Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has acquired a rare late 15th century book chest. The Bodleian’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books is one of the largest in the world, but this is its first book coffer and it’s a special one. At 8.5 x 12.6 x 5.5 inches in size, it is one of the largest examples of a book coffer from this period known to survive.

This acquisition gives us greater insight into the ‘everyday life’ of books and print culture more broadly. The coffer provides a link between books held at the Bodleian and cultural objects which were once united, but now usually live apart in libraries and museums around the world.

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

“The Bodleian collects books and manuscripts but also objects which helps us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood. The coffer is a remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context. Among other things, it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The coffer is made of leather-covered wood and is lined with red canvas. The cover is wrapped with nine iron bands, hinges and a lock to secure the high-value contents. Also known as a messenger’s box, it has two iron loops on the side through which leather straps would have been threaded through so it could be carried on a person’s shoulders or attached to a horse’s saddle.

A woodcut depicting God the Father in Majesty is affixed to the inside of the lid, one of only four surviving impressions of this print. His presence would have blessed the contents and protected them during their journeys. Other coffers from this time also contain religious prints on the inside lid, and it’s possible they served double duty as portable altars.

It is a version of an illumination in a 1491 Missal by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany, a Paris illuminator who was active in the last quarter of the 15th century. He was a versatile artist who created designs for woodcuts, metalcuts, tapestries and stained glass as well as creating illuminated manuscripts for his highest-end clientele. The hand-colored prints found in messenger’s boxes were produced in Paris between 1490 and 1510, which is how we know where and when this coffer was made. These boxes are the only sources of single-leaf French prints before 1500. They are literally the only examples we have of the dawn of printmaking in France.

We have confirmation that these types of lockboxes were used to transport precious books as well as other valuables because depictions of them being used for this purpose have survived, most notably a Rest on the Flight into Egypt made in Antwerp around 1530 which shows a partially open coffer by Mary’s side. At the back is a small book with metal clasps. In front of it are a rosary, a pair of scissors and a brush.

The coffer has gone display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in a new exhibition, Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures, which runs until February 17th. You can see 3D models of the box here.


Speaking of looted art from Visigothic Spain…

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Two Visigoth reliefs looted from a church in northern Spain 15 years ago have been found in Britain and returned to Spanish officials. The theft was a total debacle, but the heavy reliefs depicting two evangelists managed to survive intact against the odds.

The 7th century limestone reliefs originally adorned the church of Santa Maria de Lara, one of only a handful of churches from the Visigoth era still remaining on the Iberian peninsula. Built in the 7th or early 8th century, the church was abandoned after the Umayyad conquest and was likely rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquista in the 9th century. It was donated to the neighboring monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza in the 11th century but was not maintained and fell to ruin, eventually being forgotten entirely. The remains were rediscovered by a priest on a walk in 1921. They were obscured by brush and the location was remote so even after the church was found locals still used the ruins as corrals for their livestock.

Its fortunes improved when scholars identified as a Visigoth church in 1927 and it was granted National Monument status two years later. It wasn’t until the custodian and guide built an asphalted road to the nearby town of Quintanilla de las Vinas in the 1970s that the church became a popular tourist draw and brought it enough money to fund the site’s maintenance.

Even with a decent access road and thousands of visitors a year, Santa Maria de Lara was secluded enough that in 2004 thieves were able to use a crane to strip two 110-pound stone reliefs from the church and remove them unimpeded. They thought they had hit the jackpot. Very few Visigoth figural sculptures have survived, so these two pieces would be worth millions. Notice the conditional. They would be worth millions if they weren’t protected cultural patrimony, but they are.

As so often happens, the looters found themselves saddled with artifacts they could not sell for what they were worth. They had to take the hit and sell them off for whatever money they could get. And so in 2010, two priceless Visigoth reliefs were sold in Britain as garden ornaments for maybe 50,000 pounds apiece.

Somebody with a keen eye saw the “garden ornaments” for sale and thought they was much more to them. He alerted the Art Detective, private investigator Arthur Brand who recovers looted cultural material and stars in a TV show in the Netherlands dedicated to his exploits. Brand traveled to England to follow up, only to find that his informant had just died. His wife only knew a man named “Tony” was connected to the stones. All she had was his first name and a description of him.

It took Brand years to track Tony down. When he finally did, the fellow was suffering from dementia. He did remember the reliefs. He had seen them being delivered to London on a truck by a French art dealer and recognized that they might be Visigothic. Eventually he was able to locate photographs of them.

