Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

13th c. rune stick found in Odense dig

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Viking blacksmith grave even greater than expected

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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UV reveals erased poetry in 13th c. Welsh book

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anglo-Saxon eye salve kills MRSA superbug

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rare Earl of Lancaster devotional panel found on Thames riverbank

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Richard III reburied today

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

More than 35,000 people lined the cortege route on Sunday, and more than 20,000 visitors have queued up to pay their respects to the mortal remains of Richard III in the three days the coffin has been on view at Leicester Cathedral. The culmination of this week of events is today’s reburial service.

A few tidbits about the service:

  • The current royal family will be represented by the Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, and the Duke of Gloucester who shares a title Richard held before he was king, but Queen Elizabeth II has written a tribute to Richard that will be printed in the service program.
  • After the service the coffin will be lowered into a tomb built of Yorkshire Swaledale stone. This is the first time the public will witness the actual lowering of a monarch’s coffin into the grave.
  • Descendents of people who fought at the Battle of Bosworth will be present.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, who is playing Richard III in an upcoming BBC series based on Shakespeare’s relevant histories, will read a poem called Richard written for the occasion by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Also University of Leicester historian Kevin Schürer found Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard III are second cousins 16 times removed, see abridged genealogy here (pdf).
  • After the service the Cathedral will be closed to the public until Friday when the new memorial will be in place.

If you missed the transfer of the remains from the University of Leicester to the Cathedral and the Compline service that followed, Channel 4 has their entire coverage of the event available on their website. They will again be the only television channel broadcasting the reinterment live, but it looks like a sure bet that they’ll have that video available on their website if you miss it live.

Channel 4′s live coverage begins at 10:00 AM GMT (6:00 AM EST). In addition to airing the service itself, it will include discussions with some of the guests and the people involved in the discovery and reburial. The program will last three hours until 1:00 PM GMT. They’ll air a one-hour highlight reel at 8:00 PM GMT.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching live.

6:00 AM EDIT: Or rather I would be, if the Channel 4 viewer weren’t giving me an error. :angry:

7:06 AM: I can’t get it to work, dammit. I’ll have to watch it on demand later. For now, I’m listening to BBC Radio Leicester’s live coverage and following the Twitter RichardReburied hashtag.

The Leicester Mercury is liveblogging the reburial, as is the city’s dedicated King Richard in Leicester website.

7:23 AM: Here’s Queen Elizabeth II’s message:

7:31 AM: Professor Gordon Campbell, the University of Leicester’s public orator (dude, they have a public orator!) opened with a euology that was a brief, dry summary of Richard’s life, the discovery of his remains and the significance of his mitochondrial DNA. They don’t orate like they used to, man.

7:37 AM: The Dean just placed Richard’s personal Book of Hours, found in his tent after the Battle of Bosworth, on a cushion in front of the coffin.

7:49 AM: Check out this amazing headshake and eyeroll from John Ashdown-Hill of the Richard III Society. That’s Philippa Langley sitting next to him. I’m guessing is has something to do with insufficent recognition of Langley and the Society’s work in making this day come to pass.

7:58 AM: What a poetic sermon from the Bishop of Leicester.

8:02 AM: Here’s a neat story about the artist who made the ceramic vessels to hold the soils of Fotheringhay, Middleham and Fenn Lane that were blessed on Sunday and will be interred with Richard’s remains today. Michael Ibsen made the box, and a handsome one it is.

8:07 AM: Classic ashes to ashes dust to dust reading over the coffin which is now being lowered into the tomb.

8:08 AM: Apparently the soils will be sprinkled over the coffin, not placed in the tomb in the handsome box.

8:14 AM: “Grant me the carving of my name…” Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is beautiful and moving and Benedict Cumberbatch recited it like, well, a pro.

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

8:27 AM: And that’s all, folks. The luminaries are processing out. It was less than an hour long. No long, boring speeches. Beautiful music. Great poem. Epic Ricardian eyeroll. I couldn’t ask for more.

8:35 AM: Channel 4′s coverage continues with interviews of some of the principals — Langley, Ibsen, etc. I wonder if they’ll ask Philippa about the epic eyeroll. If, like me, you’re having trouble viewing the broadcast on Channel 4′s website, you can watch it online here instead. Wish I had remembered that an hour ago. :blankstare:

8:41 AM: They did ask John Ashdown-Hill about his eyeroll and he minced no words. He hoped the service would be peaceful, but “we still seem to be dealing with some lies from Leicester.” Daaaaamn… He wouldn’t specify the lies beyond saying they got Richard’s birthday wrong on the program.

8:45 AM: Benedict Cumberbatch was blown away by the poem. He looks stylish wearing a white rose lapel pin.

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Richard III cortege through Leicester on Sunday

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

The week of events leading to the reinterment of King Richard III on Thursday, March 26th, begins this Sunday with a cortege bearing his coffin from the University of Leicester to the Leicester Cathedral. After emerging from the university’s Fielding Johnson Building, the coffin holding Richard III’s remains will depart in a hearse at 11:40 AM and begin a slow procession stopping at historical sites from Richard’s last days.

