Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

7th c. Merovingian sarcophagus found in Cahors

Monday, August 19th, 2019

A Merovingian-era sarcophagus dating to the 7th century has been discovered in Cahors, Lot Department, southwestern France. Department archaeologists were excavating the courtyard of a public building in anticipation of future construction when they unearthed a large limestone coffin. The rectangular sarcophagus was topped with a four-sided gabled lid and was unbroken. The lid was still sealed to the box, its mortar joint unbroken. The find is unprecedented and of great significance to archaeologists because little is known about Merovingian Cahors. 

Archaeologists passed an endoscope through a crack in the stone to establish whether the sarcophagus’ contents were intact. They confirmed that skeletal remains were undisturbed inside the coffin before attempting to open the heavy lid. On Tuesday, August 13th, the limestone lid was strapped to a mechanical digger and carefully raised.

Forensic anthropologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) worked with the Lot archaeologists to excavate and examine the burial. Initial analysis found the remains belonged to an elderly woman with the tell-tale lesions of osteoarthritis on her bones.  There were no grave goods inside the coffin which is a common feature of Christian burials.

The find site is believed to have been on the property of a monastery founded by Desiderius (aka Didier) of Cahors, a 7th century aristocrat with close ties to Merovingian royalty who in his role as bishop of Cahors built multiple churches and monasteries in the area. Desiderius was renown for building in the Roman style — cut stone blocks rather than wood, wattle and daub — and he founded at least one convent for women. The sarcophagus appears to have been placed in a passageway (possibly the cloister), an indication that she must have been someone of importance.

The bones have been removed from the sarcophagus and will be studied further at an INRAP laboratory. The remains will be radiocarbon dated to narrow down when the woman died. The preliminary dating to the 7th century is based on layer archaeology. Ongoing excavations have found pottery from the period and what is believed to be the remains of an old kitchen.

The sarcophagus and its lid are destined for the Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin, currently closed for renovations with reopening scheduled for early 2020. The museum is named after impressionist painter Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin and is known for its collection and temporary exhibition of work by artists from the 20th century to the present, but it also has a significant collection of archaeological artifacts from the region.


Earliest fragment from German vagina poem found in abbey library

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Scholars from the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) have discovered a fragment from a German medieval poem about the adventures of a virgin and her anthropomorphised vagina that is almost 200 years older than any other known version of this eroto-satirical epic. Christine Glaßner discovered the fragment in the binding of a codex held in the library of Melk Abbey, an imposing baroque structure overlooking the Danube in Austria’s Wachau Valley. It was nestled between pages 204 and 205 of the codex. 

The strip is long and skinny, 22cm by 1.5cm (8.7″x .6″), with just a few letters from 60 verses of  the poem. It was reused for its parchment in the binding of a Latin text. She recognized it as something of particular interest and Nathanael Busch from the University of Siegen identified it as a fragment from Der Rosendorn (The Rose Thorn).

The so-called “Rosendorn” (The Rose Thorn) tells of a virgin woman disagreeing with her talking vulva about which of them is most appreciated by men. Until now, it had been assumed that such openness regarding sexuality in the German-speaking world did not appear until the end of the Middle Ages, for example in the urban culture of the 15th century. The find from Melk, on the other hand, was written around 1300 and thus revises the previous research. It seems that 200 years earlier than previously thought, erotic poetry was written, recited and perhaps even staged. Apparently, such poems were rarely written down and have even more rarely survived to the present day.

Previously known from two extant copies, in the Dresden Codex and the Karlsruhe Codex, dating to the 16th century, Der Rosendorn was written by an unknown German-language author. It tells the saucy tale of a virgin and her vulva arguing over which of them is most appealing to men. The virgin argues her beauty is the draw. Her vulva argues that beauty doesn’t matter because she’s the one who provides all the pleasure. They decide to break up and prove once and for all which one of them is right. The vulva splits off by ingesting a “manic root” (symbolizing penetrative masturbation) and goes on her way. The separation is a disaster. The vulva is uncaringly used by every man she encounters; the virgin offers herself to a mob of men who trample her in their rush. In the end, they decide to become one once more. The narrator, a man who spied upon them from the beginning, is the one who reattaches them and he does so in the most obvious way you can imagine: he, uh, fornicates the vulva back into the woman.

The motif of a sentient vulva taking corporeal form independent of the woman she was once part of is seen in French and German medieval literature, a satirical counterpoint to the courtly romances of the period. The rose in the title is a symbol of female sexuality, and the initial setting of the poem — a walled garden where a virgin extracts rosewater from a rose bush and bathes in it — mirrors that of the 13th century masterpiece of courtly love literature, Le Roman de la Rose.