Brand then tracked down the French dealer, who pointed them towards an unnamed British aristocratic family living north of London.

“It ended up in the garden of an English nobleman, who did not know that it was world heritage, where they would stay like 15 years,” he said.

The owners were so shocked when told the truth that “they wanted to throw the artworks into a river and let them disappear forever. Fortunately we managed to convinced them not to,” said Brand.

I hope that was facetious. Destroying cultural heritage out of shame for having bought it through no fault of your own seems … well, nuts. Anyway it’s all good now. The reliefs are on their way back to Burgos and scholars are thrilled at what might be learned from them.

The looted artworks could also be “essential” evidence in a debate raging among scholars about the exact age of the church, said Oxford University researcher David Addison.

Addison said some believed it was a 7th century building while others dated it to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Brand’s return of the artifacts “would be a great service in this regard,” Addison said.


A tale of Visigothic treasure lost and found

Monday, January 21st, 2019

It was August 25th, 1858. The night before had been dark and stormy, but this one was moonlit and clear. Francisco Morales and María Pérez were traveling on the road to Guadamar with their daughter Escolástica and a donkey when they reached the Guarrazar spring six miles outside Toledo. While answering the call of nature, Escolástica spied under the white glimmer of the moonlight a square hole barely covered with two flat stones. In the gap between them something shone gone. That something turned out to be a priceless treasure of gold crosses, goblets and other objects festooned with precious stones, pearls and glass. Francisco, María and Escolástica dug up everything they could find, rinsed the artifacts in the spring and quickly made off with their ill-gotten gains.

They didn’t know it, but they weren’t alone that night. Domingo de la Cruz, a gardener who owned an orchard near Guarrazar spring, had observed them digging up buried treasure. The next night, he went back to the site and did some of his own digging, finding a second, smaller collection of treasure. He too made off with it. Nobody told the authorities.

It was a hideous free-for-all. Within days unusual gold begemmed pieces began cropping up in the shops of Toledo’s famed gold and silversmiths. Many of them were broken up, melted down and reused making them untraceable. It’s said that one smith was so torn over what to do with a unique gold dove that he threw it in the Tagus. Gemstone trader José Navarro took a different approach. He had a yen for archaeology, so he bought numerous fragments and painstakingly pieced them back together, reconstructing the votive crowns commissioned by Visigothic royalty as donations to the Church, royals that can be identified with precision because pendant letters spell out the name of the exalted donors. Navarro did all this work under strictest secrecy. In 1859, his work as complete as he could get it, Navarro sold the crowns, pendants and assorted pieces to to Edmond Du Sommerard, director of the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny, France.

That’s when the news of this exceptional discovery finally broke wide. Cluny published their acquisition in the scientific press and Spain was horrified to discover that incalculably precious cultural patrimony had been found only after it was lost. The Spanish government repeatedly demanded that France return the treasure, but was blown off by Napoleon III and subsequent governments.

José Amador de los Ríos, art historian, archaeologist and a pioneer in recognizing the literary and artistic wealth of Medieval Spain, was enlisted to excavate and document the find site in 1859 after the treasure had made headlines. He found a few loose pearls and gemstones that had fallen off the jewels, graves, some architectural remains and lots of evidence that the site had been thoroughly picked over by local looters who had heard about the treasure through the gossip mill.

It was Ríos who recognized that while the form of the votive crown and the decoration were of Byzantine design, the pieces were manufactured locally. The conventional wisdom among European historians at that time was that Spain was a penurious backwater in the early Middle Ages and that the splendors of the Visigoths which had so astounded the Umayyad conquerors who took Toledo in 712 A.D. had to have been Germanic in origin.

In 1861, a very nervous Domingos de la Cruz went to the Royal Estate of Aranjuez where Queen Isabel II was staying and offered her majesty what was left of the treasure he’d discovered. Much hemming and hawing and hypothetical “if somebody happened to have purloined gold Visigothic treasure a few years back and wanted to hand it in, would he get thrown in the dungeon or paid off?” kind of talk ensued. Queen Isabel agreed to accept the remaining treasure — including the votive crown of King Suintila (r. 621-631) — and give Domingos de la Cruz a fabulous pension of 4,000 reals a year in return. The Suintila crown was stolen in 1921 and has never been found.

