Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Volunteer at crowdfunded Lindisfarne dig finds Anglo-Saxon name stone

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The monastery of Lindisfarne, famous for the beautiful illuminated gospel made around 700 AD that bears its name and as the landing place of the first Viking raiders in 793, was founded in 7th century by Irish missionary Saint Aidan. King Oswald of Northumbria had been raised and educated at the monastery on the island of Iona, so when he was crowned in 634, he invited Iona to send one of its monks to convert the people of Northumbria. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the location for a monastery that would become the uncontested epicenter of Christianity in Northumbria for the next 30 years and whose influence would spread throughout northern England.

The Vikings, first from Norway and then Denmark, attacked and plundered Lindisfarne repeatedly in the century after the first lucrative foray. Finally in 875 with the collapse of the kingdom of Northumbria under the pressure of a Danish invasion, the monastic community of Lindisfarne picked up stakes and ran. A second monastery was built on Lindisfarne more than 200 years later by the Normans. It stood until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

Despite its outsized importance to the history of Christianity, the precise location of the first monastery was lost. In 1999-2000, there were a few small-scale archaeological surveys in advance of construction on the island, but nothing concrete was discovered. In 2012, University of Durham archaeologist Dr. David Petts carried out a geophysical survey of Lindisfarne funded by National Geographic. The survey discovered several areas of interest with remains that could be related to the first priory.

Funding for a follow-up excavation was not forthcoming, so this year Petts partnered with archaeological crowdsourcing concern DigVentures to raise the money for an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne, the first to specifically target the Anglo-Saxon priory. The project raised £25,000 in less than a week, plus much-needed manpower from donors who were keen to help excavate the site. Excavations began in June.

The team found several artifacts that indicated they were on the right track. There was a fragment of a sculpture carved with lines and crosses. A fragment of a bone comb was the first datable artifact. It’s an Ashby Type 8b comb, which dates it to between 900 and 1000 A.D. Another datable find was even closer to the target period: a sceat, an Anglo-Saxon silver coin with an animal on one side and the name of King Eadberht of Northumbria (r. 737-758) on the other.

Then they unearthed a small semi-circular carved sandstone fragment. This is a very rare piece, an Anglo-Saxon grave marker dating to the period just after the founding of the first Lindisfarne monastery. This type of stone is known as a name stone because, well, there are names carved on them, and this one is no exception.

Gravemarkers, or ‘namestones’ are probably one of the most diagnostically Anglo-Saxon artefacts it’s possible to find, but they’re incredibly rare. Although a handful of squareheaded namestones have been found, only 13 of these roundheaded ones have previously been found, and they all date to the mid-7th to 8th century AD. placing it firmly in the period of Lindisfarne’s first monastery.

Experts are still deciphering the text, but it’s clear that the name of the person commemorated on the stone ended with the letters ‘frith’, which is a common element of Anglo-Saxon names. Also visible are sun motif, and an indent where a metal boss or jewel may have been placed.

One of the most significant figures in Lindisfarne history had a name ending in “frith.” Eadfrith was Bishop of Lindisfarne at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century. According to a 10th century annotation in the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript, it was Eadfrith who wrote and illuminated the work. Eadfrith was buried on Lindisfarne, but his remains were exhumed, along with those of St. Cuthbert, when the monks fled the invading Danes. After more than a century of peregrinations, Eadfrith and Cuthbert’s bones found a permanent home at Durham Cathedral.

The team also found fragments of bone near the marker, so it’s possible the spot was a graveyard. The excavation is over for this year, but the finds were so promising, the team hopes to return next year. They plan to crowdfund again. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the wonderful excavation diary on the DigVentures website.

Here’s a 3D model of the name stone:

Here’s a texturized version of the model that enhances the engraving on the surface :

Danish police to study 10th c. arson at Borgring

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the 10th century Viking Borgring fortress discovered on the island of Zealand, Denmark, in 2014, are calling the cops to help solve a 1,000-year-old mystery. The fortress was first identified with drone footage, laser scanning and a geomagnetic survey. Test pits were then dug at key positions which confirmed that this was Trelleborg-type fortress, one of a series of defensive ring forts built around 980 A.D. by King of Norway and Denmark Harald Bluetooth.

