Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Export bar placed on Robert the Bruce seal matrix

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

RCEWA Member Leslie Webster said:

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

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

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

Another Battle of Thermopylae found in palimpsest

Monday, March 28th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viking hoard in Carolingian pot revealed

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explore Richard III’s grave in 3D

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joan of Arc” ring unveiled at French theme park

Monday, March 21st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: St Eric’s wounds consistent with legend

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buckle from British Isles found in Danish Viking grave

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

A buckle of Scottish or Irish origin has been discovered in the grave of a Viking woman in Enghøj on central Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. The gilt bronze disc is a small piece of six centimeters (2.4 inches) with a Greek key-like geometric pattern that was made in the 9th century. The woman who took it with her to the grave died in the 10th century, so it was already decades, maybe even a century, old when it was buried in Denmark. She used it to keep her petticoat together.

Archaeologist Ernst Stidsing from the Museum East Jutland realized right away that it was a very unusual piece. He’d never seen anything like it before, so he sent pictures to Emerita Professor Else Roesdahl of Aarhus University. She had never seen anything like it either. Stidsing shared the pictures with English and German colleagues and they agreed that it was made in the British Isles. Having only the ornamentation to go on, the experts disagreed on whether it was of Irish manufacture or from southern Scotland.

They were certain that it didn’t start out as a buckle or brooch. It was a fitting from a shrine of some kind, stripped off a wooden box used to hold sacred objects. It’s therefore not a trade piece. Monasteries and churches weren’t in the practice of prying the decoration off their reliquaries and selling them to Vikings. This was acquired in a raid.

Viking loot from Britain and Ireland is very rare in Denmark, all the more so in a grave. It’s more common, albeit still a rarity, in Norway, where several examples have been discovered. A reliquary and fragment of an English 8th or 9th century crozier were found in the grave of a Viking woman in Romsdal, Norway, in 1961. A direct parallel, a Celtic disc, also originated in Scotland or Ireland as decoration on a shrine or reliquary. The Vikings converted into a brooch and it was buried the grave of a high-status woman in Lilleberge, Norway, in the 9th-10th century. It was unearthed in 1886 but kept in a soil block and only fully excavated and identified a few years ago.

Ernst Stidsing thinks there may have been a Norwegian connection for the Enghøj buckle.

“It could have been [brought by] a Norwegian woman who came to Denmark with her jewellery, and lived and died there,” says Stidsing.

He now hopes that strontium isotope analysis of the woman’s teeth could clear up where she came from.

“I’m pretty excited about the outcome of the analysis,” says Stidsing. “Especially as the Norwegian Vikings were often on expeditions to the north of England. It’s exciting that a woman may have come from Norway and have lived part of her life in Jutland [west Denmark].”

“It will confirm the picture that we were already [living] in a globalised world back then,” he says.

That picture was solidly confirmed most recently when Egtved Girl, the Bronze Age young woman whose exceptionally preserved burial complete with hollowed out tree trunk coffin, clothing, grave goods, textiles and accessories has become a Danish icon since its discovery in 1921, was actually from Southern Germany. Egtved Girl was a very important person even though she was only 16-18 years old when she died, a priestess or a dynastic bride, and it’s known that there were marriages between Danish kings and Slavic princesses starting in the 10th century. The woman who was buried with the buckle had status and wealth, but she wasn’t a princess. If isotope analysis finds that she was from Norway or somewhere else other than Denmark, it will give new insight into how mobile Vikings were at various social levels.

Gardener finds Denmark’s oldest figure of Christ

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Landscape gardener Dennis Fabricius Holm picked up his first metal detector just two and a half months ago. It was his son’s, a Christmas present he’d gotten years before and never used. Holm fished it out of the basement and took it to the empty field next door to his home in the village of Aunslev on the Danish island of Funen to do a few hours of scanning every Friday afternoon. He found some buttons and small coins, nothing to write home about.

Last Friday, March 11th, Holm found something to write history books about. In an area of the field he hadn’t scanned before, his machine alerted him to a metallic object not made of iron. A mere four inches under the surface he found a little gold pendant 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) wide and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) high, weighing 14 grams. The artifact’s fine filigree showed through the caked dirt. Excited about his find, Holm posted pictures of it on a Facebook page for Danish metal detector enthusiasts and was quickly deluged with congratulations.

He contacted Malene Refshauge Beck, an archaeologist and curator at the East Funen Museums, who identified it as a crucifix from the first half of the 10th century. That makes it the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. Before this find, the Christ figure engraved on the largest Jelling Stone, a massive runestone raised by Harald Bluetooth in around 965 A.D., was the oldest known in Denmark. It was a fitting record for a stone whose runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The pendant could be dated with such precision because it is almost identical to a pendant found in Sweden. The first crucifix of this design was unearthed in 1879 from grave 660 in a Viking cemetery at Birka, an 8th century town about 20 miles west of Stockholm. The earliest Christian missionaries who went to Sweden in the 9th century were centered in Birka. The town was destroyed in the 10th century and never rebuilt. Its ruins were rediscovered by an entomologist, Hjalmar Stolpe, who was there to study ancient insects trapped in amber. When he found large quantities of non-native amber on the island, he realized it must have once been an important trading center and so began archaeological excavations that would continue for almost 25 years, from 1871 through 1895.

