Archive for the ‘Medieval’ Category

Flooded cellar in France may be medieval mikveh

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, an ancient city in southeastern France that boasts a splendid 12th century Romanesque church, medieval town walls and gates and a cobblestoned downtown of considerable charm, can also lay claim to unique vestiges of a small Jewish community that abided there for three centuries or so before the saw the anti-Semitic writing on the all and got out while the going was good.

There was a small but consistent population of Jews in the city from the 12th century well into the 15th. They were ghettoized into a handful of streets on and around the Rue Juiverie, the street that is still named after them centuries after their departure. As was the custom with these segregated neighborhoods, the residents had a curfew and were locked in at night. Still, bounded on one side by the town market and on the other by bishop’s palace, the Jewish quarter was in the very heart of the city and the 70 or so families who lived there made good.

We know there was a synagogue in the neighborhood because a 15th century Holy Ark was found in one of the buildings, known as Tower House, in the early 18th century. Dated 1445, the stone archway with wooden doors was where the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were kept. It is a unique survival, the only one of its kind in France and is now on display in the local archaeological museum.

To the marked advantage of the Jewish community, the town wasn’t part of France in the Middle Ages. It was ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, so yes,while they were locked in at night and subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices, at least they didn’t have to deal with repeated expulsions, confiscations and a wide variety of oppressive measures ordered by French kings like Philip II, who was just 17 years old when he kicked out the Jews and stole their stuff in 1182, and Louis IX who set copies of the Talmud on fire by the thousands, made usury illegal and forced Jews charged with the newly criminal offense to pay huge sums in support of the Crusades and turned the Inquisition up to 11. They even managed to dodge the mass expulsion edict of 1394 when all the Jews in France were forced to leave the country by order of King Charles VI.

Provence was absorbed into France in 1481. Initially it seemed like Jews in the province, which had deeply rooted Jewish communities going back to the 1st century A.D., might be okay. Their privileges were confirmed in 1482. But de jure and de facto are two very different things, and in 1484 waves of anti-Semitic violence broke out regularly. Provencal Jews, recognizing the stench of pogrom approaching, starting packing up and leaving, and the Jews of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux were no exception. Archival records note there were just three Jewish families left in town by 1486, and that’s the last mention of any Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Jews on the historical record.

In the 1990s, the city government began to buy properties in the old Jewish quarter with an eye to restoring it and creating a suitable environment to return the Holy Ark to its original context in the Tower House. Archaeologists have been studying the neighborhood since 2014 and have discovered remains going back to Gallo-Roman times. The most recent work has unearthed a flooded cellar that archaeologists believe was a mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath. The city called in experts from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) to explore this intriguing find.

This small (7 by 4 meters), vaulted and partially buried construction contains a groundwater emergence point. The bath would have consisted of a shallow pool. The construction forms and techniques could correspond to the configurations of Medieval mikvaots.

The building has since been modified several times. The cellar was used to store bottles, for example (the archaeologists collected more than 600 of them), and anomalies suggest a later, more complex, modification. A diverticulum and the existence of a walled, partially masked, opening suggest architectural alterations that were masked by later transformations. They could be the remains of spaces associated with the mikveh and necessary for its functioning (dressing room, stairway access, etc…).

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Restoration of York Minster’s Great East Window complete

Monday, January 8th, 2018

A decade after it began, the restoration and reinstallation of the Great East Window of York Minster is complete. The window was design by master glazier John Thornton of Coventry in the first decade of the 15th century. It only took him and the gifted assistants in his workshop three years, from 1405 until 1408, to design, cut and execute the sweeping, majestic richly colored vista of Biblical scenes from the Creation of the world in Genesis to the end of it in the Book of Revelation. He was paid £56 by the Chapter of York for this masterpiece.

Composed of 311 individual panes, the Great East Window is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK. Experts believe it also the largest depiction of the Apocalypse in the world. It survived German bombs in World War II, something Thornton’s windows in Coventry Cathedral were unable to do because while they were taken down for their protection and technically made it through the Blitz, they were stored haphazardly with no references whatsoever to their original configuration and so could not be pieced back together.

