Dog finds bracteate hoard in Poland

A very good boy has unearthed a large hoard of medieval bracteate coins near Wałbrzych in southwestern Poland that is the largest hoard found in Poland in a 100 years. Kajtuś was out on a walk earlier this month when his canine senses prompted him to dig and dig he did, until he hit a pot filled with coins.

His owner reported Kajtuś’ find to the Lower Silesia Heritage Protection Office who dispatched a team of archaeologists to survey the site. They excavated the coins and the pieces of the earthenware pot containing them. Archaeologists identified the coins as bracteates minted in Bandenburg, Saxony or Silesia in the first half of the 13th century. They are in excellent condition, well-stamped with clear, sharp images of griffins, mermaids, angels and architectural features.

Bracteates were made from thin sheet metal, so thin that they were only stamped on the obverse with just a negative of the impression appearing on the reverse of the coin. They quickly got threadbare with use and were regularly taken out of circulation to be melted down and restamped, so bracteate hoards are relatively uncommon, and large hoards like this one even rarer.

“The idea of stamping coins from a thin plate was caused by the low availability of ore – silver or, more rarely, gold, and the reserves of the mint. Kings, dukes, and bishops could mint coins,” the heritage protection office explains.

Only with the discovery of silver deposits near Prague did the “euro of medieval Europe”, the Prague groschen, begin to be minted, which gradually took over from bracteates.

The coins are archaeological heritage and will therefore eventually make their way into a museum rather than onto the numismatic market. First, however, they need to be properly studied and conserved – which will require time as well as academic grants.

Before this find, the largest bracteate hoards in Poland were found in the  Warsaw and Kraków areas. The discovery of a large hoard in Lower Silesia will stimulate new interest in the medieval history of the area. Officials are keeping the exact number of coins and find site secret for now to make it hard on any loot-minded tourists who might want to try their luck with surreptitious metal detecting.

Kajtuś does not appear to be letting the fame go to his head.

14th c. Hanseatic ship found in Tallinn

A 14th century merchant trading vessel of the Hanseatic League has been unearthed during construction work in downtown Tallinn, Estonia. Found under a highway, the vessel is a cog, the workhorse of the Hanseatic League’s shipping networks across the North and Baltic seas. Dendrochronological analysis dates to the wreck to 1360.

The cog was the primary ship used by Hanseatic merchants. The single-masted vessel had a flat bottom and no keel so it could move through shallow waters and was easily maneuvered by a small crew, even when laden with up to 90 tons of cargo. They could be built quickly at low expense and could even be armed for defense when pressed.

They ranged in size from 15 to 25 meters (50-82 feet) long, so at 79 feet long and 30 feet wide, the Taillinn cog is at the very top of the range. It was a clinker-built boat — made of overlapping oak planks sealed with animal hair and tar.

The area where the ship was found was underwater for centuries. When it sank near the mouth of the Härjapea River (a waterway that no longer exists today) 800 years ago, the spot was under seven feet of water, and the ship was quickly covered by the shifting sand ridges. The site was still submersed in the 18th century.

The waterlogged environments preserved the organic materials. The ship is in excellent condition with oak boards intact up to 10 feet from the bottom. Archaeologists have also recovered wool used for packing cargo, tools and leather shoes. In preservation it is comparable to the Bremen Cog, found during dredging operations in Bremen, Germany, in 1962 and now on permanent display at the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven. The Taillinn cog is larger and older than the Bremen Cog.

The ship will have to be be removed from the find site so that construction can continue. Unfortunately it is too big to be removed in one piece. It will be taken out in sections, conserved and reconstructed either at the maritime museum in Taillinn or the wreck preservation area in Tallinn Bay

Aachen museum buys Charlemagne denarius on eBay for a steal

A rare silver denarius bearing the only known contemporary portrait of Charlemagne that was bought on eBay for a song is now on display in the Centre Charlemagne museum in Aachen. Less than three-quarters of an inch in diameter and weighing 1.51 grams, the little penny is exhibited under a magnifying glass so visitors can inspect the laureate profile of the Emperor wearing the equestrian cape. There are only 50 known examples of this coin.