One of the original test pits was dug where the north gate would have been. Archaeologists found large oak timbers, evidence of the massive gates typical of Trelleborg forts, that were charred from fire. Funds for a full excavation of the site were secured last year. Excavations began in earnest this year. Thus far the team has unearthed more evidence of fire at the east gate. The outer posts of the gate are charred through, and posts from inside the gate bear marks of burning.

The working theory right now is that the fort was attacked by Danish noblemen before it was completed during an uprising against Harald Bluetooth’s rule. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard rebelled against his father in the mid-980s. According to Saxo Grammaticus, chronicler and author of the Gesta Danorum, Sweyn’s forces defeated Harald and forced him to flee to Jomsborg where he died of his wounds.

Archaeologists also found that the fort was not complete, that construction appeared to have ended halfway through. That suggests it was the last fort Harald built, that it was started at the end of his reign, became a target of rebel forces and was left unfinished after his defeat and death.

In the hopes of getting more information about the fire, archaeologists have reached out to police fire safety investigators. They want forensic arson specialists to study the burned areas of the structure.

“Hopefully, they can say more about how the fire was started. We generally have good experience of cooperation with the police. For instance, we have previously used their sniffing dogs to dig out bones from the earth,” Sanne Jakobsen, communications manager at Southeast Museum Denmark told Danish Radio.

The team will also do dendrochronological analysis of the timbers to narrow down the date of the fort. Excavations will continue for three months every summer through 2018, after which the plan is to close up archaeological shop and let the field return to nature. The clock is ticking, therefore. If you have a chance to see the site in the next couple of years, take it. Visitors can download an app to learn more about the other Trelleborg forts, Borgring and the archaeological finds made at the site.

Here’s a video of the site which is open to the public right now. There are mounds and trenches from the active excavation at the east gate.

You can keep up with the excavation on the Vikingeborgen Borgring Facebook page.

Altenberg Abbey treasures reunited after 200 years

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

More than two centuries after they were scattered, a medieval altarpiece, reliquaries and art works from the Premonstratensian convent of Altenberg in central Germany have been reunited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Heaven on Display. The Altenberg Altar and Its Imagery brings together 37 precious devotional objects from the late 13th and early 14th centuries that have been in separate collections since Napoleon was cutting a swath through Europe.

The star of the show is the Early Gothic Altenberg Altar, a folding high altar retable with a shrine cabinet, a polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child in the middle niche and painted panels on each side. The wings, some of the earliest surviving examples of German panel painting, are part the Städel’s permanent collection, but the rest is on loan. Other objects include reliquaries the once were kept in the shrine cabinet of the altarpiece, goldsmithery, 13th century altar crosses, figural glass paintings from an early 14th century window and two embroidered linen altar cloths made around 1330.

The altar cloths are large, elaborately decorated pieces that were placed on the altar in front of the retable. No other altar cloths from the Early Gothic period in Germany have survived.

Sometime before 1192, Emperor Barbarossa granted the convent the status of imperial immediacy, which put it under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, exempting it from vassalage to the local lords, essentially a guarantee of independence. The daughters of area nobles joined the convent and endowments from their families over time transformed a small, obscure abbey into one of wealth and power.

One of those daughters was Gertrude, the child of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died a few months before Gertrude was born. After her beloved husband’s death, Elizabeth dedicated her life to asceticism and charitable works, so much so that she gave up basically everything in the world that she loved, including her children. Little Gertrude was two years old when she was sent to live with the canoness of Aldenberg. She took the veil and became cannoness herself when she was just 21. Her rule lasted until her death 49 years later.

