Pillow brick found in 13th c. clergyman’s grave

Archaeologists have discovered the grave of a clergyman with an inscribed stone “pillow” under his skull at the Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.  The stone block was engraved with Bible verses in Old Bulgarian and in the middle of them an Orthodox cross, a cross with two horizontal crossbeams, the lower one slanted downwards to the right. There are seven lines quoting the first four verses of the Gospel of John.

Pillow bricks with inscriptions are rare finds in Bulgaria. The closest comparable find was bilingual in Greek and Old Bulgarian, and it was discovered by accident during construction rather than professionally excavated in its original location. Old Bulgarian was used throughout Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Also known as Church Slavonic, it was the official language of the Second Bulgarian Empire and is still the official language of several Eastern Orthodox Churches today.

The grave was found in the ruins of a 13th century Holy Mother of God Monastery that was a major religious center when Veliko Tarnovo, then Tarnovgrad, was the capital city of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The remains of the monastery were first discovered in 2014, and the next year’s excavation revealed the ruins of an Early Christian basilica in the same area.

To be buried in this location with funerary furnishings, the clergyman must have been someone of rank, the Father Superior of the monastery at least, and possibly even a Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The archaeologist [, Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov who helped translate the inscription,] also explains that the brick with the inscription quoting the first four verses of the Gospel of John from Veliko Tarnovo has been found in a grave with an impressive design, featuring arc built into the wall of the 13th century monastery church.

“Most of the graves of senior clergymen have arcs. It features verses 1-4 from the Gospel of St. Apostle John, posing a number of questions with respect the person in the grave. That may have been the death wish of the buried person because almost all interpreters believe that the Gospel of John starts with a foreword containing some main and major Christian truths… The quote indicates that the buried person was a highly erudite man,” Popkonstantinov elaborates.

Gjellestad ship emerges

The excavation of the Gjellestad Ship, the first Viking ship burial mound to be excavated in Norway since 1904, has exposed the surviving structure of the ship. We’ve only seen its outline in a ground penetrating radar scan before, a pointed oval in the middle of a dark circle that marks the circumference of the mound that was built around it. Now the wooden skeleton of the ship itself is visible.

The ship was constructed around the 9th century and dug into a pit. Someone very important was laid to rest inside of it and then a mound was built on top to attest to the high rank of the deceased. The longship was an estimated 65 feet long when new. About 63 feet of its length (and 13 feet of its width) remains, with the losses concentrated and the front and back of the boat.

The excavation began at the end of June and time is of the essence because samples taken from the keel found the wood was ravaged by fungal growth and in imminent danger of disintegration. To preserve the fragile wood after it has been exposed to the air, the team drapes it in perforated plastic sheeting covered with wet cotton canvas. That keeps the soil and wood from drying out. Artifacts have been removed in soil blocks for excavation in laboratory conditions.

The most common artifact unearthed so far are nails, the iron nails with heads and square plates hammered to the end known as clinker plates. These plates were the fasteners, the means by which the planks of clinker-built ships were kept together. As most of the ship’s wood decayed in the soil, the iron nails remained, albeit damaged and fragmented by a millennium of corrosion. Last month, a whole row of nails was uncovered on the southern end of the ship, the area where the planks from stem to stern were nailed to the prow. A corresponding line of clinker nails was also found in situ on the northern section of the ship. Their discovery in their original positions will provide new information on how the ship was built.

While human remains have yet to be found, animal bones have been discovered the middle of the ship. Their large size suggests they belonged to an ox or horse that was ritually buried with the elite individual. The animal bones are located in the area of the boat where the central burial chamber would have been placed. The site has been interfered with, probably by looters when the tomb was still comparatively young, certainly by agricultural activity in the 19th century when the mound above the burial was destroyed to make way for planting. The upper parts of the boat were heavily damaged and archaeologists feared the funerary chamber was lost as well. The discovery of the animal bones gives hope that there might be something to find down there after all, because while the top layer of bones are in poor condition, the lower layers are much better preserved.

Follow the adventures of the Gjellestad excavation in this blog on the Viking Ship Museum’s website. Also, here is Kristofer Hivju, aka Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones, looking like joy incarnate as he aids in the excavation.

Medieval metal faces found in Poland

Archaeologists have discovered 200 metal and ceramic artifacts from the Middle Ages in the village of Poniaty Wielkie, east-central Poland. The artifacts are remarkably varied, ranging from jewelry to devotional objects to spurs, and date from the 11th to the 12th/13th century.

Two pieces are of particular note: a copper alloy fitting in the shape of a surprised face, and a small lead plate shaped like a placid/sleeping/contented face. The lead object may have been a seal. The Home Alone face was likely a garment fitting or belt buckle as it has clear mounting holes on the ears. These types of artifacts have not been found in what is now Poland before. They are stylistically similar to pieces made by the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian borderlands.

The area was known to have been settled in the Middle Ages, but it was never archaeologically excavated until 2019 before construction of new gas reservoirs. Two seasons of digs revealed evidence of the medieval town’s commercial activities — furnaces, wells, slag and partially finished metal goods.

Despite the fact that the settlement was situated within the borders of the then Polish lands, many monuments that have been discovered there so far come from the eastern territories, including in Rus, the discoverers point out.

According to [lead archaeologist Jakub] Affelski, the settlement in Poniaty Wielkie could play several roles: perhaps it was a metallurgical center that produced items for nearby castles in Nasielsk and Pułtusk. This is evidenced by the found fragments of slags and metal semi-finished products. In turn, numerous metal seals indicate that it was used for large-scale trade. It is unclear for researchers why there are so many metal objects left in the settlement, which were highly valued at the time. – There is no indication that its end was brought by the invasion – we found no evidence of armed aggression. It is still a big puzzle for us – he concludes.