Cluny kept Guarrazar’s Visigothic treasure for 80 years until Heinrich Himmler stepped into the picture. In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Himmler returned most of the treasure to fellow fascist General Francisco Franco. Six votive crowns, a goblet and crosses are now in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid while the Cluny Museum still holds three of the crowns and a few smaller objects. The Royal Palace in Madrid has one crown left.

With all the loss that has bedeviled Spain’s greatest Visigoth treasure since it was discovered, proper scientific study was long in coming. The first comprehensive study took place in 1995 and revealed that the gemstones traveled great distances. The cabochon sapphires are from Sri Lanka. The emeralds are from the Austrian Tyrol.

The question of why they had been buried in the first place was still open, however. Historians speculated that the priceless religious artifacts had been secreted in consecrated graves to keep them safe from the invasion force of Táriq Ibn Ziyad. Spanish archaeologist Juan Manuel Rojas found this explanation wanting.

With the help of the Guadamur City Hall, Rojas embarked on an investigation that led to the establishment of an archeological site that the public can now visit.

During recent years, the walls of a building more than 30 meters long have been unearthed as well as a basilica, the remains of what appears to have been a palace, a Visigoth graveyard and even a guest house for pilgrims. Rojas’ research has led to the revelation that the place where the treasure was hidden was not a field at all but a religious complex not unlike the one at Lourdes, France, with its own healing water that sprung from the well where Morales cleaned the jewels. So, far from being buried in an ignominious field, the royal treasure had been hidden in a prestigious site whose own ceilings were decked with votive crowns.

When its occupants found out about the unstoppable advance of the Muslim and Berber forces, they sought somewhere to hide the jewels and decided on the graveyard. Raising two tombstones, they removed the bodies, buried the treasure, covered it with cloths and sand and put the corpses back on top. When Escolástica went to relieve herself at the spot more than 1,000 years later, she ducked behind what had once been the wall around the cemetery.

You can see the crown of King Reccesvinth (649-672) in a 3D scan here, another votive crown here and a third here. I regret to inform you that the 360 degree views of the crowns requires Flash to run, but the resolution is great and there are a paucity of good images of the treasure out there, so it’s worth the annoyance to check them out.


The oldest clove in the world

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

An excavation at the ancient port of Mantai in Sri Lanka has unearthed what is likely to be the oldest clove in the world.

Located on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, Mantai was a pivotal hub of trade between the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the east and west coasts of India and the interior of Sri Lanka from the time it was founded around 200 B.C. Merchant ships stopped at the port in the middle of the Indian Ocean laden with goods from the East (China, southeast Asia islands and mainland) and West (Europe, Africa, Middle East), part of a complex network of trade routes that linked the ancient world for the duration of Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura Kingdom and beyond, from the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. through the 13th century.

Archaeological exploration of Mantai was still in its infancy when it was brusquely interrupted by civil war in 1983. In the three seasons of excavations, archaeologists had unearthed a rich assortment of ceramics and semi-precious stone beads from India, Arabia, the Mediterranean and China. Much of the context of those finds was lost or damaged during the war, as were the records detailing the stratigraphy of the site.

Excavations resumed in 2009-2010. With so much ground to cover and not much time to cover it, the team of archaeologists from the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology, the European Research Council-funded Sealinks Project and the University College London Institute of Archaeology focused on an in-depth investigation of the material in a single very deep trench south of the central occupation mound. The trench was 10 x 10 feet wide and a whopping 33 feet deep, reaching middle Holocene layers. The goal was to recover a multitude of small finds from ceramics to organic remains to fossilized particles of plant tissue that would allow the team to establish a series of precise radiocarbon dates to serve as a much-needed baseline for future excavations.

Among the organic remains recovered from the deep trench are spices that were some of the most valuable trade goods that moved across the East-West routes through Sri Lanka, notably cloves and black peppercorns.

Only a handful of cloves have previously been recovered from archaeological sites, including these from France, for example – other archaeological evidence for cloves, such as pollen from cess pits in the Netherlands, only dates from 1500AD onwards – and there are no examples from South Asia.

Earlier finds of clove have been reported from Syria – but these have since largely been discredited as misidentifications. The clove from Mantai was found in a context dating to 900-1100AD, making this not only the oldest clove in Asia – but we think the oldest in the world.