Elizabeth was already dead by the time her daughter dedicated her own life to piety and mortification of the flesh, felled by a fever when she was 24 years old. Only five years later she was canonized. Gertrude collected relics of the mother she had only had childhood memories of, if any, for the abbey. The works on display are examples of Gertrude’s devotion to her literally sainted mother. There’s a tapestry from 1270 woven with scenes from the life of Elizabeth and Louis IV which may have been hung behind the altar on important occasions before the altarpiece was built, an arm reliquary shaped like an arm and containing an arm, Elizabeth’s silver jug and a ring that once belonged to Louis.

The convent managed to retain its imperial status through the Reformation, the decline of imperial power and rise of the princes after the Thirty Years’ War. It came to an end with the Final Recess of 1803 when Napoleon compensated German princes who had lost lands west of the Rhine to France with ecclesiastical territories. Altenberg, monastery, church and extensive agricultural and forested lands, became the personal property of the Princes of Solms-Braunfels who had long coveted it. They turned the convent into a summer residence and distributed its works of art and devotional objects throughout their castles. The altar went to Braunfels Castle, the arm reliquary of St. Elisabeth to the chapel of Sayn Palace.

From there they made their way into museums and collections around the world. The Städel Museum in got the wings of the altar in 1925. Other collections including those of the city of Frankfurt, Munich’s Bayerische Nationalmuseum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City all have bits and pieces of Altenberg. It’s an impressive feat reuniting so many elements of the medieval convent to put the objects in some semblance of their original context.

The exhibition is on right now and runs through September 25th, 2016.

Viking power couple buried in death house

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

In 2012, highway construction in Hårup, southwest Denmark, unearthed an unusual grave. It’s a Viking tomb of a type known as a death house, a palisade structure similar to the simple roofed post-in-ground structures that would evolve into stave churches. This is the first death house found in Denmark. It measures four by thirteen meters (about 13 x 43 feet) and has one large room with two graves, and an addition that was built later to house one more grave. The death house dates to around 950 A.D.

Acidic soil has left no detectable human remains, but archaeologists were able to determine the gender of the people buried in the death house from their grave goods. In the main room are a man and woman, the former identified by a large battle axe that was called the Dane Axe in the 10th century. Its imposing size made it an intimidating and highly destructive weapon when wielded by an able fighter. Its weight and size made it a useful tool break apart enemy shields along their seams. In the 10th century, this would have been extremely expensive, an elite weapon for nobility or the obscenely wealthy.

The second person in the main chamber was buried in a wooden wagon typical of burials of noble women. Buried with her were two keys, one larger one symbolic of her status as the lady of a great household. The second key fits a square box that was found by her feet. Fine accessories buried with her include gold and silver ribbon and fur. The person buried in the addition is also an adult male. He too was buried with an axe in his grave, only his was smaller.

The special markings of the grave indicate that the pair must have had a high social status.

“It could be the gentlemen and the lady of the local area and maybe their successor. They’ve at least been honoured in a special way, so they must have been important,” says [excavation leader Kirsten Nelleman] Nielsen.

And it is not just the tomb that is special.

“It’s very special that the man and woman’s graves are marked by the same tomb or palisade. It’s unusual that we’re able to establish that the man and woman were equals with such certainty,” says Nielsen. [...]

[A]rchaeologist Henriette Lyngstrøm from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark,… has seen examples of shared graves before, but the way that the men and women are laid in this grave does indeed indicate a powerful couple, she says.

Nielsen thinks the design inspiration for the death house may have been foreign. The remains of a clay vessel found in the woman’s grave is of a type produced in the Baltic, and she also had two silver coins from what is now Afghanistan. The couple either acquired goods from traders who ranged far and wide or were perhaps well-travelled themselves. If the death house was inspired by a similar structure from elsewhere, that might explain why not other such tombs have been found in Denmark.

Lyngstrøm believes there are more death houses in Denmark; they haven’t been found yet. Nobody was really looking for them. Perhaps this first discovery of its kind will stimulate archaeologists to make associations they haven’t previously made when excavating at tomb. For example a necropolis in Hornbæk, a coastal resort town in northeast Denmark, has the remains of structures at the entrances that may have been death houses, or at least a version of them.