It was unpublished and unrecognized in a private collection in Normandy for years and emerged on eBay when the collector’s grandson dragged grandpa’s coin collection out of the attic and sold it. An Aachen native with a sharp numismatic eye spotted the coin on eBay and alerted the Centre Charlemagne that they might want to bid. They did and they won, spending a four-figure sum (in euros) for a piece that would have sold for as much as 160,000 euros on the coin market.

Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short had established a new monetary system early in his reign around 755 A.D., restoring the silver content in the penny that was a descendant of the Roman denarius. Under Pepin’s monetary reform, all coins were marked with the name or title of the king as they were issued by his authority and with him as guarantor of coin quality.

Charlemagne succeeded his father King of the Franks in 768 and continued his monetary policies, expanding the silver-based standard of one pound = 240 deniers (ie, denarii, ie pennies) throughout his expanding territories, even via alliance to Mercia in Britain. When Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, his new status was reflected in his coinage.

Even though Frankish monarchs had traditionally rejected association with the ancient empire, Charlemagne selectively embraced imperial iconography and nomenclature. When he began to issue the first coins bearing his portrait in 804, he turned to the coinage of Constantine as model, hence the laureate profile on the obverse which is inscribed KAROLUS IMP[erator] AUG[gustus].

On the reverse of the new portrait coin was a structure numismatic scholars call a “temple” for its porch, column and pediment design. This one has crosses, though, one of the pinnacle and one floating in the center between the two sets of columns, perhaps representing the Edicule, the small shrine built by Constantine over the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. It bears the inscription XRICTIANA RELIGIO (“The Christian Religion”), a reference to Charlemagne’s self-appointed role as “Defender of the Faith.”

Charlemagne’s “temple-style” silver coins were widely circulated and struck until his death in 814, but for reasons that are unclear, very few of them have survived. The example that has now gone on display in Aachen was an issue struck after the coronation of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious as co-emperor in September 813. These would have been presentation pieces, honorary gifts more than general use coinage. Charlemagne’s death four months later put an abrupt end to the run.

Visit Henry III’s toilet at restored Clifford’s Tower

Clifford’s Tower in York is the only structure remaining from York Castle. The original structure on the site was a timber Norman motte-and-bailey castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068. The wooden keep was burned down in 1190 in a horrific anti-Semitic riot where the 150 members of York’s Jewish community had barricaded themselves inside the tower from the wrath of the mob. Under violent attack from knights, a siege engine and the rioters, the Jews inside the keep killed themselves and set fire to the tower. The few who opted out of suicide and managed to escape the tower were massacred by the mob.

The present Clifford’s Tower was constructed on the ashes of this tragedy. Reconstruction began in the early 13th century, but the new stone keep would not be completed until the end of the century. York Castle would mainly be used for administrative purposes — prison, mint, briefly as headquarters of the Exchequer — not as an actual royal residence. It was not well-maintained. Accounts from the 15th century already report some of the buildings were in ruins, and there was a scandal in the 1590s around the gaoler of the castle purportedly trying to demolish the tower to sell the stone.

Clifford’s Tower saw real action in the English Civil War. Queen Henrietta Maria had it restored and a new wood roof put on in 1643 just in time for it to be taken by Parliamentarian forces in 1644. After the Restoration, the tower was garrisoned by troops who were notorious carousers. On April 23, 1684, they fired a ceremonial salute indoors and set the place on fire again. The fire gutted the wooden interiors and Henrietta Maria’s roof and the tower fell to ruin. Occasionally people used it as a stable or barn.

Finally it became property of the state in the 1915 and it was repaired and stabilized in the 1930s so it could be opened to the public for the first time in centuries. It was sort of a look-in attraction, however, a 15-minute visit at most to walk up the stone circular staircase to see some great views of York, including the Minster. There was no signage to speak of, limited information panels, and nothing to do inside but look up at the sky.