The window panes were last conserved after World War II, so a thorough refurbishment was very much in order. The Great East Window conservation became a key component of the York Minster Revealed project. In 2008, the experts at the York Glaziers Trust dismantled the window, taking down all 311 panels and removing them to their restoration lab. For five years, every individual piece of glass, large or small, was painstakingly studied, cleaned, conserved and examined in the Bedern Glaziers Studio where visitors could see the conservation team at work. Broken pieces and ones misplaced in previous conservation efforts were fixed. The latest and greatest protective coating was applied to keep the newly refreshed colors from fading or suffering damage from UV rays.

The cost of the restoration was £11.5 million, much of it contributed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Between 2011 and 2017, conservators spent a cumulative 92,400 hours working to repair and protect the window for future generations. Halfway through, in 2015, the first half of the restored glass panels (157 of them) were returned to the window. Visitors could see the revived color in situ again. Gradually the other 154 panels were returned to their original locations in the Tracery and Old Testament areas.

The last of the 311 panes was installed on Tuesday, January 2nd, ushering in a very auspicious New Year. It was money and time very well-spent. The revived Great East Window is so pristine and vivid now it’s much easier to follow the complexity of the Biblical narrative, and the pioneering use of technology will be a template for future glazing restorations at York Minster and beyond.

Sarah Brown, Director at York Glaziers Trust, said: “This has been a once in a lifetime project for the team and it’s a huge privilege to be part of this milestone in the Minster’s history.

“The Great East Window is one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages, a stunning expanse of stained glass of unparalleled size and beauty in Britain. The work undertaken as part of this project will ensure this masterpiece is preserved for hundreds of years to come.”

The Dean of York, The Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, added: “It’s a triumph to have the Great East Window complete once again and we look forward to seeing it in all its glory when the scaffolding is removed and the project formally completed in the spring.

“Its completion marks the start of a multi-million pound campaign in partnership with the York Minster Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to provide state-of-the-art protective glazing to all 128 of our medieval stained glass windows.

“It will take us 20 years to achieve this but the environmental protection will stop the corrosion and decay caused by the glass being exposed to the elements, buying us much needed time for vital conservation work which will preserve the irreplaceable windows for generations to come.”

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“Templar Stone” found to predate Templars

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

A stone long believed to be a medieval artifact associated with the Templar Knights has been revealed to be older, cooler and to bear no relation to the military order of monks. The stone is one three long burial slabs with faint carvings on the surface that now reside outside the Inchinnan Parish Church in Renfrewshire, Scotland, next to a group of 10 slabs known as the Templar Stones. Originally located in the kirkyard of the defunct All Hallows Church, a Templar church in the 12th century, the stones were believed to date from around that time and the carvings to something mysteriously Templar-related.

The Templar Knights have long been associated with secrets and mysteries — strange rituals, intrigues and depravities, and lots and lots of money. Founded in 1119, the Knights Templar gained great renown as crusaders, but the vast majority of them never picked up a weapon. A bookkeeping ledger was more their speed and they built a banking business that counted the highest authorities secular and ecclesiastical as clients. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re winning battles, carousing unsupervised and reputedly engaging in occult and mysterious initiation rituals. Not so much when you look like God has forsaken you because you lost the Holy Land. That’s when the order became a target for a very crowned, very truculent, very determined enemies who happened to be in debt to them up to their eyeballs. The Templars had accumulated so much wealth and power in the world of high finance that in 1307, seeing an opening in the escalating rumors of weird initiation rites, King Philip IV of France arrested, tortured and executed all the Templars he could find. He also confiscated their ample stuff and prevailed upon the Pope to officially disband the order. This is how kings get their enormous debts written off.

All Hallows Church continued on after the demise of its founding order in different hands. The church was rebuilt repeatedly, the last time in the early 20th century, and the burial stones remained in place. It was only in 1965 when the last All Hallows was demolished to make room for the runway tarmac of Glasgow Airport that the Templar Stones were moved to the nearby Inchinnan Parish Church where they still abide 50+ years later.

It was this connection to All Hallows Church that inspired the discovery that at least one of the engraved stones was not what people had thought it was. Digital graphic recreation experts Spectrum Heritage, in collaboration with the Inchinnan Historical Interest Group (IHIG), have been working on a creating a digital 3D reconstruction of the last All Hallows. They sifted through archives, records, blueprints, old artworks, photographs, anything that might give them some data to create an accurate model. As part of the project, IHIG arranged for a community archaeology dig manned by volunteers from seniors to children to excavate the site of the former All Hallows.

