Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Cracks in Viking Gokstad ship cause alarm

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

The largest preserved Viking ship in Norway, the Gokstad ship at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, is cracking. Two large cracks have appeared and museum conservators are sounding the alarm that the ship needs a comprehensive change to its support infrastructure before disaster strikes.

“When 1,000-year-old ship planks begin to weaken, the situation is extremely serious,” said Håkon Glørstad, director of the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History that’s responsible for the Viking ships. “Wood that’s so old doesn’t have the same flexibility as modern wood and can totally collapse, quickly and without warning.”

Glørstad told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday that in its current location, “we can’t develop the overall support systems needed to secure the ship’s entire hull.” He said the current base is no longer adequate and the space around the ship too confined.

The bow and the stern are the most unstable parts of the ship. The rest of the hull is braced by a wood base and 12 additional supports. The bow didn’t get its own supports until last year when three were installed to help contain the shifts in movement that cause cracking. Last month supports were added to the stern.

The new supports have sensor technology that allow them to pull double-duty: keeping the ship as stable as possible and measuring its movements. The data revealed that the Gokstad ship is experiencing significant vertical and horizontal movements, enough to move the ship millimeters in both directions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s huge in conservation terms and significantly above the limit of what a ship built in the 820s and buried for a thousand years can withstand.

Extra supports are only an emergency measure for the short-term. The Norwegian government has allocated funds to construct a new state-of-the-art building a hundred yards from the current one, but the grant hasn’t come through yet and construction can’t begin until it has. The most optimistic projection of when the new facility will be complete is 2025.

The Gokstad ship was unearthed in 1880 in Sandefjord, Vestfold, southeastern Norway. The mound where it was found was on a farm, and the sons of the owner began digging it out of the frozen ground looking for a royal treasure that was rumored to be buried there. Archaeologists were able to take over the job and unearthed the 9th century clinker-built ship, the remains of an adult man with cutting wounds indicating death in battle and highly significant grave goods although any gold, silver or weapons buried with him had been looted centuries earlier. It has been on display at the museum since 1932.

The other two Viking ships in the museum, the elaborately decorated Oseberg ship (discovered in 1903) and the Tune warship (the first Viking ship ever excavated, discovered in 1867), are more stable at the moment, but Oseberg’s enormous complement of wood artifacts have dangerously softened because of the alum treatment they received in 1904. Experts have been working non-stop since 2014 on saving them. The long-term condition, even survival, of the ships and their contents require that issues be addressed as they arise, not years in the future.

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Wild boars unearth medieval coin hoard in Slovakia

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

Wild boar can now join badgers as some of the most effective archaeologists of the animal kingdom. Diligent boars in the Choč mountain near Likavka, Slovakia, unearthed a large hoard of silver coins and two gold coins from the late 15th, early 16th century and then generously left them behind for a nice married couple to find during a hike. The couple had the presence of mind not to touch the coins. They alerted archaeologists and waited for three hours at the find site to ensure somebody less morally upright than they and the boars wouldn’t interfere with the treasure.

Because of the couple’s responsible approach, Slovakian archaeologists had the extremely rare opportunity to excavate a coin hoard in situ. Usually they only see them when people show up to their offices with bags of loot and dump them out on their desks. Over an area of two square meters (about 21 square feet), archaeologists recovered more than 1600 silver Hungarian denarii.

In the shallow hole, there was the broken clay bottom of a jug with coins that were, thanks to corrosion, attached to the remains of the fabric on the inner side of the jug. Nearby, there was a metal pot-lid.

The treasure was covered by a fine layer of soil. We can assume that the person who covered the coins was in hurry. The treasure was located near to an historical trade road.