Oldest in situ remains of bridge found in Scotland

The remains of a medieval bridge over the River Teviot near Ancrum in the Scottish Borders have been discovered under the spans of the 18th bridge that eclipsed it. The bridge had fallen down the memory hole after the construction of the 1784 Toll Bridge, known as Ancrum Old Bridge today to contrast it with the Trunk Road bridge built in 1939. Its existence was rediscovered in 2018 by members of the Ancrum and District Heritage Society (ADHS), a local volunteer archaeology group, who came across a reference to it in the minutes of a council meeting from 1674.  A little more research found it marked on a 1654 map, and volunteers hit the Teviot riverbank with a drone looking for any traces of the medieval bridge. A stone platform with an embedded timber was captured in one of the drone’s aerial photographs.

With funding from Historic Environment Scotland, ADHS volunteers and experts from Wessex Archaeology surveyed and analyzed the remains. Radiocarbon dating of the timbers confirmed that the bridge was built in the middle of the 14th century. That makes this the oldest set of bridge remains found in their original location in Scotland. Dendrochronologist Dr. Coralie Mills identified the timbers as native oak which is rarely found in Scottish construction after 1450.

Dr Mills said: “The timber structure discovered by ADHS in the River Teviot near Ancrum is a rare survival of part of an early bridge in a hugely strategic historical location. The oak timbers are in remarkably good condition and provide really important local material for tree-ring analysis in a region where few medieval buildings survived the ravages of war….” […]

Dr Bob MacKintosh of Wessex Archaeology Coastal & Marine said: “The results are really exciting. In addition to the surprisingly early date, it seems the foundations were built using branders, a wooden frame laid on the riverbed upon which the courses of stone were placed. This is the first-time branders have been found in an archaeological context in Scotland. They are otherwise only known from historical sources and two accounts of engineering works on extant bridges completed in the 19th and early 20th century.”

Just 10 miles from the border with England, the bridge connected the abbey and royal castle in Jedburgh to Acrum across the river. From there, trade routes ran to abbeys and castles in Selkirk to the west and Roxburgh and Melrose to the north, so the bridge was vital to the movement of goods and moneys in Scotland. It was maintained by the Augustinian abbey of Jedburgh who profited from the toll fees.

Built during the reigns of David II of Scotland and Edward III of England, the bridge is of historic and strategic national importance. The bridge crossed the River Teviot, carrying the ‘Via Regia’ (The Kings Way), on its way from Edinburgh to Jedburgh and the Border. James V would have crossed here in 1526, as would Mary Queen of Scots returning from her tour of the Borders in 1566, and the Marquis of Montrose on his way to battle at Philiphaugh in 1645.

Come the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the abbey was destroyed and control of the bridge and its toll income shifted to Royal Burgh of Jedburgh. Time, a brisk current and near-constant war left the bridge in increasing disrepair. Numerous attempts were made in the 17th century to get funds to repair the bridge (that’s what a lot of those town council minutes were about), but they came to naught and by 1698 the bridge was no longer useable. It took nearly a century for it to be replaced by what is now Ancrum Old Bridge.

Is this the self-portrait of mason hidden in a column capital?

Carved figure that may be self-portrait of mason on column capital in the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo courtesy Jennifer Alexander.A possible self-portrait of a mason has been discovered carved in the capital of a column inside the nave of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Easter egg was spotted by art historian Dr. Jennifer Alexander during a detailed survey the 11th century cathedral’s Romanesque architecture.

Alexander was conducting a stone-by-stone analysis to work out its construction sequence, in a project funded by the Galician regional government. It was when she was studying the capitals, about 13 metres above the pavement, that “this little figure popped out”, she recalled.

“A lovely image of a chap hanging on to the middle of the capital as if his life depended on it. It’s in a row of identical off-the-peg capitals where they’ve been knocking them out in granite – ‘we need another 15 of that design’ – and suddenly there’s one that’s different. So we think it’s the man himself.

Some of the column capitals in the central nave of the church have uniquely-carved variants featuring animals, angels, devils, Biblical scenes and the like. They imparted at-a-glance theology to the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to the cathedral, and added visual drama to the space. Those capitals are in less obscure locations, however, and this guy is a little too regular compared to the fantastical and Biblical figures on the splashier capitals.

The carved figure is about a foot high and has a round face with large ears reminiscent of a Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with eyes and no glasses. His arms are bent at the elbow so they can comfortably nestle in the chevron shapes formed by the wide banana leaves decorating the capital, basically in a shrug emoji posture. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His right hand is curled into a fist. He has no left hand. He could be a mason, sure. Then again he could not be one too.

In other Santiago de Compostela news, The Portico of Glory, the cathedral’s high-drama three-arched entrance façade built in the 12th century by French architect Master Mateo, underwent a 12-year program of restoration that was completed in 2018. As much as possible, the polychrome paint on the portico’s 200+ figures was conserved, but much of it was lost centuries ago and what remains is mostly the result of later interventions. During the restoration work, the portico was documented in unprecedented detail with more than 2,700 gigapixel photographs capturing every inch of the elaborately-decorated  surfaces. Those photographs were converted into a digital 3D model and made available in a ground-breaking free app that allows users to crawl over every last detail of The Portico of Glory, see it before and after restoration, learn about the deterioration of the carvings and the treatments, all accompanied by an audio tour.

The app goes a giant step beyond the visuals with the music. The characters on the portico include 21 who bear musical instruments. Researchers recreated those instruments in 3D and then recreated the music they played, so while you examine the masterpiece of medieval art, you are accompanied by a soundtrack that not only matches the period, but the specific musicians on the archway itself. It is unbelievable, truly.

You can download The Portico of Glory app for iOS here and for Android here.