Before it was a grassy patch underneath the flight path of jets, the site of the long-gone All Hallows Church was the location of earlier religious structures itself. The Inchinnan Old Parish Church was built there in early Middle Ages and dedicated to St. Conval, founder a monastery believed to have been established in the area around 600 A.D. and whose body said to have been buried in the church.

As a part of the ‘St Conval to All Hallows’ community archaeology project, Clara Molina Sanchez (Spectrum Heritage) has been using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on the burial stones to bring out the worn detail which is no longer visible to the naked eye. Megan Kasten (a PhD student from the University of Glasgow) has been studying the many carved stones at Govan Old church and wanted to compare these with the stones at Inchinnan. Earlier this month she examined the 3D models from Inchinnan closely and to her surprise noticed that one stone had a cross on the top third of the stone and faint panels of interlace. […]

This discovery adds to the existing three large carved stones decorated with crosses, carved animals and interlace that are characteristic of a group of sculpture that is typically referred to as the ‘Govan School’ of carving. These stones date to the 9th to 12th century when All Hallows, along with Govan and Dumbarton Rock, were places of burial for the elite of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. […]

All the stones have decorations and/or inscriptions, which are generally not visible to the naked eye. To make these carvings visible, two different digital documentation techniques were used. Firstly, photogrammetry was used to accurately capture the shape of the stones. In this case, the colour of the biological growth makes it harder to see the details on the surface, but, by ‘deactivating’ it, the different carvings of swords, crosses and inscriptions can now be seen.

The second technique, RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) is a multi-image technique that provides very detailed information on the surface of a material. RTI files allow the user to explore the surface of the material virtually with different lighting conditions. In this case, a Virtual RTI was created from the photogrammetric models. And to do that, a digital dome made up of 93 lights was placed over the 3D models, thus creating an image for every light. These images were processed, which in turn produced an RTI file for each one of the stones. This made it possible to obtain information about the stones’ decorations that can also complement the photogrammetry itself. The combination of both techniques has been proven to be a very valuable tool to unveil details of the surface invisible otherwise to the naked eye.

There is very little material in the archaeological or historical record about the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Any information we can glean from new technology to recover knowledge lost, eroded by time and the elements, will make it possible to paint a broader, more accurate historical picture of this little known period.

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Visitor identifies plant decorating medieval chest

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017


The Billingford Hutch, a large and sturdily-built oak chest with heavy iron bands, hasps and locks, was used as a strongbox in the late Middle Ages. It’s named after Richard de Billingford, who was the 5th Master of Corpus Christi College (founded in 1352), mastering it for an impressively long stint from 1398 until 1432. In 1420, he started the college’s loan program, donating what was then the princely sum of £20 as seed money to loan to scholars chronically low on cash. They could withdraw funds up to 40 shillings (ca. £2) using their valuables (manuscripts, mainly) as collateral. The £20 was kept in a locked chest under the vigilant eye of three custodians until a withdrawal was made. The books or other valuables the debtor was using as collateral were then placed in the chest until the establish repayment deadline. If the debtor did not manage to pay back the loan on time, his stuff was sold immediately and the sum owed returned to the chest. If the items sold for more the amount owed, that went into the chest too. The debtor got none of it.

The university loan chest system was widely practiced in institutes of higher learning at that time. Billingford didn’t invent it; he was the first to implement it at Corpus Christi is all. Other colleges at Cambridge had chests of their own, but most of the chest themselves are long lost. Corpus Christi still has their iron and oak ACME safe, and even more rarely, it has retained the registers that recorded the cash and collateral flow for more than three centuries. It’s because of those registers that we know how frequently the loan chest was used and by whom. Every fellow and master at the college is listed as having borrowed from it, and while as you might expect manuscripts do dominate, what with them being academics and all, they also used precious religious objects, silver spoons and salt cellars.

The chest itself likely predates 1420, but we don’t know its exact age. Nobody knew why the locks were decorated with images of an undetermined leaf either. That changed in September of this year when the chest was moved to Parker Library and fell under the unblinking Sauron-like eye of one particular visitor. Check out this wonderfully nerdy chain of events:

Jeremy Purseglove, environmentalist and Cambridge resident, visited the Library during Open Cambridge in September 2017. “It was a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of some of the Library’s medieval manuscripts,” he said. “We were given a fascinating talk by Alexander Devine, one of the librarians. He showed us a massive chest that had recently been moved to the Library from elsewhere in the College. My eye was drawn to the leaf shapes in the metal work.”