Researchers suspect that the coins were buried around 1527, a year in which a dynastic conflict over the Hungarian throne broke out between Ferdinand of Habsburg, (brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and  John Zápolya, Voivode of Transylvania. John was crowned king by one faction of nobles, Ferdinand by another. While John was busy dealing with a peasant uprising, Ferdinand invaded Hungary. In September of 1527, Ferdinand’s forces, mostly German and Austrian mercenaries but with a few thousand allied Hungarian troops, soundly spanked John Zápolya’s Hungarian army. Ferdinand was crowned King of Hungary on November 3rd, 1527, but the upheavals were far from over. Zápolya regrouped and returned in 1528 with a new army. Ferdinand defeated him again, and this time Zápolya turned to the Ottoman Empire to fight his battles for him. By 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent had not only kicked the Germans and Austrians out of Hungary but was laying siege to Vienna.

Whoever buried this hoard had a lot to lose in this war-torn period. A labourer at that time earned between 6 and 10 silver coins per day. They’d never see a single gold coin in their life and certainly wouldn’t be able to get their hands on two of them on top of thousands of silver ones.

The coins are still being counted and cleaned. Once they’ve been thoroughly documented and researched, the hoard will be exhibited in the Liptov museum in Ruzomberok. As for the finders (the human ones), they will reap the rewards of their conscientiousness.  The monetary value of the coins will be determined by experts, and because the finders acted in total accordance with cultural heritages laws by leaving the treasure at the find site and calling archaeologists, they have earned the right to a finder’s fee in the amount of 100% of the market value. I hope they buy the boars some acorns or carrion or something with some of that cash.

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Did the Inca loot ancient mummies?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

Excavations at the ancient site of Pachacamac on the Pacific coast of Peru have unearthed a 1,000-year-old cemetery. Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have been excavating the site 25 miles southeast of Lima for 15 years and have found numerous cemeteries. This one is in an area of the archaeological site that hasn’t been excavated before.

[The team] found a cluster of burials in foetal positions, wrapped in numerous layers of plant materials, nets and textiles.

“These burials were interred in groups” says Professor Peter Eeckhout (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB) – director of the Ychsma Project – “interred in deep pits sunk into the sand, accompanied with ceramics and other offerings, then covered with wood and rushwork roofs”.

Previous excavations have found an unusually high proportion of disease in the skeletal remains. Inca sources claim the city was a religious center with a reputation for healing, making it a pilgrimage site for people suffering from illness. The latest find confirms those accounts. Physical anthropologist Dr. Lawrence Owens led the team that examined the remains.

“Most of the people at the site had hard lives, with various fractures, bad backs, bad hips…but the individuals from this cemetery show a higher than usual concentration of tuberculosis, syphilis and really serious bone breaks that would have had major impacts on their lives. Still, the fact that most of these are healed – and that disease sufferers survived for a long time – suggests that they were being cared for, and that even in the sites’ early history people felt a duty of care towards those less fortunate than themselves”.

Pachacamac was founded by the Wari around 200 A.D., but most of the major public buildings and temples were constructed by the Lima and Ychsma cultures between 800 and 1450 when the polity was absorbed into the Inca Confederacy. The Inca respected the local creator god and the city’s namesake Pacha Kamaq, incorporating him into their pantheon albeit as secondary to the Incan creator god Viracocha. They built several new temples in the city, expanding the facilities for pilgrims and spreading its reputation as religious healing center throughout the Confederacy.

As with most of the mummy bundles unearthed at Pachacamac (one salient exception was found last year), the ones found in the recently-discovered cemetery are not intact. They were damaged during the construction of a large building above the cemetery under Inca rule. It’s not just general damage caused by building work or the extensive looting that took place in the 17th century after the Spanish conquest. There is evidence here of targeted action against the mummies. Almost all of the mummies are missing their heads and some other specific parts.

This strongly suggests the Inca deliberately desecrated the city’s ancient dead, perhaps harvesting them for their own religious purposes. The Inca treated their own graves with reverence, but they were not related to the ancient peoples of Pachacamac and while they promoted some of the local traditions, they didn’t revere their dead as they did their own ancestors.