In March of this year, the fragment was carefully removed from the codex binding and is now preserved on its own in the fragment collection of the Melk Abbey Library. It is being studied now as part of the “Manuscript Census” of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz at the Philipps University of Marburg.


11th c. wall found under Moravian castle

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating Břeclav Castle in Moravia, Czech Republic, have discovered a section of timber and clay wall from the original castle built in the 11th century by Břetislav, Duke of Bohemia. Preliminary dating results have found the wall dates to 1041, a period when Břetislav expanded his territory with incursions into Moravia and built a network of defensive forts. Břeclav, located on the Thaya River a stone’s throw from the borders of modern-day Austria and Slovakia, was a strategically significant spot for a castle. 

Archaeologist Miroslav Dejmal of the Archaia Brno organization, who is conducting the research emphasized the importance of the find, saying that walls dating back to the 11th century are extremely rare. 

“What you see here are the remnants of a wall made of clay and wood. These are the foundations, because the upper part was obviously destroyed by a fire, as you can see from this soft charcoal.”

The original wall, which was hidden for centuries under a thick layer of clay, is estimated to have been around 8 metres high and parts of it are now being analysed. Preliminary results suggest that the wall is nearly a thousand years old and dates back to the first mention of the town in written records. 

The town began as the castle. Duke Břetislav built the castle for defense of the border and as an administrative center for the region. In the 13th century the castle was acquired by Queen Constance of Hungary who added an imposing stone tower. During the Hussite Wars that followed the first Defenestration of Prague, the protestant Hussite forces were garrisoned in the castle from 1426 until the conclusion of hostilities in 1433. The market town of Břeclav, which had grown under the shadow of the castle, was destroyed during the wars of the 15th century. The townspeople fled to the castle for safety and lived to rebuild the town even closer to the castle that had saved them.

In the first half of the 16th century, Břeclav Castle was bought by the House of Žerotín. They rebuilt the castle in Renaissance style to function as a manor house but they had barely a century to enjoy it before it was confiscated by the crown after the Žerotíns were involved in an uprising. The next owner was the House of Liechtenstein who bought it in 1638. Between the wars with the Ottoman Empire and Thirty Years’ War, the Liechtensteins never really lived in the castle. Finally in the early 19th century they decided to put their own stamp on it and rebuilt the castle in the style of a romantic faux ruin. 

The castle is now being rebuilt yet again. This new construction aims to return it to the Renaissance style of the Žerotín days. The discovery of the medieval wall won’t change the reconstruction plans, but it will delay them as authorities decide how best to preserve (and take advantage of) the find. 

The spokesman for Břeclav City Hall, Jiří Holobrádek, says the find has generated great interest among the locals, but it is early days yet to say how and in what way the remnants of this medieval wall will be preserved. 

“It is too soon to say how we will proceed. Much depends on the outcome of the expert analysis that has only just started and we will obviously heed the advice of historians and archaeologists. However, given the importance of the discovery, it would be good to find a way to present it to the public.”

It’s going to be a tricky thing. Removing it presents major preservation challenges as the wood once exposed begins to decay. Keep it in situ will require careful planning to prevent it from being damaged by construction right above it. The archaeological team is scanning the wall and will create a 3D model of it. That will help determine how best to proceed.



Vividly colored medieval fresco found in Aventine church

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

A medieval fresco has been rediscovered behind a wall in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis in Rome. It is an excellent state of preservation, the colors of its original polychrome paint still vividly saturated. The fresco dates to the mid-12th century and depicts two holy figures believed to be Saint Alexis and Christ the Pilgrim in the top section and an angel in front of a be-columned structure on the bottom. It is three feet wide and 13 feet high. There may be more of it, possibly a section at large as the one visible now, hidden by the wall.

The fresco was found by art historian Claudia Viggiani who spent years hunting it down. Her quest began when she found a 1965 letter from an official of Rome’s public works to the Lazio monuments superintendency mentioning a fresco “in excellent condition” had been found during consolidation work on a bell tower. The letter did not note the name of the church. Viggiani doggedly pursued the case until she located the church on the Aventine and the fresco in the interspace behind a small door.

Restorer Susanna Sarmati has been working to stabilize the fresco since its discovery.