The Silkeborg Museum is hosting an exhibition running through October 23rd that presents an overview of the discoveries made during the highway construction project. It includes the reconstruction of the woman’s grave, the grave goods and some of the other finds from the Stone Age to the 19th century.

12th c. fortified town found under Illinois cornfield

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Under a cornfield in Cass County, Illinois, near where the Sangamon River flows into the Illinois, are the remains of a bustling Native American town that thrived from the 12th century through the 15th. The town had a central plaza, surrounded by three platform mounds, houses and defensive walls 10 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet long in each direction. Known as the Lawrenz Gun Club Site after a shooting club built on one of the mounds in the mid-20th century, the site has been studied by archaeologists and students from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) every summer for six years.

It was the remains of the mounds that first indicated a community of the Mississippian culture had once inhabited the site, but the town ranges far beyond that, covering over 26 acres. IUPUI’s archaeology field school used remote sensing technology to establish the perimeter of the site and, since they can’t dig up the whole cornfield, to identify areas likely to contain artifacts. This excavation season alone they’ve unearthed 97 bags of archaeological material including projectile points, pottery of many different kinds from cookware to storage vessels to dishes, stone tools, plant and animal remains. Only once in the six years have they encountered a human burial. Officials were notified in compliance with federal law, the grave was reburied and the remains left undisturbed.

“The last couple of years, we have focused inside the city’s walls. This year, we are looking at earlier structures, built before the walls were put up,”” [graduate student John] Flood said. “We are looking at an early house, about 5-by-5 meters in size, and how the city started to develop, trying to understand how the very early Mississippian community arranged their structures.”

For Flood, the most fascinating part of the multi-year investigation has been the huge, elaborate defensive walls built to protect the city.
“You have several portions of walls that were constructed at different points in time. Bastions and archers’ towers, you see a change in shape as they go from more circular to more rectangular in design. It shows they are really taking their time and thinking about their defensive fortifications,” Flood said. “We see that throughout all sorts of archaeology all over the world. Usually about the time you see agriculture, things like corn or maize, all of a sudden when you have food in one location, you find you have a need to protect that food.”

“You also need to make your presence known,” Flood said. “If you’re coming down the river and see a big, fortified city with 10-foot walls and archers’ towers, that’s a big mark of presence. It says ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay.’”

Based on the artifacts unearthed so far as, the walls and the dwellings, researchers estimate that the village had a population of 400 to 600 people from around 1100 through 1450 A.D., making it probably the largest village in the area. The inhabitants grew crops, primarily maize, and also foraged wild resources from their environment, including seeds, grasses, nuts and marshelder, a ragweed relation with edible seeds that was cultivated by the earlier Kansas City Hopewell culture of Kansas and Missouri before maize displaced it. The surrounding area also provided abundant hunting and fishing. The IUPUI team has found a great many bones of fish, waterfowl and land mammals.

A large community with impressive fortifications in a fertile location with plentiful plant and animal resources, the village likely traded with the great city of Cahokia, now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, to the north. Like Cahokia and other known Mississippian communities, the Lawrenz Site met an abrupt end in the mid-15th century. Archaeologists believe a combination of the Little Ice Age and severe drought may have brought on repeated crop failures which drove the population to abandon their settlements and seek greener pastures. With no food left to protect, fortifications that once defended the stores become prison walls enclosing only the prospect of mass starvation.

This season’s excavation will conclude at the end of the month. The 97 bags of artifacts and remains will be sorted, cleaned and analyzed in laboratory conditions back the university in Indianapolis. Every fragment is of interest as a potential source of information about the daily lives of the inhabitants of the prehistoric town.

Denmark’s heaviest hoard of Viking gold found in Jutland

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Three metal detectorists have discovered a group of bangles which add up to the greatest amount of Viking gold ever found in Denmark. Last week Marie Aagaard Larsen, her husband Christian Nedergaard Dreiøe and their friend Poul Nørgaard, aka Team Rainbow Power, were scanning a field in Vejen, south Jutland, where a gold chain from the Viking era had been discovered in 1911. Ten minutes after they started, Poul struck gold. They unearthed a gold bangle that they recognized was old, but it was bigger than anything quite they’d encountered before.