The chest is made from oak planks and measures approximately 1.8m x 0.5m x 0.4m. It is reinforced by numerous iron bands and five iron hasps, secured in three locks, all operated by different keys. Each of the lock plates (the metal plates containing the locks, hasps and keyholes) is decorated with the outline of a plant punched into the metal.

No-one knew the significance of this decorative detail. Purseglove, who is passionate about plants, suspected the distinctive shape was likely to be that of moonwort, a fern much mentioned by 16th-century herbalists. He said: “I rushed home and looked it up. I found that it had been associated with the opening of locks and guarding of silver.”

It was such a strong association that herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote about it in his seminal 1653 volume The Complete Herbal. His description of the plant is as artfully rendered as the motif on the chest’s iron fittings:

It rises up usually with but one dark green, thick and flat leaf, standing upon a short foot-stalk not above two fingers breadth; but when it flowers it may be said to bear a small slender stalk about four or five inches high, having but one leaf in the middle thereof, which is much divided on both sides into sometimes five or seven parts on a side, sometimes more; each of which parts is small like the middle rib, but broad forwards, pointed and round, resembling therein a half-moon, from whence it took the name; the uppermost parts or divisions being bigger than the lowest. The stalks rise above this leaf two or three inches, bearing many branches of small long tongues, every one like the spiky head of the adder’s tongue, of a brownish colour, (which, whether I shall call them flowers, or the seed, I well know not) which, after they have continued awhile, resolve into a mealy dust.

Governed by the celestial power of our satellite, moonwort leaves were reputedly an excellent tonic against menstrual irregularities, vaginal discharge (if you’ve ever read old medical books, and I have, you’ll know that how to combat the scourge of “the whites” was a huge subject of discussion for centuries), and another other unwanted emission of body fluid. Culpepper thought it was most effective in combination with other herbs to help heal wounds. He concludes his description with a reference to its vaunted lock-picking powers:

Moonwort is an herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and those no small fools neither; but country people, that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse. Besides I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration: the herb described usually grows upon heaths.

Hmmm…Seems like it would be the opposite of something you’d want guarding the locks on your cash and saleable goods. Oh well, can’t argue with results, I suppose. The Billingford Hutch kept its secrets close for 500 years, first money and valuables, then information.

[Librarian Alexander] Devine said: “The Billingford Hutch is probably the best surviving example of its kind in Europe. To have a possible answer to the puzzle of its decorative motif is fantastic. We’re immensely grateful to Jeremy for enriching our understanding of its history. His wonderful discovery is further proof that sharing your collections with the public is the key to unlocking their secrets.”

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Puzzling runes found on whetstone in Oslo

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating in Oslo, Norway, have discovered a medieval whetstone inscribed with puzzling runes. The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) was digging there as part of the Follo Line Project, an archaeological survey of the path of a new railway being built between Oslo and Ski. The railway culvert will run through Oslo’s old medieval center, hence the need for a careful archaeological exploration of the site.

In late October, the team unearthed a small but comparatively thick piece of slate from the smallest trench. The stratigraphy indicated it was medieval, dating between 1050 and 1500. The archaeologist who found it noticed with his keenly trained eye that one side of it was inscribed with some runes. This made the little slate a very large discovery because few runic inscriptions have been found in proper archaeological excavations. Later examination identified the slate as a fragment of a whetstone. Whetstones with runic inscriptions are even more unusual. One three other have been found before in Norway, one from the Viking period, two from the Middle Ages.

The runes weren’t quite legible on the freshly excavated slate, nor could they be read in photographs. It had to go to a laboratory and be viewed under a microscope to identify which runes were used and to begin to unravel the inscription. Experts have been struggling to solve the runic puzzle ever since.

Some of the runes are difficult to identify, but it seems that the runes æ, r, k, n, a appear on the whetstone. But it is not easy to tell what they mean.

NIKU’s rune experts have come up with several possible interpretations, ranging from a person’s name to word to words like “scared,” “ugly” and “pain.”

“This is probably an unsuccessful attempt to write a name or another rather trivial inscription, but we can see that this is hardly a trained rune carver,” says Karen Holmqvist, a Ph.D. fellow at NIKU and a specialist in runes.