Dating back to the mid-12th century, the painting has a polychrome frame that restorer Sarmati said was of “exceptional sophistication” and that it is difficult to “find ones that are so complete”. She pointed at the original brushstrokes on the wall, which can still be distinguished. Though other medieval frescoes exist in Rome, “their state of conservation despite restoration, is mediocre. This one, however,” she said, “which was never touched is almost perfect.”

In the medieval church, the fresco was prominently located on the counter-facade. Its significance lived on even as the church was extensively rebuilt: it was walled in, but not destroyed or painted over. It’s likely that the part of the fresco with the saint’s face remained visible through a crack on the nave.


Grave of 2nd king of Hungary may have been found

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

Archaeologists believe they have discovered the grave of Peter I Orseolo, the second king of Hungary, in the crypt of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pécs, southwest Hungary. No remains were found in the tomb, likely because they were deliberately moved centuries later.

The team of archaeologists from the Janus Pannonius Museum were hoping to determine the location of the first cathedral built at the site in the 11th century. They discovered a wall under the crypt that was part of the original structure. The empty grave was found near it. As only the founders of churches were buried in the crypt in 11th century Hungary, the location suggests it was the burial of one of the founders.

The remains were carefully exhumed, not disturbed by later construction of haphazardly ditched. That indicates the remains belonged to someone of note, that they were removed with care for transfer to a new location. There are only two viable candidates: King Peter or Blessed Maurus, the second Bishop of Pécs. Maurus, however, died around 1075, after the construction of the current church, so the grave is almost certainly Peter’s.

The Orseolos were an illustrious Venetian noble family descended from Orso Ipato, dux of Venice, ie, leader of the Byzantine Empire’s military forces in territories under its rule. But while Venice was technically part of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna, it chafed at Byzantine control during this period of iconoclastic conflict between empire and papacy. In a big middle finger to the emperor, Venice elected its first independent Doge, the Venetian dialect’s word for dux, in 726: Orso Ipato. He was a great military leader who built Venice’s navy into a formidable force and helped kick the Lombards of King Liutprand out of Ravenna in 737 which eased tensions with the empire for a bit. (The Lombards would retake Ravenna in 751 and end Byzantine rule for good).

The next doge was Orso’s son Teodato. Another three Orseolos would take the office in the late 10th and early 11th century (five if you count Giovanni who co-ruled with his father Pietro II and Domenico who ruled for one day in 1031). The family was powerful militarily, wealthy and enormously influential, so much so that other Venetian families sought to bring them down and successfully did so. After the last real doge of the family, Ottone Orseolo, was exiled in 1026, its dominance of city politics was over.

By then the Orseolos had established very elevated connections indeed, ones that reached far beyond the boundaries of the lagoon. Ottone was named after his godfather, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and he married the sister of the Stephen I, first king of Hungary. When Stephen died in 1038, Ottone’s son Pietro succeeded his uncle as King of Hungary.

It would not be a placid transition. Stephen’s cousin Vazul had the stronger claim to the throne, but Stephen was not a fan and had him blinded and his sons exiled to smooth Pietro’s succession. Stephen, btw, would be canonized a saint less than 50 years after his death by Pope Gregory VII. Then, once Pietro was on the throne, he infuriated Hungary’s aristocracy by favoring Germans and Italians, both at court and in military alliances. He was also reputed to be a sexual predator who raped Hungarian noblewomen wherever he went.

Pietro was overthrown by Hungary’s lords in 1041. He did get his crown back, but he had to bend the knee to Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to get it. Henry invaded Hungary and slaughtered it back for Pietro. This second rule would be even shorter than the first, lasting from 1044 until 1046. This time it was a popular uprising by Hungarian non-Christians that overthrew him. Karma struck and he was blinded by supporters of Vazul’s son Andrew. Sources differ on when he died, then or a decade later, but whenever it happened, he was buried in St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral, the church he had had built on the site of a late Roman cemetery. Pietro’s original cathedral burned down in 1064. The one that stands today was built over its remains.

The archaeological excavation of the crypt unearthed remains of the late 4th century Roman cemetery. They suggest Christian practices had reached this area of Hungary much earlier than previously realized. 

The Diocese plans to make the archaeological remains a permanent part of the church instead of reburying them. That way visitors to the crypt will be able to see its ancient and medieval antecedents.


Two rare boat graves found at Uppsala vicarage

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Two extremely rare boat graves have been discovered in an excavation of a vicagare in the village of Gamla Uppsala outside of Uppsala, southeastern Sweden. The location of yearly Things, religious celebrations, royal residences and burial mounds from prehistory through the Middle Ages, Gamla Uppsala is one of the most important archaeological sites in Sweden, so when the Swedish Church planned to build an addition to the vicarage, archaeologists from the National Historical Museums surveyed the construction site.