Team Rainbow Power emailed a photograph of the artifact to the Museum Sønderskov in nearby Brørup. Curator and archaeologist Lars Grundvad was amazed to see what they’d found. He and his colleagues had discussed returning to that field to explore it further because of the gold chain weighing 67 grams that had been unearthed there in 1911, but in his wildest dreams he hadn’t imagined there would be multiple finds of such quality and size.

Within 15 minutes, they found another gold piece. Then they found another. In the final tally, Team Rainbow Power discovered six gold and one silver bangle. The total weight of the gold bangles is 900 grams, just shy of two pounds. The previous record holder for the greatest amount of gold from a Viking treasure was the hoard found in Vester Vedsted, Southwest Jutland, in 1859. That hoard contained two gold neck rings, five gold bangles, a fragment of gold chain, two filigree pendants and two gold beads which totalled 750 grams. The Vejen find beats it by a lot in just six bangles, which goes to show just how big these pieces are. The sole silver bangle is a hefty one too at 90 grams (3.17 ounces). The bangles were likely buried together with the previously unearthed chain in the 10th century.

It’s not unusual for objects from the same hoard to be found at different times, even a century apart. Buried hoards could be broken up and scattered over a wide area by centuries of agricultural activity, and since metal detectors only began to be used in Denmark in the 1980s, even archaeological excavations were unlikely to find every artifact.

“Finding just one of these bangles is massive, so finding seven is something very special,” said Peter Pentz, a Viking expert and curator from the National Museum of Denmark.

Pentz went on to explain that silver was the most used metal during the Viking Age, which makes the golden find even more audacious.

One of the gold pieces is decorated in the stylized animal figures characteristic of the Jelling style, as is the chain discovered in 1911. The Jelling style in particular is associated with the elite of Viking society and considering the richness of the find, the Vejen area was likely home to a person of great wealth and position. The bangles could have been gifts for allies, rewards for his best men or oath rings. The style also helps date the hoard because it was in vogue for a short period from the first half of the 10th century until the year 1000 when it disappears from the archaeological record.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret for now as Team Rainbow Power, in collaboration with the Museum Sønderskov, is still searching the field. Lars Grundvad is working on raising funds now for a full archaeological investigation of the find site to take place as early as this fall. The museum hopes to display the finds before they are transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen, where they will be studied and evaluated as treasure trove. Team Rainbow Power will receive treasure trove compensation based on the National Museum’s assessment.

The rediscovery of a Pictish silver hoard

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

In 1838, a Pictish hoard of silver was unearthed on the grounds of Ley Farm near Fordyce, Aberdeenshire. Two prehistoric stone circles, Gaulcross North and Gaulcross South, were located a few hundred yards from the farmhouse, and the hoard was discovered a few feet south of the north circle. Maybe. Found by labourers clearing the land for agricultural use by the new tenant, the silver pieces were poorly documented at the time. The precise find spot was not recorded, nor were the pieces themselves. There were vague, conflicting accounts of what was found. Some said a silver chain four feet long, assorted buckles, pins and brooches; others reported just a silver chain, pin and armlet. The stone circles were all but destroyed during the brutal clearing process (dynamite was involved), leaving just one stone standing by 1867 when the first account of the hoard was written by John Stuart. He said the artifacts were buried inside the stone circle.

The fate of whatever pieces were found was also unclear. The property owner, Sir Robert Abercromby, 5th Baronet of Birkenbog, was said to have kept the hoard. He was also said to have given some pieces to the Banff Museum (his maternal grandfather was Alexander Ogilvie, 7th Lord Banff) in Aberdeenshire or to the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. The three surviving pieces of silver were in fact at the Banff for a while. They are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 2013, the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts project and National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project combined their efforts to investigate the site in the hopes of finding out more (anything, really) about the context of the original Gaulcross Hoard. Since they didn’t know exactly where the first pieces of the hoard had been found in the 19th century, the team had to cover a great deal of ground. A geophysical survey of the site was followed by metal detector enthusiasts scanning the Gaulcross site.