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Treasures emerge from Rijksmuseum storage

Friday, April 19th, 2019

The Rijksmuseum is showcasing some of the humble magnificence from its storage depot. This group of domestic and everyday use objects haven’t been on display for at least a hundred years, overshadowed by the museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces.

They’re getting their moment in the sun thanks to the Netherlands Collection Centre , a new shared storage building currently under construction in Amersfoort which will maintain the stored treasures of the Rijksmuseum, Paleis Het Loo, the Dutch Open Air Museum and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands all in one state-of-the-art facility. To prepare for the move, the Rijksmuseum is revising their inventory entries for each piece, taking new photographs and writing new descriptions.

The objects range in date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and will be displayed in five different galleries. The Middle Ages are represented by the museum’s entire collection of bronze mortars and pestles, used in pharmacology and perfume-making and for grinding spices in the home. The oldest mortar is a marquetry red copper and niello piece made in Khorasan, Persia, between 1100 and 1225. It is octagonal on the outside and cylindrical on the inside. The rest of the collection are of European, mosty Dutch, manufacture and decorated with all kinds of motifs from florals to lion heads to saints and hearts and slightly threatening studded ribs.

The Dutch Golden Age, so often associated with great artworks by the likes of Rembrandt, is viewed through a homier perspective in 17th century fireplace and kitchen bricks and tiles and cast iron firebacks. They performed an important function, protecting homes from areas of open flame, but that’s no reason not to make them a beautiful adornment as well. If I didn’t love my kitchen and fireplace as they are, I would be sorely tempted to get my mastic on and cover every conceivable surface with them. I mean, Scipio and Hannibal glowering at each other across a roaring fire? Yes please.

We may think of them as relatively mundane objects today, but when the mirrors in this collection were made in the 16th through 19th centuries, they were extremely expensive in materials, craftsmanship and human life as toxic mercury was essential to the process. This is reflected in their frames, which featured elaborate gilding, carving, molding and marquetry inlay. Some aren’t even looking glasses, but rather used as a striking medium for portraiture.

Small in size but not in stature are textile samples from 19th and early 20th century designers. Fabric swatches by Theo Nieuwenhuis, a student of Pierre Cuypers, architect of the Rijksmuseum whose design paid a great deal of attention to interior decoration with colorful, highly patterned wall frescoes and furnishings, are examples of the upholstery and wall textiles that once adorned Amsterdam’s Shipping House and other important city buildings. Most of the original interiors were discarded and replaced when fashions changed or they wore out.

Because the Rijksmuseum is very kind to those of us not fortunate enough to have regular access to it, almost all the objects on display in this exhibition have been collected in a Rijkstudio gallery so we can browse them online.

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Notre Dame stands

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

The roof is gone, the spire is gone, but the north and south towers of Notre Dame have withstood the conflagration. The rose windows survived, which is a freaking miracle. I thought they were goners for sure. The bells, including the great 13-ton bourdon Emmanuel, the only bell of Notre Dame to survive the cultural holocaust of the French Revolution, are intact. The artistic and religious treasures it held are safe in an undisclosed location.

Watching that spire collapse was so deeply horrifying I still can’t stand to recollect it, but it could have been so, so much worse, as in burned to the ground worse. The statues on the roof, which would have melted into puddles for sure, were removed prior to the beginning of the restoration work on the spire that was ongoing when the fire broke out.

The damage is massive and quite literally irreplaceable in the case of the wooden beams that formed the structure of the roof. They were cut down in the 13th century and there haven’t been any trees left that size in France for hundreds of years. It’s traumatizing to confront that level of loss. What’s gone is gone for good.

At the same time, the soaring Gothic majesty of that wood framing is the reason why the fire burned so thoroughly. Lots of oxygen, lots of combustible fuel, no way to break the fire, no way to fight it from the inside. Whatever architectural solution is devised to reconstruct the roof, I imagine fire security will be a top priority.