The findings contribute to the perception that the art of runic writing was relatively widespread in medieval Norway. But many writers would probably find themselves in a borderland, where they knew about writing, but were not literate.

“It is perhaps not that strange that we find some strange spellings and some mirrored runes. Just think how you yourself wrote when you were learning to write,” says Holmqvist.

The medieval person behind this whetstone inscription probably belonged to this group. They knew about the runes, but probably mixed them up a bit.

That’s a kind way of putting it. According to a blog entry co-authored by Kristine Ødeby, archaeologist and field supervisor on the Follo Line excavations, and Karen Holmqvist, the runes can read in a multitude of ways, and this carver seems to have been inconsistent and confused. Runes are confusing enough as it is, with a lot of variables to account for in their interpretation. It’s hard to tell which way is up, for example (literally, not metaphorically). It’s also not certain whether they were written left to right or right to left. (Runes are flexible like that, and it wasn’t until later in the Middle Ages that left to right runic inscriptions became the norm.)

Ødeby and Holmqvist ask readers to comment with any suggestions and ideas for possible interpretations, so if you speak fluent rune (or even just read Norwegian so you don’t have to rely on terrible online translators like I do), chime in with your ideas about what our whetstone-carving friend might have been trying to say.

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3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Sculptor’s Cave in Moray, Scotland, is an archaeological gem among archaeological gems. It is the main cave of several set in the craggy ocean-facing cliff that was used by local peoples for millennia. In the Bronze Age deposits of jewelry and ceramics were made there, and the abundance of human skeletal remains, many of children, from that era also found in the cave suggests it held some ritual funerary significance. The skull of one the children appears to have been defleshed post-mortem. Less sensational that the defleshed child but just as meaningful historically are the Pictish symbols carved on the walls of the entrances.

This unique location has been kept hidden from public view (from most people’s view, for that matter) for its own protection and for everyone else’s because it is only accessible at low tide. That’s going to change now, at least virtually.

A new project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and carried out by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster at the University of Bradford, has created a high-resolution animated model of the cave. Through laser scanning and structured light scanning, the details of the cave have been digitally preserved to allow for more in-depth exploration of the cave – and the Pictish symbols – no matter whether the tide is high.

“The Sculptor’s Cave is a fascinating location, known for decades for the richness of its archaeology and for the unusual Pictish carvings around its entrance,” said Professor Armit of Bradford’s School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences. “This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays. It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Here is an animated flythrough of Sculptor’s Cave in the 3D model created using the scan data. This is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Next year the results of the study will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The animated model will be deployed at the Elgin Museum so that visitors will be able to see the cave and its carvings in detail.

In keeping with the mini-theme I seem to have accidentally developed over the past couple of days, Historic Environment Scotland has launched an even more ambitious digitization project that will see 50,000 items from its archives scanned, uploaded to the web and made freely available to all. The records include photographs taken by HES’ predecessor organizations, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Historic Scotland. For more than a century (1908 to 2015) RCAHMS’ brief was documenting everything it could about Scotland’s history as seen in physical structures and the environment. There are a thousands of aerial photos shot from airplanes, pictures of buildings (and therefore street life) throughout the decades, among many other things. RCAHMS merged with Historic Scotland, steward of many of Scotland’s listed buildings, in 2015. As a result HES today has an enormous collection of photographs stored in their headquarters Edinburgh, but they’re only accessible to people who can get to John Sinclair House in person.

The digitization initiative will take those 50,000 photos out of their green archive boxes and into pixel space. Once the scanning is complete, the images will be uploaded to Canmore, HES’ online catalogue of its enormous collection of records (including a fine array of historic photographs like Misses Reid and Bonshaw looking fierce in their garden on July 10th, 1890) and catalogue entries of archaeological sites, survey data, architecture and tons more.

Jacobite Risings model by Brick to the Past on display.Not related to the theme but too awesome not to genuflect before is a new exhibition at Stirling Castle called The Jacobite Risings: The Fight for Britain’s Throne. It recreates key events and locations in the Jacobite rebellions in LEGO. That’s right, one million bricks and 2000 tiny soldiers were used to bring history to life for all LEGO-loving peoples, child and child-at-heart alike. Two of the scenes include miniature buildings whose real life versions are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. One is the starkly white medieval tower house Corgarff Castle. The other Ruthven Barracks, a military fortification on a high promontory built after the 1715 Jacobite uprising by George II to keep the ever-restless Jacobites from re-rising. It didn’t work in the long-term and the barracks were taken by a frontal assault in 1746.