Archaeologists expected to find no more than a few fragments of silver here and there, just enough to pinpoint the find site, but on the second day metal detectorist Alistair McPherson found three Roman silver siliquae (a type of 4th century Roman silver coin that was widely cut up for use in the 5th century when fresh Roman currency was no longer imported into Britain), pieces of folded hacksilver, the endpiece of a silver strap and a silver bracelet fragment. With the tantalizing prospect of greater finds than they had expected and the daunting prospect of the field being ploughed and planted soon, the team got cracking with metal detectors and two trenches.

They ultimately unearthed more than 100 pieces of hacksilver chopped up from Roman and Pictish coins, jewelry, dishes, flatware, between the 4th and 6th centuries. It is the northernmost hoard of pre-Viking hacksilver ever discovered. The finds also included intact artifacts: a crescent-shaped pendant with double-loops at each end, a double-link chain, and two silver hemispheres that may have originally been part of a single piece.

Compared to other two other hacksilver hoards found in Scotland — the Traprain Law hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard — the discovery of so much material left in the ground after the 1838 find gave researchers new insight into the evolution of silver in Scotland since its introduction during the Roman era.

Silver was not mined in Scotland during this period, instead it had its origins in the Hacksilber from the late Roman world, as exemplified by the Traprain Law hoard. The differing compositions of individual objects in the three Scottish Hacksilber hoards will show how, through time, late Roman silver was recycled and re-cast into high-status objects that underpinned the development of elite society in the post-Roman period. During the process of recycling, the Roman silver was remade into new objects, but its origin may not have been entirely forgotten. Some of these later objects may have also directly referenced the late antique world, with items such as hand-pins showing the adaptation of late Roman military styles, both in terms of design and decorative techniques. As Gavin notes, the use of Roman models may have been intended to evoke military prowess and ostentation amongst elites in early medieval Britain and Ireland.

You can read the full report of the investigation and discoveries in the journal Antiquity.

Bones in Trondheim well confirm Norwegian saga

Monday, June 13th, 2016

On November 17th, 2014, archaeologists from The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research unearthed a skeleton at the bottom of a well on the grounds of Sverresborg, the castle of King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway (r. 1177–1202). Bones had been found there before in 1938, but they weren’t removed or studied. The well was refilled to preserve the remains. Then World War II and the German occupation of the area blocked further archaeological investigation. The 2014 dig was the first time archaeologists returned to the spot in the hope there was still something left to excavate. There was.

The location of the remains was notable because it matched a story in the Sverris Saga, one of a series of sagas that recount the lives of historic kings of Norway. There are few other sources for the history of this period, so any evidence that might corroborate one the accounts in the Kings’ sagas is exciting.

From 1130 to 1240, Norway was gripped by civil wars in which pretenders and puppets of various factions vied for the throne. Sverre claimed the throne on the grounds that he was the illegitimate son of King Sigurd II Haraldsson who was killed by his brother in 1155. Magnus V Erlingsson had been installed as king in 1161 when he was five years old. His father Erling Skakke held the real power when his son was a child and after he’d reached his majority, fighting off pretenders with even more tenuous claims than Sverre’s.

Supported by Swedish earls and a Norwegian rebel party known as the Birkebeiner (birch bark shoe-wearers), Sverre challenged Magnus and in 1177 declared himself king. The king and his father begged to differ, however, and it took another seven years before Magnus was finally defeated and killed in the Battle of Fimreite on June 15th, 1184, and Sverre was elected king.

Sverre and the Birkebeiner were proponents of a strong centralized monarchy that brought the Church to heel as well as secular potentates. His choice to build Sverresborg on a plateau in the city of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim), see of the archdiocese and center of Christian Norway, was a pointed one. The Archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson, had fled to England in 1180 and remained there until 1183. Sverre took advantage of his absence to build the castle. Conflict between the archdiocese and the king was abated for a few years only to flare up again in 1188 with Eysteinn’s death and the appointment of Eirik Ivarsson as his replacement.