The church is owned by the state with the Church having rights of use. In the past this arrangement has caused lots of delays and nonsense when it came to restoration, but the agony of yesterday’s events will, one hopes, remain perpetually sharp and the outpouring of support — French billionaires have already pledge $339 million to the repairs — will keep attention fixed on bringing Notre Dame back.

My mother reminded me when we spoke just after the spire fell that when we lived in Rome many decades ago, a fire raged through St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, my favorite church when I was a kid. She said you could hear the stone cladding explode in the heat. St. Paul’s is far more modest in size and height than Notre Dame, and still the fire burned so viciously that it turned marble into artillery shells. Today it is more beautiful than ever, its gold facade gleaming even brighter than when I was a child with my face pressed against the window of the car to see the brilliant glow of the sun reflect against the mosaic every time we drove by it.

A reminder of what Notre Dame’s bells sounded like when her new ones were inaugurated just over six years ago. They will sound again. Between 43:20 – 45:18 all ten tower bells were rung along with the three in the spire, now lost forever.

(Between 12:15 – 21:50 the ten tower bells are rung in groups from largest to smallest. At 58:12 is the “Grand Solemnity,” beginning with Emmanuel followed by Marie and then the eight smaller ones.)

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Notre Dame

Monday, April 15th, 2019

It’s unbearable.

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Ali Atar sword digitized in 3D

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

An exquisite sword designed by the finest metalworkers of Grenada and wielded by one of the last great military leaders in Muslim Spain has been digitized in 3D. It belonged to Ali Atar, Warden of Loja and Lord of Zagra, who has become a heroic figure with many tales of dubious accuracy told about his background, bravery and generosity.

According to legend, Ali Atar started out as a trader in spices who climbed the ranks of Andalusian military leadership thanks to his skill in battle. He served Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada, known by Christians as King Boabdil. Muhammad was also related to Ali Atar, having married Atar’s beautiful daughter Moraima whom he loved beyond all others. Muhammad’s reign was a tumultuous one riven by internecine warfare. Christian rulers took advantage of Grenada’s weakness to take Muslim cities and chip away at what was left of the last sultanate. The Sultan tried to flip the script and in April 1483, he and Ali Atar tried to take the Christian city of Lucena (Cordoba). The battle was lost and Ali Atar, then 90 years old, died in the fight, his trusty sword in hand.

Ali Atar’s long life and battlefield death mirrored the final century of Muslim rule in Spain. The Nasrid dynasty, rulers of the Emirate of Grenada, was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula. Muhammed XII was captured at the Battle of Lucena and was only freed after he swore allegiance to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was a meaningless allegiance as their Most Catholic Majesties had no interest in maintaining any kind of Islamic rule in Iberia, even under their ostensible suzerainty. In 1491, Ferdinand and Isabella besieged Grenada and on January 2nd, 1492, nine years after Ali Atar’s death, Muhammad XII surrendered the Alhambra palace to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I and went into exile in Morocco.

His sword’s fame outlived Ali Atar. Covered in gold and ivory, the sword was taken by Christian forces after Atar’s defeat at Lucena and is now one of the most precious treasures of the Toledo Army Museum. Researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and Toledo company IngHeritag3D worked together to create a 3D model of this storied weapon.

Its design and materials posed challenges to the digitizing team.

First they photographed the sword from many angles using a technique called photogrammetry. Then they overlapped all the images, drew planimetries (drawings of the meticulous filigree of the grip) and generated its 3D model.

“These techniques offer the possibility of valuing relevant pieces inside and outside museums, since three-dimensional modelling is prepared both for specialists -who can manipulate the piece virtually-, and for being shared publicly and interactively through the Internet,” says engineer Margot Gil-Melitón, co-author of the work.