A fragmentary second crucifix of the Birka type has survived. Their designs are so similar that archaeologists believe they were made by the same craftsman. East Funen Museums archaeologists will now contact their counterparts at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, where the original Birka crucifix is kept. The two crosses will be compared to determine whether they were made by the same hand.

The Aunslev crucifix is the most precious of the three. The first Birka crucifix is gilded silver with much of the gilding worn off. The fragmentary second one is silver. Holm’s find is solid gold. The goldsmith shaped a thin gold wire in parallel lines and small balls called granulation. It would have been a very expensive piece, likely worn by a woman.

Christianity was introduced to Denmark via the elite so this pendant probably belonged to someone wealthy and influential. Whether that person was Christian is impossible to know since the piece was found in a field, not in a grave like the others. Wearing a crucifix could be advantageous when dealing with the already Christianized peoples south of Denmark, and even if the wearer did espouse Christian beliefs, at this stage the new faith often coexisted with the traditional one of Thor and Odin. Indeed, Christ’s expression on the crucifix is not the one of a suffering man near death, but rather of a fearless warrior akin to the Norse heroes and deities.

The pendant is now at the Viking Museum in Ladby where it will be cleaned and conserved. It will be put on display this summer.

The glorious Mogao cave temples and the earliest printed book

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Legend holds that in 366 A.D., a Buddhist monk named Yuezun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas on the face of a cliff near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China. He began digging caves into the cliff face to make his vision a reality. Who knows if there was a Yuezun who had a vision, but it’s undeniable that in the 4th century, Buddhist monks began to dig grottoes into the cliffs and they didn’t stop for a thousand years.

From the 4th to the 14th century, the monks, sponsored by politicians and wealthy donors who wished to express their religious devotion, dug 492 caves and decorated them with exquisite wall paintings, tile work and more than 2,000 clay sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other figures. The largest sculpture is a Buddha about 116 feet high, the third largest Buddha sculpture in China, which was made during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). In total, there are almost 500,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings depicting Buddhist stories, sutras, donors, abstract ornament and scenes of daily life.

The enormity of the Mogao Caves (Mogao means “peerless”) complex is a testament not just to the religious dedication of the monks, but to its location along the Silk Road. The evidence of the rich cultural exchange brought to the site by the Silk Road is evident in the mixed influences of the art, and it was the demise of the Road which led to the abandonment of the caves in the 15th century. They were all but forgotten, the painstakingly carved and painted grottoes sealed with sand from the Gobi Desert.

Hundreds of years would pass before someone embraced the ancient complex again. A Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu took it upon himself to care for the caves in around 1892. Entirely alone and unsupported, he began to clean the sand choking the temples and repair the wooden elements. In 1900, he opened a cave that had been sealed in about 1000 A.D. and discovered a massive cache of documents without parallel in human history.

Cave 17, which for obvious reasons became known as the Library Cave, held almost 50,000 manuscripts, printed texts, paintings on silk and paper, intricate embroidered silks and other textiles. The dry air of the Gobi had preserved them in exceptional condition. The documents provide a unique view of life in medieval China. There are financial ledgers, calendars, legal papers, property sale contracts, dictionaries, medical books, artworks that capture the music, dancing and games of the period. The are Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts are written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Tangut, Old Turkish and other languages spoken along the Silk Road.

The stand-out document amidst the vast archival treasure discovered in the cave is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed dated book. A copy of an ancient Indian Buddhist text, this Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra was made in 868 A.D., and we know this because the maker noted it in the colophon: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.” While there are extant woodblock printed art works on silk from the 3rd century, the earliest fragments of printing on paper date to the mid-7th century. Woodblock printing was established by the 8th century, but the Diamond Sutra is the first complete book that we have a precise date for known to survive. It is a scroll more than 15 feet long made from seven panels of paper pasted together.

Keen to preserve this great collection, Wang showed some of the texts to local government officials but they showed zero interest. In 1904, the governor order the Library Cave be resealed. Word of the find got out to archaeologists and explorers and in 1907 British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein offered to buy thousands of the manuscripts and artworks. This is Stein’s description of Cave 17:

“The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without perfect order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet. The area left clear within the room was just sufficient for two people to stand in.”

Wang wanted to build a Daoist temple but he had no money and since the government had told him to shove it in regards to conserving the Library Cave’s library, he went ahead and sold the documents to Stein for a pittance. The next year explorer French Paul Pelliot bought more than 10,000 pieces from Cave 17. Then came the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The collection was thoroughly picked over by the time the sales stopped with the beginning of World War I. Finally resurgent nationalism in the 1920s woke the Chinese government up and the remaining documents were moved to the National Library of China in Beijing.