Now English Heritage has invested £5 million in a total transformation of the tower’s interior. Timber stairs and hanging walkways criss-cross up the tower walls, giving visitors access to long-hidden spaces like Henry III’s garderobe, ie, his toilet. It was a high-tech bathroom in the 13th century, complete with a built-in toiletries cupboard, a flushing spout that ran water down the lavatory hole all the way down and out the tower. Visitors who Escher their way up the walkways will reach the new roof deck with spectacular views of the city.

The new interior and roof deck at Clifford’s Tower has been designed by Hugh Broughton Architects, a leading contemporary architectural practice. Supported by four slender wooden columns, the ingenious structure sits on a raft foundation, which spreads the load without impacting on the archaeological remains beneath the tower. The practice has worked closely with conservation specialists Martin Ashley Architects to produce a scheme which sits respectfully within the heritage structure.

New interpretation will help place the tower in the context of both the historic York Castle and the city of York itself as well as introducing visitors to the tower’s long and turbulent history. Visitors can explore the castle’s founding by William the Conqueror, the tower’s role as the site of the tragic 1190 massacre and suicide of York’s Jewish community – one of the worst anti-Semitic episodes in English history – and the role of the castle as both a medieval royal stronghold and a garrison during the Civil War.

Integral to the new scheme is its soundscape. Layers of background sound will take visitors back in time, allowing them to experience the tower as it would have been at various periods in its long history. Visitors can engage with five key moments in that history with the help of the voices of local residents who bring the stories of fictional characters to life, each representing a different chapter in the tower’s past.

Clifford’s Tower reopens Saturday, April 2nd. Here’s some cool drone footage of the new roof deck:

Fra Mauro world map digitized to the nines

The visionary world map created by 15th century monk Fra Mauro has been digitized and can now be explored in detail online with a fantastic depth and breadth of explanatory material in Italian, English and Chinese.

Made in the monastery of San Michele in Isola around 1450, the map took a whole new approach to cartography, eschewing the purely symbolic representations of a world centered on Jerusalem or Rome common in medieval European maps before then. It is based on the Geography of Ptolemy and contemporary marine charts, and includes thousands of annotations derived from ancient sources, medieval scholars, explorers like Marco Polo and Niccolò de’ Conti and eye-witness reports Fra Mauro got from travelers to Venice and visiting Ethiopian monks. It is brilliantly illuminated, densely packed with iconographic imagery representing cities, castles, roads, ships, even shipwrecks. Leonardo Bellini, illuminator and nephew of famed painter Jacopo Bellini, painted an image of the Garden of Eden in one corner.

The map was displayed at the monastery — initially in the church itself — and rapidly became an icon of Venice’s status as a flourishing center of global commerce and art.  It stayed there for 350 years until the suppression of monasteries under Napoleon in 1810 when it was transferred to the city of Venice. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

The digital edition of Fra Mauro’s world map embraces its creator’s embrace of data abundance. A collaboration of the Galileo Museum in Florence, the Marciana National Library and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the map can be explored virtually in as little or as much depth as you’d like. Click section 2 to focus in on the interactive map and click around at your discretion, but fair warning: it is an overwhelming amount of information to absorb. I highly recommend starting at the beginning with the introduction and clicking through the sections in order.

Just to give you a quick glimpse of the density of content here, check out one single menu item, the cartouches in the Geographic Space category. It highlights, transcribes and translates every one of the 2,922 cartouches that describe cities, countries, regions, bodies of water, roads, bridges, trade routes and so much more. Scroll down the menu a little further to explore Marco Polo’s travel itinerary linked with the contemporary locations on Google Maps.

Most of the menu selections have interactive audio and video. Just click on the play buttons to launch detailed explanations of what you’re seeing. (I found the Legendary Places view entertaining). Subsequent sections contextualize the map, its significance at the time, how it was reproduced, its place in a timeline of other illuminated world maps (all of which are also digitized in high resolution so you can hunt through even more medieval cartography) and the enormous influence of Ptolemy on the world map. Fra Mauro’s Marine Chart gets its own dedicated section.

Last but certainly not least is a Digital Library that makes my nerdy heart go pit-a-pat. Every entry is a book about geography and travel hyperlinked to a digitized version of the tome in question. The digitization truly redefines deep dive.