The Jacobite conflict writ in LEGO is currently opened to the public on Monday and runs through February 2nd, 2018. You can even make a day of it and visit Ruthven Barracks after you see mini-Ruthven at Stirling. Unfortunately the hat trick is not an option because Corgarff Castle is closed until the spring. (It is in the middle of nowhere anyway, so probably would have made it a multi-day LEGO inspired pilgrimage.)

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Repton Viking camp is larger, older than realized

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Archaeologists have unearthed weapons fragments, artifacts and the remains of workshops from a 9th century Viking camp next to St Wystan’s Church in Repton, Derbyshire. The University of Bristol team discovered the objects in the garden of the Vicarage adjacent to the church and were able to date by them precisely to the winter of 873-4, thanks to the application of cutting edge technology to retest bones from a mass grave found a few feet from the new dig site in the 1980s.

Archaeologists had long suspected that there might be a Viking camp there because it’s in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Great Army “moved from Lindsey to Repton and there took winter quarters” in 873. They relieved the King of Mercia, Burghred, of his heavy crown and took his kingdom. They let him keep his head, at least; he was simply expelled from Mercia. A location on the River Trent seemed likely. River access is probably one the main reasons they moved to Repton and set up a camp for the winter in the first place; the presence of a large and wealthy monastery on the banks of the Trent that contained the tombs and mortal remains of several Mercian kings was another good incentive.

In 1975, archaeologists excavating near the church on the banks of the Trent for the Viking camp site referred to in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought they’d found what they had been seeking. They unearthed the remains of a medieval D-shaped enclosure built after the monastery. Dig co-leaders Professor Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle thought the enclosure and artifacts indicated this was indeed the Repton Viking Camp. The only problem was finding hard evidence of it. For a Viking camp, it was uncharacteristically tiny at about 1.5 hectares in surface area. Other Great Army camps are far larger, like the one at Torksey which is 26 hectares in area.

Additional archaeological explorations of the site in the 1980s made another major discovery: a mound containing a mass charnel grave with the remains of more than 300 people. Researchers believed them to be Vikings killed in battle, but radiocarbon testing dated the remains in the 7th or 8th centuries, so at least a century too early to be part of the Great Army.

In pursuit of fresh information regarding the size of the camp, University of Bristol doctoral candidate Cat Jarman and Professor Mark Horton of the University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology picked a location on the west side of the enclosure and just outside of the boundary to see if there were other structures or other evidence of Viking occupation.

Geophysics, including ground penetrating radar, revealed structures including paths and possible temporary buildings.

Excavations showed these to be gravel platforms that may have held ephemeral timber structures or tents with deposits including fragments of Saxon millstones and a cross fragment from the monastery.

Associated were broken pieces of weaponry, including fragments of a battle-axes and arrows, and evidence for metal working. Also found were substantial numbers of nails, two of which had roves, the particular feature of Viking ship nails, as well as several lead gaming pieces. These are of a type that has been found in large numbers at the camp in Torksey and appear to be specifically connected to the early Viking armies.

Cat Jarman … said: “Our dig shows there was a lot more to the Viking Camp at Repton than what we may have thought in the past. It covered a much larger area than was once presumed – at least the area of the earlier monastery – and we are now starting to understand the wide range of activities that toonok place in these camps.”

As significant as they are, artifacts and structural remains alone could not provide archaeologist with the date evidence they needed. It was the bones from the charnel mound, found a few yards north of the most recent excavation, that stepped up to the plate. It’s not the 1980s anymore, and radiocarbon dating technology is more advanced and precise today than it was then. It also requires far smaller samples. We also have stable isotope analysis now which allows researchers to determine from levels of certain isotopes in the teeth where a person was born and raised, what kind of food he or she ate and more.

Jarman’s latest and greatest radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis results found that not only are the bones 9th century, but they died in the winter of 873-4, just when The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Vikings set up camp in Repton. They also found a direct connection between the remains of the workshop and the charnel mound.

The remains were placed in a deliberately damaged Saxon building along with Viking weapons and artefacts.

The building also contained evidence of use as a workshop by the Vikings before it was converted into a charnel house.

The Bristol team located a path linking their workshop area and the charnel house, further strengthening the link between the two.