Conflict between the Church and its supporters and the king and his supporters continued throughout Sverre’s reign. In 1197, a pro-Church faction that would later become known as the Baglers attacked Sverresborg when Sverre was wintering in Bergen after a successful but costly assault on Oslo. The small garrison of about 80 men held the castle thanks to its excellent defensive position, but their commander turned coat and let the enemy into Sverresborg.

The event is described in the Sverris Saga:

The [Baglers] seized all the property in the castle, and then they burnt every building of it. They took a dead man and cast into the well, and then filled it up with stones. Before they left the castle they called upon the townsmen to break down all the stone walls; and before they marched from the town they burnt all the King’s long-ships. After this they returned to the Uplands, well pleased with the booty they had gained in their journey.

The skeletal remains found at the bottom of the well in 2014 were indeed covered with stones, just as the saga said. A fragment of bone recovered from the site was radiocarbon dated and found to be about 800 years old, so just the right age to match the story of the Baglers poisoning the castle’s water supply with a dead body. Analysis of the bones indicated they belonged to a man of about 30-40 years of age when he died.

Now the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research has returned to the site to fully excavate the well and the entire skeleton.

The excavation of the stone debris down to the very first stone that hit the Birkebeiner’s body has given the archaeologists additional insight into the nature of events in 1197. In addition, it exposed the timber posts and lining for the large castle well. [...]

“This is truly astonishing. As far as I know there is no known example of the discovery of an individual historically connected with an act of war as far back as the year 1197. And the fact that this actually corroborates an event described in Sverre’s saga is simply amazing,” says lead archaeologist at the site, Anna Petersén.

The Dragon has Newfoundlanded!

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

For the first time in a thousand years, a Viking longship has crossed the North Atlantic. The Draken Harald Hårfagre reached port of St. Anthony in Newfoundland on June 1st. It was not an easy voyage. There’s only a short window in late spring and early summer when crossing the frigid waters of the North Atlantic is possible, and even then conditions are challenging, to put it mildly.

After setting sail from Haugesund, Norway, on April 23rd, the Draken made its first unplanned stop just three days later on Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. One of the ship’s shrouds (rigging connected to the mast) had parted a day after departure so the crew stopped at Lerwick to make the repairs. They had to take down the mast to do it, which is a harder job now than it would have been for the Vikings because they didn’t have electronic equipment on their masts.

On April 27th the Draken set sail again, making for Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands. They arrived May 2nd and had to stay until May 6th waiting for propitious winds. The crew took advantage of the longer stop to examine the 3,200-square-foot silk sail for damage. You can see highlights of the trip from the Shetlands to the Faroes in this video. It’s damn hard going.

The next leg of the voyage took them to Reykjavik, Iceland. The landed in Reykjavik Harbour on May 9th and were again compelled to wait out the wind, this time for a full week. This amazing video features the Captain of the Draken Björn Ahlander in Iceland, talking about how the difficulties of the voyage only strengthened his crew’s bond and pointing out the commonalities between their experience navigating the longship and the Viking’s. There is footage of them sailing in a storm with waves battering the clinker-built ship. In the beginning he’s holding up a piece of Iceland feldspar, the stone his seafaring Viking ancestors used to find the sun even through thick cloud cover. He’s being filmed in Tingvallir, by the way, the place where Iceland’s Althing, or parliament, first met in 930. Tingvallir remained the site of the Icelandic Parliament until 1798. It is now a national park.

The northeasterly wind they were waiting for finally graced them with its presence on the 16th and off the Draken went to Greenland. On May 21st, the reached the harbour of Qaqortoq, southwest Greenland, navigating the same waters Leif Eriksson navigated when he founded the first European settlement on Greenland in around 1000 A.D. The crew made good use of their time there, too. Captain officiated at the wedding of two crew members in the ruins of the early 12th century church in Hvalsey. The last record we have of the Norse settlement in Greenland was a wedding held in that same church between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir on September 14th, 1408.