First the team unearthed a well and basement from a late medieval building. Underneath those remains, they found the two boat graves, burials in which deceased were inhumed in a boat dug into the ground and covered with soil. They date to the Viking era (800-1050 A.D.) or the Vendel Period (550-790 A.D.), the centuries bridging the Migration Period and the Viking Period. This is a sensational find, as only 10 known boat graves have been discovered in all of Sweden, and it’s been 50 years since the last boat grave was found.

One of the two was damaged, likely when the late medieval basement was built, but the other is intact. It contained the skeletal remains of an adult male buried in the stern of the boat. He was interred with valuable personal belongings including a sword, spear, shield and an ornate comb.

The bow of the boat held the remains of a dog and a horse. Iron fittings from the horse’s gear were still in place. The horse and dog probably belonged to the man and were slain and buried with him to accompany their master into death.

Remains of the boats were also discovered. Iron rivets have survived, and even more rarely, so has some of the wooden planking. The damaged boat burial appears to have been the largest, with an estimated length of at least 23 feet. The elements from the boats are of particular archaeological importance because they may reveal whether the vessels were old or specifically manufactured for funerary purposes.

The untouched grave is a boon for archaeologists because this will be the first time they have an opportunity to use the latest and greatest technologies and scientific analyses on a boat grave. There is so much we can learn from the smallest samples of soil, organic material, bone and metal that wasn’t even a remote possibility 50 years ago.

While the studies are ongoing, a selection of the finds will be on display this summer at Gamla Uppsala Museum and this fall at the Historical Museum in Stockholm.


Lewis Chessman sells for $929,000

Friday, July 5th, 2019

The long-lost Lewis chessman has sold at a Sotheby’s auction for £735,000 ($929,000). The warder from the famous medieval set believed to have been made Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century, set a new world record for a medieval chesspiece sold at auction, which should surprise absolutely nobody given how iconic the Lewis Chessmen have become. No word yet on who the lucky buyer is. All we know is it’s an “anonymous bidder.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s a museum and they’re just preparing an official announcement.


Dracula’s cannonballs found

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the Zishtova Fortress in Svishtov, Bulgaria, have unearthed cannonballs likely used by Wallacian Voivode Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlas Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, during his assault on the fortress in 1461. The balls were shot from culverins, early cannons that evolved from hand-held weapons (ancestors of the musket) to field artillery. They were in use just up to the beginning of the 16th century. The balls were discovered in the layer dating to the 15th-16th century.

“What’s really interesting is that from the [early] Ottoman period we have found cannonballs. We rejoice at those small cannonballs because they are from culverins. These were the earliest cannons which were for the 15th century, up until the 16th century, they weren’t in use after that. These were still very imperfect cannons. That was precisely the time of Vlad Dracula, there is no doubt that they are connected with the siege [and conquest of the Zishtova Fortress] by Vlad Dracula in 1461,” [Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia] says.

The fortress is on a hill in the center of the town. It dates to the 13th-14th century, but the hill’s strategic location with clear views to the east, west and north has ensured its constant occupation since the Romans built the first fortress there in the 4th century. In 1389 it was besieged by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I commanded by Grand Vizier Çandarlızade Ali Pasha, only falling when the last of its supplies ran out. Pasha’s campaign forced Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shisman to surrender to the Ottoman Turks and while fighting would continue in some areas for another five years, Bulgaria would remain largely under Ottoman control from that point until the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Ottoman chronicles record Vlad Dracula’s capture of Zishtova Fortress, and in a letter Vlad wrote to the King of Hungary Matthias Corvinus in February of 1462 he boasts of having killed 410 Turks during the siege.  It seems he lived in the fortress for a few months that winter as well.

The fortress didn’t make it the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878. It was partially destroyed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812 after the surrender of the Ottoman garrison. Russian General Kamensky ordered it burned down so that the Turks could never reoccupy it.  Sturdily built, the fortress held up quite well to the fire. Significant parts of it were still standing until 1850 when the stones were pillaged to build a new barracks for the Turkish army.

Even so, the ruins of the fortress are in better shape than you might think. Professor Ovcharov notes that Zishtova Fortress has high sections of wall still standing making one of the best preserved in Bulgaria.