Using a web viewer, any user can use their mouse to check an exact replica of the handle of this genet sword, a type of genuinely Nasrid weapon introduced in Al-Andalus by the Zenetas (Berber people from whom it takes its name). Ali Atar’s sword has a knob in the shape of a bulbous dome, an ivory fist carved with drawings and Arabic letters, and a golden arriax (sword grip) topped with zoomorphic figures.

To record the details of this fine ornamentation, the researchers have devised solutions that have facilitated the analysis of highly reflective materials and complicated geometries. Their workflow could also be applied to characterize other museum pieces.

Here’s the completed 3D model of the grip of the sword:

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Unique medieval toddler bootie found in Switzerland

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the town of Saint-Ursanne in the Swiss canton of Jura have discovered an exceptional decorated leather toddler bootie from the Middle Ages. Sanitation works on the town’s canal network over the past three years have given archaeologists the opportunity to explore Saint-Ursanne’s medieval history and a wealth of organic remains have been found in the eastern part of the old town thanks to a large depression left by the river Doubs. More than a hundred fragments of leather have been found under the old town thus far, preserved in the waterlogged soil for hundreds of years.

The shoe is the most remarkable of the leather finds. It measures 6.7 inches by 5 inches and has a goat leather upper and a cow leather sole. The boot goes high up the ankle and has leather button closures. It is sized for a child about 12 months old. This design was a popular in the second half of the 14th century, but very few examples are known to have survived to the present day. This particular piece is even more of a stand-out because it is decorated with a foliate pattern on the front and a geometric check on the back of the bootie. Only five similar shoes have been found in Europe — three in London, two in the Netherlands. The bootie is unique in the Swiss archaeological record.

The leather remains were transferred to the Lausanne Shoe Museum for examination and conservation by specialists Marquita and Serge Volken. Like most surviving leather buried underground, the shoes are a uniform dark brown. If they did have decorative color elements, any indications of it are now lost.

The excavation in the eastern sector of Saint-Ursanne’s old town has also unearthed significant wood architectural elements from the Middle Ages, also preserved in the waterlogged environment. Most recently archaeologists have discovered a large wood construction underneath modern-day Rue du 23 juin. Experts have not been able to determine yet what type of structure it was or what its function may have been. Excavations are ongoing.

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Royal charter from 1st year of King John’s reign found

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019

An original royal charter from the reign of King John has been discovered in Durham University’s Ushaw College Library. Dr. Benjamin Pohl, a medieval history professor from the University of Bristol, found the rare document while studying the library’s medieval manuscripts with archivist Dr. Jonathan Bush. As they went through the library’s extensive collection of manuscripts, they discovered a box in the safe with documents that had not been officially catalogued; the royal charter was among them.

The charter dates to 1200, the first year of King John’s reign and was issued in York on March 26th making it exactly (almost to the day) 819 years old. In it the King confirms the grant of two hamlets — Cornsay and Hedley Hill in County Durham — to Walter of Caen and Robert FitzRoger. FitzRoger was Lord of Warkworth and Sherriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and both men were the nephews of Simon, a chamberlain of Durham who had received the hamlets more than 15 years earlier as a grant from the Bishop of Durham Hugh de Puiset. Simon wanted to give the hamlets to his nephews but needed the king’s royal charter to make the grants legal and official.

There may have been a undercurrent of political clean-up here too. Hugh de Puiset was thoroughly enmeshed in the turbulent monarchy of Stephen of Blois through the Angevin rulers. He was Stephen’s nephew, either sided against Henry II during his sons’ revolt against him or at least operated shadily in the background against the king. Hugh bought important offices from King Richard for a pretty penny, and when Prince John took control of the throne during Richard’s captivity in Vienna, Hugh opposed him to the point of battle, sending troops against some of John’s properties in the north of England in 1193. Hugh de Puiset died in 1195. John became King of England on May 27th, 1199. Ten months later, John granted Hugh’s nephews the properties his erstwhile enemy had given them.