The first stop is Fenn Lane Farm, the spot where archaeologists believe Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. There the Reverend Hilary Surridge will lead a private ceremony bringing together soil from three locations of significance in the king’s life: Fotheringhay (where he was born), Middleham (where he spent his early teens learning the knightly arts), and Fenn Lane (where he died).

Further stops include the Sutton Cheney church, the nearby Bosworth Heritage Centre and Bow Bridge, the medieval boundary of Leicester where the City Mayor, Lord Mayor and Gild of Freemen will welcome the remains. The cortege will then follow on foot to St. Nicholas Church where after a brief service the coffin will be transferred to a horse-drawn hearth to process through the city center.

The final stop at 5:45 PM is Leicester Cathedral where the king’s remains will be formally handed over from the University, holder of the Ministry of Justice exhumation license, to the Cathedral Church of St Martin, Leicester. The congregation will hold a service of Compline with a sermon preached by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. On Monday the Cathedral will open to members of the public who wish to view the coffin and pay their respects. It will remain open during the week.

I haven’t been able to find any live video feeds of the entire cortege, but BBC Radio Leicester will be covering it. Listen live here. Channel 4 television will be covering the reinterment live on Thursday but is only scheduled to broadcast the arrival of Richard’s coffin at Leicester Cathedral on Sunday at 5:10 PM GMT.

Leicester has a website dedicated to reinterment week with lots of information and details about the events. The BBC has interactive maps of the cortege’s stops outside and inside the city. I’m hoping the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel, which has been replete with Ricardian goodness in anticipation of the reinternment, will have complete video of all the ceremonies.

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Ring with Arabic inscription found in Viking grave

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015


A finger ring discovered in a grave in the Viking trading center of Birka on Björkö Island, Sweden, in the 19th century is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site. It was unearthed by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe during his two-decade-long (1872–1895) excavation of the Birka burial grounds in the grave of a woman dating to around 850 A.D. Although the skeleton was completely decomposed, the grave goods — two oval brooches, one with a needle case hanging in a chain, one with a pair of scissors underneath that were probably attached with a string, an equal-armed brooch, a row of glass, rock crystal and carnelian beads — and remains of clothing — a flax undergarment and a blue wool garment — identify the deceased as female.

The ring was found inside the wooden coffin where her chest would have been, next to the scissors under the right oval brooch. Either it too was connected to the brooch with a now-decayed string, or the woman’s hands may have been placed on her chest when she was placed in the coffin. It is made of silver and set with a translucent purple cabochon stone engraved with Arabic Kufic script. Rings of similar design have been found in Viking graves before, including three in graves at Birka, and in Eastern European graves of the period, but none of them have inscriptions.

The ring is part of the collection of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm now, but it has never been scientifically analyzed. To answer some questions about its material and construction, the ring was recently subjected to non-invasive examination while a replica took its place on display. Researchers studied the ring under a standard optical stereomicroscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped for elemental analysis which would allow them to determine the metal content and identify the stone without having to take any destructive samples.

They found that the museum’s interpretation of the ring was wrong on several counts. The museum’s inventory catalogue describes its as a gilded silver signet ring set with an engraved violet amethyst. It’s not gilded silver. It is a high-grade silver alloy consisting of 94.5% silver and 5.5% copper. The stone is not an amethyst. It is not even a stone. It’s colored soda-lime glass, which isn’t to say it was cheap or a fake because glass was a prized luxury import in Viking Scandinavia. The inscription, engraved in an angular form of Arabic Kufic script that was in use from the 7th century through the 12th, reads, researchers believe, “il-la-lah”, or “For/to Allah.” Interpretation is challenging due to the stylized script, so it could be saying something else, but Allah is definitely a part of it, which means that it’s not a signet ring.

The ring shank was at some point in its history broken in three places and then glued back together. This couldn’t have been done before the burial because the glue is a polymer rather than an animal glue and the latter wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the ring together anyway. It’s more likely that it was either found broken or damaged in the excavation and then glued back together. There is no documentation of any such action being taken.

Researchers also found that the metal surface of the ring bears parallel striations that are likely file marks left by the original maker when he filed the ring to remove flash and mold lines left by the casting process. There are file marks on the prongs as well, which means the filing was done before the glass was added. These marks would normally be eroded away by usage. The fact that they’re still everywhere on the ring body indicates the ring was barely used before being buried. That suggests it didn’t gradually wend its way to Sweden trade by trade, but rather got from the maker to the deceased with no or very few other owners in between.

The glass, on the other hand, has the scratches and dents of moderate use. It may have been recycled from an older piece, or it may just be the victim of how far it juts out from the ring and of glass’ inherent softness compared to the silver of the ring body.

Nobody’s disappointed that the ring isn’t gilded and the stone isn’t a gemstone. The value of this ring is not in its materials, but in the historical significance of the inscription which connects it to the Islamic world. In fact, gilding would have obscured the file marks and those marks are key archaeological evidence of direct or at least very close interaction between Viking Scandinavia and the Caliphate. There are historical records documenting direct contact (The 13th Warrior, man! Just because it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.) and archaeological evidence of direct contact in Spain and Eastern Europe, but not in Scandinavia itself. That’s what makes this ring so important.

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