1,000-year-old sarcophagus opened in Mainz

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Lid of sarcophagus raised. Photo by ANDREAS ARNOLD/AFP/Getty Images.An international team of researchers has opened a 1,000-year-old sarcophagus buried under the floor of St. John’s Church in Mainz, Germany. The team had to work very quickly to document and analyze the contents and reseal the sarcophagus out of respect for the dead and to complete their work before exposure to air damaged any remains. It took months of planning to organize the complex procedure. First, the lid of the sarcophagus, which weighs 1,540 pounds, was lifted using a pulley system. Then 14 researchers from different specialties — anthropologists, metallurgists and textile experts, radiologists, etc. — went to work examining what was inside.

They were hoping to find the remains of Archbishop Erkanbald, Bishop of Mainz from 1011 until his death in 1021, but the only human remains were fragments of bones. It seems the body was covered in quicklime before the sarcophagus was closed to accelerate decomposition. It worked. Not even teeth remain. The radiologists on the team who were present to do immediate X-rays of the bones went home unfulfilled.

They did find sections of gold textiles near the head and lower leg, evidence that the individual was buried wearing very fine headgear and robes. Scraps of cloth shoes made from high quality fabric were also found. The gold fabric near the head could be all that remains of a bishop’s hat. The placement of the burial in the central nave pointed towards the altar indicates he was certainly a high church official.

St. John’s is the oldest extant church in Mainz and the only surviving example of late Carolingian cathedral architecture in the country. The Catholic diocese of Mainz and the Protestant church hoped opening the sarcophagus would reveal new information about the church’s early history. If the bishop was indeed inside that sarcophagus, that would confirm that St. John’s was the first cathedral church of Mainz, the seat of the bishop before it was moved to the current Cathedral of Mainz in 1036.

The sarcophagus may yet give up its secrets. In the next few days it will be scanned with a metal detector. If there’s a ring inside, it could confirm that the person laid to rest was indeed Bishop Erkanbald. Tissue and bone samples will be DNA tested and radiocarbon dated.

Furthermore, the sarcophagus itself is of singular interest. There is evidence that it was altered significantly before its burial in the church. The design of the interior was chiseled off. It’s possible it was used twice and had to be enlarged to make space for the clergyman. Whatever was done to it was done before the burial. The sarcophagus has not been opened or interfered with in any way since it was placed under the floor of the church 1,000 years ago.

The sarcophagus will be open in public view this weekend only.


Long-lost Lewis Chessman for sale

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

A Lewis Chessman whose whereabouts, nay, very existence, were unknown for almost 200 years has been identified and will be sold at auction next month. Picture it: the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, April, 1831. There, on the inlet of Uig Strand, a hoard of 93 objects was unearthed under nebulous circumstances that quickly became more legend than fact. It was a collection of 93 chessmen, pawns and tablemen (circular game pieces), plus one random belt buckle. That’s enough for almost four complete sets of figure pieces. Most of them were carved out of walrus ivory, likely in Trondheim, Norway, in the 12th or 13th century.

Whatever the true story of their discovery, the Lewis Chessmen made their international debut at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831. A merchant named Roderick Pirie was the first named owner. He sold them to an Edinburgh dealer for £30. That dealer sold 10 of them to antiquary and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and 81 of them to Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Sharpe was able to acquire an 11th piece after his original purchase. Today, Sharpe’s chessmen are part of the collection of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The British Museum has a total of 82 of the original 93 pieces.

But were there really only 93 pieces unearthed? The mystery attendant the find and the five figure pieces (one knight and four warders, ie, rooks in the modern game) missing to complete the four sets left open the possibility that there could be floaters out there. That possibility has now become fact as for the first time a new Lewis Chessmen Warder has emerged.

It was bought for £5 in 1964 by an Edinburgh antiques dealer. He did not realize the treasure he had found. It has been his family ever since, beloved, even revered as an artifact with almost magical properties. His grandchildren, who prefer to remain anonymous what with having hit the antiquities lottery and all, took it to Sotheby’s for appraisal.

Sotheby’s expert Alexander Kader, who examined the piece for the family, said his “jaw dropped” when he realised what they had in their possession.

“They brought it in for assessment,” he said. “That happens every day. Our doors are open for free valuations.

“We get called down to the counter and have no idea what we are going to see. More often than not, it’s not worth very much.

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s one of the Lewis Chessmen’.”

The warder is being offered for sale at Sotheby’s Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on July 2nd in London. The pre-sale estimate is £600,000-1,000,000 which looks way low to me, but we’ll see. This is the first time one of the Lewis Chessmen will have appeared on the auction block. Will it come to blows between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland? Will a deep-pocketed private party foil them both? Man, I hope they livestream the bidding.





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