We also found eight grains of black pepper at Mantai, plus a further nine badly preserved grains that we think are probably black pepper too. The earliest are dated to around 600AD, the time when international maritime trade became increasingly large and well established across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Cloves are not native to Sri Lanka. They were grown in the Maluku Islands, more than 4000 miles east of Sri Lanka by sea, and traded to Europe where they were highly prized from Roman times onward. They were used as spices to enhance the flavor of food and drink, but also widely used for medicinal purposes and personal hygiene, like to combat the heartbreak of halitosis. Black pepper was less rare and less distant, but still so desirable that it was known as “black gold” at the apex of the maritime spice trade from the 16th century through the 19th. The peppercorns found at Mantai probably came from the Western Ghats of India.

From the 16th century, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) was colonised by various European powers, from the Portuguese (1500s-1600s) to the Dutch (1600s-late 1700s) to the British (late 1700s-1948). They were all drawn by the island’s profitable trade in spices – although the British turned the fledgling coffee industry there into an incredibly lucrative tea trade which is still important to the island’s economy to this day.

But, whether or not the cloves we unearthed at Mantai turn out to be the oldest in existence, the presence of the spice at this 2,000-year-old site is solid evidence of the ancient spice trade that existed long before these wars of conquest.


Blue tartar identifies medieval woman illuminator

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

A team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York have discovered lapis lazuli embedded in the dental tartar of a medieval woman. The presence of this extremely expensive pigment in her teeth indicates that the woman was a manuscript illustrator of the highest caliber.

She was buried around 1100 A.D. in the cemetery of a small monastery in Dalheim, western Germany. The woman’s monastery is in ruins today with only a few architectural remains still surviving. The date of its founding is unknown (it might have been as early as the 10th century) with the earliest written records dating to 1244. It was destroyed by fire in the 14th century, but until then it was home to a small community of just over a dozen religious women.

The skeletal remains of the woman were analyzed as part of a project to study dental calculus that forms on the teeth during life and calcifies. Stable isotope analysis of hardened plaque specimens can identify what people ate. Or ingested, as must have been the case of the woman with blue pigment particles embedded in her plaque.

She was between 45 and 60 years old at the time of her death. There is no sign of an explicit cause of death on her skeleton — no evidence of illness, injury, infection or repetitive motion or stress. Only one unusual feature stood out: the blue stain on her teeth. Spectographic analysis revealed that the blue came from lapis lazuli.

“We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman’s teeth,” explains [University of York researcher Anita] Radini. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” states co-first author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The use of ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” says Alison Beach of Ohio State University, a historian on the project.

The unexpected discovery of such a valuable pigment so early and in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly difficult. As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters did not sign their work, a practice that especially applied to women. The low visibility of women’s labor in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume that women played little part in it.

The findings of this study not only challenge long-held beliefs in the field, they also uncover an individual life history. The woman’s remains were originally a relatively unremarkable find from a relatively unremarkable place, or so it seemed. But by using these techniques, the researchers were able to uncover a truly remarkable life history. […]

“Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place,” explains Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author on the paper. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries – if we only look.”


Temple of flayed god found in Mexico

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the archaeological site of Ndachjian-Tehuacan in the central Mexican state of Puebla have unearthed the first known temple dedicated to the Aztec flayed god Xipe Tótec. The temple enclosure is 40 feet long and 11.5 feet high. Assorted architectural elements, two sacrificial altars and three sculptures carved from volcanic stone were found there: two of skinned skulls and one torso covered with the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim were found there. The temple was in use between 1000 and 1260 A.D.

Xipe Tótec, meaning “Our Lord the Flayed One” in Nahuatl, was the god of life, death, rebirth, agriculture and war. He was one of the most important deities in pre-Hispanic Mexico and he was widely worshiped throughout western and central Mexico as well as in the Gulf, but no temples directly associated with his worship had been found before now.

Images of him have survived in statues and illustrations in codices. He was depicted wearing the flayed flesh of the sacrificed, the hands dangling from his wrists. His emergence from the rotting flesh symbolized the renewal of the seasons, like a snake shedding its skin or new plants coming to life after the desolation of winter. The codices also describe the sites where people were flayed as sacrifices to Xipe Tótec. The layout of the temple and the attributes of the sculptures match the descriptions in those sources.

On one sculpture, an extra right hand hanging backwards from the left arm of the torso symbolizes the skin of the victim that was left hanging after the ritual flaying, say the archeologists.

“Sculpturally it is a very beautiful piece,” said archeologist Noemí Castillo Tejero of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in a press release. “It is around 80 centimeters tall and has a hole in the stomach that was used, according to sources, to put in a green stone and ‘bring them to life’ for the ceremonies.”