On May 27th, the Draken set a course for North America. The final leg from Greenland to Newfoundland proved the most difficult. Icebergs, dense fog, harsh and unpredictable winds put the Draken‘s crew of 32 volunteers to the test. Modern water-repellant clothing could not keep them dry, and layers of thick knit sweaters could not keep them warm, but the elements could not break them either. On Wednesday they reached Newfoundland, landing near L’Anse aux Meadows where the remains of a Viking settlement were discovered in 1960.

Soon the valiant Draken and its riders will head inland for Quebec City and its summer tour of the Great Lakes and canals. No more icebergs for the forseeable future.

Huge medieval cemetery found under Cambridge College

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Archaeologists excavating under the Old Divinity School of St John’s College, Cambridge, have discovered one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Britain. The first remains on the site were found during renovations to the college’s Victorian building from 2010 to 2012. The discovery was kept under wraps until 2015, when Cambridge announced that archaeologists had unearthed the intact skeletal remains of 400 individuals, plus the disarticulated remains of close to 1,000 more people. The bodies were interred in the cemetery of the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist, the college’s namesake. It was in use between the 13th and 15th centuries and is one of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds ever discovered in Britain.

Historians have known since the mid-20th century that there was likely a cemetery under St John’s College, but they had no idea it was so massive. The hospital was founded by the community in 1195 to care for the indigent. It was a small structure in its infancy, but grew into a large institution that cared not just for the poor, but also for other residents and Cambridge University scholars. While the hospital did have support from the Church, the cemetery was a lay institution and the burials reflect this status in their simplicity. There is very little evidence of clothing or grave goods. A few artifacts have been found but it’s not clear from their positions that they were interred with the bodies. The vast majority of burials were done without coffins, many without even a shroud, likely because of the majority of patients at the hospital were poor.

The intact skeletons were found neatly buried in rows, but they were just the last group buried in those plots. Archaeologists discovered six “cemetery generations” on the site, meaning six complete turnovers of the space. Older remains would be taken to the charnel house or the bones removed to make room for new bodies to be buried in the newly vacated areas. Despite the turnover, archaeologists also found gravel paths, a well and seeds from a number of flowering plants in the cemetery. This indicates the graves were tended to by the community, and the cemetery was less of a boneyard and more of a park-like space where people could pay their respects and grieve their dead. That’s not something you find often in cemeteries of hospitals for the poor.

Also unusual for a medieval charity hospital graveyard is the lack of young women and infants. Out of the identifiable remains, half of them were women, most of them between 25 and 45 years old. Given the high rates of death in childbirth of both mothers and babies at the time, you’d expect to see more of the former and at least some of the latter. Historic research explained this imbalance. In 1250 the hospital promulgated an ordinance that prohibited the care of pregnant women. Its focus was to be “poor scholars and other wretched persons,” as long as said wretched were not carrying future wretches.

The hospital of St John the Evangelist was long said to have been in active use during the Black Death (1348-1350), but archaeologists found no evidence of this. There were no osteological indications of plague on any of the bones and no mass graves of the types most commonly used to dispose quickly of the infectious dead. The dead of St John will nonetheless be of aid to scholars researching the effect of the Black Death on Cambridge. The University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has just received a £1.2 million grant from the Wellcome Trust to study how the plague affected the city.

A spokesman said: “This collaborative project, with Professor John Robb as PI and collaborators Dr Toomas Kivisild, Dr Piers Mitchell, and Mr Craig Cessford, explores the historical effects of major health events such as epidemics.

“It will combine multiple methods (archaeology, history, osteoarchaeology, isotopic and genetic studies of both human and pathogen aDNA) to study the people of medieval Cambridge.

“It will use the recently excavated large sample of urban poor people from the Hospital of St. John, complemented by comparative samples from other medieval social contexts and other historical periods.

By comparing samples from before and after the Black Death epidemic of 1348-50 for a wide range of social and biological indicators, this new research aims to reveal how the plague changed human well-being, activity, mobility health and the genetic constitution of Europe.




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