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Biography of Chinese inquisitor found in 13th c. tomb

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Rear wall of the coffin chamber in née Wu's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Archaeologists have discovered a double tomb of a lord and lady of the southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) in China’s southeastern Zhejiang province. The tombs were unearthed at a contruction site in Qingyuan County in 2014 but the findings have only now been published in English in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics, a translation of the Chinese-language archaeology journal Wenwu (Cultural Relics) which first published the discovery in 2015.

The two tombs date to the early 13th century and we are fortunate enough to know the identities of both the people buried within. One of the two tombs, Lord Hu Hong’s, had been broken into by looters in the distant past and so had been stripped of its valuables and grave goods. Only a smattering of porcelain with a decorative elephant motif survived the artifact raid. Thankfully the grave robbers weren’t interested in the kinds of things that most enthrall archaeologists today because they lack the showy obviousness and saleability of “treasure”, so they left behind a stele with a long biographical inscription detailing Lord Hu Hong’s many accomplishments. Perhaps they didn’t want to piss off the deities by going against the expressed wishes of the deceased whose life history, according to the inscription, “has been inscribed on this stone to be treasured here, in the hope it will last as long as heaven and earth!”

Jar with elephant knob found in Hu Hong's tomb. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.The other tomb held the remains of Lord Hu’s wife née Wu. She too had an extensive bio carved in stone but the inscription is too worn and damaged to be readable at the moment. The good news is the looters missed her tomb, so it still contains some of the luxurious objects — gold earrings, gold and silver hairpins, gold combs, and a crystal disc that looks streamlined and elegant like something you’d see in a high-end jewelry shop today. Like her husband, she too was interred with a porcelain vessel decorated with an elephant motif. Archaeologists found a large quantity of mercury residue inside née Wu’s tomb, likely an attempt to preserve her body that failed spectacularly.

Hu Hong bore the title “Grand Master for Thorough Counsel,” a position he filled ably for the southern Song emperors.

He and née Wu lived at a time when China was divided between two dynasties, with Hu Hong serving the southern Song dynasty that controlled southern China, according to the researchers who described the findings. […]

Gold and silver tokens found in née Wu's tomb. The gold piece was also legal tender issued by the emperor. Photo courtesy Chinese Cultural Relics.Apparently, he showed “outstanding talent” as a child in school and, in 1163, passed a competitive series of government exams to get a junior position in the government according to the inscription found in Hu Hong’s tomb. He then rose gradually through the ranks. His career got a boost in 1179, when he agreed to serve on the southern Song dynasty’s northern borders. In 1193, the government recognized him as “best county magistrate of the year,” the inscription says.

As the “investigating censor,” Hu Hong prosecuted the “treacherous and the heretical” in 1195, the inscription says. He was made a military commissioner in 1200 and was charged with defeating a group of rebels. “At the time, the Yao tribes were rebellious, and he stamped the rebels out,” the inscription says. Today, the Yao live in China and Southeast Asia.

In his final years, Hu Hong was growing critical of his own government, and retired not long after 1200. “He knew that he was beyond his prime and insisted on retiring. Had he kept being outspoken, he would have been pushed out,” the inscription says.

“Although worried about current affairs and concerned with the moral decline of the time, and though he could not easily let go, he no longer had the energy to fight and serve,” the inscription says. He died in 1203, and his wife died in 1206. Their tombs were built side by side. Hu Hong and née Wu had two sons, three daughters and two granddaughters, the inscription says.

I like how the inscription just lays out the politics of the situation: he quit before they could fire him. At least he got to enjoy his three short years of life after retirement.

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12th c. silver and gold hoard found at Cluny Abbey

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

A hoard of hidden medieval treasure, a fortune in gold and silver coins, was an unexpectedly discovered during an excavation at the site of the famed medieval Abbey of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire, eastern France. The team, which includes nine students doing field work as part of the University Lumière Lyon 2’s archaeology masters program, unearthed the hoard in mid-September while looking for the remains of an infirmary believed to have been located there in the Middle Ages.

The medieval loot included 2,200 deniers (or pieces of silver) mostly issued by Cluny Abbey itself as well as 21 gold dinar coins, originally from the Middle East which were stored in a canvas bag.

The bounty also included a gold signet ring marked with the word “Avete” — a “word of greeting in a religious context” — as well as a folded 24-gram gold leaf and gold coin.