Each skull is around 70 centimeters tall and weighs about 200 kilograms.

The important religious festival known as the Tlacaxipehualiztli, meaning “to put on the skin of the skinned one” in Nahuatl, was performed on two circular altars. One was used to sacrifice captives who first fought in gladiatoral-style combat. The other was used to skin them. The priest would then don the skin of the flayed. Because Xipe Tótec was associated with a number of diseases from acne to eye infections, worshipers would touch the flayed skin in the belief that it would cure illness. The skin was then deposited in holes. Two holes were found in the ground in front of the altars in the recently-discovered temple.

The sculptures have been recovered from the site and will be studied before being put on display at the Ndachjian-Tehuacán museum.


Fishermen find medieval fishing baskets

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019

Fishermen in Wales have discovered fishing baskets thought to be at least 600 years old in the Severn Estuary. Black Rock Lave Net fishermen found the baskets off the coast of Portskewett while walking their fishing grounds at low tide in the off season. The baskets had been preserved for centuries, buried in the silt and sand of the riverbank, and were only exposed by a recent storm.

This isn’t the first time the group have found artefacts such as these. However, as Martin Morgan, secretary of the fishery, explained, it is unusual to uncover so many baskets grouped together.

Mr Morgan said: “The baskets would have been baited and pegged to the estuary bed at low tide. The catch would have been green eels and lamprey.

“They are made of willow and hazel in an urn shape with a non-return built into the neck. The overall length is around two feet.”

They haven’t been dated yet, but baskets found before in that spot were radiocarbon dated by Reading University researchers to between the 12th and 15th centuries. The design is also characteristic of baskets from that era. The finders hope to get the newly-discovered baskets dated as well, but it’s a race against time because the wood deteriorates rapidly once it’s exposed to the air.

It is eminently fitting that these particular fishermen would recover ancestral tools of their trade. The Black Rock Lave Net Fishery is the last traditional salmon fishery left on Wales’ side of the Severn Estuary. The lave net method they employ — wading or boating into the shallow coastal waters and catching fish using hand-woven nets attached to wood poles — has been used on the estuary since at least the 17th century, and likely earlier. Basket fishing is older, but it was in use for an incredibly long time. The last basket fishery on the estuary closed in 1995, believe it or not.

This wonderful video documents the work of lave net fishermen today. It truly is living history.


13th c. trebuchet ball found in Edinburgh

Monday, December 31st, 2018

Archaeologists in Edinburgh have unearthed a stone artillery ball of the type launched from a trebuchet in the Middle Ages. The heavy sphere looks like a cannonball, only it is made of solid rock and was being hurled at castle walls 200 years before gunpowder reached Scotland. The type and size of the ball date it to the 13th century, a time when Scotland was under heavy assault by Edward I in full Malleus Scotorum mode.

The find was made in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh’s Old Town where excavations are taking place in advance of construction of a new hotel. The neighborhood lies in a hollow below Edinburgh Castle, a prime location for a medieval catapult balls to settle into for hundreds of years.

There’s a candidate for the precise date when the ball was catapulted: the 1296 Siege of Edinburgh during the First War of Scottish Independence. This was the first major battle at the castle since it was built in the 12th century. For three days, Edward bombarded Edinburgh Castle non-stop using all the heavy artillery in his arsenal. This could be one of the many balls catapulted by Longshanks during the siege, or it could be one of the ones lobbed at him from the castle ramparts.

The siege saw Edward I capture Edinburgh Castle and hold it under English rule for 18 years, plundering treasure from across Scotland including the Stone of Destiny in the process.

John Lawson, City of Edinburgh Council archaeologist, said: “It looks like the type of ball which would have been fired by a trebuchet, one of the most powerful catapults used in the Middle Ages.

“Worldwide, the most famous account of a trebuchet is that of Warwolf, the giant catapult used by Edward I’s army at Stirling Castle in 1304.

“What we’ve discovered here suggests similar weapons were also used in Edinburgh, possibly even during Edward I’s Siege of Edinburgh in 1296, when the Stone of Destiny was stolen and the castle taken out of Scottish hands.

“We always knew this area of the Grassmarket could shed new light on Edinburgh in the dark ages, and here we are with the discovery of a medieval weapon. It’s a really exciting find, particularly if we can prove its links to the Siege of Edinburgh.”

The castle was besieged many, many times after the first big to-do, so determining with certainty when this one ball was launched is difficult (read nigh on impossible).