The Diamond Sutra was acquired in 1907 by Stein and is now in the British Library along with more than 400 other pieces from Dunhuang. (The BL, incidentally, has spearheaded the International Dunhuang Project, an initiative to digitize images of texts, art and textiles found at Dunhuang and other archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. There are almost a million images in the database as of now, and they’re not done yet.)

The Diamond Sutra hasn’t left Britain in more than a century, but that’s about to change. It will be the star of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty Conservation Institute has been working closing with the Dunhuang Academy since 1989 to conserve the paintings on the walls of the Mogao Grottoes. To give visitors a truly immersive experience, the Getty has constructed exact replicas of three of the caves. These aren’t Hollywood sets made to look like the grottoes. The replicas are precise duplicates in shape, size and decoration. The replica paintings were done using the same pigments originally used in Dunhuang. The Getty even imported the actual clay used to sculpt the Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inhabit the caves.

The exhibition runs from May 7th through September 4th, 2016. For those four months, Los Angeles may be the closest you can get to the Gobi Desert and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.



Descendants of Rollo, Viking founder of Normandy, exhumed

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Scandinavian researchers have exhumed the bones of two direct descendants of Rollo, the 10th century Viking founder of the Duchy of Normandy, in an attempt to answer the long-debated question of whether Rollo was Danish or Norwegian.

Historians have differed on the matter of Rollo’s national origins since at least the 11th century. Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin (ca. 965-1043) said in his Historia Normannorum that Rollo was the son of a “Danish” king who was exiled and made his way to France, but at the time Dudo was in the employ of Richard II of Normandy who was allied to the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. He had a dog in the hunt, as it were, and cannot be considered reliable on this question. Goffredo Malaterra, a monk in Sicily writing in the late 11th century, said Rollo hailed from Norway. In the 13th Norwegian-Icelandic sagas Heimskringla and Orkneyinga, Rollo appears as Ganger-Hrólf, the son of Rognvald Eysteinsson, yarl of Møre in western Norway. (Rollo is a Latinization of Hrólf.)

With these conflicting and vague sources, historians have argued the point for centuries. It matters because of how important Rollo was to European history. His raids along the Seine so bedevilled Charles III, aka Charles the Simple, King of Western Francia, that he finally bought Rollo off with huge tracts of land between the city of Rouen and the mouth of the Seine in exchange for him switching from raider to protector. He appears in only one primary source: a charter from 918 which mentions the lands ceded to Rollo and his “Northmen on the Seine.” It seems Rollo ruled those lands as Count of Rouen until at least 927 after which his son William I Longsword acceded to what would become known during his rule as the Dukedom of Normandy, after the Norsemen who founded it. William Longsword’s son was Richard I of Normandy. Richard I’s son was Richard II. Richard II’s son Robert I was the father of William the Conqueror.

This January, French government and church authorities granted the research team permission to open the tomb of Rollo’s grandson Richard I and great-grandson Richard II. This is only the second time a French king’s tomb has been opened since World War II. On Monday, February 29th, Per Holck, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo, and University of Copenhagen geneticist Andaine Seguin Orlando, opened the two small ossuary coffins buried under the floor southern transept of the gothic church of Fécamp Abbey. Inside one of them were the skeletal remains of Richard II, known as Richard the Good, including a lower jaw with eight teeth.

They were hoping to find teeth because extracting ancient DNA is tricky and the genetic material inside teeth is well-protected by the outer layers. Holck and Orlando retrieved five of the teeth. They will be tested at the University of Oslo and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. If all goes well, the research team and French authorities will announce the results in the autumn.

The remains of the Richards have been moved before. Richard I, who rebuilt the church after it was destroyed in Viking raids, and Richard II, who made it a Benedictine monastery, were initially buried outside the church. Richard II’s great-great-great-grandson Henry II of England had his ancestors’ bones reburied inside the church. Remains that are not in their original location can be problematic to authenticate. I don’t know if this study plans to do anything specific to confirm first and foremost that they really are the bones of Richard II. Also, if the bones were treated at any point — boiled to remove the flesh and make them a clean fit for a small coffin — DNA extraction will be even more challenging, albeit not impossible. Teeth are the Fort Knox of the body.

Spoiler Alert!

If you’ve been watching Vikings on the basic cable station formerly known as the History Channel, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is very loosely based on the historical Count of Rouen. They had to conflate sagas and mess with the timeline to make them brothers, so who knows if he’ll wind up in Normandy on the series, but he’s in France and married to Charles the Simple’s daughter, who may or may not have existed and if she existed, may or may not have survived to adulthood, but is mentioned as Rollo’s wife in William of Jumièges 11th century chronicle Gesta Normannorum Ducum and in Dudo’s history which relied heavily on Jumièges’.

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