“The overall value of this treasure for the time is estimated between three and eight horses, the equivalent of cars nowadays, but in terms of the running of the abbey it’s not that much, amounting to about six days of supply of bread and wine,” said specialist Vincent Borrel.

In terms of archaeological and historical value, this treasure is off the charts. It is the first 12th century Cluniac treasure discovered in its original context during an archaeological excavation. It’s also the largest number of silver deniers discovered in one place and the only single hoard ever found to include Arabic coins, silver deniers and a signet ring. The intaglio stone is ancient Roman and engraved with the profile of a deity. (Religious context or no religious context, ancient engravings were prestige items and often used as signet rings by the medieval elite.)

Also of note is the survival of fragments of the original bag the hoard was stashed in. Fragments of it are still attached to some of the coins. There is also a surviving piece of tanned animal hide which was tied around the bundle of 21 gold dinars minted between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Almoravid sultan Ali Ben Youssef (1106-1143).

Practically from the time of its founding by by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910 A.D., the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was one of the great monastic centers of Western Europe. They followed a strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict that within decades had catapulted Cluny to the top of the ranks, making the abbey the undoubted leader in European monasticism. The city of Cluny grew into a city thanks largely to the Abbey and the trade, employment and pilgrim moneys it brought to town. By the second half of the 10th century, the Abbey of Cluny was already well-established as the top monastery in the country and it retained its prominence into the 12th century.

Its influence began to wane when newer, more austere orders stole Benedictine thunder and the idea of remote rule by a single abbot, distant from the satellite houses and largely unaccountable, lost its appeal. In the 16th century the Abbey of Cluny was sacked by Hugenots and never really recovered. Come the French Revolution, the monastic order was dissolved and under Napoleon the abbey itself was demolished and used as a quarry. Today only one of its eight grand towers still stands, which is why archaeologists continue to excavate it today, 90 years after the first archaeological explorations of the site began.

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Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery rediscovered

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

Bologna’s medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered almost half a millennium after it was obliterated by order of Pope Pius IV. Unearthed between 2012 and 2014 during archaeological explorations of a site slated for housing development, the cemetery contains 408 graves, all aligned in parallel rows heads pointing to the west, and zero gravestones. It’s a miracle the former remained in any way intact considering what happened to the latter.

The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance [sic] said.

Pope Pius IV, canonized a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, would be appalled to hear any burials had been found unmolested and complete with grave goods. He certainly tried his utmost to ensure the opposite outcome. A zealot and ascetic who as a youth had eagerly worked as an inquisitor before being elected to the Holy Office permanently in 1550, Antonio Ghislieri rose in the ranks to become inquisitor general for all of Christendom in less than seven years. He was appointed by Pope Paul IV who, not coincidentally, was also a major proponent of the Inquisition and of an anti-Semitism so hateful and brutal that Hitler used his ghettoization system as a blueprint for his own.

When Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566, he picked up where his mentor had left off, rejecting the slight softening of the draconian anti-Jewish laws Pope Pius IV had attempted when he succeeded Paul IV. Pius V promulgated the Bull Hebraeorum gens sola on February 26, 1569, which opens with much the same gross nonsense Paul IV’s Bull had opened with:

“The Jewish people fell from the heights because of their faithlessness and condemned their Redeemer to a shameful death. Their godlessness has assumed such forms that, for the salvation of our own people, it becomes necessary to prevent their disease.”

The forms in question were usury, helping thieves and robbers profit from their illegal activities (pawning, maybe?), and the worst crime of them all “lure the unsuspecting through magical incantations, superstition, and witchcraft to the Synagogue of Satan and boast of being able to predict the future.” They probably turned people into newts too, but their victims got better before trial.

The Bull concludes with the decree banishing all Jews from the Papal States, excepting those in Rome and Ancona, within 90 days. A convent in Bologna was explicitly instructed by to destroy the cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Europe which had been in continuous use since the 14th century, by the Pope later that year.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Archaeologists found evidence of the sisters’ (or somebody’s, at any rate) handiwork in more than a third of the graves, 150 of which bear clear the tell-tale marks of deliberate, malicious desecration. The tombstones are simply gone. Destroyed so thoroughly as to not leave a trace, or employed in some other context where they are unrecognizable as anything but a piece of stone.

The human remains found in the graves will be given a respectful burial at a time and place yet to be determined.

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