700-year-old sword found in Spanish castle

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

Archaeologists have unearthed a medieval sword in excellent condition at the Castle of Aín in the Spanish region of Castellón. It is three feet long with a five-inch guard and a spherical pommel. A central groove runs down the blade and two bronze rings are riveted to the hilt. Its type and archaeological context date the sword to the 14th century.

[A]rchaeologists discovered the sword under a mortar floor in a large room with a hearth and a work bench. They made the discovery while they were working on their second phase of a project aimed at strengthening the southwest sector of the castle wall. This is meant to stop the deterioration of the monument and guarantee its stability, with the hopes of making the castle a first-rate historic site.

Perched in the craggy foothills of the Sierra del Espadán, the Castle of Aín was built in the 13th century by the Moorish rulers of the Taifa of Valencia. It would not stay in the hands of its builders for long. The taifa and castle were conquered by James I of Aragon in 1238. Relations with the conquered Moors were not peaceful, with numerous internal revolts and reconquests of the region by two different Muslim dynasties.

After the conquest of Valencia, James I signed a treaty with his own son-in-law, the future Alfonso X of Castile, divvying up the conquered territories, but it took years for the both parties to iron out the thorny issues. A century later, with the Hundred Years’ War raging and external alliances driving conflict, the uneasy treaty of 1244 fell apart. The War of the Two Peters, in which Peter of Castile and Peter IV of Aragon duked it out over their shared border for 20 years (1356-1375) with few gains made and none kept, ended in a stalemate. The Castle of Aín took heavy damage in the fighting.

After the unification of Castile and Aragon and the final defeat of Muslim forces in the 1500s, the castle’s strategic importance waned and there was little incentive to rebuild. Today it is a ruin. A few defensive walls still stand, a tower, a cistern, an inner drawbridge over a moat. The government of Catalonia and the Aín City Council are funding the excavations and structural reinforcements that will stabilize the dilapidated remains.


He died with his thigh-highs on

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

The skeleton of a man wearing high boots have been found lying face-down deep in the mud of the Thames. The remains were unearthed by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Headland Infrastructure archaeologists at the at Tideway’s Chambers Wharf site in Bermondsey, part of a construction project building a new “super sewer” for the city of London. The new Thames Tideway tunnel will be the first major update of London’s sewer system since the Victorian era and the first to conduct the excretions, filth and fatbergs of a city of nine million away from the river that runs through it instead of directly into it.

Digging on the Thames foreshore means going through layers of dense waterlogged mud, the kind of medium adept at preserving organic material that would otherwise decay. The soft tissues of the man decomposed, but his leather boots are still going strong. They date to the late 15th or early 16th century. The tops of the boots are folded down to the knees, but would have reached thigh height when pulled all the way up.

They aren’t the sexy pirate thigh-highs. These were practical garments, not fashion statements. Made of leather quarters stitched together with flax thread, the boots had no heels and the one flat sole was strengthened with “clump soles,” at the front and back. They were also stuffed with a plant material that hasn’t been identified yet (perhaps moss) to insulate and customize the fit.

So much leather was expensive and was often reused. That kind of investment clothing wasn’t likely to be deliberately included in a burial. The position of the body — face-down, with one arm above his head with the other bent back on itself to the side — suggests an accidental death. Osteological examination found no evidence of perimortem injuries or any cause of death. His bones did reveal that while he was a young man by our standards, less than 35 years old, he had worked hard during his short life.

“We know he was very powerfully built,” says Niamh Carty, an osteologist, or skeletal specialist, at MOLA. “The muscle attachments on his chest and shoulders are very noticeable. The muscles were built by doing a lot of heavy, repetitive work over a long period of time.”

It was work that took a physical toll. Although only in his early thirties, the booted man suffered from osteoarthritis, and vertebrae in his back had already begun to fuse as the result of years of bending and lifting. Injuries to his left hip suggest he walked with a limp, and his nose had been broken at least once. There’s eviden[ce] of blunt force trauma on his forehead that had healed before he died.

“He didn’t have an easy life,” says Carty. “Early thirties was middle age back then, but even so, his biological age was older.”

He also had deep grooves in his teeth caused by repeatedly holding something or pulling something over the biting surface of the teeth. Fishermen and sailors were known to have passed rope between their teeth. If he had a river-based job like fishing, sailing, dock work or mudlarking, that would explain the boots. They would have been waders, an important tool very much worth the expense for a worker who had to wade in the deep, sticky muck of the Thames day in and day out.





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