Very few original charters from John’s first year of kingship have survived. They are usually known from charter rolls (administrative records of all royal charters) and some contemporary copies that were spread around the country and kept in institutional archives. This royal charter is all the more important because it is only known from the charter roll and there are differences between it and the administrative record. Some are minor differences — spelling mostly — but one is a very notable discrepancy in the list of witnesses. The charter roll only records the Archbishop of York, the Chief Justiciar of England and the Sheriff of Yorkshire and Northumberland as witnesses present at the issue of the charter on March 26th, 1200. The original charter has a much longer list of witnesses, adding the Constable of Chester, the Sheriff of Berkshire, Cornwall and Devon, the Royal Justice and Baron of the Exchequer, the Lord of Kendal, one Germanus Tison and Henry, son of the Archbishop of York, to the ones named in the charter roll.

Dr Pohl said: “Discovering the original charter at Ushaw is extremely exciting, not least because it allows us to develop a fuller picture of the people who were present at York on 26 March 1200 and eager to do business with the new king.

“Medieval charters are important not just because of the legal acts they contain, but also for what they can tell us about the society and political culture at the time. Indeed, their issuing authorities, beneficiaries and witnesses provide a cross section of medieval England’s ruling elites.

“Our charter might best be described, therefore, as a kind of ‘who’s who’ of Northern England (and beyond) at the turn of the thirteenth century.”

And then some. The Durham Residential Research Library collection also includes the original charter in which Hugh de Puiset granted Simon the two hamlets. The discovery of the royal charter allows scholars to compare the two documents side-by-side.

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Sumptuous Aztec offerings found at Templo Mayor

Monday, March 25th, 2019

The excavation at the foot of the steps of the sixth stage of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City that discovered the remains of a sacrificed child last year has unearthed a new trove of rich sacrificial offerings including jaguar bones, a set of flint knives, copal bars, shells and starfish.

The jaguar bones were found in a rectangular stone box that is so large Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have barely scratched the surface so far.

Only about one-tenth of the box’s contents has been excavated, but already a wide array of artefacts has been found near the top, including a spear thrower and a carved wooden disk placed on the feline’s back that was the emblem of the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli, the war and sun god.

A layer of aquatic offerings placed on top of the west-facing jaguar have also been identified, including a large amount of shells, bright red starfish and coral that likely represented the watery underworld the Aztecs believed the sun travelled through at night before emerging in the east to begin a new day.

A roseate spoonbill, a pink bird from the flamingo family, has also been found in the offering. It was associated with warriors and rulers, and thought to represent their spirits in their descent into the underworld.

A second stone box was discovered next to the jaguar box. It contains a top layer of copal bars, a type of tree resin burned by Aztec priests like frankincense and sea shells. It has only been partially excavated thus far. A third stone box next to it contains 21 flint knives that, like the remains of the jaguar and the young boy, were decorated with the regalia of warriors complete with a mother of pearl war god disc, a miniature spear thrower and a shield.

The ongoing discoveries of ritually significant offerings at the site while exciting in and of themselves also tender hope that this spot could indeed be the tomb of Aztec king Ahuízotl. According to Spanish chronicles, cinerary remains of three Aztec kings of Tenochtitlan — brothers Axayacatl (1469–1481), Tizoc (1481–1486) and Ahuízotl (1486-1502) — were deposited along with copious offerings and the hearts of sacrificial victims under or near the Cuauhxicalco, a circular platform at the foot of the steps of the Templo Mayor. This is where the pit containing the remains of the sacrificed boy and now the rectangular box have been found.

The cylindrical burial pit is unique among the 204 tombs unearthed at the Templo Mayor, and with the exceptional density of sacrificial offerings that have already been found in the stone box, archaeologists are hoping that they may have indeed found the burial site of the kings described by the Spanish. The construction phase of the temple dates to the reign of Ahuízotl, so all the pieces seem to fit. If the archaeologists’ hopes come to fruition, this would be the first tomb of an Aztec ruler that has ever been found.

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