The author left out the first a in “hammer” and flipped the S-rune backwards à la Toys-R-Us. These could have been errors of literacy or a function of the tiny space the writer had to inscribe. Even if his or her spelling was spotty, the rune carver would have derived status and prestige from being literate in a society that prized writing.

The hammer wasn’t the only artifact Christjansen found on the site. He discovered pieces of silver needles and a matrix used to make brooches. These finds could indicate there was a jewelry-making workshop in the area. If so, the hammer could have been made locally. There are no plans currently for an archaeological investigation of the site. Christjansen will keep surveying the area with his metal detector, however, and Museum Lolland-Falster curators will be working with him going forward.

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Ghent Altarpiece extensively overpainted

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

The Ghent Altarpiece, the 18-panel polyptych masterpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, has had a tough life since it was completed in 1432. It’s been taken apart, stolen, split, burned, vandalized, cropped, pawned, hidden and shipped cross-continent. Even its permanent home in Saint Bavo, a glass enclosure built to protect the altarpiece from vandalism and theft, has proven inimical to the painting because of its inability to control temperature and humidity.

In 2008, a committee was convened to address the urgent conservation needs of one of the greatest and most influential works of medieval art ever made. After an in-depth study of each panel in situ, a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Painting Initiative and the creation of a fantastic website of high resolution scans and photographs, in October of 2012 the first eight panels — the outside wings — were removed from the polyptych and brought to a custom-built studio in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. There the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) began a campaign of conservation and restoration.

The first cleaning phase saw the removal of yellowed and cracked varnish, much of it a synthetic ketone variety added in the 1950s. Older varnish and overpainting underneath the top layer were targeted next. Conservators also used cleaning windows to investigate the original frames which the van Eyck brothers considered an integral part of the polyptych. The cleaning windows revealed that the polychrome paint layer — a faux stone effect — isn’t all overpaint as was originally thought. There is later overpaint, however, and the cleaning revealed that the quatrains painted on the frames underneath the retouching and overpainting are actually different from the historical transcripts of them, a highly significant discovery.

To those early finds we can now add new information uncovered as the conservation project continues. As the KIK-IRPA conservators worked to clean the outer panels, they discovered that a surprisingly large part of the visible paint layer is actually overpaint. Previous analysis had failed to recognize this because the overpaint follows the age cracks of the original layer. The clothing of almost all the figures, the architectural elements in the background, the sculptures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the highlights on the faces and hands are all overpainted.

This find is of major art historical import, because while the overpainting follows the original closely, those early restorations were workmanlike. They can’t compare to the van Eyck brothers’ gifts for conveying the texture of fabric and the light and shadow. The 3D effect of a fold of clothing that the van Eycks were able to produce was flattened by the subsequent interventions. The overpaint also cut corners, painting over details the restorers weren’t capable of duplicating. When conservators removed the black overpaint from sections of the panel depicting donor Elisabeth Borluut, for example, they found cast shadows and cobwebs hidden underneath.

Paint samples analyzed with a 3D Hirox microscope by Ghent University scientists and by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence at the University of Antwerp confirmed the conservators’ observations. Cleaning tests on the panels determined that the original paint layer is in good condition, with little paint loss or abrasion from the overpaint. The conservation committee thus decided to go ahead and remove the overpaint. The painstaking process involves lifting the top paint layer bit by bit with a scalpel viewed under a binocular microscope.

The next phase of the conservation program will bring the new discoveries and analytical techniques to the interior panels that are still on site at Saint Bavo’s. They too will be studied using 3D Hirox microscope and Macro X-Ray Fluorescence, cleaning windows will reveal the extent of the overpainting and if conditions allow, we may soon see a whole new Ghent Altarpiece that hasn’t been seen in 500 years or so.

Meanwhile, thanks to financing from the Flemish government, the micro climate of the altarpiece’s glass enclosure has been stabilized. New LED lights thermic isolation liners now keep the temperature and relative humidity steady, protecting the wood and paint of the polyptych from dangerous fluctuations in heat and moisture. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will keep the altarpiece safe for the medium long-term.

Once this conservation project is complete, the Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece website which currently hosts the beautiful high resolution images of the altarpiece, will be expanded to cover the new discoveries and analyses. It will also feature a documentary on the current conservation program.

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